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The Fate of Poland

In response to:

Yalta & the Fate of Poland: An Exchange from the August 14, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

Readers are quickly bored with protracted polemics in journals. My remarks on Mr. Draper’s counter-comment on Yalta [NYR, August 14] will thus be cut to minimum. Mr. Draper has got the facts wrong. He thinks that the Polish government in exile was just a self-appointed body, a group of people who called themselves a government and that one may not speak of the breach in continuity of the Polish state in 1945, as this breach had occurred in 1939. In reality the Polish government was a perfectly constitutional body; it was operating under the provisions of the 1935 constitution which assured special legal forms of continuity in the case of war (this constitution was criticized by many people for other reasons, which we do not need to dwell upon now). As such, this government was recognized by Poles living and dying under the German occupation; it had its extended underground apparatus and an army that fought the Nazis both in Poland and in the West; at the time of Yalta part of this army, consisting mainly of refugees from the Soviet liberators, was fighting in Italy. As such this government was recognized by the Western allies until the moment when Stalin had a better idea to which Churchill and Roosevelt readily (and honorably, no doubt) bowed. It was recognized, for that matter, by the Soviets from 1941, when Hitler broke his friendship with Stalin, until the moment when those Polish extremists, as Mr. Draper calls them, impudently wanted to know who had murdered in Katyn thousands of Polish officers captured by the Soviets in September 1939.

And Mr. Draper thinks that to predict, in February 1945, the destiny of Poland under the Yalta agreement would take clairvoyance or even, as he says, fantastic clairvoyance (meaning that nobody can be blamed for not being clairvoyant, least of all Churchill and Roosevelt). This, I believe, is too flattering to the Poles, millions of whom proved to have had this supernatural gift, including, of course, the Polish government in exile; apart from its clairvoyance and the memory of its experience with the Soviets, it had a fair amount of information about the behavior and intentions of the Soviets who by then had ruled the parts of Poland east of the Vistula for over half a year. This information was made available to Western governments (with no results).

I admit, however, that the sellout (a cliché word, to be sure, but quite accurate) of Central and Eastern Europe to the Soviets had been decided mainly not in Yalta but earlier on, in Teheran, London and Moscow, including the famous grotesque conversation of Churchill with Stalin about the “percentages” of influence in European countries. In Teheran no concessions to Stalin’s insatiable hunger for new areas of domination were needed. Churchill, certainly—to paraphrase his remarks on Yugoslavia—had no intention of settling in Poland after the war. Yalta has become a symbolic name but Teheran would probably be more suitable.

Leszek Kolakowski

The University of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois

Theodore Draper replies:

I am baffled why Professor Kolakowski wishes to continue this argument. He originally charged that Roosevelt and Churchill had “appointed” Stalin to decide, in effect, the fate of the post-World War II Polish government. That is what I could not accept. His latest message has little or nothing to do with the main point and merely nibbles at the edges of the whole subject.

In 1935, a military junta usurped power in Poland and rammed through a new constitution of a near-fascist character. The democratic opposition in the Sejm or parliament stayed away. At best, according to Kolakowski, the wartime government-in-exile derived from the military takeover in 1935 and its dubiously imposed constitution, which Polish democrats never accepted. The Polish collapse in September 1939 totally discredited and swept away the military regime and its antidemocratic constitution. This was the political reality at the time.

Kolakowski refers to both a Polish “government-in-exile” and a Polish “government” during the war. The government-in-exile was not a full-fledged government or “a perfectly constitutional body.” In the latter case, it would have owed its “constitutionality” to a usurpation of power and a misbegotten constitution. One reason given by the Polish government-in-exile for its refusal to accept new borders was the lack of a parliament, which it insisted was alone capable of making such a decision. If the Polish people had been able to decide their fate after the war, a new constitution would undoubtedly have been necessary; the post-1935 constitution, on which Kolakowski rests his case, was no longer a viable political instrument.

In any event, the heart of the matter is that a change in regime does not constitute a break in the continuity of the Polish state. “Discontinuity” means, if it means anything, that the Polish state was discontinued or ceased to exist in 1945. In that case, there has been no Polish state from 1945 to the present. The same thing would have to be said of the other Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. Can anyone really believe that there are no longer any states on the western borders of the Soviet Union? There was a drastic change of regime in 1935, in 1939, and in 1945; these changes differed from one another, but even a Soviet-imposed government signified a discontinuity of regime, not of the state as such.

As for “clairvoyance,” I brought it up, because Kolakowski had shifted the issue from Stalin’s “appointment” by Roosevelt and Churchill to whether they had been clairvoyant about Stalin’s intentions. The alleged clairvoyance of millions of Poles has nothing to do with the issue. Incidentally, my words were “fatalistically clairvoyant,” not “fantastically clairvoyant,” as Kolakowski has it.

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