Poland: Malice, Death, Survival

German Press Agency
A wounded protester being carried away after an anti-Soviet demonstration, Berlin, June 17, 1953; the photographs on this page and page 48 are from Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956

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.

Polish Press Agency
A Polish partisan returning his weapons and accepting amnesty after the war

Given the unending flow of misconceptions about wartime Poland, a comprehensive survey of this neglected subject is long overdue, and Halik Kochanski’s study fits the bill. The Eagle Unbowed is not the first such work in English; Jozef Garlinski’s study from 1973 still repays examination. But Kochanski has a good chance of reaching a wide readership. The British-born daughter of wartime refugees, she must have lived with these issues all her life, and as a Polish speaker she has access to lesser-known Polish materials (which she appears reluctant to employ). At the same time, she shows distinct independence of spirit; and as an established military historian she writes clearly about strategy and operations.

Yet the horrendous fate of civilians dominates this subject, and here the author’s treatment appears somewhat uneven. She is at her best describing the Soviet repressions between 1939 and 1941, and especially the mass deportations to the Gulag or to distant exile in Siberia or Central Asia. In the space of some twenty months, Poland’s terrorized eastern provinces were stripped of their cultural and administrative elite, of all preceding administrative structures, and of any hope of returning to the status quo ante. Kochanski’s account, in “Escape from the Soviet Union,” of the Polish army organized by General Władyslaw Anders, drawing on Polish recruits who had been trapped in the Soviet Union, is harrowing. Eyewitness accounts of recruits recently released from the Gulag read like camp scenes from the German zone:

What I saw was a collection of skeletons covered in rags, their feet wrapped in newspaper or dirty cloth…. They were either very thin, the colour and texture of yellow parchment, or bloated and shapeless like the face of a drowned man. Their eyes were either completely lifeless or glowing feverishly. They all looked old and shrivelled although some of them, at least, must have been young.

Many of these unfortunates died on arrival at the reception centers.

A thirty-three-page chapter on the Holocaust has already been described by a British specialist as “fair-minded” in its approach. It stresses the difference between the suffering of Christian Poles and “the unprecedented policy” of the Final Solution. Kochanski judges that circumstances made “an effective response” from the Gentile population “impossible,” as was outside intervention. Yet she does not quote any non-English sources.

Kochanski’s summary of negotiations at Tehran in 1943 over future frontiers is not quite accurate. She is right in saying that the Big Three met in an atmosphere of “sheer casualness,” so she should refrain from suggesting that any definite decisions were taken. In their amateurish bungling, Churchill and Roosevelt probably gave Stalin the impression that all was settled. But what Churchill actually said was that the Curzon Line, the boundary between Poland and the USSR proposed in 1920, should be “the basis for discussion,” meaning that there was still room for maneuver.

The weakest section of the book, however, must surely be located in the pages dealing with the tragic Warsaw Rising of 1944. For the most part, Kochanski follows the interpretation of bygone Communist commentators who, when they could not suppress the subject entirely, heaped all the blame on the leadership of the AK, the pro-Western underground army, and on the quarreling politicians in London. In this version, it is the Polish Home Army that willfully fails to cooperate with the Soviets, not the Soviets (as actually happened) who systematically withheld assistance both from the AK and from Western relief flights. She has no words of praise for the heroic fighters who held out for sixty-three days against the might of the SS and the Wehrmacht, in a city where the average daily damage and loss of life equaled that of September 11 in New York.

Kochanski, of course, has many allies in her hostile assessment of the rising, not least among former insurgents, whose trauma persists. And many of the criticisms are justified. But they are not the whole story. She fails to document the hopeless disarray of the Western powers during the rising, and omits President Roosevelt’s fatuous pronouncements from her account of the Polish prime minister’s visit to Washington in advance of the critical decisions. “Stalin doesn’t intend to take freedom from Poland,” Roosevelt opined; “he wouldn’t dare to do that because he knows that the US Government stands solidly behind you.” Tragically, the Polish prime minister believed him.

The author regains her balance in later chapters, recounting Poland’s abandonment by Allied diplomacy, the ruthless subjection of the “forgotten backwater” to Soviet power, and the long suppression of free discussion on wartime history.

