In response to:

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

To the Editors:

The recent discussion of “Yalta and the Fate of Poland” in the NYR plays an old song with an outdated arrangement. By this time everyone who has any interest in the Polish question pretty well knows what the Big Three said to one another during, before and after the conference. And we all know where the Red Army was. But what of the role of the Poles themselves, their politics in the underground and in émigré circles both in London and in Moscow? what of the border questions before Yalta? In light of recent scholarship, the question of whether Roosevelt was or was not to blame for what happened in Poland seems largely irrelevant.

The issue of the Polish-Russian frontier was already three centuries old. The 1939 Soviet-Polish boundary represented the eighth or ninth compromise by force of arms. It had lasted for eighteen years. It had no historic, ethnographic, economic, or religious foundation. It was an armistice line of mutual exhaustion converted at the end of the Russo-Polish War into an international boundary by the Treaty of Riga in 1921. It satisfied neither the Poles nor the Russians. The Poles aimed at a Dnieper frontier like that of the seventeenth century. They had gotten as far as Kiev. The Russians cared less about a frontier than a Soviet Poland and beyond that a Soviet Europe. They had gotten as far as Warsaw.

In 1921 both sides knew it was a truce line; in 1941 they knew nothing had changed. In fact, most of the responsible cast of characters were still in power. Among the London Poles, Generals Sikorski, Sosnkowski and Kukiel had all commanded forces against the Russians in 1920. Stalin and Voroshilov had led the Soviet Cavalry Army against the Poles; Zhukov had served under them as a divisional officer. (Norman Davies, White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919–1920, New York, 1972.) They too had played this song before.

Stalin himself made it clear that the real significance of the change in Polish frontiers was a reversal of centuries of the German Drang Nach Osten. Poland would give up lands occupied by White Russians and Ukrainians in the east. In return, the Poles would “recover some of the ancient Polish lands.” They would acquire the industrial province of Silesia and an extensive Baltic coastline with excellent ports for the first time in five centuries. In Stalin’s words this would “signify a radical turn in the relations between the Soviet Union and Poland’to the side of alliance and friendship” and put an end to “five centuries” of “mutual alienation, hostility and often open military conflict…that weakened both countries and strengthened German imperialism.” (Bolshevik, April 1945, Nos. 7–9, p. 1; see also ibid. August 1945, No. 15, p. 6. This theme was being developed a year earlier, see Pravda, January 11, 1944.) Stalin neglected to point out that one third of the population of the eastern provinces was Polish.

But the Poles fiercely defended their frontier. They thought to abandon it would mean a truncated Poland at best. They had little faith in Soviet assurances that in exchange for losses in the east they would gain some of the most productive German provinces in the west. At worst it would mean, as even Mikolajczyk, a moderate among London Poles, initially feared, the incorporation of all of Poland into the USSR. There was also the pressure of the army to be considered. The bulk of General Anders’ Polish Corps fighting for the British in Italy hailed from the eastern provinces. (Sir Llewellyn Woodward, British Foreign Policy in the Second World War, London, 1971, III, 159, 195.)

Of course, Stalin’s plan would also bury Polish aspirations to be a great power. It would require them to renounce forever dreams of expansion with help from Germany or the West at the expense of Russia. That was hard to take for a leadership that had once stood at the gates of Kiev and dreamed with Pilsudski of a great East European federation led by the Poles. Their dream may be dismissed as laughable today. But the Soviet view of the frontiers was rooted in the conviction that it had not been and might not always be a Polish joke.

Was a smaller, more compact, ethnically homogeneous and economically viable Poland only to be bought at the cost of “Bolshevization?” This is a far more complex problem and firm conclusions remain elusive. But there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that the question should not be foreclosed. Anthony Polonsky, who has done more than anyone else to illuminate the relations between Poland and the Great Powers, gives the possibility of a Finnish-style situation little chance in Poland. He may be right. Stalin wanted a lot more from the Poles than from the Finns. But Stalin may not have wanted exactly what he got. He took a very different view of Polish-Soviet relations in 1944 than he did in 1920, something that cannot be said for the Poles. The Battle of Warsaw in 1920 had taught Stalin that the Polish workers were not about to embrace Communism if it meant domination by the Russians.

