|Historical footnote [a
There is a strange ebb and flow to
historical, political and popular commentary on Poland and its people. One
moment the Poles are a brave, romantic band, fighting extraordinary odds
with little or no hope of final vindication. Abandoned by their so called
friends and allies on so many occasions, yet still they kept faith with
their idea of home and freedom. The very next moment, they are an
aggressive fascist people, a xenophobic group of conservative ultra nationalists, whose deliberate
catholicity fails to hide a nasty anti-Semitism that runs deeply through
the country and culture.
Reading through entries in popular web
logs, chat rooms or on line discussion groups (have a look at the groups
surrounding Olson & Cloud's book "For Your Freedom and
Ours") the venom demonstrated in expressions of opposing views is
surprising and sometimes shocking.
Perhaps the truth is a little more
A Polish identity has been shared over
hundreds of years by Poles, Germans, Ruthenes, Lithuanians, Jews and many
other national, racial and cultural groups. The modern Polish Diaspora
reflects this historical melting pot.
The great partitions of Poland
during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries failed to extinguish this identity.
By the 20th century, the death throes of the old empires
[Austro-Hungary, Prussia and Russia] left Poland ravaged like no
other country in the Great War. Poland lost a greater percentage of its
population than any other country. The savage losses in German, French and
British & Commonwealth troops between 1914 and 1918 were more than
matched by the terrible military and civilian casualties in Poland. In
addition, as a result of a more mobile war in the East, not bogged down in the 20 mile
corridor of trench warfare, the destruction wreaked on its cities,
towns and villages was unparalleled in the rest of Europe. But, into the gap left by an
exhausted Prussia, an Austro-Hungary that had entirely disappeared and a
Russia distracted by its own revolution, Poles emerged to take back their
The Great Powers, though victorious, were
worn out by the long
war and were poorly served by the lack of vision of their political
leadership; behind them was a legacy of unfinished business in central Europe.
It's possible that the Poles and
Germans in Pomerania and East Prussia would have accommodated each other's
differences, if left to their own devices. My own family seemed to be able to do just that.
Still, there is no doubt that
Byelorussian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian lands and peoples were incorporated
forcefully into the new Poland.
Between 1920 and 1939, Poland almost
recovered its pre-war productive capacity. The inter war years, particularly after
the Wall Street crash, posed political and social questions in all the
developed countries of the northern hemisphere that were answered almost
universally by state control in planning of economies. In Western and
Central Europe, the combination of unfinished political business and the
desire for centralised economic control led to polarisation between
essentially nationalist and communist political ideals: governments more
generally abandoned the free market. From the rural electrification
programmes of the New Deal in the USA, via the autobahn building schemes
of the National Socialists in Germany, to the massive expansion of the
heaviest industries during 5 Year Plans in the Soviet Union, economic
state-ism developed more authoritarian political regimes.
In Poland, Pilsudski's classic
confrontation with President Wojciechowski on a bridge over the Vistula in
Warsaw, heralded change: with little of the hard line civil violence that
affected France, Germany and Italy during this period, a military junta
took control of the country. There were no persecutions of
minorities. Debate continued in the country estates of the wealthy and on
the streets of the Praga. The increasing threats from East and West worked
to unite Poland further. Poland's two largest minorities, Germans and
Jews, represented almost one third of the total population. There
was little trouble in either quarter until German activists provoked
unrest centred on Gdansk [Danzig] and East Prussia.
In 1939, Poland was ruthlessly crushed,
but not without forcing a considerably greater cost than either Germany or
the Soviet Union expected. Still, no one came to their aid. Nor was anyone
going to come; nowhere in the historical records of the mobilisation and
deployment of any Western European army, including the British
Expeditionary Force, are there records of any plans for the liberation of
Poland. Six months after the subjugation of Poland, western allies hadn't
even pushed up to Germany, but sat instead inside French borders. Had the
Germans been satisfied with their acquisitions of Austria, Czechoslovakia
and Poland, one wonders whether France and Great Britain would have made any aggressive
moves to help those countries recover their autonomy.
If the creation of the Polish state in
1920 marked the first remarkable chapter in its 20th century history, the
next years became the second. Between 1939 and 1945, the Poles suffered
horribly. It's impossible to list every disaster that befell the country.
