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Poland – the country that refused to die
And also saved Europe from communism (twice)
November 11 is Poland’s National Independence Day, marking the establishment of the second Polish republic in 1918. In part two of my history quasi-listicle based on Adam Zamoyski’s Poland: A History, here is the story from the partition to the fall of communism.
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Poles in the American and French Revolutions
Tadeusz Kościuszko was an aristocrat from what is now Belarus, and a skilled engineer who in 1776 crossed the ocean and volunteered to fight for the Americans. There he built a number of vitally important fortifications, including West Point; back home in 1794 Kościuszko led an uprising against the occupying powers, which alas ended with romantic defeat. His name would later be given to the Polish fighter squadron, the 303, in 1940.
During the Napoleonic wars Poles played a major role in the French army. ‘Polish lancers were the first to swim the Niemen and carry the French tricolour onto Russian territory: Colonel Uminski’s dragoons were the first into Moscow; the Chevaux-Legers saved Napoleon’s life from a pack of marauding Cossacks; the Legion of the Vistula defended the Berezina crossings. At least 72,000 never returned, and many more died of wounds or typhus in the following months. Yet they were the only contingent not to lose or abandon a single field-gun or standard to the enemy during the disastrous retreat.’
The 1830 uprising
Poland played an outsized role in the tsarist empire, so ‘by 1815 no less than 64 percent of the nobility of the Romanov realm was of Polish descent, and since there were more literate Poles than Russians, more people within it could read and write Polish than Russian.’ The empire’s third largest city Wilno was entirely Polish, and its university the empire’s best.
In 1830 the Poles rose up in rebellion, with 200,000 men taking up arms against the Russians. Thousands of foreign volunteers streamed in, including hundreds of French Napoleonic officers: the next largest contingent were the Germans, who supplied over 100 military surgeons. There were also volunteers from Hungary, Italy and Britain.
Huge international sympathy was reflected in popular culture; in Germany there was the Polenlieder, a genre of political songs and poems that celebrated Poland’s courage. American Nathan Parker Willis wrote odes to the country and Tennyson wrote what he called ‘a beautiful poem on Poland, hundreds of lines long’ — unfortunately his housemaid used it to light a fire, like a real-life episode of Blackadder.
‘In France, Delavigne, Beranger, Musset, Vigny, Lamartine and Hugo glorified the Poles’ struggle in verse. On 23 May 1831 the Aldermen and Council of New York made a strong declaration of support, while Boston offered standards for the Polish regiment. In Paris, James Fenimore Cooper started a Polish-American Committee to gather funds for the rising.’
Poland’s rebellion inspired similar levels of sympathy to Ukraine’s struggle today, but it was crushed. Afterwards over 800 ‘orphans’ whose fathers had died fighting for independence, or fled into exile, were taken from mothers to be raised by Russian infantry regiments. Some 3,176 noble families had their estates taken away.
There was also widespread sympathy in Germany, and when Polish rebels sought refuge across the border in 1831, they were warmly treated by German and Poles alike, but the Prussian army handed them over to the Russians or encouraged them to leave for Britain or France.
For your freedom and ours
Poland came to stand for a sort of international liberal nationalism, and from 1831 the motto ‘For Your Freedom and Ours’ was put on Polish standards, symbolising the universal Polish ideal of independence for all nations: ‘The Polish nation was the founder member of the internationale of peoples arrayed against the holy Alliance of monarchs.’
In 1848 a Paris mob marched on the Hôtel de Ville with cries of Vive la Pologne. This was echoed by Chartists in Britain and by Berlin workers, ‘and by every Italian activist from Mazzini to Garibaldi.’
The Poles rose up again in January 1863, inspired by Russia’s weakness in Crimea. ‘World opinion was strongly pro-Polish, and while newspapers ranted against Russian injustice, young men flocked to Poland, from Ireland, England, France, Germany and, most of all, Italy. Garibaldi’s friend Francesco Nullo was one of the several redshirts who fought and died in Poland. Remarkably, the largest non-Polish contingent was Russian.
‘The 1863 rising was an uncommon achievement — it was no mean feat for 100,000 intellectuals, noblemen, workers and peasants to keep Europe’s largest military machine tied down for eighteen months. It had also proved that the szlachta were not alone, and the very last engagement was fought by a detachment of peasants.’ Poland’s Jewish minority also took part.
Forever, ‘The “Polish Question” haunted nineteenth-century diplomacy like an uneasy conscience, inducing as much discomfort in Poland’s friends as in its enemies. Britain made many a diplomatic démarche on behalf of the Poles; Turkey never let an opportunity pass to show its disapproval of the partitions; the French Chamber of Deputies opened every session after 1830 with a solemn declaration of its wish for a free Poland. Yet they were all only too keen to bury the issue under a few pious phrases whenever it began to threaten the stability of Europe.’
