Poland as a stabilising force
The history of the 20th century is clear – the greatest atrocities were committed in Europe when Poland was not on the map, writes Karol NAWROCKI
.‘There’s always trouble with Poland,’ sang the brilliant Jacek Kaczmarski. The renowned poet and bard aimed to capture the thoughts of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Yalta Conference, where the fate of Europe and the world was decided by the leaders of the anti-Hitler coalition. It was February 1945, and the German Reich’s defeat was expected within weeks. The White House host naively believed that a lasting post-war order could be built with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The Polish government in exile had the audacity to disturb this idyllic vision, vehemently protesting against the Kremlin’s control over Central and Eastern Europe. But Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were no longer inclined to uphold the obligations they had agreed upon in 1941 when the Atlantic Charter acknowledged ‘the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.’ The new Yalta Order considered only the biggest players, whose concerted cooperation was to guarantee world peace.
The temptation for the strongest to establish spheres of influence on the Old Continent was not new. In the 18th century, the superpowers of the era – Russia, Prussia and Austria – carried out a three-phase partition of Poland, dividing up one of the largest countries in Europe. The Polish Commonwealth was to disappear from maps once and for all, taking its memory with it. The St Petersburg Convention, signed by the partitioning empires on 26 January 1797, stipulated the ‘necessity to abolish everything that might remind of the existence of the Polish Kingdom.’ The British Morning Chronicle warned in vain that the erasure of Poland would upset the balance of power on which European peace rested. Many Western intellectuals of the time were prone to see the partition as a triumph of modernity. Nobiliary, Catholic Poland was succumbing to neighbouring enlightened monarchies of Catherine II, Frederick the Great and Francis Habsburg. In an altered form, this concert of powers persisted after the Congress of Vienna of 1815, crowning the brief era of the Napoleonic Wars.
However, the order established at that time did not give Europe lasting stability. The Spring of Nations was followed by other wars: the Crimean War, the Prussian-Austrian War and the Franco-Prussian War. The Vienna Order finally collapsed in 1914 when the three partitioning powers went at each other’s throats. The world was plunged into the First World War, resulting in the direct loss of millions of lives. In Russia, this devastating conflict paved the way for the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to further bloodshed.
For Poland, however, the Great War, despite its devastating effects on the country, ultimately brought its long-awaited freedom. And while every year on 11 November Germany, France or the United Kingdom honour their fallen soldiers of 1914-1918, we celebrate the National Independence Day – one of the most important state holidays. Another notable event in our calendar is 15 August, when we commemorate the victorious 1920 Battle of Warsaw, in which we defeated the Red Army and defended our hard-won sovereignty.
Founded after the First World War on the ruins of powerful monarchies, the Versailles Order had fierce opponents from the start. Germany – defeated, humiliated and territorially curtailed – was the most bitter. But the treaty was also displeasing to Moscow, internationally isolated since the Bolshevik coup yet still clinging to the dream of rectifying its 1920 defeat.
A community of interests united two ideological enemies. On 23 August 1939, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin signed a criminal pact that divided Central Europe between them. Shortly afterwards, on 1 and 17 September, the two totalitarian powers invaded Poland and executed its fourth partition. ‘In the end, all it took was a brief invasion of the German army and then the Red Army to leave nothing of Poland, this monstrous bastard of the Treaty of Versailles,’ mocked Soviet Prime Minister and Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov. Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler spoke similarly in the Reichstag: ‘Poland will never arise again in the form laid down by the Versailles Treaty. Two greatest countries in the world guarantee this.’
But it was the persistence of Poland – which allegedly oppressed national minorities (Germans, as Hitler alleged, or Ukrainians and Belarusians, as the Soviets claimed) – that actually given Europe decades of respite and brought genuine security for the region’s populace. The two totalitarian neighbours, who unleashed a new world war by marching into Poland, did not bring freedom to these lands but a series of misfortunes. They were marked by the concentration and extermination camps on the one side, and the gulags and deportations to Siberia on the other. World War II cost the lives of tens of millions of people. But it was not until the communist system collapsed decades later that Poland and other Central and Eastern European states finally experienced its definitive end.
.However, on the wreckage of the Cold War, visions of a concert of superpowers – a ‘common European home’ whose rules would be negotiated with Russia – have re-emerged. More than once, a voice from Poland warned against this dangerous path, as Moscow had never renounced its imperial ambitions. ‘There is always trouble with Poland,’ irritated Western European politicians seemed to reply, as if echoing a Kaczmarski song. Last February, the effects of their wishful thinking became vividly apparent with the Russian Federation’s full-scale assault on Ukraine. It is frightening to imagine where Vladimir Putin would be today if there was no independent Poland.