Between September 1939 and August 1940, the Soviet Union persecuted the
population in Eastern Poland and removed almost all heavy and light
industry back to Russia as 'war reparations'. At the same time, the
Germans were systematically exploiting and looting areas under their
control. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, the General Government
(as Poland had been renamed) became the killing zone of the Third Reich.
Camps that had initially been set up to exploit the labour of the
untermenschen were turned into extermination camps. By war's end, 20% of
Poland's population had perished, including almost every Jew. The risings
in 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto and and later rising in 1944 as the Soviet
Red Army sat on the other side of the river and watched resulted in the
deaths of tens of thousands of Poles.
The bravery of Varsovians and the
inability or unwillingness of the Allies to offer any serious
assistance during the Rising of 1944 must rank as one of the most
poignant and tragic events of the whole war. At the same time as Le Clerc
and De Gaulle wandered unchallenged into the open city of Paris to claim
their place in history as liberators, Warsaw was being dismantled brick by
brick, its population herded off to the West into captivity and
Indeed, there is an awful symmetry in the
wartime histories of France and Poland. Each was overrun by a rampant
Wermacht, but the Polish campaign lasted longer and cost the Germans far
more in men and material. The Polish resistance was active at all times
during the war and its effectiveness, particularly during the Warsaw
campaigns, compares more than favourably with the divided and largely
ineffective French resistance. But in European history, it is the
story of the French that remains.
Indeed, it is said that at a party
attended by Diana Cooper to celebrate VE day in London, a senior British
diplomat surveyed the joyous crowds and said "This is what we went to
war for"; Cooper responded "I rather thought we'd gone to war
By war's end, Poland was in ruins and
occupied by yet another dictatorship. Once again, victorious allies felt
unable to do anything to help the Poles. The Soviets expelled all ethnic
Germans from Poland; most from East Prussia had already fled, but those in
German lands to the west of Poland's pre-war borders were also ruthlessly
pushed westwards. The Soviets and the Polish communist government (those
democratic members of the Polish Government in Exile that had flown to
Poland at the invitation of Stalin had all been imprisoned and murdered)
ceded Eastern lands to the Ukraine and appropriated Western lands from
The war didn't end in Poland until well
into 1948, when the final remnants of units made up of resistance
fighters, Anders Soviet prisoner Army and others were mopped up in
mountain retreats and marshy fastnesses.
Moved bodily westwards, Poland began the
second half of the 20th century with only one significant advantage. A
cruel series of ironies had left it almost 99.99% culturally and
ethnically Polish and catholic. Jewish Poles had been all but exterminated
by the Germans and German Poles had been almost entirely excluded by the
By the time the Soviet Union collapsed,
Poland would be one of only a few central European countries that could
move into the post cold war era truly united. The Ukraine, the smaller
Soviet satellite states of the Baltic, the Asiatic states of the Soviet
Union and the complex of ethnic minorities that made up the former
Yugoslavia, all these countries faced tremendous problems of division and
But the latest changes are not without
problems. A resurgent church places strains on a previously secular (if
only nominally secular) state. It now appears that senior churchmen were
involved in spying for the Communist regime; fiercely fundamentalist
catholic organisations and radio stations talk insistently in nationalist
and illiberal terms.
It remains to be seen whether Poland will
settle to become a stable and tolerant western democracy. Despite excesses
shown at a number of key points in its recent history, it's as well to
remember that Poland did not spawn any Moseleys, it did suffer grievously
under German and Soviet regimes, it did fight back in ways no other
invaded country (Great Britain excepted) did and it remains a free and
united democratic country.
A final personal story.
In 1986, I went to Poland with my mother
and sister, to visit my father's last close relative, his sister Marisia.
She was an elderly lady; unlike her brother and sisters, she spoke
only Polish. She had last seen her brother on 1st September 1939. My young
friend translated her first words to me - "You don't look like
him". The disappointment was in her voice. I could only imagine how
she had built up her hopes, her expectations; her Mirek was coming home.
But he couldn't, could he?
Later, at a dinner given in our honour,
with portions of food saved for months before our arrival and after many
rounds of "Stollat" [May you live a hundred years] and vodka, my
aunt asked me if I felt English or Polish.
It was something I had not considered
before. After all, you are what you are. But I understood the importance
of the question. My English mother, who had brought me up single handedly,
looked at me slightly quizzically. My Polish aunt and uncle waited
"In my head I am English", I
said, "but in my heart I am Polish".
If I didn't really understand it then, I