The Poles continued the struggle abroad, so that ‘whenever there were Russians, Prussians, Austrians or their allies to be fought, there were Poles in the ranks.’ In particular they came to support the Hungarians, with 3,500 Poles joining the revolution of 1848, part of a long tradition of Polish-Hungarian amity.
In America, the first officer to die for the Union was a Captain Blandowski, and ‘another 4,000 Poles fought for the Union, many in the 58th New York Infantry or Colonel Krzyzanowski’s United States Rifles, while a further 1,000 fought in the Confederate Army.’ Many also joined the Ottoman army in various roles and converted to Islam.
Back home, Poland’s religion was repressed and in 1870 it was ruled that Catholic liturgy had to be said in Russian and priests who refused would be flogged or deported to Siberia. Zygmunt Krasinski, one of Poland’s ‘three bards’, wrote in a letter to Pope Pius IX that the Russian system is ‘a huge merciless machine, working by night and by day, crushing thousands of hearts and minds every minute… the irreconcilable enemy of all spiritual independence.’
Yet Poles became heavily over-represented in the economic life of the tsarist empire. Even some of those ‘exiled to Siberia for revolutionary activity ended up building sizeable fortunes in cities such as Tomsk and Irkutsk.’ According to Russian sources, about a third of the entire Polish population were being illegally educated in 1901.
The Samurai nation
Poland has long had a strong relationship with Japan, and as much as you can explain it by all sorts of notions of common respect and admiration, one General Baron Motojiro Akashi best summed it up when he said: ‘We were united by our hatred of Russia’.
In the 19th century a number of Japanese writers and poets paid tribute to Poland’s heroic struggle for independence, while many Japanese works were translated into Polish.
In 1904, Japanese author Nitobe Inazō dedicated his work Bushido: The Soul of Japan to the ‘samurai’ Polish nation, and Poles were delighted about Japan’s surprise victory in 1904-5, even if worried about their countrymen there as conscripts. Józef Piłsudski, Polish nationalist and future head of state, even went to Tokyo to suggest forming a Polish Legion and offering to start a guerrilla war in Poland if the Japanese demanded an independent Poland.
During the First World War, while Japan was an ally of Russia, it nevertheless funded Polish nationalists, and after independence relations between the two countries were quickly established. The Japanese even rescued Polish children stranded in Siberia by the Bolsheviks. The two countries shared intelligence, and even after the start of the Second World War Japan supported the Polish government-in-exile, refusing to join Germany’s war against them.
The Bolshevik invasion: Poland saves Europe again
Independence only came about with the catastrophic war that brought down all of the empires ruling Poland.. Some 450,000 died in the conflict, fighting for all three, and 900,000 were wounded, but the increasingly desperate belligerents began to offer better conditions.
In 1915 the Russians promised autonomy and in 1917 Germany offered independence, but when they demanded that the Poles fight the British and French as a condition, Piłsudski refused, and was arrested.
With the end of the First World War Poland achieved its freedom, but skirmishes along its eastern frontier continued as the newly proclaimed Soviet Union descended into a complex, multiplayer civil war.
With communist uprisings in Bavaria and Hungary illustrating the potential popularity of the new cult, in 1919 the Bolsheviks set upon their goal of worldwide revolution. The invasion of Poland was a declaration of the ‘international civil war’ and their hope was that, having taken Poland, they would sweep across Europe.
Yet it did not go to plan, and the war culminated with the Battle of Warsaw in August 1920, a resounding Polish victory that cost 10,000 Soviet lives. Trotsky and Stalin blamed each other for the debacle, and the Georgian would hold a murderous grudge against the Poles for his humiliation.
Lenin had expected the workers there to join his armies and was surprised when, funnily enough, the Poles did not greet a Russian invasion with unbridled joy. Lenin told the party conference: ‘Poland was not ready for a social revolution. We encountered a nationalist upsurge from the petty bourgeois elements as our advance towards Warsaw made them fear for their national survival.’
A.J.P. Taylor said of the Soviet-Polish War that it ‘largely determined the course of European history for the next twenty years or more… Avowedly and almost unconsciously, Soviet leaders abandoned the cause of international revolution.’
Poland will fight
According to Zamoyski, the Polish government actually considered a pre-emptive strike on Germany upon Hitler’s election, believing that the Nazis would inevitably re-arm and attack them.
As Hitler began his bullying rhetoric towards his eastern neighbour, demanding that Danzig be handed over, Pilsudski said: ‘We in Poland do not recognise the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the life of men, nations, and states which is without price, and that is honour. Poland will fight.’
Before the war, the French had agreed to send 2,500 tanks across the undefended Rhine but when the time came they did not move, while the RAF just dropped leaflets. ‘For all its inadequacy, the Polish army acquitted itself valiantly, taking a greater toll of German men and equipment than the Franco-British effort of 1940. The Germans lost roughly 45,000 men dead and wounded, three hundred planes and 993 tanks and armoured cars.’
