The Armies March – John Cudahy
John Cudahy was an American diplomat who served in the years leading up to World War II as United States ambassador to Poland and Belgium, and as United States minister to Luxembourg and the Irish Free State. He was forced to leave his post in Luxembourg after Germany occupied this country and Belgium in May 1940 and the nations set up governments-in-exile. He was a close friend of King Leopold III and publicly denounced Britain, France and the U.S. for a failure to plan an adequate defense. This personal narrative shares many insights on his time in Europe and is a fully detailed account of what happened here and there behind closed doors.
The Armies March.
Excerpt from the text:
Truth may be the ideal of the perfectionists, the touchstone of education and civilized progress, but truth has little to do with the moving forces of individual lives or the lives of nations. All of us live in illusion, the illusion of the future, for the present is reality, and reality is so painfully unpleasant that none dare hold the mirror up to the nature of things that are. Life is endurable in the cultivated delusion that a happier horizon awaits beyond the horizon of the morrow, where there will be no unpaid bills, no aches or pains, or disappointments, and the atmosphere will have all the perfect harmony of a symphony.
In this age of industrialization especially there is an urge to escape, escape from a monotonous standardization which parches all romance in a machine age which is turning out human robots in mass production like metal gadgets. Against this spiritless pattern of existence, a struggle is made to live bravely, by proxy, in the identity of glamorous figures of the screen, or a national idol who found wings for escape to another world.
This impulse of escape was everywhere in Europe before the war and the motive of escape was fear. Every day with Doctor Coue’s formula, “every day in every way I am getting better and better,” Europeans Coue’d themselves into a self-hypnosis that somehow the threat of disaster would pass and that the skies would be blue and fair again. They went about the even tenor of their ways building the foundation of the future, arranging business, making plans, marrying and giving in marriage, just as if the pending earthquake was a figment of the imagination. In this self-delusion they persisted because there was nothing else to do, except perish of despair.
Above all Poland was a land of illusion where life was lived resolutely in the same splendor as illustrious ancestors had lived for more than one thousand years.
Josef Pilsudski was the hero of the Polish masses and he had as much to do with the modem era as Boneslas the Brave. He had stepped from the glamor of the Middle Ages upon the prosy stage of the present. A hardy pioneer, robust, tough-fisted warrior, I could imagine him, aglow with the lust of combat, swinging a broad sword at Grunwald in that heroic day when a bold heart and strong arm decided the fate of battle. He always seemed a reincarnation of a knight in armor and had contempt for the lilylike language of diplomacy and the plausible persuasion of politicians. Poland was ruled with as absolute a hand as ever King Sobieski ruled three hundred years ago while Pilsudski was unofficial Chief of State. He had withering scorn for the Sejm, the Polish Parliament, and at times his language addressed at that august body shocked sensitive people into a state of insensibility.
But he was adored by the general run of the Polish people, who knew he was honest and fearless and that he had dedicated his life to his country with unselfish singleness of purpose. In almost every home that could afford it you would see a Pilsudski bust. He had the same godlike stature as Lenin in Russia and Adolf Hitler in Germany.
In the evolution of every dictator occurs the inevitable corrosion of vanity, but Pilsudski’s weakness in this respect was limited to his exploits and eminence as a military leader. He seemed to have no other appetite for general popular applause. Perhaps he knew too well how capricious and cruel the crowd could be. Anyway, he sedulously avoided public appearances and a myth of mystery grew up about him which more and more enhanced his prestige and the aura of his person.
On St. Joseph’s Day, the President of Poland, the cabinet, high officials of the government, and the entire diplomatic corps would assemble to do him honor at the Warsaw opera house, but it was a play without a hero, for the hero would slip off to Vilna to spend a quiet holiday with his two little daughters, whom he loved above all human relations. It was strange that Pilsudski should reject the tinsel and the trappings of the political stage, which is such an important feature in the business of dictators, for he was very superstitious, with a belief in the occult, and his career often influenced by those mystic influences so peculiar to the Slavic race. Close to the earth at all times, although from the lesser nobility, he lived with the simplicity of a Polish peasant and despised conventional society with its superficial, snobbish standards. His ruling passion was the army, and the place in history he coveted was not as a politician or creator of the Polish state, but as a master strategist and tactician. People who knew him well told me he considered himself one of the greatest military geniuses of all times. An assiduous student of military texts and treatises, nothing pleased him more than to be subtly compared with the great Napoleon, but the comparison had to be subtly made, for he had all the shrewdness of the Polish peasant and could detect insincerity with the unerring instinct of a man who has known elemental values all his life. One had to tread lightly where his military reputation was concerned, and well-informed people told me that one of the reasons for the cooling off of Poland s attitude toward France, the two years before Pilsudski’s death, was because of persistent stories in French military circles that Weygand had planned the battle of Warsaw against Russia in 1920, one of the most crucial and decisive military contests in history and upon which the Marshal of Poland based his claim to immortality.
