A Cursed Place in Europe? The Meanders of Polish Geopolitics
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30
Jacek Kloczkowski

[in:] Przeklęte miejsce Europy? Dylematy  polskiej geopolityki, OMP, Cracow 2009.


There is a strong and to a large extent justified temptation to explain all Poland’s misfortunes on the international arena throughout the past centuries by the country’s geopolitical situation. Indeed, it is hard to find a more unfortunate configuration on the Old Continent than the one that befell us. One can talk and write a lot about the need to overcome stereotypes and resentments, but one cannot forget that Russia and Germany whose neighbourhood dramatically weighed on our past were among the most imperialist states in the history of Europe. On top of that, they often pursued their imperialist policy in a very brutal manner, and the tragic apogee of that was seen in the 20th century.

Thus, in the analysis of the history of Polish geopolitics we should, first of all, indicate problems which resulted from the country’s situation between Germany and Russia, briefly stating that those problems were too big to deal with them successfully. However, this explanation would be simplicistic and futile. Obviously, one cannot choose one’s geopolitical situation, but it is hard to say that it is a once and forever decisive factor for the fate of a given political community, because we can try to shape our fate in some ways. The Poles dealt with it more or less successfully. For that reason, Poland’s stormy history is a very interesting lesson showing what factors decide about triumphs or failures in geopolitical games. It tells us a lot about our national character and the specificity of Polish politics. This is why it is worthwhile to analyse them, seeking an inspiration to deal with challenges we still face.


Modernisation through geopolitics

The geopolitical situation of Poland can be seen as an opportunity which our ancestors ultimately were unable to seize to build a strong, effective state successfully minding its own interests. It was particularly stressed by the Kraków School of history, which argued that the situation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that should have made its elite completely change its political system to be adequate to the threats it faced.

The reasoning of the Kraków historians was simple: if the Commonwealth had had a strong government – not necessarily absolutist, as was generally the case in Europe in the 16th-17th centuries – and if the state had operated effectively, it would have been easier for it to use the potential it undoubtedly possessed, not only because of its huge territory and large population, but also because of the power of attraction of Polish culture. An internally stronger Poland would have resisted its rivals more effectively. Even if it had not been able to nip their imperial attempts in the bud, it would have certainly resisted them stronger in the 18th century.

Walerian Kalinka, Józef Szujski and Michał Bobrzyński might have judged the system of rule and political culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth too severely, but when analyzing its geopolitical developments, one can see that their concepts are noteworthy. In particular they are right in one respect. The processes of crucial importance for the future of the Commonwealth developed in the 16th and the 17th centuries, when it was powerful and could hold all cards in its part of Europe. It might have been able to shape the region’s political map in accordance with its own interests. It was even close to that, fighting successfully with Russia and having the destruction of the Prussian state almost within reach. However, it lacked a vision and perseverance, which was much easier to achieve where there were centralised decision-making bodies, holding all instruments to implement their goals, a strong army and effective administration. Only rarely could the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth praise a well-organised state apparatus and a powerful army. Sometimes it achieved spectacular successes crushing its powerful rivals  – the Turks, the Teutonic Knights, the Swedish, and the Russians – in memorable campaigns, but those were one-off triumphs which did not bring long-term solutions. Thus we cannot present the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a losing streak, but on the other hand we cannot resist the feeling that for various, not only systemic reasons, its history is a sequence of lost opportunities for the strengthening of its position as a European power. Owing to the international configuration of powers around the country, it faced an alternative that was quite unusual in history: either to crush its rivals or to fall defeated. The geopolitical loop strangled the country that did not want to or rather could not accept the rules of the game imposed by Russia and Germany.


A dormant imperial instinct

Poland has never shown imperial ambitions to a similar extent as could be seen in Russia, and Russian (and later German) politics. To pursue such ambitions successfully it should have acted much more brutally than the Poles usually do. It is not about victories on battlefields or invasions on its neighbours, something that Poland was nor particularly eager to. When deciding to take up armed struggle to ultimately solve the conflict with Russia and Germany, one should not only defeat the rivals militarily but also conquer its territory, or at least cut it down considerably, to impose one’s own administration, to nip any manifestations of resistance in the bud, in other words to do everything Poland suffered in the period of partitions. This vision was little realistic. Admittedly one can refer to the past events, when for the sake of the raison d’état our ancestors committed cruel deeds, but it was rather incidental. Against the background of the greatest European powers – in particular Russians and Germans – we cannot be blamed of particularly aggressive behaviour and ruthlessness. The logic of development of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was not to be an imperialist European superpower.

It is not by accident that there are so few manifestoes calling for imperial politics in our political thought. As a matter of fact it was difficult to formulate them under the Partitions, but they did not gain high popularity in other periods – perhaps except the 1930s. Offensive projects, if any, were devised chiefly to prevent invasion planned by the enemy. In this respect the Polish political thought represents the essence of our national political culture and character. Without glorifying this fact, we cannot deny possessiveness was never our characteristic feature. Russians and Germans, who were our rivals for the longest time, could not flatter themselves in this respect. Indeed, throughout its history, Poland has also had other enemies in various times. It is simply part of the human nature, a normal course of history. We can lament that wars could not be prevented, but to expect that would be no more than empty dreams.

Thus we were invaded by the Swedes and the Turks, we struggled with the Czechs and the Austrians, and we had severe conflicts with the Ukrainians and the Lithuanians. However, only in the case of Russia and Germany their anti-Polish policy was not a passing trend, but a permanent foundation of the German and Russian political thought. Even worse, that policy went beyond what is acceptable in the civilised world more than once. Unfortunately, the Second World War was not the only barbarian example, though its barbarity was unprecedented. Attempts at destroying the Polish spirit through Russification and Germanisation in the period of Poland’s Partitions and the post-war brutal enslavement of Poland by the Soviets are other evidences that the geopolitical strife in which the Poles were forced to participate in the last centuries was not just one more political game that often happened in the history of Europe.


Troublesome alliances

When a political community does not have a potential sufficient to deal with its enemies, it faces the following alternatives: to neutralise their advantages or to increase its own potential through alliances with other countries that might share its interests and cooperate in combating their common rival. Poland was never very good at creating such alliances. Our allies either betrayed us, or left us to our own resources. A big book might be written about disappointed hopes connected with France, a European power to which Poland turned probably the most often in its history, expecting it to be its best prospective ally. Not always the alliances failed because of ill intentions or ineptitude of our allies; sometimes we overestimated their capacities or our role in their plans. The classical example, described in fiction books was our faith in Napoleon III (who does not remember Ignacy Rzecki’s hopes?)

For the policy of alliances to be successful, we should have shown a more realistic approach, a better insight into reality and a cool calculation of interests. Certainly, incessant disputes of various political orientations did not make the implementation of such plans easier. Indeed, changing alliances is only natural for any country. However, the greatest European powers knew how to conduct a long-term policy, in which some allies were abandoned to the benefit of others in order to adapt political means to changing circumstances, or expressed the will to form the reality in some different way. Poland’s endeavours were usually rather chaotic. Some consider the creation of one state with Lithuania a political master stroke in establishing strategic alliances. However, others argue that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth focused too much on the issues of Lithuanian frontiers, disregarding its western flanks, which ultimately turned against the country. In the times of elective kings, foreign influences on the Polish policy made it difficult to take full advantages from the country’s alliance policy. Not so bad, if the proponents of stronger ties with France, Austria, Sweden, or any other country, could pursue their ideas on a longer term. The problem was that even if a given orientation – pro-French, pro-Habsburg or any other – prevailed for some time, the policy was usually poorly grounded and one could not foresee whether the Polish policy would soon change and the advocates of a different option might take a majority on the royal court. It did not have much to do with flexibility needed in international relations. The fluctuations of foreign policy of the 2nd Republic of Poland can rather be considered a weakness of thinking in the raison d’état categories. However, we should still remember that it was more difficult to foresee the consequences of individual strategic decisions when they were taken than to judge them today, when we already know what happened later.


Non-state geopolitics

Whilst, despite the above-mentioned reservations, until the early 18th century, Polish politics was the expression of a sovereign will, in that century we lost most of our sovereignty. It is very depressing to read the stories telling how in the 18th century, still before the partitions, Prussia and in particular Russia, assisted by representatives of the Polish elite – sometimes well meaning but more often for a handsome pay – made Poland putty in the hands of those powers. The geopolitical strife with Poland’s greatest rivals for the primacy in this part of Europe did not merely end up in failure. The Partitions were a total defeat, erasing the country that a century earlier seemed to have a permanent place among European powers from the map of Europe. Not only was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth unable to design a system of alliances to protect itself from disaster, but it also faced a geopolitical pact which for a long time prevented it from a successful struggle for regaining independence.

In the early 19th century, the Poles could still believe that a configuration favourable to the Polish cause would soon appear on the European arena, but the fiasco of attempts to rebuild the Polish state on the side of Napoleon I Bonaparte and the decisions of the Congress of Vienna indicated that regaining real independence, not the limited one the great powers granted to the Congress Kingdom, would be an unprecedented challenge in the history of Europe. Throughout the 19th century the Poles debated about the policy they should take; they drew sometimes contradictory conclusions from their geopolitical situation. Some insisted that we should fight regardless of adverse circumstances. They believed that the national uprising has some chances for success. They sought help from such distant allies as France until its defeat in the war with Prussia in 1870 put an end to the hopes for the French intervention. Others thought the independent state can only be reborn based on an alliance with one of the invading powers – such concepts were still discussed during the First World War. As long as full independence was unfeasible, we should at least fight for the greatest autonomy possible, which was achieved in Galicia in the mid-1860s.

Even after the defeat of the January Uprising, when people became widely aware that Poland would not be reborn as a sovereign state without an earthquake in European politics, suggestions that we should remain passive were not met with favourable response. The will to be an active player in European politics was not quenched by many years in bondage. On thing definitely changed: romantic passions, symbolised by the figure of the country as the Christ of nations, gave way to an increasingly insightful and realistic analysis of the nation’s situation. This can be seen in political writings at the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries. Polish people came to understand well the mechanisms of European geopolitics. Unfortunately, one might still see great barriers on the way to the nation’s sovereignty.

The complexity of the Polish cause at the end of the period of Poland’s Partitions is best shown in the debates between various political orientations in the period of the first World War, and different strategic choices taken by two prominent Poles: Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski, aimed at the same goal: independence. Both of them knew perfectly well that the Polish cause should be placed in the context of a wider plan of political change in Europe. As a matter of fact, the geopolitical strife that resulted in war brought about a favourable solution from the point of view of Polish interests, for the first time in a few hundred years. However, the combination was so risky which is best seen in the fact that Piłsudski and Dmowski were bound to fundamentally modify their initial concepts during the war.

Besides, a favourable geopolitical constellation turned out to be rather short-lived. Shortly after the Republic of Poland regained its independence in the token in which it was a token for a long time, it had to take part in a play in which much more was at stake, this time as a sovereign entity. This time its rivals were two totalitarian regimes, whose policy was brutal to the extent unseen in Europe before.


Geopolitics in the name of principles

The 2nd Republic of Poland carried out classical geopolitical analyses: the question was whether instead of a policy roughly based on an equal distance to both neighbours it might be better to clearly back up one of them and to jointly rise against another one, perhaps even militarily. Rejecting the ethical side of politics or at least disregarding it in such discussions, an extreme political realist might accuse the elite of the 2nd Republic of not taking such a solution. However, ethical aspects cannot be neglected. An alliance with Stalinist Russia or Hitler’s Germany would not be a usual agreement that culturally and politically different partners sign in every century, because generally the respect of elementary principles in international relations and their own internal policies by the contracting parties are fundamental prerequisites of such agreements.

Meanwhile the alliance with communists or a potentially more probable alliance with the Nazis would mean increasing the risk of embroiling Poland in a military conflict, something, as it turned out wrongly, expected to be avoided or at least to put off for a long time, and getting involved with a country whose official ideology and practices went far beyond what might be acceptable in the name of the raison d’état and political effectiveness. Soviet communism was generally criticised by all major political orientations, as it was against any founding principles of European civilisation. Similarly, Hitler’s policy, even before it fully revealed its criminal nature, was unacceptable, and its racist ideas generally rejected, except some small radical circles. Obviously, a diplomatic game was conducted with both totalitarian regimes. However, it was way too far from a close alliance with them. It was decided not to take that path. Looking back, we cannot deny that the leaders of the 2nd Republic were right in deciding that this solution would be unacceptable for the country, even if, as it turned out, Poland was first to fell victim to the war, first invaded and ravaged by the 3rd Reich, and later after the alleged victory, enslaved by another enemy. Polish politicians can be blamed of many mistakes, e.g. trusting the allies too much, underestimating the threat of war for a long time, overestimating our own forces, or the slow modernisation of the state. However, considering the challenge of uniting territories that for decades were under different administrative, legal and economic systems and various cultures, we should be very cautious when accusing the 2nd Republic of insufficiently rapid development, in particular if we take into account the Great Depression that also affected Poland. The belief that there are limits which cannot be exceeded in politics, even at a price of defeat, once again prevailed in Polish political thinking. The 2nd Republic continued traditions of the former Polish state in this respect.

Poland lost in geopolitical games more than once, because of the lack of imperialist drive and reluctance to disregard principles, contrary to the countries successful in international politics, which repeatedly bent or overtly neglected and broke the rules. Poland paid a huge price of victims and long periods of enslavement for its stance. Perhaps, if it had been able to be better organised internally, it would have been also able to reduce its losses and to loose independence for a shorter period, even without following the footsteps of its greatest historical rivals, but these are only digressions, so the matter cannot be unambiguously solved. A stronger resistance – which, as it was, was exceptional on European scale anyway – might have not brought tangible success, but increased human and material losses instead. Besides, there were many people in the 19th and the 20th centuries who argued that our struggle was too intransigent, in particular starting uprisings that were bound to end up in defeat, great losses and more severe repressions. Realism and idealism constantly intersected in the Polish political thought. Geopolitical circumstances made it difficult to strike a balance between those two approaches. We were generally realistic in describing the situation, but idealism sometimes prevailed when it came to action.


Geopolitical aspect of internal affairs

The geopolitical realities clearly influence the choices in the home policy: the way the state institutions are built, who should take up the reins of government, what infrastructural institutions are considered of priority importance etc. The enslaved nation is bound to solve even more complex dilemmas. In the times of Poland’s Partitions, disputes concerned the question whether to take up armed struggle or to abandon the idea of a rising, as well as about the everyday life in a conquered country. The questions to what extent we should participate in the invader-subdued state apparatus – even on lower levels – and the related limits of compromise were constantly asked in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. They were also asked when the Poles co-ruled Austro-Hungary and took seats in the Russian Duma, and only narrow circles of conspirers were preoccupied with the idea of a new armed rising without waiting for a new political crisis in Europe. The same question was bound to be asked in the People’s Republic of Poland, whose political reality was created following communist ideas that were generally rejected by the Poles before 1939. They did not choose that reality; it was imposed by the Soviets with acceptance of Great Britain and the United States, the countries which sacrificed the independence of Poland in the name of their own geopolitical interests (which is perhaps understandable in the categories of political realism but ethically dubious…). Once again, the Poles had to face the reality of a non-sovereign state under strict control of one invader – Moscow – under the rule that was different from that in the times of Partitions. Formally Poland’s status as an independent state was respected and the Poles held the highest positions, but, of course, those who were subject to Moscow’s control. Once again, geopolitics seemed to determine the situation of the nation and showed that forecasting the country’s future believing in the immutability of geopolitics is fallible.

We can lead stormy debates about who was right: the neo-positivists such as those gathered in the circles of ”Znak” and ”Tygodnik Powszechny”, who postulated coming to terms with the reality of the People’s Republic of Poland, because in their opinion geopolitical circumstances did not give us any choice, or rather those who, like Józef Mackiewicz, considered that realistic approach collaboration, or at least a great political mistake, because they believed that acceptance of the rules of a communist state strengthened the system, and in this way the immutability of circumstances became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Undoubtedly, in many cases people referred to the international situation to justify their own life choices. Geopolitics might equally rationally explain the decision to stay in exile or to issue a licensed Catholic magazine. There were various motivations behind such choices, and so they can be differently assessed. We can only wonder why the belief that the conditions on the international arena were unchangeable was probably never so widespread in the history of Polish geopolitical reflection that in the times of the Polish People’s Republic. Did they lack insightfulness, bold ideas and a vision, or perhaps an access to empirical data to allow for a balanced analysis of the serious and uncontrollable inefficiency of the system inevitably bound to go bankrupt and ultimately collapse, which only few analysts were able to foresee? Probably a bit of everything.

The surprise by a relatively rapid fall of communism is not only expressed in  written and oral accounts after 1989, but also in many underground publications or publications issued abroad, in which the communist system and the Eastern Bloc were usually discussed in the context of their future longevity. The visions of the decline of the Soviet Empire, if any, envisaged a global military conflict, though the later after the world war, the less often an apocalyptic path to sovereignty was mentioned. For a long time no one believed that the Iron Curtain would collapse peacefully, to a large extent due to mass protests in Poland. Once again, geopolitics really surprised the Poles, fortunately this time acting to their benefit. However, whilst for years they did not seem to believe in a twist of fortune, in practice they did not remain passive. The waves of protests, and in particular the phenomenon of the first Solidarity, involved them in the geopolitics as active players, even if many of them, or perhaps even a vast majority – could not even guess how important the process in which they participated was.


Everlasting principles

The history of Polish geopolitics is fascinating, because it is multi-layered and unprecedented on European scale. No wonder then that it has inspired many Polish outstanding thinkers. Perhaps we have not always been able to cope with geopolitical challenges but we have always written interestingly about them. The output of Adolf Bocheński, Stanisław Koźmian, Stanisław Cat-Mackiewicz, Władysław Gizbert-Studnicki, Roman Dmowski, Włodzimierz Bączkowski, Juliusz Mieroszewski, Julian Klaczko, Wojciech Wasiutyński, Mirosław Dzielski, and many other publicists and politicians, shows that the Polish political thought was not bad at all. They might be wrong sometimes in their forecasts and some of their ideas might be doomed to failure, but the fact that often we were unable to use their insightful observations and put their right concepts into action resulted as much from the poor political practice as from the great complexity of challenges often faced by Poland in international relations, the issue that was covered several times in this text.

Undoubtedly, we should draw from their legacy, because Poland still participates in the geopolitical game. Fortunately, the conditions of the play are completely different now from the past centuries. However, our status as an independent entity is still a value to be cared for. We are not threatened by a military attack (though we cannot assume that this situation will continue forever), but our neighbours have not renounced their interests, and still pursue them peacefully (at least in this part of Europe, because in Caucasus the situation looks different) but steadily. They do not necessarily oppose the Polish raison d’état, but nevertheless such issues as, let say, energy security, clearly show that only incorrectible optimists believe in the vision of the times of undisturbed, fair and non-antagonized international cooperation.

Poland still belongs to the countries that do not push their interests aggressively on the international arena – sometimes it might even seem too restrained in this respect. Neither should we be under the illusion that we can already play a leading role in Europe. However we cannot remain passive and reduce ourselves to the role of an object in the play of great powers on our continent. We must be an independent subject in this play. It is a fundamental principle of the Polish raison d’état and national interest, a lesson that has been learnt from the history of Polish geopolitics.

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