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Poland’s Centennial Commemorations

Professor of History, The Kosciuszko Chair in Polish Studies, Institute of World Politics, Washington

No, Poland is not 100 years old. One can be excused for thinking so. Even some official announcements tout “one hundred years of independence.”  But that is historically inaccurate, a compromise for the sake of brevity.  “One hundred years since regaining independence” is a mouthful. It also leaves out quite a bit of Polish history. As usual, the story is rather complicated.

On November 11, 1918, Poland proclaimed its return as an independent state. It also affirmed the continuity of its history: almost 900 years of its statehood, nearly a millennium of Christianity, and several millennia of the presence of its people in the area around the Vistula River. (India likewise marks its independence in 1947, but there were thousands of years of Indian history before that.)

The only thing that allows Westerners to relate to all this is that November 11 coincides with Armistice Day, ending World War I, which Americans celebrate yearly as Veterans Day. But then the story of the Polish centennial of freedom requires several codicils. Polish sovereignty is not a linear phenomenon. It is a tale of euphoria mixed with internal quarrels and foreign interruptions.

The Poles enjoyed their independence in the interwar period, even though from 1926 they found themselves under a comparatively mild left-wing military dictatorship. The government rigged elections, but it allowed opposition and free press. Yet, Poland remained sovereign for over twenty years.  In September 1939, Hitler and Stalin destroyed the Polish state as World War II broke out. Poland was driven underground, where its resistance units fought against both the Nazis and Communists. Abroad, the Polish army-in-exile never wavered in its service to the Allied cause on land, sea, and in the air.

In 1944-1945, the Red Army pushed the Wehrmacht out of Poland. There was no liberation: red totalitarianism replaced the brown one, Stalin substituted for Hitler. The Kremlin appointed local Communist collaborators to rule over the Poles as Moscow’s puppets for the next 40 years or more. Armed anti-Communist resistance persisted into the early 1950s. Afterwards, there were periodic anti-Communist rebellions (1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976), mostly non-violent, but the Communist crushed them ruthlessly each time.

The greatest upheaval came with “Solidarity,” an independence movement masking as a trade union (1980-1989). Buoyed by the election of Karol Wojtyła as John Paul II to the papacy, and capitalizing on the anti-Communism of US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “Solidarity” challenged the Soviet-backed regime openly. Although it was driven underground during martial law in 1981-1983, it persevered underground. Then, taking advantage of the ill-conceived and executed “reforms” of Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev, “Solidarity” re-emerged to challenge the reds in a parliamentary contest.

Unfortunately, the first elections in June 1989 were rigged because 65% of the seats were guaranteed to the Communists and their allies. The rest was up for contest. “Solidarity” won all but one of the freely contended slots. Even if they returned a freely-elected minority contingent, the unfree elections failed to translate into democracy in Poland. Furthermore, there were still Red Army units stationed at their bases there. So there was no sovereignty yet, either.

The regaining of freedom was incremental then. The first democratic elections took place in October 1991. Half a year earlier, the Red Army had commenced its slow retreat. The last of the Soviet troops withdrew on September 17, 1993, symbolically the fifty-fifth anniversary of Stalin’s invasion in 1939. Since then, Poland has been sovereign and democratic.

As of 2018, the country has been sovereign once more for 25 years and democratic for 27 years. Alas, there is no consensus among the Poles what date to observe from 1989 as the moment of regaining liberty once again. The left and the post-Communists stick with 1989, ignoring the rigged elections. The rest rejects that date with some citing the parliamentary elections of 2015, which brought populist and patriotic Law and Justice to power as the mark of “full independence” and even “reclaiming of sovereignty.”

Be that as it may, between 1918 and 2018, Poland has been sovereign for 45 years and democratic for 35 years. Fifty-five years Poland spent in Nazi and Soviet totalitarian chains (6 years under the Third Reich and 49 under the Soviet Union).

Why celebrate November 11, 1918, as a special date? Well, this is for several reasons. First, it occurred exactly 123 years after her disappearance from the maps of Europe. This was an unprecedented eradication of an ancient state. The medieval Kingdom of Poland grew into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (14th to 18th centuries), which was the largest, most powerful, and freest nation in Europe. Kings and parliaments were elective. Over one million citizens had a vote during pre-modern times. This exceeded in number and freedom both Greek democracy and Roman Republic. Habeus corpus applied since 1436; no taxation without representation was enshrined in the constitution since 1505; and freedom of conscience, not only for Christians but also for Jews and Muslims, obtained from 1573. The Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, the Rzeczpospolita, was partitioned by its predatory neighbors: Russia, Prussia, and Austria.  The carving up of the Polish-Lithuanian state took place in three installments: 1772, 1793 and, finally, 1795. Vienna abstained once, but Berlin and St.  Petersburg persisted throughout. Thus, in 1918, the Poles celebrated the resurrection of the old Commonwealth reincarnated in the Second Republic.

Second, as the partitioning empires collapsed because of World War I, the Poles won their own freedom by the valor of their arms. They fought seven border wars and insurrections, including, most notably, the Polish-Bolshevik War (1919-1921)- the only time in history anyone defeated the Red Army in the field.

Third, Polish diplomatic delegates held their own and then some against indifferent or sometimes hostile Western powers at the Peace Conference at Versailles and before. They swayed the United States of America to the Polish side. And Americans of Polish descent volunteered en masse for the Polish armies-in-exile. If that is not enough, there is also the rich history of the past 1,000 years.

Thus, November 11, 2018, encapsulates the effort of generations and the heritage of the Polish State, which existed in a variety of forms before its momentous and felicitous conversion to Christianity in 966.  Additionally, we have archeological evidence of state and regional organization dating back to ancient times, including stone constructions from some 2,000 years ago. DNA research suggests that the denizens of contemporary Poland descend from Eurasian settlers who originated in the Iranian plateau but put their roots down between the Vistula and Bug rivers perhaps some 3,000 years ago. It is really a long, Polish story.

Happy Independence Day!

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

Washington, DC, 15 September 2018


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