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Poland's History

Poland: Her People and Deeds. Part 4

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz


Interwar (1918-1921)

The Commonwealth was finally resurrected in 1918. It reemerged because of the confluence of several auspicious currents. These included principally the simultaneous collapse of the three partitioning powers; crucial Western support, in particular American but also French; masterful diplomatic campaign by the Poles; and, especially, their own valor of arms.

The resurrection, admittedly, was a miracle. Now the Poles needed to put the Humpty Dumpty together. The realm emerged from the First World War and its bloody aftermath as a complete ruin. The destruction and material losses were unbelievable and needed an urgent remedy. Famine, plague, and destitution racked the land. America’s Hoover relief mission stepped into the breach but, although stupendously appreciated, that was only a temporary measure. The Polish nation urgently needed to rebuild.

New Poland was a nation with five legal system, three divergent transportation systems, and incompatible economic systems. For 123 years the partitioned lands of the Commonwealth functioned as peripheries of the three empires. They were set up to service the imperial centers of St. Petersburg, Vienna, and Berlin. There were also problems related to mental differences of having had lived under three different regimes: rigid, legalistic, and carefully organized of Prussia; despotic, autocratic, and unpredictable of Russia; and bureaucratic, ponderous, and liberal of Austria-Hungary. Now the Poles needed to figure out a way how to make their inheritance into unitary nation state.

State building: Economy

The army was a priority for obvious reasons. And it functioned well, despite the obvious lack of equipment. To remedy the problem, the Poles scavenged for the abandoned military stores of the occupiers and turned for assistance to the West. But they mostly relied on themselves. In essence, they put their trust in free enterprise. The greatest challenge at the outset and throughout the interwar period was the lack of capital. Private entrepreneurs stepped in. This aspect of modern Polish history is shamefully almost completely forgotten and buried. For example, one of the greatest of the industrialists, immediately upon fleeing back home to Poland from Russia, which was in the throes of the revolution, Leopold Wellisz (1882-1972) set to work creating his nation’s defense industry from scratch. In short time, Wellisz established Poland’s first ammunition factory (Fabryka “Pocisk”), her first explosives manufacture (Fabryka “Nitrat”), her first airport (Okęcie), and her first train engine production facility (Fabryka Lokomotyw “Fablok”) – all in time for the Polish-Bolshevik War.

The great task of restoring Poland’s prosperity proceeded and the private sector contributed mightily to rebuilding and building new infrastructure and numerous industrial enterprises, including in mining, steel, timber, transportation, and food processing fields. However, Wellisz and other great entrepreneurs continued with their mission unimpeded only until 1926, when Poland’s dictatorial regime curtailed free market liberalism in favor of an etatist command economy. Afterwards, the government under technocratic deputy prime minister Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski (1888-1974) was able to mobilize and allocate resources, in accordance with planned economy, to build a new port in Gdynia on the Baltic Coast and an military industrial hub, so-called Central Industrial Region (Centralny Okręg Przemysłowy – COP).

These were undoubtedly great achievements. Yet, one simply wonders if free market would not have delivered much better results. One can argue that Poland’s etatism failed to alleviate acute and perverse poverty gripping the Polish village. Peasants constituted 70% of Poland’s people. Most of them, their ethnic background notwithstanding, suffered great deprivation throughout the interwar period. Warsaw’s central plan failed to create enough jobs in industry to accommodate peasant youth afflicted by overpopulation and underemployment. Their urban counterparts in the lower strata were hit as well. Tentatively, the centrally stimulated light in the Polish tunnel emerged only at the end of the thirties with a marked upturn of the economic cycle. But by then it was too late for general prosperity to set in before the coming catastrophe of the Second World War. Yet, admittedly, Poland’s interwar etatisim reflected similar trends world-wide. Great Depression supplied an excuse for state intervention in Poland, the United States, and everywhere else. That was a particularly atrocious time for freedom, including economic liberty.

Civil Society and Civic Service

With the military delivering a stellar performance and the wheels of the capitalist economy churning slowly but surely, Poland also saw improvements in other areas where, initially, the outsiders judged that her prospects appeared woefully bleak. Namely, the Polish state machinery was practically non-existent in 1918. Except the military, charity, and education, most of them built by volunteers who had commenced that type of work during the Partitions, often in the underground, there were very few functioning civic society and state institutions and trained officials to man them.

The non-governmental sector was much more adept at adopting to the new situation than the state machinery. The Catholic Church and other religious institutions stepped up their educational and charitable mission. This concerned in particular primary education, orphanages, shelters, and hospitals. Many civil society groups emerged from the underground, and new ones were established as well. Most of them sprung from below and, later, resisted the effort of the state to control them. Most civil society outfits were connected to the National Democrats. Nonetheless, fraternal, social, economic, political, cultural, and charitable organizations flourished at all levels and among all ethnic groups in Poland. They involved themselves in everything from theater and sports through paramilitary to cooperative hen raising endeavors. Scouting was particularly powerful, and it traced its illustrious past to its clandestine existence before 1914. Overall, self-help was a byword of Poland. To serve the nation, the needy in particular, was the avowed ideal. This simply was a continuation of the activities in the Partition era, albeit writ large.

Meanwhile, the state civil service had to be created virtually from scratch. Since the Poles had been discriminated against by the Russians and Prussians in the government employ, most civil servants, who stepped in, had a Habsburg pedigree, which, at the outset, recreated sometimes a Kafkaesque nightmare by replicating, at worst, some of the Austro-Hungarian bureaucratic pathologies in the new state.


Creating a viable state machine paralleled the efforts to boost political organizations stemming from the civil society. Again, political outfits were strongest in the Austrian partition but they suffered from all the afflictions of the Habsburg system, including its factionalism and quarrelsomeness. The populists dominated there. The Prussian Poles were the most united and best organized, supporting overwhelmingly the Christian nationalist option. The Poles of the Russian empire had to struggle with the reality of their clandestine Polish existence, and underground activists found it hard to transition to an open system. Their political organizations were relatively the weak, although even there the National Democrats led the way.

All this exacerbated the divisiveness of the nation’s political scene. The Polish elites had their work cut out for them. The Polish people were impatient and dissatisfied, and the minorities restless. The Poles proved up to the challenge.

The Commonwealth was restored initially as a parliamentary democracy. Until 1926, the leading Polish political party, the National Democrats, ruled in coalition with various populist parties representing the Polish peasantry. The National Democrats boasted the largest organization and active following, in particular among the students, intelligentsia, professionals, and other middle classes as well as the descendants of the petty nobility and nationalist farmers in the countryside. The populists enjoyed the broadest base of potential voters among the peasants, who were however yet to be fully mobilized. But those coalition governments could be, and were, easily paralyzed. The Poles constituted 70% of the society; the rest were minorities. Thus, in Poland’s parliamentary system a permanent coalition of left wing and minority parties of the Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, and Lithuanians was often the key to stability. Democratic dealing and wheeling consequently tampered ideas which the minorities and the left found unpalatable, including various anti-Jewish measures.

Then, in 1926, Marshal Józef Piłsudski staged a coup d’etat. Ostensibly to ensure stability and order, he terminating parliamentary democracy and ushered in a leftist, nationalist, statist, and technocratic dictatorship of national Cleansing (Sanacja). Most of the top positions in his regime accrued to the military veterans of the Legions, hence the regime of the Colonels. After allaying itself with the left, the dictator repressed the National Democrats, thus forcing the most powerful Polish political orientation into a permanent opposition. Then, in 1930, it turned against his erstwhile supporters. Socialist and populist leaders were imprisoned or expelled from Poland and their parties curtailed. The regime routinely dissolved the structures of the opposition, in particular the National Democrats but also of the radical parties of the minorities.

The Sanacja alternated with extending the carrot of cooperation to the left and to the right. Generally, it endeavored to create a broad and eclectic coalition dubbed the Non-Party Bloc of Collaboration with the Government (Bezpartyjny Blok Współpracy z Rządem — BBWR). First, Piłsudski managed to woo the conservatives, monarchists, and, to a lesser extent, libertarian financers and industrialists away from the National Democrats. Then, with less success, he invited his erstwhile socialist comrades to lend him a hand. Most liberals held their noses and gave the Marshal their conditional support. However, most progressive technocrats were easily seduced by the possibilities offered by etatism. After Piłsudski’s death in 1935, the Colonels gladly accepted defectors from National Democracy. They even appropriated much of their program, albeit a hard version of the Sanacja’s endeavor to ape Christian nationalists institutionalized as the Camp of National Unity (Obóz Zjednoczenia Narodowego – OZN) failed to produce a formula to replicate the charism of the Marshal.

His was a very mild dictatorship by the standard of the day. Elections were held periodically, although the regime routinely stuffed the ballot to assure a parliamentary majority for itself. Local elections were hotly contested and frequently won by the opposition despite the Sanacja meddling. The press was vibrant and opinionated. Official censorship was mostly reactive: if a newspaper carried a story judged by the regime to be inimical, the entire print run would be confiscated, thus causing substantial financial losses and, consequently, restraint and self-censorship on the behalf of the media. Sometimes offending editors were held and punished via administrative measures.

At public universities, anti-Piłsudskite faculty were sometimes dismissed. University autonomy was curtailed gradually, but freedom of research and publishing was respected for the most part. Student radical nationalist demonstrations and university occupation strikes were put down firmly. Revolutionary peasant and worker strikes and marches were dispersed with ferocity. Anti-Jewish actions were suppressed often violently. A single concentration camp was set up for political foes, mostly Communists and radical nationalists. Beatings of political opponents, including writers and journalists, occurred cyclically. Yet, there were very few political murders by the government.

All in all there was much less shrillness in Piłsudski’s brand of authoritarianism than in Mussolini’s Italian operetta, although some bland comparisons can be offered between the regimes of both erstwhile socialists. The Piłsudskites ruled uninterrupted until September 1939. Throughout, like their democratic parliamentary predecessors, the governing elites were acutely aware that they inherited the legacy of the old Commonwealth. They also knew that the times had changed and that things were now different and the situation called for new solutions.

The Old-New Commonwealth

The Commonwealth was restored albeit in a quite diminished form geographically. True, on the one hand, it regained Silesia which had been lost in medieval times, but, on the other, it failed to recoup much of what had been the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the east. But can breathe life again into an idea but, alas, its historical context and vitality no longer existed. Early 20th century with its emancipation, industrialization, modernization, and mass politics was vastly different then the 15th century, when the Commonwealth was born, and the 18th century, when it collapsed. So the Poles named their state rather aptly the Polish Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita Polska). This denoted the endurance of continuity and the acknowledgement of modernity. The name of the state fused historical tradition, universal Polish (Western) culture, and the stem component based upon the Polish ethnos, which was chiefly responsible for Poland’s resurrection.

The historical, noble nation lingered on in the collective elephantine memory and it manifested itself in a variety of stunning survivals. These were as colorful as the old Commonwealth and concerned mostly the rural areas and culture where an astonishing 70% of the population continued to dwell. The survivals included the hamlets of the petty nobility from Mazovia to Wilno Land and Podolia; the local populations endowed with pre-modern identities such as the Hucuły of the Carpathians, the Poleshchuki of the Prypet Marshes, the Kashubians of Pomerania, or the Kurpie of northern Mazovia. Some of them, in particular in the east, remained indifferent to the siren call of modern ethno-nationalism. Yet, some “non-Polish” ethnic groups and cultures blended seamlessly local and national identity. For instance, Polish Tatars tended to think of themselves simultaneously as Tatars and Poles, albeit mostly of Muslim faith.

The Jewish Community and Other Minorities

The problem of mentality and consciousness was much more complex among the Jewish community. Most Jews were Orthodox and Yiddish speaking denizens of small, medium, and large towns. Their political organization, the Aghuda Israel party, was conservative and it sought a modus vivendi with whoever governed Poland. The Orthodox leadership believed it served the Jewish community best by cooperating with the Polish government. The Orthodox believers remained in their hermetic communities interacting economically with the surrounding Christians but maintaining a religiously sanctified wall of social, cultural, and political separation from them, a situation reciprocated on the other side as well. However, the process of modernization noted during the Partitions proceeded apace in the interwar period. In fact, it accelerated among the traditional Jewry, hemorrhaging their communities with a steady flow of emancipation.

