Jan ROKITA: September ’39 and the Polish form

September ’39 and the Polish form

Photo of Jan ROKITA


Philosopher; opposition activist in the communist era, later deputy to the Sejm.

Ryc.: Fabien Clairefond

other articles by this author

September ’39 was like a dismal mockery that history made of the Polish dream of its own state and independence – writes Jan ROKITA

.Everyone in Poland knows that the Second World War created anew both our nation and state. Almost all of the nation’s elite were murdered or forced to emigrate (with the exception of those who became communists after the war); Polish Jews were subjected to extermination, and a third of the country’s territory was moved from east to west. Post-war Poland became a farming country out of necessity, and the new shape of the nation arose as a result of the Stalinist process of industrialisation and the great migration of former peasants from overpopulated villages to ugly and poorly developed cities. But the war that broke out on the first of September eighty years ago also crippled the Polish soul permanently, forcing us to acknowledge as national truths all the gloomiest suspicions and hypotheses that we could have about our own fate as a result of the events of the previous century. These dark hypotheses and suspicions were confirmed during the six years of that war as unambiguously as hardly anyone would have expected. And that is why they began to shape the form of the contemporary Polish identity.

The most important confirmation of the fragility of Polish political existence was September ’39, when the independent state fell apart almost like a house of cards, though two decades earlier, when it was being revived, it already had enough strength to not only get rid of the German occupation, but also to stop the Bolshevik invasion of Europe. It turned out, however, that those victories did not result in a permanent Polish political existence. The sudden disintegration of the state and the “Zaleszczycka path” symbolising it, which the Warsaw dignitaries used to escape to Romania, was a spiritual shock to the Poles. It revealed that at the end of the eighteenth century, Poland was not divided between its neighbours by a historical case or a bad coincidence of political circumstances, but that there could never be a place for a Polish state between Germany and Russia. September ’39 was like a dismal mockery that history made of the Polish dream of its own state and independence. The dream was particularly expressed at the beginning of the twentieth century by Stanisław Wyspiański, a playwright and painter, considered in Poland as a prophet. His character Konrad expressed in “Wyzwolenie” [“Liberation”] the most important Polish truth that: “The nation only has the right to exist as a state.” September ’39 turned this truth into dust.

The partition of the country between Germany and Soviet Russia was not only a defeat for the Poles, but also showed the uselessness of any kind of Realpolitik. Until 1935, Poland was ruled by an absolutely unique politician – Józef Piłsudski – who left behind an optimal school of political thinking (or so it might have seemed). It was based on the art of diplomatic balance between Berlin and Moscow, supported by the strength of Poland’s own army and secured by Western alliances. Poland had an almost family-like alliance with France, and in the spring of 1939, it obtained guarantees of security from the United Kingdom. All this turned out to be worthless, and the very idea of Polish Realpolitik looked like a paradox or even nonsense. The belief that it is impossible to ensure security and that all alliances and guarantees of the Western European powers are worthless became the canon of Polish political self-knowledge. That is why in 1979, an unstoppable ovation was given to Pope John Paul II at Victory Square in Warsaw. He dared to express words hidden at the bottom of the Polish soul about Warsaw which “in an unequal struggle lay in ruins, abandoned by Allied powers”. The Pope, in this way, captured the Polish form and proclaimed it to the world.

Since the state can be temporary, and Realpolitik is of no use, the Poles were left with (using Benedetta Croce’s famous term) the “religion of freedom”. In fact, the Polish form was associated with it already during the nineteenth century, because then, whenever Poles turned to political reason and realism, it always turned out to be quite barren and futile. Poles were loyal to Napoleon to the end, but the French emperor did not keep his promises. The liberal constitutionalism of the Kingdom of Poland under the rule of Alexander I – the Russian tsar – turned out to be an internal contradiction and ended with the largest Polish uprising of 1830. Liberal freedoms can never be combined with national oppression. The uprising fell with the experience of the fruitlessness of the alliance with the revolutionary French July Monarchy, similar to the second great Polish uprising of 1863, which apparently “realistically” imagined that it would be an extension of the geopolitical arm of Napoleon III in the east. It was then that the Polish form was shaped, according to which (as conservative Stanisław Koźmian mocked in “Teka Stańczyka” – the famous pasquinade on the alleged Polish aversion to Realpolitik) – “only the uprising is Poland”. Poles seemed to pass the test on the “religion of freedom” not only in Polish uprisings, but also on the European liberal front: on the barricades of Paris, Budapest, Berlin, and Palermo. This relationship between the Polish form and the “religion of freedom” loosened when, after the First World War, a Polish state was formed whose independence was ensured by the Treaty of Versailles. September ’39 dramatically proved that Versailles was just another pseudo-realistic and pseudo-political Polish dream. 

.The scar of September ’39 was so strong that it has remained to this day. Perhaps this was due to the German and Soviet persecutions that Poland had never experienced on such a scale before in its history. Germany suddenly recognised us as “sub-humans”, and the famous professor Carl Clauberg reported to Berlin in 1943 that as a result of his experiments at Auschwitz, the goal of industrial sterilisation of Slav women would soon be possible. It was only in Poland that the death penalty was introduced for giving a slice of bread to a Jew. And although in 1989 it was political reason and Realpolitik that proved their power at the Round Table between Solidarity and the communists, this time the durability of the Polish form proved to be stronger. We are a nation which is in a hurry once again to rebuild its state, but which still does not completely believe that this time it will prove to be a permanent entity. Although we have concluded alliances with western European countries again, we still have a lot of distrust towards them. Therefore, we are looking for a close relationship with America, which seems more idealistic, less politically calculating, and maybe even somewhat (especially under Donald Trump who is the popular in Poland) unpredictable. We are also stubbornly advocating a contemporary version of the “religion of freedom” in the east, defending the sovereignty of Ukrainians, Georgians and Moldavians. However, taught by their own experience, we observe with great vigilance the European environment, constantly seeking the first signs of some great imminent political crisis. Yes, it’s true that September ’39 crippled our political self-knowledge, but it also made us more resistant to all the innumerable illusions in which the present EU policy lives.

Jan Rokita

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