Bitter Glory

Poland and Its Fate, 1918-1939

By Richard M. Watt, New York. Hippocrene Books. 1998. 511 pages. Index, photographs. Paperback. $16.95.

John J. Kulczycki

Hippocrene Books deserves the gratitude of specialists in Polish studies for providing materials in English that we can use in our classes. Richard Watt's Bitter Glory is only the latest example of Hippocrene's helpfulness in that regard. Although this edition is simply a reprint of the 1982 edition, without any updating of the bibliography and references or of the interpretation, I welcome this book back into print. I began to use it in my courses in Polish history shortly after it first appeared in 1979 and continued to do so until it went out of print. At the time that it appeared, it was the only history of interwar Poland in English, in print, and within financial reach of students. In addition to these extraneous merits, its greatest virtue is perhaps that it reads extremely well. This is of crucial importance if one is going to try to explain to students what Polish studies is all about. The old cliché about journalists writing more readable histories than historians seems to apply in this case. Of course, from the historian's point a view, the book is not without faults, and I outline some of them below. From a pedagogical point of view, the most obvious problem is the book's length: it is difficult to fit some 460 pages of text covering only the interwar period in the required readings of an undergraduate course in Polish history.

In a letter inserted in the Hippocrene edition, the author responds to a request of his editors for an explanation of how he came to write a study of Polish history. His response as to what attracted him to the subject well illustrates the themes that dominate the book: Marshal Józef Pilsudski and 'the authentic drama of Polish events of the period,' which means above all the conflicts, foreign and domestic, and crises, particularly those of a political and diplomatic nature.

This careless attitude toward its own image [maintained by Poland under the Pilsudskiyte government, Ed.] is responsible for a good many of the critical misconceptions regarding interwar Poland which exist to this day.
Some years ago, a visiting Polish follower of Roman Dmowski who was also a political activist in the Polish emigré community in England gave in my class a guest lecture on the rebirth of Poland following World War I. In his hour-long presentation, he never once mentioned Pilsudski. People of this point of view will not be happy with Watt's overwhelming attention to this major figure. Whereas one historian of interwar Poland suggested that its history could be written in terms of the conflict between Dmowski and Pilsudski, Watt writes it mainly in terms of the latter alone. Indeed, the introductory chapter bears his name, and he figures in the title of four of the following seventeen chapters.

The focus on Pilsudski means that the first chapter's survey of nineteenth-century Polish history concentrates on that part of Poland which was under Russian occupation. A brief mention of the rising of 1846 is made in the paragraphs on that part of Poland and not in a section on the part of Poland which was under Austrian occupation, even though the rising occurred there. Organic work, which flourished in 'Prussian' Poland, goes unnoted.

When Dmowski finally makes his appearance in the last few pages of the chapter, he and his National Democratic party do not receive their due. The reader is given no clue how this party, which we are told followed a policy of 'superconciliationism,' succeeded in winning the support of some of the Polish population of 'Russian' Poland. That the National Democrats were 'superconfrontationists' in 'Prussian' Poland is not even alluded to.

Watt's interest in war and diplomacy mean that by the time we get through the following chapters on World War I and the peace treaties, the Polish-Soviet War, and the stabilization of Poland's frontiers, we have read more than a third of the text to have arrived only at the very beginnings of the Polish state's history, roughly 1921. The next six chapters covering domestic politics and economic difficulties, Pilsudski's coup d'état and its aftermath, and foreign relations in the 1920s, bring us to 1930. The remaining chapters, somewhat less than a third of the text, cover domestic politics before and after Pilsudski's death, foreign relations in the 1930s, and the German and Soviet invasions of Poland in September 1939. An Afterword briefly recounts developments affecting Poland during World War II and gives an over-all assessment of the interwar period. Reproduced photographs enrich the text.

The overwhelming focus on Pilsudski does not mean that Watt is uncritical of his role in Polish history. Yet, he is on the whole more positive than Pilsudski's enemies would have allowed. Watt goes so far as to conclude that, 'It is difficult to believe that independent Poland without Pisudski could have continued to exist for any period of time. For a politically immature, newly established nation like Poland, a figure like Pilsudski was absolutely indispensable. . . . His coup of May 1926 can be defended on the grounds that Poland was drifting into a chaotic state. No one else could have saved the republic.' (460)

Watt's final criticism of interwar Poland poses a challenge still relevant two decades after he wrote it. In noting that the world frequently viewed the state less than sympathetically, Watt faults the successive Polish governments of the period for their indifference to world opinion. 'This careless attitude toward its own image is responsible for a good many of the critical misconceptions regarding interwar Poland which exist to this day. And, of course, there are not now many persons interested in or capable of correcting the record.' (462)

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