Introduction: stories full of alternatives
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

[in:] Historie trudnych alternatyw. Dylematy polityczne czasów zaborów i II RP, OMP, Cracow 2012.




The fate of Poles in the 19th and 20th century encourage us to ask questions about the rationality of the key political decisions taken by them at that time. A different approach would be difficult, for example, due to the fact that over these two centuries they were able to enjoy their independent state only for three decades (Polish People’s Republic cannot be taken into account here as an entity too dependent on the Soviet Union and ruled by, in fact, governors designated by it). Why did they regain it as late as in 1918, and why did they lose it again after just 21 years? Did they make too serious political mistakes, thus losing the opportunities which opened up in different periods, which doomed them to living in bondage? And maybe their fate was in their hands only to a small extent – they did decide about details of their national existence, but in the conflict in which the reconstruction and then survival of the Polish state was at stake, they depended on decisions and actions taken by stronger participants? Does – assuming it was actually the case – that justify their wrong choices, because, after all, they must have been made from time to time?

         The discussion on these topics, which leads both to general assessment of the quality of the Polish thought and political actions, as well as to analyses of their particular manifestations, was conducted nearly throughout the above-mentioned period, and never led to any specific conclusions: it was still full of contradictory interpretations which were hotly disputed, without hope that any consensus was possible. Because, for example, how can one reconcile the opinion of those who believed that the November and January Uprisings should not have been started, as they were a threat to the basis of the nation’s existence, with completely opposite opinions according to which their outbreak was inevitable, and, first of all, that they played a really positive role in the history of the Polish national community? Where should we look for any room for compromise between those who decisively rejected the possibility of Poland accepting Hitler’s demands in 1939 and, being the 3rd Reich's ally, attacking the Soviet Union, and those who perceived the resignation from this way out of the extremely difficult situation of the Second Polish Republic as a mistake leading to dramatic consequences?




The growing time distance from the individual events usually did not help the opposite positions come closer. Sometimes, on the contrary: disputes about past decisions broke out suddenly, even a few dozen or hundred years after they were taken - e.g.  those triggered by the publication of a book which contradicted the existing ways of thinking about a given event or historical process. It can be exemplified by the big rows about various interpretations of the causes of the collapse of the First Polish Republic and its assessment.

When in 1877 Michał Bobrzyński – who at that time was less than a 30-year-old researcher, who was appreciated, but, certainly still “worked his way up” – published his book Dzieje Polski w zarysie - he could anticipate that his bold theses would come up against strong opposition from other historians. However, he might not have expected such a sudden wave of outrage expressed by those who defended the political system and practice of the First Polish Republic he criticised. Probably, Antoni Chołoniewski also expected more restraint on the part of his adversaries when – 40 after the publication of Bobrzyński’s work – he published Duch dziejów Polski, which, for a change, was an apologia for the home traditions. The explanation of the temperature of those disputes – which, by no means, were exceptional: a dozen or so other historical books and articles led to similar ferment – is very simple. This is due to the fact that In the 1890s or in the 1910s – and in any other decade of both centuries – scholars, columnists, politicians and ordinary lovers of Poland’s history were not indifferent to what was written about the First Polish Republic. Their attitude to history went well beyond the usual interest in the subject of scientific research. They lived and breathed the national past, as well as felt part of the community of the past, present and future generations. They treated the successes and failures from the past almost as their own ones. For this reason, discussions about the causes of the  collapse of the  Republic of Poland were among the most heated ones. The whole schools of thinking were created around the most important interpretations. They had their masters and disciples – the latter quickly became the continuators of the former and educators of the following generations which joined that never-ending debate about the accuracy of Poland’s political choices. However, new threads kept appearing: the 19th-century uprisings, attitude towards the invaders, orientation disputes from the period of World War I, etc.  People kept wondering if the Polish policy made the grade in the face of the subsequent challenges.

Some disputes about the past were of a political nature – as yet another manifestation of the current rivalry of factions and milieus, and sometimes, simply, of the individual politicians. The aim of such discussions about history was, first of all, to prove one’s - i.e. the heirs of the “better” tradition – moral superiority over opponents, or – by means of making appropriate historical analogies – to justify the right choice of one’s current strategy or tactics and discredit the choice made by the others. However, even at that time, they reflected genuine historical dilemmas, and serious arguments were used in them. After all - let’s use the example of the fundamental ideological and political dispute of the Second Polish Republic – the supporters of Piłsudski and those of the National Democratic Party, who glorified their respective deeds and belittled services of their rivals in the fight for the independence, did not refer only to propaganda explanations, but also used – in fact, creating it – a rich output of Polish historiography and political journalism, analysing in detail the road travelled by Poles to regain their own country.




What also induced Poles to use examples from the past was recurrence of certain dilemmas. It is true that the reality kept changing, Poland’s location kept evolving, but, after all, in the early 1860s, when the sense of making another uprising attempt was discussed, it was quite natural to refer to the events which took place 30 years earlier: in what circumstances the January Uprising broke out, what means were available to Poles and to their enemies at that time, what means were used by both sides, what the uprising leaders did right, and where they made mistakes. The fact that the potential to start the insurrection before January 1863 was completely different than in November 1830 – in particular, the well-equipped Polish army no longer existed – and that the international constellation changed – although, as it turned out, to an insufficient extent, did not invalidate the lesson learnt from the events of the years 1830-1831 and their consequences, even though various conclusions were drawn from it. The result of the January Uprising exerted even stronger pressure on the further fate of the Polish attempts at regaining independence. After all, when Poles heatedly argued about assessment of the 1863-1864 insurrection the point was not to close a certain page of the national history for good with one decisive verdict, but to draw practical conclusions from it: is another armed uprising worth starting, or maybe is it better to look for compromise with the invaders; where to draw the line of compromise with them; how to secure Polish interests in the international arena; and, finally, what should be done to make the whole Polish society – and, in particular, by peasants, who were the main part of it – treat the fate of the Poland’s independence as their own one, i.e. worth their personal involvement as well as sacrifices, should the need arise.

Disputes about the consequences of the uprising must have been accompanied by the question: “what would have happened,...”: if in 1830 the insurgents had resigned from plots or refrained from fighting immediately after the November Uprising so that Emperor Nicolas would not have a pretext to abolish those autonomous institutions of the Kingdom of Poland which  guaranteed at least a semblance of independence to Poles in dealing with their affairs; or if the January Uprising had not broken out, Wielkopolski’s reforms had become established, and the national life had developed in the form desired by the Margrave, and which Russians were willing to accept...In fact, raising those issues did not mean that they led to the conclusion that both insurrections were unnecessary and harmful -  really diverging opinions were formulated in that case. However, a few decades of discussions about those processes and events must have exerted significant influence on the political culture as well as political thinking and actions of the generations which in the 1910s were given an opportunity to rebuild Poland. And they were able to take advantage of it, although the success of their attempts would not have been possible without a favourable international situation. 




The World War I period was the time in which Poles had to take a number of strategic decisions – on which of the fighting sides Poland should pin its hopes for improvement of its situation, what objective it should set out in those efforts, and what methods to use in order to achieve it. However, it was by no means certain that the war would lead to full independence. It is worth, for example, reading Polish press after the Act of 5th November 1916 was announced – in the circles which were in favour of the cooperation with the Central Powers (e.g. in the milieu of Czas, a daily published in Kraków) it was assumed that an independent state would be created, but, at the same time, discussions were conducted about how to take advantage of its future close relations with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From the point of view of the events of the subsequent two years of the war and, in particular, its consequences – Poland regained full independence, and the Habsburg Monarchy ceased to exist – the minimalism of the 1916 plans may seem to be the manifestation of excessive cautiousness of their authors, but were their assumptions in that reality really irrational? It can be legitimately disputed. One can also emphasise the importance of the international situation, which previously was so favourable to the Polish cause probably in the 17th century – although, as it soon turned out, very fragile.

Naturally, much less depended on Poles during World War I than when they themselves – although also under influence of external factors (e.g. the revolution in Belgium in 1830 or the policy pursued by in the early 1860s by Napoleon III, which seemed to change the balance of power in Europe) – decided whether to start an uprising or not. It would be difficult, however, to say that between 1914 and 1918 they only played the role of extras who were positively surprised by the outcome of the armed conflict. In that game they were, undoubtedly a subject, although their influence on the course of the events was naturally limited. However, in the post-partition history there were also events when their fate was at stake, and their influence on it was very limited, e.g. in 1812, when the existence of the Duchy of Warsaw – and also whether it would remain the semblance of the Polish state, or would transform itself into an independent entity despite being connected with France – depended on Napoleon’s success in his struggle with Russia and his plans towards Poland. Could it be the decisive turning point in the Polish history – as important as the one which actually happened as late as in 1918? What would have happened, if at that time the French leader had discontinued the dangerous Moscow expedition or if it had succeeded? Poland could provide him with soldiers, but it did not take strategic decisions. Poles participated to an even lesser extent in other wars of the 19th century which had crucial influence on the balance of power in Europe, and which significantly affected their situation, in particular the chances to realistically think about regaining independence as a result of a favourable change of the international configuration. In fact, one can speculate what would have happened to the Polish cause, if Austria had won the 1866 battle for the primacy in the German-speaking countries. Would it have supported the autonomous tendencies in the Habsburg Monarchy benefiting Poles from Galicia, or strengthened the predominance of German centralism in that international political entity? As we know, Prussia was triumphant then, which opened the way for Germany's unification at its bidding, but, after all, it was not sure if it would win the war with France four years later, which again gives rise to very interesting speculations about the influence of its possible defeat on Poland’s fate. Poles, however, had very limited influence on those final decisions.

Regaining the independence certainly changed the significance of Poles’ actions in the international arena. Consequently, the question whether they correctly used their position and possibilities is quite legitimate. What is, for example, constantly intriguing is the question whether Józef Piłsudski made the right choice when he attacked Soviets, and when he refrained from that in order not to support the Whites. What is even more interesting – because it forces us to imagine a completely different scenario than the actual course of the events – is to analyse if Piłsudski could, and, if so, should take the decision to attack Germany when it was still weakened after the world war, and try to nip in the bud the inevitable threat posed by it. Although we will never know if a preventive war would have protected us against the defeats we suffered as a result of World War II, it is worth considering, with the use of the data and information available, whether we had any potential to start it, and what its outcome might have been. What is equally interesting is the assessment of the likelihood of the situation in which Poland would have established different relations than the ones it actually established with the Central-European countries: Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, as a factor which could potentially change our position towards the USSR and Germany. A multi-faceted analysis of the Polish policy during the Second Polish Republic must include these issues, but one should not start considering them with the conviction that the outcome will be crushing for the assessment of the decisions taken by the Polish leaders in the 1930s. We should, however, be constantly aware of the fact that in comparison with those who created that policy in the past, we know what happened later, which  substantially changes the assessment of the situation. It does not undermine the sense of writing alternative scenarios, but induces to restraint in assessing the authors of the scenarios which actually materialised. This is due to the fact that it is by no means certain that if we had been in their position and had their knowledge, we would have shaped the Polish policy differently from them, even in the cases which we perceive today as very badly handled.




So far we have mainly paid attention to military aspects, the fundamental Polish dilemma expressed in the phrase: to fight or not to fight?, which also had its different, “international” versions: will they fight or not – and how will it affect us? If a question is asked about effectiveness of diplomatic campaigns similar to those undertaken during the January Upraising (ones which failed), or during World War I (partially successful), or from the period preceding the outbreak of World War II (their assessment varies significantly), it is also usually connected with the successes of failures of war paths to the reconstruction or saving of the independent state – the use of an ongoing armed conflict for the Polish cause, or starting or avoiding a conflict which might have happened. What, however, frequently disappears from the field of view is issues connected with the political system, economy and society. It is true that this remark does not apply to the discussion about the First Polish Republic. What was the basis of the deliberations about the quality of the Piast, Jagiellonian and election Poland for the already mentioned Bobrzyński and numerous other thinkers was the analyses of its political system, economic life and social relations. It is true that pictures of the famous military battles are most vivid in Poles’ historical memory. A lot was done in this respect by Henryk Sienkiewicz, which was met with a favourable response: stories from battlefields are usually more suggestive and impressive than slow economic or social processes which frequently take generations to be completed. However, researchers and commentators wrote a lot about the significance of the latter in the context of the First Polish Republic, and made them an important element of the picture of its reality, as was the case for remarks about the nature of the Polish political culture of that time, the understanding of which is crucial in order not to incorrectly asses motivation of various political decisions or unwillingness to take different ones. After all, this remark applies to each period of the Polish history.

