Henry Kissinger used to complain that no one could give him a number on which to ring Europe. Nowadays, the high representative for foreign affairs in Brussels does have a number. If you ring it, they say, an automated voice advises: “Press one for Germany, two for France, three for Britain.” And so on for twenty-seven EU members.
Historians have similar problems. Europe’s fragmentation puts the wider historical picture beyond reach. Until recently, European history was written as if nothing east of the Elbe mattered.
Poland is one of the largest pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to be routinely overlooked. Yet Polish history itself is too big and complicated to receive a proper airing. Its faded glories have been in the thick of European affairs for a thousand years; and its blood-soaked fate in the twentieth century provides an indispensible guide to decisive conflicts. But it’s not in the mainstream.
The latest three titles can illuminate only a few small corners of Polish history. Two of these three authors are Poles; two are women. All address World War II and its continuing aftermath. Happy will be the day when reviewers are asked to comment on something else.
One of the authors, Halik Kochanski, prefaces her text with a note on the different meanings of the word “Pole,” explaining that “ethnic Poles” are not necessarily the same as “Polish citizens.” The latter, she says, are people who possessed a commonality based on living in the same country but who may ethnically be classed as Poles, Jews, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, or whatever. She then proceeds to her opening sentence: “Poland had once been a great country and the largest state in Europe.” “Poland” itself is another term crying out for definition. The state that once was Europe’s largest, though often called “Poland” for convenience, was actually a dual commonwealth made up of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It grew from a personal union of medieval rulers, reached its height after the constitutional union of 1569, and was completely destroyed by force and fraud in the three partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795.
Those partitions saw the entire state swallowed up by its neighbors—Austria, Prussia, and Russia; they engulfed all the lands that on today’s map lie within Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine; and by a strange coincidence, if coincidence it is, those same lands were the scene of all the main acts of mass murder and genocide of World War II. Timothy Snyder has brilliantly labeled them the Bloodlands.
The destruction of the ancient Polish-Lithuanian state in the era of American independence has had far-reaching consequences. The Polish community, for example, the traditional base of the ruling elite, attracted the rooted hostility of the partitioning powers. This hostility was to culminate in extreme forms under Hitler and Stalin, who in the early years of World War II would plan the wholesale murder of the Polish elite.
At the same time, the nineteenth century saw the rise of numerous new national movements, which, far from reuniting the peoples of former Poland-Lithuania, created lasting divisions. The Polish national movement was itself divided into rival factions: one, headed by Jozef Piłsudski, who led the campaign for independence before 1918, believed in a multinational Poland in the tradition of the late commonwealth; the other, headed by Roman Dmowski, promoted a meaner view of “Poland for the Poles,” thereby attracting well-deserved accusations of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
The Lithuanian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian movements, which mimicked Dmowski’s ethnic model, surfaced in the decades preceding World War I. Launched in 1895 in the same Central-East European cauldron, some in the Zionist movement also drew on fashionable convictions about the mystical union of “Blood and Soil.” Its unique feature lay in the fact that the longed-for national homeland lay in western Asia, thousands of miles from the Russian Pale and Austrian Galicia where the great majority of Jews then lived.
The evolution of Jewish identity in the nineteenth century serves as an exemplar for several others. In 1800, most Jews thought of themselves, and were seen by others, as a religious group, the practitioners of Judaism; until recently, they had also been “Polish Jews,” having found refuge in Poland-Lithuania during the centuries of their banishment elsewhere. During the nineteenth century, following the precepts of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, many were assimilated. But by 1900 many others came to realize that, apart from being a community with religious roots, they were also a political nation that could participate in public affairs and could aim to construct its own nation-state. As a result they created various political parties, the Zionists being only one group among many. Jews were prominent in the small and illegal Communist Party, thereby to some degree shedding their Jewish identity.
In 1918, with significant support from US President Woodrow Wilson, a newborn Polish Republic took its place on the revised map of Europe; it separated Weimar Germany in the west from the Bolshevik-ruled Soviet republics in the east. It was a multinational state in which ethnic Poles formed barely two thirds of the population. Ukrainians, with 15 percent, and Jews, with 10 or 11, formed the principal minorities. The head of state, Marshal Piłsudski, defeated his nationalist rivals internally while in 1920 repelling the invasion of Lenin’s Red Army.
Yet the Second Republic’s existence was always precarious. Its infant democracy soon gave way to an authoritarian, military-led regime, the “Sanacja,” and normal parliamentary procedures were curbed. Threatened by the totalitarian monsters rearing up on either side, its leaders put their faith in a “doctrine of two enemies,” signing nonaggression treaties in 1932 and 1934, first with Stalin and then with Hitler. They believed that their best chance of survival was to stay aloof and to strengthen links with the West.
