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Civil War in Central Europe, 1917-1921: The Reconstruction of Poland

by Johen Bohler

Reviewed by prof. Marek Chodakiewicz

A civil war?

A civil war signifies a fratricidal struggle of sorts, like in the American Civil War (1861-1865) or during the revolution in Russia (1917-1921). Yet, internal strife is rarely unambiguous. Sometimes it is right out convoluted. For example, the civil war in the former Tsarist Empire overlapped with the wars of decolonization. Those included, among many others, Poles fighting for their independence and borders and Georgians striving for their freedom and sovereignty.

However, Jochen Böhler, Civil War in Central Europe, 1918-1921: The Reconstruction of Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) insists not only that a “post-colonial battle” (p. 62) for imperial inheritance took place in Poland in the wake of the First World War, but that it revealed itself as a full- fledged civil war. Why? This is simply because the subjects of three former empires, which collapsed, jumped at each other’s throats. Each battled for a nation state, where no well-defined borders existed in imperial space. This scheme entirely overlooks the fact that the imperial space itself usurped the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth it had destroyed in the 18th century and the heirs to the partitioned Poland rose, once again in 1918, and this time successfully to restore their nation.

Also, to claim that there was a civil war on the carcasses of Russia, Prussia, and Austria is like arguing that a hypothetical uprising in the Gulag, upon implosion of the red empire, must also be a fratricidal war because all parties fighting used to be slaves of the Soviet Union. They not only fought against the NKVD guards, but also against one another. That means the criminals vs. the political prisoners, and the latter amongst themselves (e.g., Communists vs. anti-Communists, Polish Home Army vs. German Nazis and Ukrainian Nationalists). What kind of a civil war is this allegedly? A system oppressing all (or most) persons, who are unlucky to inhabit it constitutes not a home, but a prison. This holds even if in totalitarianism it was hard to determine where the Gulag ended and where the so-called “Communist” freedom began.

Böhler insists nonetheless that “we learn more about them [post-1918 conflicts] if we see them as parts of one encompassing struggle over the postwar order in this part of the continent, which we might call the Central European Civil War. This new approach takes account of the notion that those conflicts were set in the same international context, they were fueled by the same ethno-national dynamics, and they created the same kind of experience for the population of Central Europe” (p. 65). According to the historian, even the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920 “this was civil war at its worst” (p. 136). Who on earth was a brother to the Poles on the invading side? Lenin? Trotsky? Dzerzhinsky?  In congruence with this sort of logic, was the protracted struggle of the Polish underground Home Army (AK) against the SS and the NKVD twenty years later also a “civil war” in Central Europe? This is sheer nonsense.

The paradigm of civil war fails to fit post-1918 Poland. The conditions and circumstances there differed significantly from the developments in Czechoslovakia or Ukraine, not to mention Latvia and Estonia. Poland fought to restore its state and not to create a completely brand new one. Poland commanded a continuity of its elites, tradition, history, and culture. Other successor-states absolutely did not. Poland was a historical continuity; others were folk nationalist, non-historical entities.

If we accept, however, Böhler’s proposition about an alleged “civil war” in Poland, then we must automatically accept that the partitions of the Commonwealth were legitimate and the partitioning powers as well. It must follow that Russia, Prussia, and Austria, by destroying the Polish Res Publica, created a home for their new subjects; that means they brought benefits that clearly ushered in much more freedom than the citizens had enjoyed under the old system, so that they readily embraced their new masters and rejoiced. None of this was the case, as a bloody track record of resistance attests from 1772 throughout the 19th century to 1914. Even accommodation and loyalism to the masters was a survival strategy, rather than permanent surrender.

Thus, the partitions were never recognized as legitimate and their home became a prison, freedom having been extinguished. It should be clear that it is not enough to be included in a state to feel a part of it, in particular if one does not wish to be thus incorporated. Otherwise, Ireland’s 800 years of resistance to the English would be considered illegitimate, and Irish uprisings and other forms of negation of the occupation by London would be seen as a civil war. The same applies to the Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars, and others who fought the Turkish occupation for 500 years. Was the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire a civil war? One would really have to possess a vivid imagination to claim so. It was a struggle between, on the one hand, native Christian slaves (dhimmi) and, on the other, Muslim imperialists stemming from their Turkish roots.

