The writer of the Polish national epic, one of the last epic poems written in Europe, was born in present day Belarus and wrote in the first line of his poem Pan Tadeusz:
Litwo, Ojczyzno moja! ty jesteś jak zdrowie; [Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like health]
From this you can deduce everything that is important about Poland history.
Adam Mickiewicz was Polish, but was not born within the boundaries of present day Poland. The countries of Central Europe expand and contract as history passes. A German Kafka could live in what is now the Czech Republic. He was not Czech. A Hungarian Liszt may not have spoken a word of Hungarian and was born in present day Austria, yet somehow Hungary claims him even if his parents were German. All is a muddle and a melting pot that did not melt difference.
Poland begins sometime around the year 960 AD and covers a territory not dissimilar to that of today.
Who were the Poles? They were the people who worked the land and tilled the fields [pola].
The Slavs who had a certain unity of language and perhaps identity, gradually separated into Rus’, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians and other Southern Slavs. The greatest division perhaps was that the West Slavs looked to Rome while the East Slavs looked first to Byzantium and then when Constantinople fell to the Third Rome that became the capital of Holy Rus. It still is the capital and wants desperately to unite all the lands of Rus whether they want to be united or not.
But Poland was never Rus. From the beginning what made someone a Pole was that he was not Rus. Later the distinction was because a Pole was Catholic while a Rus was Orthodox. Later still the difference perhaps was because the Pole looked westwards to Rome and beyond Rome to everything that was of the West, while the Rus never quite managed to be part of Europe even if he tried hard.
But where is Poland? At various historical periods Poland has extended as far North as present day Estonia, as far East as Ukraine and certain parts of Russia and as far South as the Black Sea.
So what is it to be Pole? Is it someone from Smolensk, Riga, Vilnius or from the Black Sea Coast? All of these place were once at least in some way part of Poland. Then again at another time there was no nation state called Poland. It looks rather like a part of Eastern Europe that is both everywhere and nowhere.
The Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth came about because of a marriage. Jogaila Grand Duke of Lithuania (1377–1434) married Jadwiga of Poland (ca 1373-1399). The best university in Poland “Jagiellonian” is still named after the dynasty that resulted from their “love”.
This was an Empire to rival that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but contained the same weaknesses that were to eventually bring about the latter’s destruction in 1918. Austria-Hungary was partitioned because it contained far more than merely Austrians and Hungarians, but at least Austria and Hungary remained and survived the destruction of their Empire. Neither Poland, nor Lithuania would survive the fact that their commonwealth contained too many people who were neither Polish, nor Lithuanian.
How many different peoples made up the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth? Besides Poles and Lithuanians, there were Germans, Jews, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians and Ruthenians (i.e. East Slavic speakers who spoke the languages which became modern Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian). The Commonwealth was more tolerant than the average realm at the time. It was known as paradisus judaeorum. While other European countries expelled Jews, Poland welcomed them and treated them better than anywhere else. But this tolerance saved neither the Poles nor the Jews.
The weakness of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth ultimately can be traced to the fact that it was Polish and Lithuanian. A Lithuanian can marry a Pole, but unless they learn each other’s language they can’t understand each other. The distance between Polish and Lithuanian may not be as much as between German and Hungarian. There was a proto Balto-Slavic language which the ancestors of both Poles and Lithuanians spoke, but they had diverged to such an extent that this language family would only be apparent to linguists.
The Commonwealth never really achieved unity. It was split down the middle into a Polish part and a Lithuanian part. Different customs and laws applied. Different identities were maintained. It is this that led to the partitions. Lithuanians and all of the other identities never really had any loyalty to Poland, nor did Poles really have any loyalty to them. A Pole did not much mind a partition that sold Lithuania down the Volga, nor did a Lithuanian mind if Poland was sold down the Rhine or the Danube. This is why both Poles, Lithuanians and the others who made up their Commonwealth were willing to betray each other and give up their Empire for temporary gain. No-one quite had a homeland because their ultimate loyalty was to the language that they spoke and the people who they were rather than to a dynasty that didn’t really represent any of them.
The three partitions of Poland that took place in the eighteenth century could well have been terminal for both Poland and Lithuania. If history had turned out only slightly differently Poles may well have been the equivalent of Kurds, a people without a land. The problem is that when you are divided between Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, you need to fight all of them to unite to form a Kurdish nation and how can you do that if Kurds are mixed up with everyone else.
So too Poles lived in the Austro Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire and eventually the German Empire. No matter how much they might revolt in the nineteenth century it must have looked simply impossible to create a land which would unite all the Poles. How are people without a state to defeat three empires?
The process of uniting Poland began with the end of the First World War. This was what Poles had been waiting more than a century for. This was the condition for the possibility of there being a Poland. If Russia had remained undefeated and allied with the Entente then Poland as we know it would not have been created. Who would have rewarded Russian sacrifice with the loss of its Polish territory? At best some Polish lands may have been taken from Germany and Austria Hungary, but it would have lacked the heart of Poland.
But the Poland that was created after the First World War repeated many of the mistakes of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. In trying to gather in all that had once been Polish it overreached itself and ended up containing far too much that was not.
By extending the boundaries of Poland Eastwards into the lands of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, post First World War Poland gathered in most of the Poles, except those still living in Germany, but it also gathered in huge numbers of non-Polish speakers and people who had little or no loyalty to Poland.
The newly formed Polish Army by virtue of the Miracle on the Vistula was able to defeat the Soviets, but led Poland into a temptation. It took advantage of temporary Russian weakness to extend its boundaries eastwards into the lands of the Rus. But Russia would not always be weak. The victory was temporary and led directly to the fourth partition of Poland.
Once more Poland effectively ceased to exist. Even when the Second World War ended and Poland was as it were shifted westwards, it didn’t really have independence. The entire Eastern bloc was really just part of an extended Russian Empire renamed the Soviet Union. Poland was on the map, but it was a Russian vassal.
The results of the Fourth Partition of Poland remain. The territory lost to the Soviet Union is still lost and forms parts of modern Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. The territory gained had been German for centuries, but brought Poland back to its beginning with the Piast dynasty.
But in history it is always necessary to take the long view. Poland won the Second World War. It gained a Polish nation state for almost the first time in history whose population was overwhelmingly Polish. 97.7 % of the Polish population are Poles.
Prior to the Second World War there was a significant German population in Poland who wished to citizens of Germany. There were also significant populations of Lithuanians and East Slavic speakers. Where did the loyalty of these people lie? Some of them no doubt were loyal to Poland, but not all. Some would have looked north towards Lithuania, others East towards Minsk, Kiev and beyond.
Tragedy followed for the population of Poland in the war years. Jews were murdered to the extent that there are now few Jews in the land that had been their main home for centuries. Ukrainians killed Poles living in what they thought was Ukrainian land and punished Poland for its resurrection and its extent. Lithuanians were grateful that the Fourth Partition of Poland gave them back Vilnius, just as Ukrainians were grateful that it gave them Lvov. Each complained about Soviet rule but kept the results of that rule. No-one quite noticed the hypocrisy.
Many of those Poles who had lived in the Kresy Wschodnie ended up living in places in Western Poland that had been German for centuries. Ordinary Germans were driven out just as ordinary Poles were driven out from the East. But for all the tragedy that occurred it is necessary to recognise that Poland won the Second World War.
The Soviets tried to decapitate Poland in a forest near Smolensk and by standing by as Warsaw rose and was then raised to the ground. It must have seemed to many Poles who had fought in the Battle of Britain at Monte Cassino at Arnhem and elsewhere that their sacrifices had been futile. Britain and France went to war to liberate Poland, but Poland was not free. Worse the land lost due to the Fourth Partition had not been restored and never would be.
But Polish history teaches us one thing. Be patient. The tradition of rebellion against the Russian Empire continued in Gdansk and although they were crushed in the short term, this time it only took a few years before they succeeded.
Poland after 1989 was free and united in a way that perhaps it never had been before. This was the victory that was gained over those who wanted to wipe Poland from the map again.
Poland was decapitated again in 2010. The president of Poland Lech Kaczyński and many others died in an air crash that had strange echoes of that which killed Władysław Sikorski in 1943. But this time Poland was fortunate for Kaczyński had a twin.
How many hundreds of years did it take to arrive at 1989 and a free united Poland. Yet only a few years later there are those Poles, reminiscent of those who cooperated in the first three partitions of Poland who would like to collaborate in a fifth.
By good fortune and through tragedy the Polish population is both united and Polish, but the European Union would prefer that it ceased to be quite so Polish and ceased to be quite so free.
Western Europe has chosen to imitate the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth by becoming so tolerant that it allows anyone from anywhere to live in its territory. It can’t bear that Poland having experienced throughout its history the consequences of a divided population and seeing the results of the experiment in places like London and Paris, chooses not to take part.
The solution proposed by the European Union is absorption into an ever closer union. To achieve this end it is willing to bribe. It pays money to Poland and threatens to cut it off if Poland doesn’t do as it is told.
It may for a time be possible for Poland to maintain its identity and its freedom while accepting the bribes given by the European Union, but it won’t be possible for ever.
The bribes and the threats are the same ones that have threatened Poland’s existence since the Partitions began. You either get this, or you don’t. Kaczyński gets it, for which reason it is most fortunate that just as we can survive the loss of one eye and still see, we can survive the loss of one twin and still see Donald Tusk’s cooperation in betraying everything that Poles have been fighting for since the eighteenth century. If Poles partition Poland once again for 30 pieces of silver it is hardly likely that they will be forgiven.
This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2018/11/happy-birthday-poland.html