By Prof. Andrzej Nowak
“Poles, during even the worst period of their Nation’s partitions – weren’t keen on admitting that they were a small country. Roman Dmowski – in “Polish Politics and Rebuilding Poland” bluntly wrote – we are not one of those tiny nations of which there are many in Central and Eastern Europe.“
“(…) Not falling prey to megalomania, we can probably say that Poland on the European scale is at least a medium size country. And this is important not to let anyone shove us over to a small nation position which is reducible to a gofer – for the sake of the politics of the big guys.“ That is how the great diplomatic historian Prof. Piotr Wandycz (1923 – 2017) spoke of our specific situation. He was a retired professor of Yale University, recently deceased. This was still on the eve of Poland restoring her Independence in 1991 (“Are Poles a small nation?” – a conversation with Prof. Piotr Wandycz ”Arka,” No 33, 3/1991).
And what about today? For a substantial number of contemporary Poles there is no problem: everybody knows we are small. The gofer role is unavoidable, you have to accept it. “This country”, as they call Poland, does not deserve any better. And besides, no one pushes us around any more. We live in the happy time of the European Union that promises a post-nationhood utilitarian paradise. If anything – we have to yank backward, contradictory Poles out of their national mediocrity pit.
Well, this dream is over right now, very suddenly. Not because those “backward Poles“ want it that way, but because unfortunately the imperial ambitions of our neighbors have not tapered out. On the contrary, they are re-emerging with unsettling might. And indeed it is Poland who has the courage to speak out about this. Such was the case with discerning neo-imperial aggressive trends in Putin’s policy during a time when progressive Europe was still in a mesmerized state on Russia’s liberalization, and when the Polish Secretary of State, one year after Russia’s aggression on Georgia – wrote (in Gazeta Wyborcza) – that our giant Eastern neighbor was never as liberated and democratic as under President Putin. President Kaczynski had the courage to speak of how confessors of such policy suffer from political blindness. And we do remember – he paid for this. Now the Polish government, refusing to be reduced to the gofer role, is beginning to openly talk about the danger of the transformation of the European Union into a Berlin Empire. Are we too going to have to pay for these words of politically incorrect truth? Is this the fate of our medium size country? Maybe indeed, it’s the fate of a nation situated between two powers prone to imperialistic fantasies? Do we have to, yet again, rediscover ourselves between Russia and Germany? How do we do it?
Without a doubt this question became a blazing topic. On the one hand, following the “decommunisation of the public sphere” policy, our authorities announced the removal of all “gratitude statues” erected to our “liberators” – in essence the signs of Moscow’s imperial supremacy. The Duma grinds its teeth and threatens sanctions. The on-going investigation into the cause of the Smolensk catastrophe under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense points to ever more serious allegations of a possible assassination and the trail leads to Moscow… meanwhile the Russian Army conducted the largest maneuver exercises in recent history, “Zapad 2017”. Last fall in Bielorussia thirteen thousand Putin soldiers with multiple greater logistical and technical backup practiced fighting various variations of war with their neighbors. En route to the maneuvers, Russian parachutists in the Kaliningrad district have practiced an attack on the coast of a neighboring country. “Zapad” exercises in 1981 (when Martial Law was introduced) have crossed people’s minds. Those were even bigger, consisting of 100,000 soldiers of then the Soviet Army. They were also intended to sow terror and they did not end up favorable for us. They did not end in aggression on Poland, but they did end in the Martial Law. So now terror and dread return because our government’s pro-independence steps are disliked?
It is true that our government throws also its glove at our Western neighbor, challenging Germany’s “soft power“ in the European Union and in our country. It is depicting their actions as based on a double standards by Berlin (by the way of Brussels) regarding the so-called refugee issue. But this makes Berlin angry too. Especially since the ruling Law and Justice party has announced the goal of “deconcentration” of the media market in Poland – in other words, a threat to German media conglomerates, ruling the market up to now, without opposition, “in this country.” In addition to that Chairman Kaczyński rattles boldly the issue of compensation for the World War II losses. So it’s no longer that he just wants to take Poland out of the European Union, but now he is provoking war with both neighbors – at the same time?
Should we be scared or should we not break down? We look around to the left, to the right, to the East, to the West and we cannot get away from this question. It’s been with us for a thousand years. And now again it’s looming over us.
