Józef Beck. Biografia [Józef Beck. Biography]

review of the book by Marek Kornat and Mariusz Wołos

In historiography, he is usually shown as a politician and diplomat. He himself felt most of all a soldier who on Piłsudski’s orders assumed responsibility for Poland’s foreign policy. Unlike Piłsudski, Józef Beck lost the most important battle – for the historical memory of his countrymen. Will this book by Marek Kornat and Mariusz Wołos change that?

by Natalia Pochroń

Józef Beck is one of the most controversial figures in the history of Poland in the 20th century. His “bad reputation” was earned during his lifetime and was reproduced both in the opposition circles and in hostile international circles, especially in France. His involvement in the mysterious case of the disappearance of General Włodzimierz Ostoja-Zagórski, his ruthless treatment of the opposition to the Sanation movement, his rough treatment of national minorities or his anti-Semitism – these are just some of the accusations levied against him. Above all, however, he was criticized for his foreign policy. He appeared to his opponents as a spokesman for a pro-German course implemented against the will of the society, and as a francophobe or a fascist. Finally, there were also accusations of the heaviest caliber – for creating an unfavorable international economic situation, causing a global conflict and contributing to the collapse of the state. But does Piłsudski’s right-hand man – one of his favorites – deserve such a ruthless evaluation? This is the subject thoroughly examined by Marek Kornat and Mariusz Wołos in their book.

Title: Józef Beck. Biografia [Józef Beck. Biography],
Authord: Marek Kornat, Mariusz Wołos
Publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2021
Józef Beck. Biography is a fascinating story about the life of one of the most important figures on the Polish political scene during the interwar period. In their position, the authors carefully look at the protagonist, showing a complete picture of his life: his early years, his service in the Rifle Teams and Legions, gaining diplomatic skills as a military attaché in France, organizing the May coup and assuming the function of deputy minister. Later in the book we see Beck as an independent creator of Polish foreign policy – both on the eve of the global conflict and in the first days of the September campaign. Their narrative ends with a sad picture of Beck’s final years, spent in internment in Romania until his death in 1944. But, of course, Beck’s biography does not end with this meticulous reproduction of his career.

Beck is primarily shown as a man of flesh and blood: with both flaws and weaknesses and the right to make mistakes – although he made few mistakes in his politics. Seemingly cool and reserved behind a distant and polite barrier – he could also be full of passion. In this way, the researchers definitely cast aside any image of a haughty politician expressing lofty slogans about honor. The Beck they introduce turns out to be a more complex personality who definitely cannot be easily pigeonholed and thus – becomes definitely much more interesting.

Marshal Józef Piłsudski and colonel Józef Beck in Warsaw, 11 November 1929 (photo: NAC)

Although the title of the book suggests that we are dealing with a biography, in fact the narrative is much richer, providing an engaging story about the process of shaping the reborn Republic and the complex process of fighting for its place in interwar Europe. The authors carefully show the process of the gradual disintegration of the Versailles order and the formation of political alliances and spheres of influence. They also faithfully reflect the tense atmosphere on the Old Continent at the eve of the Second World War. By setting Beck’s activity against a broader background, they make it possible to understand the difficult circumstances in which he had to manage the foreign policy of the reborn country and the motivations for his actions. Thanks to this, the work changes from a mere biography into a fascinating compendium of knowledge about the situation in interwar Poland and throughout Europe.

Historians and journalists have been arguing for a long time whether Beck pursued his own political course, or whether he was merely implementing Piłsudski’s political visions. This is one of the key problems analyzed by Kornat and Wołos. In the book, they analyze the arguments formulated by various researchers of the history of reborn Poland, contrasting them with the actions and declarations of Beck himself. This task is all the more difficult as the diplomat avoided speaking publicly and refused to give interviews. He also did not leave behind any works or essays. A thorough reconstruction of his views on foreign policy is possible mainly on the analysis of notes made from conversations with diplomats or reports and messages that were created while he was on a diplomatic mission in France. The authors present the main assumptions of Beck’s foreign policy – independent, based on bilateral agreements and regional alliances, faithful to principles and imponderables.

Józef Beck, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs 1932-1939

Wołos and Kornat simultaneously question the narrative of Beck as a prisoner of the romantic heritage of Polish history. On the contrary, they consistently emphasize his realistic diplomacy and the accuracy of his assessments of the international situation (e.g. views on the functioning of the League of Nations). Appreciating Beck’s insight and political sense, the authors are clearly inclined to consider him a scrupulous and reliable executor of the politics shaped by Piłsudski. He also emphasized this on many occasions, admitting in his military nomenclature that his task was to carry out an order – so as not to “add water to the wine of the Commander’s great political thoughts”.

Józef Beck is a figure who is difficult to ignore. Just like in life, he still evokes extreme emotions, and is an object of controversy and dispute – not always on a scientific basis. Against the background of the proliferation of alternative history disputes, Kornat and Wołos provide the reader with a look devoid of emotions or attempts to judge the protagonist rashly. At the same time, they also avoid making biased assumptions. When encountering well-worn, thoughtlessly duplicated theses, they utter the proverbial “check”. They gather arguments, analyze sources, and thus faithfully recreate the atmosphere of a bygone era. The biography by Kornat and Wołos adds a very important voice to the dispute over Poland’s policy on the eve of the Second World War. Avoiding the duplication of well-worn patterns or simple answers, it encourages a critical look at the quality of Polish interwar diplomacy – coldly, without emotions or ideology.

 

Author: Natalia Pochroń
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin