The theme of Poland’s national anthem, “Poland is Not Yet Lost”, is a striking one. The lyrics, written by Józef Wybicki two years after the Third Partition of Poland in 1797, speak of a patriotic spirit strong enough to survive the absence of a Polish state. Wybicki’s sentiment proved prophetic enough. Polish nationalism endured without a country to call its own for more than a century before the founding of the Republic of Poland in 1918. This new republic lasted until the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which once more took Poland off the map. At the conclusion of the Second World War, Poland re-emerged, albeit as a “People’s Republic” and vassal state of the Soviet empire. It could have been worse. In 1945, the Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, were incorporated into the Soviet Union proper. The Warsaw Pact, the 1955 defence treaty between Moscow and its seven Eastern European satellites, acknowledged—in theory, at least—Polish nationhood. But not Polish self-determination. Not until the advent of the Third Polish Republic in 1991, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, could we say that Poland was again a genuine sovereign state. Now, remarkably enough, Poland is on course to becoming a great European power, maybe the greatest European power.
This would not be the first occasion in which Poland has played such a prominent role in European affairs—for instance, during the era of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569 to 1795). It was the Christian coalition commanded by the King of Poland, John III Sobieski, that blocked the Ottoman empire at the gates of Vienna in 1683. How astonishing, then, that Poland found itself erased from the map a little more than a century later. The partitioning of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century divided the country between Prussia, the Habsburgs and the Russian empire. It took the defeat of all three in the First World War for Poland to rise phoenix-like from the ashes; even then, danger awaited at every turn, starting with the 1919–21 Polish-Soviet war. Lenin, affected by a millennialist psychosis, decided Poland should serve as the bridge between his Red Army and an international revolution in Western Europe. The Polish victory at the Battle of Warsaw, masterminded by Josef Pilsudski, helped save Poland from the same fate as Ukraine and Belarus—that is, incorporation into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Though they signed the 1921 Treaty of Riga, the Bolsheviks were not thrilled with the newly agreed Polish-Soviet border, since it gave territory to the Republic of Poland east of the demarcation line previously proposed by Lord Curzon. Stalin remedied that in 1939 via the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and then, more permanently, when the national boundaries of Germany, Poland and Ukraine were reconfigured at Yalta in 1945.
Germany proved no less of an existential threat than Russia to the Republic of Poland. By granting the new Polish Republic access to the Baltic Sea, the terms of the Versailles Treaty had separated the territory of East Prussia from the remainder of Germany, one more reason for German demagogues such as Adolf Hitler to seethe at the injustices of the international world order as it then existed. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, “solved” the problem of the so-called Danzig Corridor. Sixteen days later, in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet Secret Protocol, the Red Army seized the eastern third of Poland, including the city of Lviv (subsequently transferred to Ukraine).
None of this is to suggest that the inter-war foreign policy of the Second Republic was without blemish, the signing of the Polish-German Non-Aggression Treaty in 1934 a case in point. The best we can say is that Poland, caught between two totalitarian predators, opted for what seemed the least bad option at a time when Britain and France were intent on appeasing Hitler. Poland, as early as March 1933, had approached France with the idea of a pre-emptive strike against Nazi Germany—and been rebuffed. Appeasement was the policy of the West and it would result in disaster for Poland and what Winston Churchill called “the unnecessary war”. Inter-war Poland, to its credit, repeatedly refused to join Berlin’s anti-Comintern pact, unlike Italy, Japan, Spain and Hungary. As a consequence, however, the Poles set themselves up for a thorough pasting.
Poland’s torment during the Second World War was unmitigated—the erasure of nationhood, brutal occupation, Jewish ghettoes, the 1941 Katyn Massacre, the five extermination camps, the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Red Army’s delayed entrance into Warsaw amidst the city’s 1944 insurrection against the Nazis, imposition of a pro-Soviet regime. Poles played their part in the Second World War—pilots in the Battle of Britain, soldiers on the Italian front et al—but they would not be rewarded with an independent Poland in the post-war era. This despite the invasion of Poland being the ostensible reason for Britain and France going to war in the first place. The other irony was Stalin demanding and receiving assent from his Grand Alliance partners to incorporate Poland into his sphere of influence. Stalin had acted in concert with Hitler to dismember Poland—bluntly put, he co-authored the start of the Second World War—but he attained dominion over the Polish nation when the war ended.
Poland’s time as a captive member of the Soviet empire constituted a tragedy of epic proportions. This appalling narrative begins with Roosevelt’s naivety (or disingenuousness) concerning Stalin’s interpretation of the term “sphere of influence”. A sphere of influence, from Stalin’s standpoint, meant total domination. Though he originally recognised the London-based government-in-exile as the legitimate authority of post-war Poland, Stalin changed his tune as soon as the Red Army “liberated” Poland. The Kremlin’s so-called Polish Committee of National Liberation seized power in the name of the Polish people without allowing the people the “free and unfettered” elections promised at Yalta. “Popular Democracy”, as the Soviet-sponsored dictatorship was perversely termed, established a secret police force, the UB (Urzad Bezpiecezentwa), which counted 100,000 agents amongst its ranks by 1947. Prisons were soon filled with the political opponents of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR). The regime ordered newspapers, radio stations, universities and schools to obey the dictates of Moscow or face the consequences, while clubs and sports groups merged with communist-run organisations. The Catholic Church was persecuted, independent unions suppressed, businesses with more than fifty employees nationalised, grand houses appropriated and large farms confiscated. The PZPR went to war against civil society.
Not that Moscow or its local proxy had an easy time of it during the era of the Soviet empire. None of Poland’s communist leaders were successful in the end. The Stalinist Boleslaw Bierut tried to terrorise the Poles into submission between 1947 and 1956, executing as many as 6000 political opponents during his nine years in power, but ultimately failed. Even if he had not suddenly died after attending Khrushchev’s famous Secret Speech, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”, his days as dictator were numbered. His replacement, the aspirant reformer Wladyslaw Gomulka (1956 to 1970), temporarily appeased a discontented population with the prospect of a more independent brand of communism, but by 1970 the Poles were revolting again. Edward Gierek (1970 to 1980) attempted to win over everyone with the promise of more consumer goods. To achieve that, however, his government had to borrow impossible sums of money from Western banks, which eventually resulted in austerity measures and the authority of the United Workers’ Party being challenged by actual workers in Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement.
The political bankruptcy of PZPR rule is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that a Polish general, Wojciech Jaruzelski (1981 to 1990), had to take control of the government in order to suppress Solidarity. He attempted to pass himself off as a kind of national saviour by claiming that the choice was between martial law imposed by a Pole on the Poles or the occupation of Warsaw by the “fraternal armies” of the incongruously named Warsaw Pact. Whatever the truth (or otherwise) of Jaruzelski’s claim, the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev to the leadership of the CPSU in 1985 resulted in the Brezhnev Doctrine being replaced by the Sinatra Doctrine: the Polish regime was on its own and needed to find a way to survive without Soviet assistance.
The real heroes who brought about the demise of the People’s Republic were the Polish people themselves, the Catholic faith being one of the bulwarks of their resistance to the PZPR’s one-party state. Two stand-out figures were Stefan Wyszynski and Karol Wojtyla. Cardinal Wyszynski bravely stood up to the regime’s relentless persecution of Catholicism; one of the highlights of his leadership was the Church’s role in the national celebrations of the Millennium of the Polish State from 1960 to 1966. While the propagandists for the PZPR, with its official policy of atheism, promoted the secular dimension of 1000 years of Polish history, the Church took the opposite view: the introduction of Christianity to the Polish people in 996 AD corresponded with the baptism of the Polish nation itself, the two matters being inseparable. Rival worldviews, communism and Polish Catholicism, were fighting it out for the soul of Poland. Given that Pope Paul VI was barred from visiting Poland in 1966, some might have assumed that in the PZPR-versus-the-Church showdown the former was more likely to prevail—but history took a different turn.
The elevation of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to the papacy in 1978, the first non-Italian pope since the sixteenth century, put the Polish government on notice. John Paul II’s visit in 1979 had a transformative effect on the country. John O’Sullivan, in The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister (2008) makes the case that the Polish regime felt it could not reject a papal visit as it had back in 1966. It was not only a matter of Pope John Paul being Polish; the PZPR had, by this time, become less certain about its authority, a forerunner of the kind of self-doubt that would beset the CPSU in the Gorbachev era. Brezhnev, apparently, decided against ordering Warsaw to cancel the papal visitation but strongly advised the Polish leadership against giving the pontiff an official welcome and other such courtesies. Gierek and his colleagues believed they knew better and, once the Pontiff departed for Rome, congratulated themselves on their acumen, since the nine-day papal extravaganza had not resulted in anti-government protests.
The reality on the ground, according to O’Sullivan, was catastrophic for the long-term survival of the communist regime. The intrepidness of John Paul II and the daring of ordinary individuals—13 million Poles witnessed the papal visit in person and many watched it on television—coalesced to create a safe space (not to be confused with wokist interpretations of that terminology) in which the freedom of humanity might be contemplated. The Poles were able to not only imagine but actually experience a non-totalitarian moment in the public domain. John Paul II provided his audience with a political vision of how life could be in a free Poland. He was never a radical firebrand shouting anti-communist slogans, and yet he spoke powerfully about the dignity of the individual. Just as importantly, John Paul II, by his own example, strengthened the courage of an already spirited people.
Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) reforms in the Soviet Union, intended to augment perestroika (economic restructuring), failed to discourage anti-Soviet sentiment in Poland. After all, the Poles had been wanting to reform Soviet-enforced communism for four decades. Besides, despite Gorbachev’s official visits to Warsaw in the late 1980s, a rattled Jaruzelski (left) had no intention of becoming a genuine reformist. Jaruzelski’s brainchild was to co-opt opposition figures, not least Lech Walesa, who he had jailed and persecuted for almost a decade, into his ruling group. This initiative turned out to be an act of political suicide. The regime’s Round Table Talks had the opposite effect of the one he intended. In June 1989, thanks to the shrewdness of Walesa, Poland acquired its first non-communist government in forty-four years. This, in turn, sparked the Year of Revolutions (also known as the Fall of Communism) in Eastern Europe. Walesa went on to win the first free and fair presidential elections in Poland’s history and had any number of achievements as president (1990 to 1995), including international agreements to reduce Poland’s foreign debt and reasonably successful market reforms. Nonetheless, his brusque and belligerent public persona—which had served him so well in his anti-communist struggle—seemed out of place as the Polish head of state. He lost the 1995 election to the post-communists, and in 2000 he received something approaching 1 per cent of the vote. Nevertheless, his pivotal role in upending the Yalta Agreement will stand the test of time.
The leitmotif of “Poland is Not Yet Lost” resonated amongst the Poles through the years from 1797 to 1918, and the same can be said about the period 1939 to 1989. In 1990 Gorbachev’s government issued the following statement about the 1940 Katyn Massacre, an act of barbarity which resulted in the execution of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals: “The Soviet side expresses deep regret over the tragedy, and assesses it as one of the worst Stalinist outrages.” For a half-century Moscow had lied to the world about the murder of Poland’s military elite. The Poles, during the era of the Polish People’s Republic, had to agree in public that the crime was committed by the Nazis and not the NKVD. Jonathan Brent, in Inside the Stalin Archives (2008), explains that the Soviets did not begin with the intention of murdering all those officers and intellectuals but, after the Poles refused to swear allegiance to Moscow, Stalin’s henchmen felt they had no alternative but to kill every last one of them. So much for the power of brotherhood in the Soviet empire. Mikhail Gorbachev’s candid confession about Katyn was too little and came too late.
The great ambition of post-Soviet Poles, if a broad generalisation is permissible, has been to put as much distance between themselves and all things Russia as possible. Let us begin with the economy. As early as the 1970s, many Poles were keen to escape to the West and enjoy a level of prosperity impossible in Poland. Really Existing Socialism, as it was often called, guaranteed the captive population many things—housing, education, work, subsidised food and medical care—but it did not guarantee choice or quality in any of these. For most of the existence of the People’s Republic, Poland had to play its allotted role as a centre for heavy industry in the Soviet-led economic alliance known as Comecon. Ironically, of course, the ship-building yards of Gdansk were the birthplace of the Solidarity movement. Poland, in the post-communist era, has been keen to reconfigure its industrial base and send exports westward. Significant investment from Germany, especially in automobile manufacturing, aided that process. Membership of the European Union was achieved in 2004 but Warsaw, ever sceptical of foreign overreach, avoided adopting the euro as its currency. To this day the Law and Justice (PiS) government complains about the high-handedness of the EU’s edicts on judicial reform, immigration and so on.
Nevertheless, Poland has done well by the European Union, with expats earning good salaries all over Western Europe, though not in the UK since Brexit. Moreover, since 2004 Poland has received over 232 billion euros in reimbursements from the EU budget while membership payments have amounted to little more than 77 billion euros. Still, Warsaw is less likely to be a beneficiary of Brussels’s largesse in the future and not just because of a difference of opinion on the “illiberalism” of PiS. Rather than remaining a mendicant state, Poland is now on the way to becoming wealthier than countries such as Britain and Italy as soon as 2030. As Jonty Bloom recently wrote in the New European:
Even after the fall of the wall, Poland was seen as a special case, worse than the rest and likely to remain a poor relative. But up until 2019 the Polish economy had been growing for 28 years, a record period unbroken growth in the EU, and globally surpassed only by Australia. Poland’s GDP has increased seven-fold since 1990. It sailed through the credit crunch and kept growing. Even its Covid recession was shallow.
The secret of Poland’s economic miracle is twofold. First, the implementation—whichever government has been in power—of sensible taxation arrangements, pro-market reforms, a substantial social welfare program and a successful battle against systemic corruption, the bane of so many post-communist societies. Second, and no less importantly, pervading Poland is a sense of national liberation. Poles, after two hundred years of being hobbled by the imperial ambitions of their neighbours, exude a palpable patriotism that is less evident in “old” Europe. Had Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s PiS lost the October 2023 elections, a coalition centred around Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform (PO) would not have brought about a dramatic change in Poland’s economic fundamentals. It might not even have changed Poland’s strict immigration policy, if Tusk’s recent anti-migrant language and stated opposition to the EU’s plan for relocating asylum seekers to Poland are anything to go by: “Poles must regain control over this country and its borders.”
The Belarus-Poland border is a flashpoint in illegal immigration to Europe, with Russia and Belarus aiding and abetting the international human-smuggling trade in what the EU calls the “Eastern Borders Route”. The EU claimed to have solved the problem in 2021 after being assured by governments in the Middle East they would prohibit economic emigrants from Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East itself from boarding flights to Minsk and Moscow. And right there is the great conundrum faced by the Poles. In the red corner, European wokism; in the blue, Russian revanchism. When Putin talks about western Ukraine being “Stalin’s gift to the Poles”—translation: Warsaw only helps Ukraine because it wants to retake Lviv—we have to keep in mind the psychological condition of projection: that is, Putin’s ambition to “take back” Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, Kherson, Bakhmut and the rest. The EU might be pitiably naive, but the Kremlin represents an altogether different threat.
The real divide in modern-day Poland is not so much between progressives and conservatives—as is the case in most Western countries—but between Tusk’s secular conservatism and Kaczynski’s Catholic-inspired conservatism. There are elements in the PO that are more liberal than conservative and a section of the PiS more moderate in its thinking than the founders of the party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his late brother Lech. Between 2005 and 2006, PO and PiS were close enough in their politics to contemplate forming a coalition, admittedly without success. Still, the bitterness between PiS and PO is enormous, not the least reason being the death of then-President Lech Kaczynski (right) in a plane crash near Smolensk Air Base in 2010, a disaster that killed ninety-six people including a great number of Polish political and military dignitaries. They were on their way to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Katyn Massacre; many Poles, not least Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have continued to suspect Russia of foul play, despite an official Russian investigation, led by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, concluding otherwise. Jaroslaw Kaczynski has always blamed Donald Tusk, Prime Minister of Poland from 2007 to 2014 and President of the European Council from 2014 to 2019, for not uncovering the truth—that is, Russian sabotage.
Whatever the facts of the matter, the tragic death of Lech Kaczynski and his high-profile entourage only reinforced in Poles the urgency of escaping forward from Russia. Kaczynski had come to the presidency in 2005 fulminating against the development of Nord Stream 1 and Moscow’s successful co-option of Europe’s political elite in a project giving Russia enormous leverage. In 2008, he went to Tbilisi, along with the leaders of the Baltic States and Ukraine, to warn the world, in front of 150,000 Georgians, about Putin’s imperial ambition: “We also realise all too well that what has befallen Georgia today may befall Ukraine tomorrow, the Baltic States a day after, and then perhaps also my own country: Poland.” The world did not listen. Obama, in 2009, abandoned plans to provide Poland and the Czech Republic with long-range missile defence systems so that he and Hillary Clinton might “reset” relations with Moscow. Adding insult to injury, the White House announced its decision on September 17, 2009, the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland. Prime Minister Tusk made the sharpest riposte at the time: “I can only have the satisfaction of being the first prime minister over the past fifteen years who isn’t so enchanted with our ally.” Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel later endorsed the Nord Stream 2 project after Russia invaded the Donbas and unilaterally annexed Crimea in 2014. Lech Kaczynski must have been turning in his grave.
America’s attitude to Poland in recent years might be best categorised as schizophrenic—a product, to some degree, of the tribalism of US politics. Back in July 2017, for example, President Trump was mostly applauded by conservatives and pilloried by progressives for these Churchillian words proclaimed in Warsaw’s Krasinski Square:
The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?
Jamelle Bouie, writing for Slate magazine, was one of the many pundits on the Left who viewed Trump’s vigorous defence of Western civilisation as a reference “to ideas and ideologies with wide currency on the white nationalist right”. Biden, while campaigning for the presidency, went even further in his condemnation of the Polish government’s culturally traditional views: “You see what’s happened, in everything from Belarus to Poland and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world, and as well, this president [Trump] embraces all the thugs in the world.” In the aftershock of Putin’s war, however, President Biden was in Warsaw praising President Andrzej Duda and asserting that close relations with Poland were “critical, critical, critical, critical”. After all, “totalitarian” Poland has not only provided arms (and a conduit for Western arms) to the Ukrainian resistance but also welcomed more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees into its midst, offering shelter, access to education, jobs and even free passage on Poland’s railway network. It would be a pity if a plurality of conservatives were to heed the likes of Michal Krupa, writing for the American Conservative last year in a piece titled “Regarding Russia, Poland Needs to Grow Up”. His condemnation of Poland’s “anachronistic” attitude to Russia was, disconcertingly, penned subsequent to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Germany has a different history from Poland. Maybe that explains why Chancellor Scholz has now backed away from the pledge he made in his Zeitenwende speech on February 27, 2022, to increase defence spending from 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent. Poland’s grim history has taught its people the truth of the old maxim, “If you want peace, prepare for war”. That’s why Warsaw is looking to double spending on defence to 4 per cent of GDP—and build the most powerful armed forces on the Continent. Poland, to borrow from Trump’s 2017 Krasinski Square address, has the desire and the courage to preserve itself in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it.
Daryl McCann, a frequent contributor, has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot.com