This Issue Back Issues Editorial Board Contact Information

    Polskie wizje Europy w XIX i XX wieku

Bogdan Czaykowski

Edited by Krzysztof Ruchniewicz. Texts selected by Peter Oliver Loew. Wroclaw: University of Wroclaw Press, 2004. Monograph Series on German and European Studies, 6. ISSN 0239-6661. 284 pages. Paper. In Polish.

The role of the land between Germany proper and the Eastern Slavs, of how the character of its people, institutions, and politics made a difference in the broader European context has been only occasionally understood by Western European rulers and political elites. It played a greater role in the imperial and geopolitical thought of Russia, while the Poles themselves have oscillated between an exaggerated sense of their importance and a deep skepticism about their European status.

The ambivalence in the Polish attitudes toward Western Europe-and to most Poles Europe was identified with its western part-is well reflected in Peter Oliver Loew’s anthology of Polish writings on, about, for, and against Europe. The book is a Polish edition of Loew’s Polen denkt Europa.

The book was obviously inspired by the processes and debates preceding and accompanying the enlargement of the European Union, and its focus is on the Polish “vision” of Europe. The book is valuable as an illustration of what various Polish ideologues, politicians, publicists, leaders, and historians thought of the hope that Western Europe held for Polish aspirations; how they understood the Europeanness of Polish heritage and culture; which values or norms they considered to be European and either held in common or worthy of emulation; and which features of Western Europe they regarded as a betrayal of the European past, viewed primarily as a Judeo-Christian heritage. The problematic, ambiguous, and even painful image of Europe surfaces again and again in these pieces, but at no point as vociferously as in the years preceding Poland’s entry into the European Union, when the reborn postcommunist right wing movement, rooted in the anti-German thought of Roman Dmowski, accentuated the threat that Poland’s entry seemed to pose to Polish traditions, national character, religious beliefs, the ownership of land and property, and economic sovereignty.

The anthology comprises forty texts and a valuable introduction by the compiler. The selections, some of which, unfortunately, are mere snippets, are grouped chronologically into four sections: those from the nineteenth century, from the years 1910-1939, from 1942-1989, and from the period after 1989 (the final text was written in 2000). Grouping them thematically would have been better.

One major theme is encapsulated in the title of Section I: “What kind of Europe for the Poles?” The answer, running through several of the nineteenth-century pieces and resurfacing in some from the twentieth century, especially during the Second World War and in the 1970s and ’80s, is that Poland’s interests and future require some kind of a federated or united Europe. In fact, some of the nineteenth-century pieces are projects for a European constitution. The one glaring omission is that of the ideas of Prince Adam Czartoryski (mentioned only in the introduction), well presented in Marian Kukiel’s Czartoryski and European Unity (1955).

The second persistent theme is cultural and spiritual, and it includes political culture. Here the spectrum of views is very broad, ranging from Antoni Choloniewski’s essay Duch dziejów Polski, in which the author argues that prepartitioned Poland had developed “progressive” democratic and international institutions and norms well in advance of similar developments in Western Europe, and Roman Dmowski’s somewhat peculiar assessment that although the exclusion of Poland from Europe as a result of the partitions had a number of negative consequences, it wasn’t entirely negative, considering that the Poles did not share in the excessive rise of the standard of living and other ills of industrialization, and had the fewest freemasons in all of Europe. Here also belongs Stanislaw Brzozowski’s overly harsh judgment that nineteenth-century Poles had been merely passive consumers of Western European ideas and contributed next to nothing to Western European intellectual development, as well as Józef Chalasinski’s thesis that because of Poland’s turning to the East (by means of union with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania), the Poles lost their initial Western base and created a culture that was nonurban and nobilitarian, and hence unproductive and lacking in professionalism. Interestingly enough, apart from Chalasinski’s piece, the economic theme is conspicuous by its almost complete absence.