Anne Applebaum picks up where Kochanski breaks off, the two books forming a panorama from the outbreak of war in 1939 to the attempted anti-Soviet “revolutions” of the 1950s. Iron Curtain addresses all the Soviet bloc, and Applebaum’s extensive passages on Poland benefit from comparisons with East Germany, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary. The first section deals with the Soviet takeover, the second with the features and failings of “High Stalinism.” If Kochanski’s prose is workmanlike, Applebaum’s is polished and penetrating.

Westerners still imagine 1945 as the moment of liberation; they are only familiar with the one third of Europe that was indeed liberated by Western forces. Applebaum explains in convincing detail how the larger half of Europe was seamlessly freed from Nazi tyranny while being crushed into accepting the victorious tyranny of Stalinist communism.

The agents of this simultaneous liberation/subjection were on the one hand the Red Army, which carried out mass rapes and mass plunder—by “hungry, angry, exhausted, battle-hardened men and women, all of them now brutalized by what they had seen, heard, and done”—and on the other, the true-believing Communists who made up the political foot soldiers of the incoming system. Yet as Applebaum elucidates in her Chapter 4, “Policemen,” practically every person directly serving the system, like everyone outside it, was closely supervised, subordinated to, and if necessary silenced by vast and secret security forces associated with the Soviet NKVD.

The Red Army, as she makes clear, was not run by its military officers, but by politruks popularly known as “commissars,” embedded at every level by the NKVD. All members of the nascent Communist Parties swore blind obedience to their superiors, and their superiors to the comrades in Moscow; and everyone in the movement, except for Stalin, was monitored by the NKVD’s special departments. Among the populace at large, the NKVD was ordered to eliminate not just active opponents but all “potential enemies.”

As Applebaum shows in detail, the NKVD orchestrated the political scene in occupied countries with mixed governments before 1948, just as it ran the Communist monopoly after 1948. She describes how, as Communists took tightened control over one country after another, they resorted in practically every neighborhood to arrests, torture, assassinations, deportations, and “disappearances”—and in selective regions to extensive campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

As for the thorny issue of what Isaac Deutscher dubbed “non-Jewish Jews” and their numbers serving in the apparatus of repression, some anti-Semites say “almost all” and some who have ignored actual history will say “almost none.” Anne Applebaum does not comment on this question. Beria, the head of the NKVD, inquiring in 1945 of his representative in Warsaw, was told: “50 percent of all departmental directors and 18.5 percent of total personnel.” However accurate these figures may be, such participation did much to revive anti-Semitism in the postwar period.

Perhaps the hardest thing for Eastern Europeans to bear was that no one in the outside world cared. As seen from Washington and London, Applebaum writes, “Russia’s behavior in Eastern Europe…was hardly worth noticing at all.”

Adam Michnik once told a reviewer—the present reviewer, as it happens—that a brilliant pen and a bad character make a dangerous combination. Even so, Michnik, a deeply serious philosopher-historian and ex-Solidarity captain, carries his fame and erudition lightly. He was born in 1946 to Jewish Communist parents, who had survived both Stalin’s pre-war purge and the Holocaust (he shares this background with Poland’s current First Lady), and he was burdened by at least one member of his immediate family being engaged with the nastiest organs of Stalinist oppression. Yet his mind was as sharp as his will was strong, and the teenager emerged as a dissident trailblazer, destined to lead the minority branch of the Solidarity movement that had rejected its roots in the Communist ranks.

Most importantly, despite repeated imprisonment, he was able to articulate eloquently the reasons for his opposition and thereby to inspire others. His first book, The Church, the Left and Dialogue, smuggled out of Poland in 1977, charted the intellectual course that would lead a dozen years later to the Round Table between independent Poles and the Communist regime—and ultimately to the collapse of the People’s Republic.

Nowadays, as editor-in-chief of one of Poland’s biggest newspapers, Gazeta Wyborcza, Michnik is the bête noire of the boneheaded tendency in Polish politics that still believes that ex-Communists pull the secret strings of a fragile democracy. In reality, he is the finest champion of everything that has been achieved, an eloquent expositor of the moral issues that underlie the conflicts of his lifetime. His latest collection of essays, In Search of Lost Meaning, does not disappoint. Part I, “Anniversaries,” is reflective and historical; Part II, “The Work of Hatred,” analyzes the pre-war roots of present tensions; and Part III, “The Complex Polish-Jewish Matters,” dissects two terrible events: the Jedwabne Massacre of Jews by Poles in 1941 and the Kielce Pogrom of 1946, when at least thirty-eight Jews, some having just returned, were killed in a Polish town. One key passage among many elucidates what Michnik calls “the egotism of suffering”:

Pain is always egotistic, for we experience our own suffering and that of our family or our friends egotistically…. We feel this pain together with the others who are part of our spiritual fatherland. And…when our nation is being murdered, then—filled with our own pain—we do not consider the misfortune of others….
Usually, [the others] do not suffer with us…. After all, they have their own “egotism of suffering,” their own trampled-on community, and their own grievance against the world…. We then become bitter, and our bitterness breeds dislike…. Locked in the fortress of our own memories and suffering, we do not even notice how aversion and pain mutate into hatred and vengefulness.

Selective memory and selective mourning, therefore, can be observed on every hand. Poles mourn the officer victims at Katyn, but they do not mourn Stalin’s Polish Communist victims. Locked into his thoughts about Jedwabne, Michnik agonizes over the shocking murder of Jews by their Polish neighbors. But he does not in this book agonize over the equally barbarous murders of Poles by their Ukrainian neighbors. Here, Kochanski comes to the rescue. She estimates Polish losses from ethnic cleansing in 1943–1944 in Volhynia, East Galicia, and Lublin province at between 50,000 and 80,000, and she underlines the mindless bestiality of the killings.

Michnik’s three essays on hatred speak prophetically of dangers that beset twenty-first-century Poland. Today’s variant on “the culture of malice” is not anti-Semitism; if the signals were more openly anti-Semitic the West might have picked them up. This time around the disease is not ethnically focused, but is equally poisonous, bulging with bile, convulsed with conspiracy theories, and saturated with slanderous mudslinging. The twin motors are a pseudo-Catholic broadcaster, Radio Maria, which the Church hierarchy fails to rein in, and the chief opposition party, self-styled “Law and Justice,” whose members since their electoral defeat in 2007 have been calling ever more stridently for the overthrow of liberal democracy. Their targets are the legally elected president and government, the independent banks and media, and the former Solidarity leaders, like Lech Wałęsa, who were willing to deal with the Communists, presumably instead of cutting their throats. (Wałęsa is absurdly but persistently reviled as a secret police collaborator.)

The conspiratorial confabulations of “Law and Justice” and its fellow travelers include Poland’s alleged subjection to an international “condominium” run jointly from Moscow and Berlin, and the government’s alleged cover-up of the “assassination” of Lech Kaczyński, the then president of Poland, in April 2010 in an air crash, which official Polish investigators have unambiguously attributed to pilot error. Their language is extreme, crying “Treason,” “Murder,” and “Lies” on any occasion, and, in ominous imitation of the Deutschland, Erwache! of the 1920s, “Poland Awake.”

Michnik claims magnanimously that “the gutter is not a specifically Polish phenomenon.” But he quotes a critic who calls it “one of the most disgraceful diseases of the Polish soul” and unearths a long tradition of false accusations. In “A Wound upon Adam Mickiewicz’s Brow,” he examines the mind-set of the archetypal slander-monger, “the Great Lustrator” (lustration being the word for the purge not just of former Communists, but many others as well), the ringleader of the “eleventh-hour anti-Communists,” “the seeker-out of other people’s sins and wrongdoings, who is so lenient to himself,” and so censorious toward others. “Just as the Grand Inquisitor created heretics to justify the existence of the Holy Inquisition,” he writes, “so the Great Lustrator creates ever more suspected informers, for without them, he would be nothing.” This is “the Chairman.”

Michnik certainly finds plenty of eminent figures among the falsely accused; they include Gabriel Narutowicz, the murdered president of 1922; Marshal Piłsudski, who personified one of his detractors as “a ghastly midget on bandy little legs” “dogging my every step”; Stefan Zeromski, the novelist; Czesław Miłosz, the poet; the doughty postwar primate, Stefan, Cardinal Wyszynski; and the episcopal authors of the famous “Letter of Forgiveness” to Germany in 1965. And he finds plenty of noble Poles who spoke out against the witch hunts: the list starts with local counterparts of Zola and Masaryk, and the national bard, Adam Mickiewicz; it continues with Bishop Teodor Kubina, who denounced the Kielce pogrom, and ends in 1939 with a Cracovian student of literature called Karol Wojtyła. Michnik’s mentor in this field is the late Catholic journalist Stefan Kisielewski, the advocate of “the Forgiving Man.”