Faced with a Soviet invasion to their east, Poland stood no chance, but huge numbers of soldiers made it out to continue the fight, including thousands of pilots and ground crew, enduring epic journeys to reach the west. After the Nazi conquest of France they went onto Britain, where most famously Poles became by far the largest foreign contingent in the RAF.
After initial British scepticism about their abilities, and some wider suspicion about strangers from a distant nation, they became the country’s darlings, unable to buy a drink anywhere they went. The 303 Squadron played a decisive role in the Battle of Britain.
‘By 1945 there would be 220,000 men in the Polish armed forces serving alongside the British. The Polish Air Force, which accounted for 7.5 per cent of all German aircraft destroyed in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, grew to ten fighter and four bomber squadrons which, until the arrival of the USAAF, represented 25 per cent of the Allied bomber force. The Polish Air Force flew a total of 102,486 sorties, lost 1,973 men, and shot down 745 German planes and 190 V-1 rockets. The Polish naval ensign flew on some sixty vessels, including two cruisers, nine destroyers and five submarines, which were involved in 665 actions at sea.’
Yet the story obviously did not have a happy ending. When in August 1944 Warsaw rose up, the Soviets stood by and deliberately allowed the Nazis to flatten the city. The western allies were unable or unwilling to help, and while Churchill and Roosevelt insisted that Polish soldiers of the Home Army were regular Allied troops, ensuring some protection upon capture, the civilian population endured hell. Aside from the Holocaust, the worst of which took place on Polish soil, it’s the most heart breaking episode of the whole war.
Six million Poles were killed in total during the war, including 3 million Jews, the vast majority of its Jewish population. The Russians also murdered many Poles, including the notorious Katyn massacre, and deported far larger numbers to Siberia. Under the Nazi occupation nearly 1 in 3 Catholic priests were killed, and half of all lawyers. Poland lost 38% of its national assets.
Tens of thousands of Poles were also killed by Ukrainian nationalists during the war; the two countries have a bitter history, which makes their current solidarity that much more impressive.
After the war almost 800,000 Poles were pushed west as the country’s borders were redrawn by Stalin, so that the entire population of Lwów/Lviv was moved to Wroclaw, formerly German-majority Breslau, as millions of Germans were in turn expelled from places they’d called home for centuries. It would be like the entire population of Southampton being descended from recent Geordie transplants.
After the war a Soviet puppet government was forced on the country, made up of those Polish communists who had been jailed under the pre-war regime (the Polish communists who had fled to the safety of the Soviet Union had pretty much all been murdered by Stalin). The leaders were true believers: Bolesław Bierut, head of the party and former president, died of a heart attack after reading Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin.
Yet communism never won people’s hearts. ‘By the early 1950s the Party, whose membership was never so much above 1.3 million, or 5 percent of the population, during this period, was in large measure made up of bureaucrats of one sort or another. By 1955 only one in five workers belonged. By contrast, over 90 per cent of them belonged to the Catholic Church.’
A great test came in 1956, when five days after Hungarian leader Imre Nagy announced a return to democracy, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary out of ‘Leninist principles of equality among nations’. The Poles were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Hungarians, and ‘the collecting of funds, medical supplies and blood on behalf of the Hungarian freedom fighters was a major embarrassment to the Polish government, which found itself obliged to take a different line from the Soviet Union in a United Nations vote on the issue. On 10 December the Soviet consulate in Szczecin was stormed by angry workers.’
Many Poles also sympathised with Israel in 1967 and two votes in the Sejm were made against the government’s condemnation of the Jewish state. The leaders called for the party to be purged of ‘revisionists, lackeys of imperialism, Zionists and reactionaries’, and the Polish communists followed the pattern of most authoritarian regimes by becoming explicitly anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism was long a problem in Poland — there had even been a pogrom after the war — but many Poles were also proud that so many Israelis were Polish.
The downfall of European communism was another Polish innovation, led by the trade union Solidarity and inspired by the election of a Polish pope. What is so impressive is that, after the state’s brutality and repression of anti-communist dissidents, the final collapse came in a spirit of compromise and even generosity.
When a free election was called in 1989 the communists were totally humiliated; 33 of the nominees standing for seats reserved for the party failed to get the required number, including leading figures such as interior minister General Kiszczak and prime minister Mieczysław Rakowski. And so ‘a mortified [president] Jaruzelski had to ask [Lech] Wałęsa whether he would agree to change the rules so that some of these could be rerun at the second round. Wałęsa magnanimously obliged.’
Things might have gone quite differently, and for all the pain of the economic transition, since the fall of communism Polish GDP per capita has soared by 1100%, making it once again one of the larger economic powers in Europe, back to the position it enjoyed before all that unpleasantness. Indeed on current projections it should catch up with much of western Europe sometime in the 2030s — assuming, of course, that its neighbour doesn’t cause problems once again. It is a remarkable story for a country that was forcibly disappeared and repressed, went on to be reborn and survived the predations of the two most evil ideologies in history: a country that refused to die.
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