The young increasingly escaped into secularism, radicalism, and Jewish nationalism. Aside from the Zionist dreamers of a variety of orientations, from right to left, there were also Jewish autonomists. They affirmed Jewish nationalism and socialist revolution but rejected the Zionist project. Most of these Jews were Marxist Bundists, heirs to the Jewish revolutionary ways of the late 19th century. They fought against both the Zionists, who, in their view, wanted to desert the Jewish people of the lands of the old Commonwealth, and the Bolsheviks, who wanted to seduce the Jews away from their own ethno-nationalist and cultural group and turn them into rootless cosmopolites. Most Zionists felt the same way about the Communists, even if the Zionist left wing embraced a form of national Bolshevism. Ultimately, on the political scene, the Bundists challenged the Orthodox, prevailing over them by 1939.

In the Jewish community a leftist revolution, along with pro-Soviet sympathies, increasingly came to dominate the imagination of the young with grave implication for the Jewish traditionalists and, more broadly, the Polish nation. The social, cultural, and political turmoil within the Jewry reflected several overlapping issues that impacted everyone in Poland. First, there was an uneasy air of uncertainty and impermanence brought about by the belligerence and terror in the Soviet Union and Germany. Second, there was practically chronic economic instability, which impacted Poland following the war, and it eased up in the mid-twenties only to ravish the realm again in the thirties as a part of a global crisis: The Great Depression. Second, there was a political crisis stemming from the Piłsudskite coup d’etat. Third, a marked growth of the anti-Jewish animus swept the nation at the popular and political levels, spurred on mostly by the opposition National Democrats but, later, it was also appropriated by the Piłsudskite government to shore up its waning popularity.

On the one hand, much of the anti-Jewish rhetoric and action reflected a broader, Western context where anti-Semitism was ubiquitous and, increasingly, rabid. On the other hand, whereas in the West it was firmly grounded in “scientific racism,” in Poland it predominantly reflected cultural and religious incompatibility. Further, Poland’s anti-Jewish phenomenon signaled a continuity of a cruel and impersonal, long term trend stemming from the economic competition between the archaic forms represented by the Jewish middleman and the multifarious forces of industrial modernity. It was also a nativist counterrevolutionary reaction to the revolutionary solutions proposed by the millenarian enemies of the Commonwealth, in particular of the Marxist ilk, who were falsely perceived as being “Jewish.” Metaphysically and culturally, the anti-Jewish reaction was connected to the perceptions of Polish identity, including the question of the Jewish assimilation.

Being Polish

The assimilationists among the Jews were divided into several categories, mostly denoting the vintage of their embrace of a Polish identity. The more ancient the pedigree of assimilation, the more acceptable it was for the mainstream. There were those who dubbed themselves as Poles of Mosaic faith. Yet, there were very few of them. Assimilation usually entailed conversion, preferably to Catholic Christianity. However, great bourgeois families with Jewish roots preferred Protestantism, in particular of the Lutheran confession, a process well under way during the 19th century. And there was, naturally, a difference between, on the one hand, new converts, whether to Christianity or Polish nationalism, and, on the other, historical families of Polish nobility or intelligentsia of Jewish roots, who had completed the process of their Polonization either during the old Commonwealth or the Partitions. The latter group was virtually indistinguishable from mainstream Poles. They were considered Polish by everyone involved.

However, new converts who aspired to Polishness were sometimes regarded with suspicion as, perhaps, opportunists who jumped on the bandwagon of the newly liberated Poland. Rejecting the Yiddish and mastering the Polish failed to translate automatically into either assimilation or acceptance. Without a firm commitment to Christianity and traditionalist Polish nationalism one faced staggering obstacles to become a Pole in the interwar period.

Jews who emancipated themselves from the Jewish community and religion by embracing leftist ideologies, in particular Communism, were flatly denied access to the Polish fraternity and sorority. They were the ultimate outsiders and outcasts from both communities. It was a generally held opinion that to be Polish one had to be a patriot. That excluded those who disrespected tradition and culture, nay, wanted to destroy them in a fiery revolution. Thus in particular adherents to chiliastic and millenarian visions were not welcome. In fact, anyone who embraced Communism, was consider a traitor and, thus, a “non-Pole,” including, of course, ethnic Poles. By the same logic, during the Second World War, those Poles who suddenly discovered their German ancestry and supported the Nazis of the Third Reich were symbolically and physically expelled from the Polish community. They were found repugnant just like the Communists. Thus, the concept of Polishness acquired also a meaning of an ethical honorific. This was a complex process.