This year we will be celebrating the Centennial of regaining Independence. This is a good occasion to recollect that it was taken away from us, beforehand, by powerful neighbors. Someone else might say the “imprudence” of Polish political elites was to blame, that we should have loyally stood by the Empress, then maybe she would not have erased the Polish Republic from the map. And if not by the Empress then by the good Prussian king. Our ancestors however did not break down and voted in the May 3rd Constitution establishing military auction. This paid off one year later when Poland had to face the Empress’s army, who ordered to “straighten things out” on the Vistula. Unfortunately to beat Russia our army was still too small. In addition King Stanisław Poniatowski (sometimes called King Stas), like his formerly brave advisers such as Hugo Kołłątaj, broke down and on July 23rd, 1792 joined the pro-Russia Targowica confederacy. As if he wanted to tell us that those who get afraid on time are right. But he did not get afraid on time, he was late. The Prussian king “ally” did not help Poland, instead he took care of his own interests at our expense. It conspired with the Empress from Petersburg and Poland disappeared from the map. In the end this shameful work was completed in unison by three neighboring empires: Russia, Prussia and the most voracious, Austria. This is lesson one – for the cynics, or (if someone should feel offended by this word) for the “realists” who confess the belief that if neighbors are more powerful than us, that means we should hang on their door knob; at least on one doorknob or in the best case scenario – on all three doorknobs at the same time, simultaneously. Then we shell be safe and sound?
The question posed at the very beginning can be looked at from a completely different angle by recalling another very round jubilee taking place this month. January 30th, 2018 will mark the thousand year anniversary of the Peace which ended the longest (15 years) and, at the same time, victorious war between Poland and Germany, between the rule of King Boleslaw Chrobry and the kingdom of Henry II. The Peace accord dictated by Boleslaw in Budziszyn, on January 30th 1018, should be invoked to show the perpetual millennial determination of the Polish political community to defend its independent State. Or – and this is the dream of some Polish superpower backers, this achievement of Chrobry should be described as a showcase of Poland’s ability to build its own Center Empire, between Germany and Russia. The followers of this idea may indeed recollect a fact which strongly impresses the imagination. In the same year that the German kings’ forces were thrown out of Budziszyn by Chrobry, he led a great military campaign into Kievan Rus and its capital Kiev. On July 22nd, 1018 Boleslaw Chrobry carried out a victorious battle on the Bug River, and on August 15th the same year he was triumphantly entering into the Rus’ capital, from where he sent out victory letters to the Emperors of the West, Henry II, and the East, Byzantine Emperor Basil II. Two minor notes, nevertheless, must be added to this beautiful vision: First, Chrobry embarked on Kiev only after signing the peace accord with his German neighbor, and he even got a symbolic military backing for his Eastern expedition. So this was not a war on two fronts. Secondly, and this is a more severe stipulation: Poland at the beginning of 11th century did not manage to fulfill the imperial ambitions of her great ruler: 20 years following the Budziszyn-Kiev conquests Poland almost collapsed under the rebellion of a people exhausted by war efforts, exploited by treasonous oligarchs and the recently conquered neighbors to rack in a brutal revenge. Independence must be defended boldly, the way Chrobry’s knights fought. But are we capable to erect a permanent imperial structure in this particular geopolitical location? These are the questions we should take away from history lesson number two.
Unfortunately, the announced end of history did not occur. It did not happen previously in the 11th century, and in the 18th century. We observe with rightful pride the August 15th Holiday, the remembrance of victory achieved in the 1920 Battle of Warsaw over the Bolsheviks’ aggression, which we were able to stop. This was priceless for Poland and many other countries in our part of Europe, that gained time to develop their independence after World War I, and to establish their modern identity, which the soldiers of Lenin and Trocki wanted to “liberate” them from. Dismayfully, just after the 15th, on our history calendar comes the 23rd of August, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. This agreement between the Soviet Empire (geopolitically continuing the tradition or rather the force of gravity of Russian Empire) and the German one which yet again erased from the map Poland and other nations doomed to live between the imperial appetites of Moscow and Berlin. This memory is always fresh. This was barely 78 years ago. Those who directly remember this experience are still with us. However there were millions who did not survive the six years of this second Apocalypse which originated from the Stalin/Hitler agreement. There is no lack, however, of some smarty-pants who draw the following conclusion from that lesson – we should have chosen a deal with the one who was stronger, meaning Hitler. The apocalypse would have passed us by. Previously, under the Polish People’s Republic, we heard similar argumentation condemning politicians of the II Polish Republic for lack of wistful settlement with Moscow, which would, of course, saved us from all calamities.
Poland, however, chose not to become a nation of herders for the German cattle, in the Ural mountains, or guards at extermination camps for Jews, which compromising with Hitler would have brought us, nor did it become the 17th republic of a “fraternal” Soviet union. Life was lost, that is the awful truth, by millions of our citizens, simply people. Poland also suffered massive material losses, never compensated by the aggressors. Poland lost more than half of her pre-war territory for the sake of the “liberators“ from the East. We did gain an valuable and beautiful area of 105 thousand square km of western and northern land. So today it cannot be said, opposite to 1945, that Poland is defeated. She is independent and regaining her strength. What is then this last lesson in history connected with the memory of August 23rd, 1939? Was the decision to defend independence, even against the collusion of both neighbors, wrong? In the end the world is larger than Germany and Russia, even taken as a whole, and their might raises opposition and counteraction on the part of even greater powers who feel threatened by it.
Read more in Polish in the 136th edition of Arcana: TUTAJ