The same applies to the Commonwealth. After 120 years of slavery, Poles wished to live under alien rule no more. Thus, in 1918 they rebelled once again. They wanted Poland to exist; the old Commonwealth remained their paradigm to a large degree. They knew no other Polish state. Many aliens facing the Polish efforts to restore their country opposed them. Those included freshly awaken integral folk nationalist peasant non-historic peoples, like the Ukrainians or Lithuanians, and post-imperial nationalities, in particular the Germans and the Russian Bolsheviks, as well as various historically autonomous entities, like the Jewish community, who also commenced organizing themselves in congruence with the nationalist paradigm.

They all rejected the universalism of the old Commonwealth and the primacy of all-inclusive Polish patriotism. The latter was based not on the Germanic ideal of “blood and soil” but, rather, on culture and tradition. Thus, there is no way to agree with Böhler that the struggle was all about “an ethnic Polish nation state” (p. 65). This was neither the aim nor the character of Polish Jagiellonian nationalism, whose inheritors included both Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski. Despite this, the author insists that “the paramilitary nature of all conflicts conducted by the nascent Polish state characterizes them as civil war rather than war between nation states, a confrontation of intermingled people rather than between opposing nations”            (p. 176).

In the above assessment, Böhler is right in only one respect. There was no confrontation between “nation states.” It was a multilayered confrontation between the heirs to the multinational Commonwealth, on the one hand, and the inheritors of the Great Powers, including Bolshevik Russia and Weimar Germany, on the other. Both powers exploited the minorities inhabiting the territory of the old Poland, inciting them against the historic Polish nation. Both Berlin and Moscow stoked the fires of minority separatisms and nationalisms under the guise of minority rights. Furthermore, there were battles of the Poles endeavoring to restore their old Commonwealth against the minorities, and in particular these which rejected the universalist paradigm before 1772-1795 in favor of their own integral nationalist model, like the Ukrainians and Lithuanians, which sprang from an ethno-nationalist Völkisch ideology. The Poles rejected such a systemic solution as inimical to their inheritance.

Böhler either fails to grasp or ignores such historical realities. He believes further that because it was paramilitary forces that took to the field in 1918, and not regular armies, it was surely a “civil war.” Since when must irregular warfare always be considered a sign of civil strife? Were the Americans in Vietnam or Soviets in Afghanistan, both of whom faced “paramilitary” resistance, fighting civil wars there?

One must realize, therefore, the following about the situation in Poland between 1918 and 1921. First, emerging after over a century of slavery, in the struggle for territory, Poland met paramilitary challenges from its neighbors and competing minority ethnic groups. Second, therefore, it responded in a similar paramilitary way to those confrontations. Third, it was congruent with the military art, where one counters irregular operations with special forces, for example the Polish lancers in this case. Fourth, this sort of warfare occurred because the units of the Polish Army arose both spontaneously at the grass roots level and consciously at the center (or, more precisely, centers: Warsaw, Paris, and Chicago). It was congruent with the Polish insurgent tradition, as well as the memories of the ancient levée en masse    (Pol.: pospolite ruszenie) of the old Commonwealth. Otherwise, there would not have been a Polish military.

Fifth, soon the professionalization of the Polish Army ensued. Even Böhler admits this much: “Had the majority of Polish soldiers not conformed to discipline, the days of the Second Republic would most probably have been numbered” (p. 166). Sixth, the old Commonwealth was heterogenous, and the minorities – including the Germans – faithful to the king and the Parliament (Pol.: Sejm). The partitions alas, undermined the loyalty. Despite assimilation of many among the minorities, some chose de-assimilation. The process was adversely compounded by waves of outside emigrants, who cherished no historic links with the Commonwealth and Polishness. Let us mention just the Litvaks or the Prussian colonists. Seventh, they all inhabited the lands of the old Commonwealth (whether or not they fell subsequently under a foreign jurisdiction). The Poles expected that the newcomers, as well as the native minorities, would also endeavor to restore the Commonwealth. They were disappointed, but that is another story. Perhaps one cannot enter the same river twice after all.

All conscious Polish patriots focused on the restoration project. This was their ideal. That they failed in their strategic goal, that they had to compromise with the Soviets at Riga in 1921, reflects the weakness of reborn Poland, which only by sheer miracle emerged victorious in 1920.