Many of the pieces selected by the author are disappointing: they are nonanalytical, ideological and superficial. Several focus more on Poland, its predicament, its culture and spirit, rather than on Europe. But there are a few that are memorable and substantive. These include Szymon Askenazy’s piece (1916), where the author notes the internationalization of the Polish question and discusses the geopolitical significance of Poland, quoting Napoleon’s opinion la Pologne, cette veritable clef de toute la voute européenne; Jan Kieniewicz’s interestingly conceptualized 1991 article in which, trying to assess the historical place of Poland in Europe, he argues that apart from the goal of entering European and global economy, Poland’s European role should be to recreate “the borderlands of Europe” by helping the nations east of Poland to gain freedom and European status; Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s memorable 1990 speech at the forum of the Council of Europe; and John Paul’s II 1991 homily significantly titled “To Restore Values to Europe.”

Regrettably, the publishers of the book omitted notes on the authors and index, which are included in the German version.

This review would not be complete without positioning the subject in a broader context than the book affords. Whatever definition or value is given to the idea of Europe, there is little doubt that what historically has been coextensive with roughly the territory of present-day Poland has on a number of occasions played a crucial role in European history. The designation of Poland as the antemurale, or bulwark of Western Europe, or Western Christianity, certainly has some historical validity: in the late medieval period and until the end of the seventeenth century Poland constituted a barrier against westward expansion of Muscovite-Russian as well as Mongol and Ottoman power. At the same time, it transmitted eastward West European ideas, models, and institutions, most notably to the huge Lithuanian-Belarusian-Kievan territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and even, to a lesser degree, to Muscovy, a fact that the victorious Russians have not been willing to admit about the defeated Poles. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the First World War the Poles stopped the westward expansion of militant Russian communism. What has been even less obvious to Western historians and ideologues is the fact that the rise and the consolidation of the kingdom of Poland between the tenth and early fourteenth century, and then its dynastic and later political union with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, had placed an effective barrier against the expansion of the Holy Roman Empire into the Slavic-Lithuanian territory, and then of the Germanic states spearheaded by the Teutonic Knights (it was only in the early eighteenth century that Brandenburg became modern Prussia). We will never know how real the possibility of Sweden establishing and consolidating its control of the Baltic littoral, and perhaps of the Baltic hinterland, would have been in the seventeenth century, but it was Polish resistance to the Swedish invasion in the mid-seventeenth century that defeated the Swedish expansionist plans, thus contributing to the expansion of Russia.

The decline of the old Rzeczpospolita in the second half of the seventeenth and through most of the eighteenth centuries had far-reaching consequences for Europe. The power vacuum that arose in the vast Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian territory resulted (given the imperial and expansionist ambitions of its three neighbors) in the partitions in the years 1772-1795 of that territory, thus establishing not only a common border between Russia on the one hand, and Prussia-Germany and the Hapsburg Empire on the other, but also a common interest of not letting the rebellious Poles undo the partitions. This fact, except for the Napoleonic interlude, had certainly helped (with the exception of the Austrian-German conflict of 1866) to keep peace among the three partitioning powers for literally a hundred years. Yet between 1792 and 1864 there were several insurrections, as the Poles refused to give in or give up. The upheaval in the Polish part of Russia in the 1905 revolution contributed to changes in the governance of the tsarist Empire that in turn facilitated the revolutions of 1917. Furthermore, the existence of a common border between the two central European empires and Russia enlarged enormously the scope of the conflict known as the First World War; similarly, the partition of Poland in 1939 between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, whereby the two powers yet again established a common border, made the Second World War an event of much greater proportions and consequences than it might otherwise have been.

The role of Poland in the most recent history of Europe needs no reminders. While the inclusion of Poland in the Soviet empire made that empire‘s threat to Western Europe that much more acute, and at the same time diminished the Polish role as the transmitter of Westernism to the non-Russian Eastern Europe, the rise of the massive Solidarity movement and its ability to sustain itself through the years of martial and postmartial rule, combined with the moral and political stature of the “Polish” pope, were major contributing factors in the implosion of the USSR and the rise of a new geopolitical configuration on the European continent. And the more recent Polish presence in Ukrainian politics and Polish influence in Brussels testifies still further to the importance of Poland for the overall security of Central and Western European nations and the further Europeanization of its eastern part.

Back to the September 2006 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 01/07/10