In his character was a strange commingling of prejudice, romance, and the shrewdness of a man who lives near the soil. He was realistic enough when it came to dealing with Germany. When I arrived in Poland in the late summer of 1933, the tension between Poland and Germany had reached the breaking point. Since Versailles, the Corridor and Danzig were constant threats to the peace of Europe, and there had been a sharp controversy over the administration of the Free City. The Polish army was strong. The country had been starved for the army. Probably two million men at that time could have been placed in the field. Pilsudski believed that he could defeat Hitler and he was realistic enough to recognize that if he waited he might well lose military preponderance over the German dictator. The time had come for a show-down, and the Polish Ambassador in Berlin, Lipski, was instructed to tell Hitler in undiplomatic language that he could have war or peace and to make up his mind in a hurry. The German-Polish treaty of January 23, 1934 was the consequence of this vigorous demarche. Germany agreed for a period of ten years to settle any difference with Poland at the conference table and in no event to resort to war.
Shortly afterward I called on Pilsudski at Belvidere Palace, Lazienki Park, where he lived in Warsaw. He was an ailing old man then, with caricaturish profile, outthrust chin and beetling brows over deep-sunk eyes. He wore the gray uniform of a field marshal, his skin had that dull gray lifelessness which proclaims a malignant, fatal disease; and his whole color note, his hair, his profuse brows, his eyes— all were gray. He was an ailing old man, although only sixty-seven years, doomed for an early death.
I spoke to Pilsudski about the peace he had made with Germany and was bold enough to ask him what he thought would be the state of Polish-German relations when the agreement reached expiration. I can see now, as I write, his piercing gray eyes and their twinkle as he leaned over and put his hand on my knee, “Young man, politicians used to build for their countries a generation in the future; now any man who thinks ahead a whole year is thinking a long, long time, and anyone who plans for ten years is just an idiot.”
Just five years and six months after this conversation German Stukas were screeching over Polish towns and panzer divisions were making their pulverizing advance over Polish soil.
I wonder if he knew what would happen to Poland and realized there was no escape. He had a faculty of divination that was almost preternatural, knew Europe well, and was seldom deceived on the fundamentals of the international situation.
Colonel Josef Beck, the Foreign Minister, was a faithful disciple of Pilsudski, with the brittle realism of the Talleyrand school of diplomacy. He believed that the purpose of words was to conceal ideas. Always from my meetings at the Foreign Office, I came away with the feeling that he had held back on me. There was an innate caution in his makeup, and he made a rule of concealment. He was clever and affected cleverness which wasn’t too clever. Negotiations between governments are the same as any other negotiations. Only candor and honesty, or the appearance of these qualities, can beget confidence, and without confidence no negotiation can carry conviction.
Beck was very proud of Poland and his position, and always insisted that the Polish nation be recognized as one of the great powers of Europe with Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany. I found him unable to conceal his elation upon the conclusion of the ten-year pact with Germany, this traditional enemy of his country which three times had brutally despoiled Polish territory.
I always thought of the hardship on the poor Poles caused by the great weight of armament. One half of the budgetary outlay was required for the military establishment, and now that the German agreement was concluded, I inquired of the Foreign Minister whether the load could not be lightened by demobilizing several divisions, but Colonel Beck dismissed this suggestion peremptorily with characteristic cynicism by saying that the agreement would never have been reached if Hitler had not feared Polish military force. This made me ponder on the durability of this forced peace with Hitler, for the population of the Reich was over twice that of Poland. The German ruling passion was soldiering. By tradition and training Germans had been great warriors since the time of Tacitus, and while the Polish divisions outnumbered them today, what would be the situation next year, five years from now? But I kept my speculation to myself, for Colonel Beck would have been offended if I had given utterance to what I considered the truth about his country and its future.
The truth, if you define truth as reality, had little bearing upon the life of Poland. The aristocracy lived in the grand manner, with sweeping, seignorial gesture. They lived gallantly, gracefully, and with no sense of social or political responsibility. They lived successfully, unconscious of the afflicting poverty of the people, and life was a pleasant experience on their great estates, one of them, that of Prince Radziwill, the area of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Everyone lived off the earth. Land was the only wealth and there was not nearly enough to go round, but these great proprietors saw no anachronism in this grotesque, uneven distribution of the Polish soil. Once at a shoot, with my irrepressible Americanism, I spoke to Prince Radziwill of the social revolution which, since the reign of the Bolsheviks, was sweeping the world. I said, with typical undiplomatic openness, that Poland was a relic of feudalism and could not escape the universal transition in the division of individual possessions. We were witnessing in Poland the last stand of Feudalism. More and more the State was taking command of our lives and property, soon all would have to march in the regiment as common soldiers. I predicted that in a few years these great shoots with their medieval magnificence would be a thing of memory. But he looked so hurt I was sorry I had spoken. You do not tell a victim of cancer about his fatal disease, and there was something profane in the crass suggestion that there might be an end to the Polish aristocracy and their happy status— immutable as the law of seasons and of stars.