The reality was, however, that the two great tyrant-neighbors were totally unreliable; both regarded their treaties with Poland as temporary, and both had publicized their contempt for the country that dared to stand between them. Already in 1925 in Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler had outlined his concept of an expanded German Lebensraum, or “Living Space,” in the east; and the space to the east of Germany meant Poland. Westerners, not directly targeted, paid little attention; similarly, they applauded the policies of the Weimar foreign minister Gustav Stresemann, who had guaranteed Germany’s frontier with France but not with Poland. Nonetheless, Poles could suspect that left and right in Germany were equally ill disposed toward them; and they knew, if ever the Nazis took power, that Hitler’s vision left no place for Poland.
Stalin’s vision was equally ruthless, though better concealed. The murder of millions in the early 1930s during collectivization and the Ukrainian famine went largely unnoticed abroad. The USSR joined the League of Nations as Nazi Germany withdrew. Optimists dreamed of better times. But the Soviets, like the Nazis, intervened militarily in Spain; and in 1937 and 1938 Stalin’s security forces secretly killed the entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party (KPP), which was operating from Soviet territory.
Several thousand devoted Communists, many of Jewish descent, were eliminated in a seemingly minor event submerged in the purges and Great Terror. Yet Stalin took no steps to rebuild the stricken Party. The implications were stark. Since “the leading role” of a “ruling Party” was essential to any Leninist-type system, insiders realized that Stalin had no plans for preserving the Polish state even as a Soviet satellite.
Such was the background to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Hitler, six years in power, was itching to expand into the Lebensraum, but could not proceed without clearance from the region’s major military power, the Soviet Union. Stalin was preoccupied by a bloody purge of the Red Army’s officer corps. But he needed to ensure that Hitler’s forces would stay within agreed limits; and he rightly calculated that he could seize Poland’s eastern provinces as a cost-free bonus.
So the deal was done. The Wehrmacht smashed its way into Poland on September 1. The Red Army, meeting minimal resistance, followed suit on the 17th. And on the 28th, by the German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Demarcation and Cooperation, their hapless victim was dismembered. It was the “Fourth Partition.” As understood by the Nazi SS and the Soviet NKVD, “Cooperation” was a euphemism for liquidating all Polish citizens beyond those whose services would be required. The SS would shortly launch murder campaigns against Polish intellectuals and psychiatric patients and the NKVD would perpetrate the Katyn massacres.
Many Russians are still deceived by the Soviet propaganda that persuaded the world that the USSR was a “peace-loving” and “neutral” country. In reality, having swallowed eastern Poland, the Soviets proceeded to invade Finland with a million-strong army and in 1940 to occupy four more sovereign states, namely Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. In the period from September 1939 to June 1941, they occupied six countries by military force while their partner in crime, Nazi Germany, occupied eight.
Unlike the Japanese assault on China in 1931 or the German occupation of Prague in March 1939, Hitler’s September campaign against Poland provoked worldwide consequences that justify its listing as the start of another world war. Within two days, Germany found itself at war with the far-flung French and British empires. For its part, the USSR had failed to arrange permanent terms after fighting a brief campaign against the Japanese on the Mongolian frontier. It was Japan’s defeat during that brief encounter that pushed the High Command in Tokyo to choose the alternative Southern Option, and over the next two years to race toward a head-on collision with the US in the Pacific.
Poland, meanwhile, where it all began, was plunged into one of the deepest pits of misery that any country has ever had to endure. From 1939 to 1941, under joint German and Soviet occupation, it was subjected to a range of measures designed to shatter the human fabric of the nation. Between 1941 and 1944, following Operation Barbarossa, Poland was occupied by the ascendant Nazis, and it became the laboratory of the new racial order foreseen in the Grand Plan Ost and the base for the Holocaust. It raised the largest resistance movement in Europe, contributed significantly to the Allied war effort, and was repaid by the deaths of up to one fifth of its population. In 1944–1945, however, the tide turned. Boosted by great victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, Stalin’s armies returned. While driving the defeated Germans back, they simultaneously set up Communist-led dictatorships. The same forces that liberated Auschwitz were busy establishing their own network of concentration camps for different classes of inmates. The army that reoccupied Poland in pursuit of the Germans did not pull out until the fiftieth anniversary of its arrival. The Western powers, in whom the Poles had foolishly put their trust, never came near to rescuing the country’s independence.