However, the analyses of the Polish politics in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century do not use the right proportions to which its various aspects should be taken into account. What predominates – in particular, in comprehensive syntheses, interpretations and assessments – is the story of the armed fight for independence. What may justify that approach is the fact that during the partitions Poles decided about the political system or economy in their territory only to a limited extent. Is it, however, worth forgetting about those – not numerous – compatriots who – as Kazimierz Badeni, the prime minister of the Austrian government in the years 1895-1897 – held the highest positions in the countries which partitioned Poland? Why the effectiveness of the operation of the institutions from the Kingdom of Poland or Galicia are so rarely analysed? Can we, in the frequently made assessment of the 19th century uprisings, disregard their consequences for the economic development of the Polish territories, which is often the case? Why did researchers forget about the issue of granting land property rights to peasants and democratisation of the public life, i.e. the problem which was excessively and tendentiously used in Polish People’s Republic, but which was significant not only in the context of the discussion about the likelihood of the success of the national uprisings started in a situation when, in fact, few Poles were aware of their national identity. It is worth – with consideration given to the limitations connected with the lack of the statehood – discussing about whether the Polish elites of the post-partition period managed to face the challenges brought by the processes as part of which the national and political awareness of the  strata which had previously been passive en masse and had not felt any deeper connection with the Polish cause increased. One does not need to evoke pictures from the Galician Slaughter or stories about the attitude of some peasants to January Uprising participants, and confront them with stories about mass participation of peasants in the Polish army fighting Bolsheviks or the patriotic mobilisation of most of society in the face of the threat posed by the Third Reich, in order to appreciate the significance of the changes which had taken part in that area, but also ask if they could take place earlier.

What is also justified is questions about the key decisions taken during the Second Polish Republic in the area of the political system and economy. Had the March Constitution founded more centralised power, created the framework for political life less vulnerable to the shocks resulting from the parliamentary system excessively – as its critics claimed - coddled by its founders, would the Polish government have solved numerous problems  faced by the young Polish state more effectively? Would the May Coup not have happened leading to the escalation of tension in the political life, which, undoubtedly, exerted huge – it is usually said that negative – influence on the quality of the policy pursued by the Second Polish Republic? If different ways of fighting the Great Depression had been chosen, would it have been possible to create better basis for Poland's development, and would the plans to make it a regional superpower or, at least, a stronger player in the conflict with Germany and USSR have been more realistic? And maybe no other constitution at the early state of the regained statehood, or any other economic model would not have helped much, as simply there was not enough time, and the final confrontation with our hostile neighbours would have happened anyway before Poland would have firmly established and been able to mobilise forces sufficient to repel the invasion. These are very important questions which need to be asked again and again. We should discuss them, in particular if we share the view that numerous Polish failures in the past were caused by an ineffective economy and political system – as well as to draw the right conclusions for the future.




The above-mentioned dilemmas are of a double nature: on one hand, they concern what actually happened, what was its cause and consequences; on the other hand, what might have happened, what would have been the fate of the Polish cause if Poles themselves had taken different decisions when they had the actual possibility of choosing from among many options, or if the international rivalry or internal conflicts in the individual countries had ended up differently (e.g. in Russia in 1917), in the case of which Poles played the role of supporting actors or sometimes just extras. Consequently, they are not the domain of political history or political science, and neither of alternative or counterfactual history.

An attempt at separating firmly what actually happened from considering “what would have happened, if” would be an unnecessary effort. It would significantly narrow down our horizons of thinking about Poland’s history. It is true that in the orthodox historiographic view confining oneself to the description and explanation of the events and phenomena which actually took place, without outlining alternative scenarios of what one just assumes could have happened, is a justified approach. If we, however, agree that history is not just about gathering and sorting out dry facts, but also a source of inspiration for political thinking of a nation – not only for its leaders or people who professionally deal with it, but also everybody interested in the political life and fate of their country -  from such a point of view the speculation about “what would have happened, if” should not be an object of disdain, but, on the contrary, should be appreciated as perfect intellectual training and a way to better understand the essence of Poland’s history. Naturally, on condition that that speculation is based on good knowledge of the starting point, i.e. of what actually happened.

This is due to the fact that speculations in the area of alternative history – even if orthodox historians who despise it consider it to be a shocking thesis – frequently require much better subject-matter preparation that the one necessary for various traditional history research projects. In the case of the former, it is easier to end up in a blind alley and be exposed to justified accusations of failing to take into account one or another important circumstance whose omission ruins the whole speculative construction. But if an alternative scenario of developments is outlined in a competent manner, without making every effort at looking for brilliant conclusions which ignore the reality, results for such speculations are frequently very inspiring. In the case of Poland, whose nation and state so often – due to their own fault or not – ran into various types of trouble, any lessons of political thinking – and alternative history is certainly one of them – are really necessary.



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