A modern nation was emerging, laboriously and painfully, endeavoring to forge its modern identity within the old historical paradigm enriched with new ingredients. The latter included contemporary nationalism that fused plebeian ethnic emancipatory dynamics from below with the noble ethos of service projected onto the intelligentsia and professional classes from above.

In other words, reborn Poland attempted a synthesis of civic and ethnic nationalism. The project enjoyed some success because of historical memories and practical realities of inclusiveness and assimilation and because of the universal dimension supplied by Catholic Christianity. Older trends of confessional pluralism among the Polish elite continued. However, so did the patterns of the growth of national consciousness among the people endured within the Roman Catholic context. The stereotype of Pole-Catholic reflected contemporary cultural, social, and political reality. Among the Poles, including the elite, the majority adhered to the Catholic confession.

The enduring validity of the stereotype was reinforced by the parallel, and accelerated, development of national consciousness among the local, ethnic, and cultural minorities of the Commonwealth. Increasingly, the Ruthenians of the Uniate rite continued to embrace Ukrainian ethno-nationalism. This, of course, was the continuity of a pattern evident already at the end of the 19th century. In the interwar period the nationalist processes of consciousness growth accelerated greatly and included even the Orthodox Ruthenians of Volhynia as well as, to a much lesser extent, the Carpathian Boyko and Lemko. And there were some disturbing changes in the nature of the nationalist ideology. A younger generation of the Ukrainian nationalists eagerly looked up to the nefarious neo-pagan German integral nationalist model. And so did the young nationalists of the Lithuanian minority, thus despite their professed Catholicism. On the other hand, only a sprinkling of Belarusian nationalists found the German model attractive. Most of them fused their ideology with leftist populism and, increasingly, national Bolshevism. Thus, in practice, many among the national minorities looked to foreign powers, the Soviet Union and Germany (first liberal nationalist Weimar Republic and, then, the Third Reich) for assistance.


The Poles inherited a ravaged, variegated Commonwealth, which they managed to put in a working order. Under the circumstances, they succeeded rather well. But they inherited the accursed geopolitics of the region. And geopolitics dictate that weakness translates into doom if one is stuck between Germany and Russia. The old Commonwealth remained victorious as long as it was strong and its enemies divided. What held for the early modern era was also true for the first half of the 20th century. Strength is a function of the spirit endowed with affluence flowing from a healthy economy. Poland was not up to par vis-à-vis its powerful members.

What the Poles failed to accomplish was largely beyond their control. Namely, they sadly lacked the time and the means to prepare adequately to defend themselves successfully from their predatory neighbors: the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. The Poles did industrialize, but not enough to overwhelm the aggressors with technological superiority. Girt and spirit are not enough. Further, the Poles did procure Western allies, but neither the French nor the British were seriously committed to defend Poland, and America checked out of the international system after 1918, in particular as far as Europe. Western Europeans appeased the Bolsheviks at the expense of Poland at Spa in 1920; they winked tacitly to Germany to expand eastward at Poland’s expense at Locarno, in 1925. The French and British guarantees to Poland in 1939 were just empty posturing. London had no wherewithal and Paris no will to assist Warsaw.

Berlin feared a war on two fronts. But it realized that the Poles would assist the French no matter what. Thus Germany attempted to woo Poland with a vision of a joint anti-Communist expedition against Moscow and a gift of Soviet Ukraine all the way to the Black Sea. To counter the offer, and to alienate the Poles from the West, Moscow meanwhile proposed to Warsaw a joint partition of the Baltic States. The Poles flatly turned down both totalitarian dictators. Since they would not join the Axis, Berlin resolved to attack the more willful partner of the Western Alliance: Poland, to take her out of the game and prevent a two front war.

The Nazi Germans and the Soviet Communists did not take Western guarantees for Polish independence seriously. Hitler and Stalin knew the West was bluffing. Thus, on August 23, 1939, they concluded a Pact in Moscow, because they knew that they could destroy Poland with impunity. Armageddon was on its way.

part 1
part 2
part 3

Note: Original content of poloniainstitute.net. Permission to republish with a valid reference to Polonia Institute publication is hereby granted.

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