Moreover, as Dr. Polonsky and mr. Kolakowski agreed, Stalin distrusted the Polish Communists. Not only had he slaughtered their leaders in 1937, but a year later, he had abolished the Polish Communist Party, the only member in good standing of the Comintern to have suffered this humiliation. Stalin was reluctant to rely on the Polish Communists to administer the liberated territories because they were fractious as well as weak. In Poland the Communists in the underground pushed too hard for radical socialist reforms. In Moscow they pushed too hard for more territory at the expense of Germany. And both groups were at odds with one another. (The best recent treatments of internal Communist politics are Vojtech Mastny, Russia’s Road to the Cold War: Diplomacy, Warfare and the Politics of Communism, 1941–1945, New York, 1979, pp. 167–182, and Anthony Polonsky and Boleslaw Drukier, The Beginnings of Communist Rule in Poland, London, 1980, which contains unpublished internal Communist Party documents.)

Consequently, there were at least four Polish political factions with whom the Big Three had to contend. The right-wing London Poles (Sosnkowski) and their underground Home Army, the moderate London Poles around Mikolajczyk, the “Muscovite” Communists, and the underground Communists. All of them had unrealistic expectations. The London Poles did agree on one thing: Stalin needed them to run the country because they had the necessary political experience. If Great Britain and the US would give them unqualified backing they might return in triumph. The Warsaw uprising, as Jan Ciechanowski has decisively demonstrated, was a political and ideological attempt (Stalin’s word was “adventuristic”) to liberate the capital and win control over the entire country. (Jan M. Ciechanowski, The Warsaw Rising of 1944, Cambridge, 1974, especially chapter 9.)

The Communists also agreed on one thing: Stalin needed them to run the country because they alone would cooperate with the Red Army. With Stalin’s unqualified support they could build a national front that could travel a Polish road to socialism. The irony of the situation was overwhelming. Neither Churchill nor Stalin wanted to wreck the Grand Alliance over Poland. (The US played a very minor role in all this as the diplomatic documents attest. Foreign Relations of the U.S., The Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, pp. 381–385; 569–599, and 1944, Vol. 3, pp. 1216–1448.) But the London Poles were in what Eden called a kind of “suicide mind.” (Ibid, 1944, III, 1224.) Stalin was scarcely happier with his crew. He regarded Berling, the commander of the Polish forces in the Red army, as “an agent provocateur.” (Polonsky and Drukier, p. 395.) And it soon became clear what he thought of Gomulka.

The last chance for the Poles to control their own destiny came in August 1944, fully six months before Yalta, when Mikolajczyk went to Moscow. He still held a few strong cards in his hand. He had Churchill’s blessing and Stalin’s encouragement. The 300,000-man Home Army was largely intact, not yet having launched its ill-fated Warsaw uprising. The civilian Polish underground was firmly in place as a potential local administration. The Communist leader, Bierut, admitted that he lacked the political experience to head the government and offered Mikolajczyk the premiership of Poland and three other cabinet posts, out of sixteen. This was a ridiculously small number, but it was negotiable; two months later Stalin was still thinking of something more like fifty-fifty. some in the Communist-dominated Committee on National Liberation regarded Mikolajczyk as the only guarantee against Soviet control of Poland. General Rola-Zymierski begged Mikolajczyk to accept and return to Warsaw; “If you don’t, they will take control and it will be too late.” (FRUS, 1944, III, 1314.) But Mikolajczyk would have had to accept the Curzon line as “the basis for negotiation.” Could he together with the Communists have also won back Lwów for Poland? Possibly. The Communists also demanded that he renounce the 1935 constitution, which he himself admitted was unsatisfactory in some ways, and reestablish the more democratic 1921 constitution. The risks of Mikolajczyk’s acceptance of their proposal were, of course, great. But it would have been a “revolutionary” act, hardly a socialist one.

We shall never know what would have happened had Mikolajczyk accepted and entered Poland at the head of a national coalition in August 1944. Those who read history backward might argue that it had not done Benes any good in Czechoslovakia. But this would be to ignore the stunning effect that a Mikolajczyk government might have had on postwar Eastern Europe. But that too remains a matter of speculation. All we know is that Mikolajczyk returned to London and failed to convince his colleagues to compromise. The liberation of Poland went on without him and the Polish Communists had to rely on the Red Army to consolidate their power. Much like the partitions of Poland in the eighteenth century, the great powers played an important role in the outcome. But once again, it was the Poles themselves who bore the heaviest responsibilities for their own fate.

Alfred J. Rieber

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA

This Issue

November 20, 1986