German soldiers tear down the Polish border barrier (September 1, 1939) | PHOTO: Bundesarchiv / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 de
World War II is a living and unresolved issue in Poland and other Central Eastern European countries that still affects the present. Its consequences affect the present, even the way the current political situation is perceived, to a much greater extent than in the western part of the continent. A short reflection by former politician and columnist Jan Rokita concerns the impact of the September 1939 event (and the subsequent conflict) on Poland’s self-perception. This article from 2019, with its message of the “religion of freedom” and the illusion of realpolitik, is still very relevant these days.
In Poland, everyone knows that the Second World War essentially re-created both the Polish nation and the Polish state. Almost the entire national elite (with the exception of those who declared themselves communists after the war) were murdered or forced to emigrate, the Shoah affected Polish Jews, the state lost a third of its territory and was “moved” several hundred kilometers from east to west. After the liquidation of the elites, Polish society became predominantly a society of peasants who, as a result of the Stalinist process of industrialization, migrated en masse from the overpopulated countryside to ugly and cheaply built cities. However, the war also deformed the “Polish soul” – it forced us to recognize as national truths those gloomy assumptions and suspicions that we could derive from the events of the nineteenth century. All these darkest ideas were confirmed by the course of the six war years so clearly that few could have foreseen such a thing. And it was they who began to shape the shape of the current Polish identity.
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Undoubtedly, the most serious was another and decisive proof of the fragility of Polish political existence. The independent Polish state collapsed almost like a house of cards in September 1939, although two decades earlier, when it began to rebuild again, it had such strength in itself that it not only got rid of the German occupation, but was able to militarily stop the Bolshevik avalanche rolling into Europe. However, it was to be shown that those victories were not at all an expression of the permanence of the Polish state. The experience of the sudden collapse of the state and its symbol, the road towards the border crossing in the town of Zaleszczyki, along which Warsaw dignitaries fled to Romania, represented a deep spiritual shock for the Poles. The collapse only confirmed that Poland was not divided by its neighbors at the end of the eighteenth century by a historical accident or an unfavorable confluence of political circumstances, but that there really would never be a place for a Polish state between Germany and Russia. Thus, September 1939 was nothing but a kind of grim mockery of history to the Polish dream of independence and its own state. A dream expressed with extraordinary power at the beginning of the twentieth century by the playwright and painter Stanisław Wyspiański, considered a prophet in Poland. His character Konrad screamed in the drama Exemption (1903) the most important Polish truth: “A nation cannot exist except as a state.” September 1939 turned this truth to dust again.
Until 1935, Poland was ruled by an exceptional politician in all respects – Józef Piłsudski. When he died, he left behind an optimal (as it might seem) school of political thought. Its meaning was the art of diplomatic balancing between Berlin and Moscow supported by the strength of its own army and secured by the Western alliance. Poland had almost family relations with France and in the spring of 1939 received security guarantees from Great Britain. In the end, it turned out that it was all worth a damn, and after all, the very idea of Polish realpolitik appeared as a strange paradox, or even nonsense. The conviction of the impossibility of ensuring one’s own security and of the worthlessness of all alliances and guarantees of Western European powers became another cornerstone of Polish political self-knowledge. It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II. in 1979, in Warsaw’s Victory Square, he received an unceasing ovation when, in the presence of a million people, he dared to say the words about Warsaw “levelled in an unequal struggle with the country and abandoned by the friendly powers”. The Pope expressed a feeling hidden at the bottom of the Polish soul until then.
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If one’s own state is ephemeral and realpolitik leads to nothing, then the Pole remains – to use Benedetto Croce’s famous term – “the religion of freedom”. Polish political existence was connected with it already during the nineteenth century, when Poland ceased to exist as a state for the first time. Whenever the Poles bet on political reason and realism at that time, such a bet always turned out to be in vain. The Poles were loyal to Napoleon to the end, but the French emperor did not keep the agreement. Then came the efforts of Alexander I, the Russian Tsar-European, to build a Kingdom of Poland united with Russia on the basis of liberal constitutionalism. They ended in 1830 with the largest Polish uprising, because liberal freedoms are always incompatible with national oppression. The rebellion again hoped for the support of revolutionary France, and was again defeated in single combat. The same was the case with the second great Polish uprising of 1863, which, seemingly realistically, imagined itself to be the extended geopolitical arm of Napoleon III. in the East. It was then that the basic Polish approach to politics took shape, according to which (as the conservative Stanisław Koźmian mocked) “Poland and the uprising are synonymous”. The criterion of “religion of freedom” was brought by the Poles not only in the Polish uprisings, but also on the European liberal front at the barricades in Paris, Budapest, Berlin or Palermo. The interweaving of Polish political existence with the “religion of freedom” was loosened for a while when, after the First World War, the Polish state was established, whose independence was guaranteed by the Treaty of Versailles. However, September 1939 was tragic proof that the Treaty of Versailles was just another pseudo-realistic and pseudo-political illusion.
Neighboring Germans called the Poles “subhumans” and the famous professor Carl Clauberg reported to Berlin in 1943 that thanks to his experiments carried out in Auschwitz it would soon be possible to achieve the industrial sterilization of Slavic women. Only in Poland did they introduce a law punishing giving a crust of bread to a neighbor Jew with death. And even though in 1989 it was political reason and realpolitik that showed their strength at the round table between Solidarity and the communists, the resilience and permanence of Polish political existence ultimately proved to be stronger than the new Polish experience. We are a nation that is once again rebuilding and building its state, but it no longer believes that this time it is a permanent entity. It is true that we have re-established an alliance with Western Europe, but today we do not trust it very much, and therefore we are looking for a firm connection with America, which seems to us to be more idealistic, less politically calculating. We ourselves also stubbornly spread the current version of the “religion of freedom” in the East, because that is where we see our special mission in defending the sovereignty of Ukrainians, Georgians or Moldovans. But above all, based on our own experience, we monitor the European environment with great vigilance and vigilance, and we are constantly on the lookout for the first signs of the onset of a major political crisis.
Yes, it is true that September 1939 distorted our self-knowledge in a certain way. But it has also made us much more resistant to all the countless illusions to which the current European Union policy indulges in particular.
The text was originally published on the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II in cooperation with the Polish revue Wszystko Co Najsztszyme. Translated from Polish by Josef Mlejnek.
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