Meanwhile, the enemies of Poland, thus constituted, threatened the emerging Polish state with their nationalist aspirations in a variety of ways. If the Poles desired independence, when faced with such a negation, they had no choice but to fight them all. This was a typical conflict of interest, extremely difficult to solve. In fact, what they had on their hands was a zero sum game: a victory for one side spells a disaster for the other; there was no way to compromise and to modify the game. The commencement of a zero sum game describes aptly the situation in Poland in 1918. Böhler fails to grasp it. Thus, we have his desperate efforts to construct an artificial prism to view those complex processes through. Thus, we deal with his obsession about an alleged “civil war.”

As a matter of fact, Böhler is not even original here. The concept of “a civil war” serves as a sledge hammer to smash the idea of the nation state, to compromise it. His “Central European Civil War” (p. 9), stems from the currently fashionable thesis about “European civil wars”. Enzo Traverso, among others, popularized this take in his Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945 (London: Verso, 2017).

According to this argument, the First and Second World Wars were fratricidal civil wars triggered by nationalisms. Really? So Belgium or Bulgaria launched the First World War and Poland and Denmark the Second one? This is nonsense. Yet, at that time, the dominant paradigm of those small states was nationalism. No one reasonable blames these countries – and other small nations – for global slaughter between 1914-1918 and 1939-1945.

On the contrary, no one sane holds them responsible. The guilt rests firmly with the imperialism, chauvinism, and nationalism of the Great Powers, in particular Germany and Russia: the Second and Third Reich and the Romanov Empire and the Soviet Union.   Böhler shrewdly endeavors to dump the blame on the dwarves, when the giants are at fault. He smears Warsaw with the imperialist sins of Moscow and Berlin. The historian, either consciously or subconsciously, would like to spread the guilt that squarely belongs to Germany and Russia onto others, Poland in particular.

In light of this post-modernist dissimulation exercise, it is obvious why Böhler considers the federalist ideas of Józef Piłsudski as Polish imperialism. “Although at first sight the Belweder’s ‘federal’ concept appears tolerant in a modern way, in its core there was an imperialist twist, aimed at expanding its borders as far east as possible.” (pp. 29-30). Thus, a parity scheme emerges:  Piłsudski = the Kaiser = the Tsar = Lenin = Stalin = Hitler. They were all imperialists, weren’t they. And therefore, the historian rejects the idea of the Polish fighting a war of “de-colonization” against Bolshevik Russia. A Polish imperialist cannot be a victim of colonialism (i.e., the partitions) because he is the victimizer himself. Instead, Böhler argues: “While this interpretation applies in the Asian and Caucasian parts of the former Imperial Russia, it does not in the Polish Kresy, where the ‘de-colonized’ Polish heirs to the vanished empires used practices of colonial rule to control and subdue their ethno-national rivals. This was the tragic result of the transition of Polish nationalism from inclusive to exclusive which had occurred in the nineteenth century, when, with the words of Brian Porter, it ‘began to hate’” (p. 191).

But post-modern liberalism loves so much that it finds it obligatory to view the presence of the Poles and their culture in the east as colonialism. And never mind that most of our nobility there was ethnically Ruthenian and Lithuanian. For the benefit of this sort of a narrative, they morphed into Polish “ethno-nationalists”, “colonialists”, and “imperialists.”

Thus, those awful Poles are equally responsible for wars as the Germans and Russians. They are no better. This is a very suave way for the evildoers to dump their own sins on their victims. Thus, the victims are doubly victimized: first, through violence; second, through besmirching their honor. This sort of disinformation has a long pedigree and started in the 18th century with Prussian and Muscovite anti-Polish propaganda. It succeeds because of the general ignorance in the West of Polish affairs.

For example, only a few understand that Piłsudski’s federalism and Dmowski’s incorporationism were only just variants to restore the old Commonwealth that had been destroyed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria between 1772 and 1795. What kind of imperialism was that? This was merely an attempt to restore the status quo ante. In addition, it was the defense of Poland and Europe from Communism.

To grasp the significance of this epochal struggle, one must first understand what Communism was and what Soviet Russia was bearing on its bayonets.  Böhler virtually overlooks this lethal threat. He refers to it as “the Bolshevik modernization project” (p. 152). Indeed, it consisted mainly of barbed wire and mountains of human skulls. And it took a superhuman effort of the restored Commonwealth and its mostly volunteer troops to thwart the Communist attempt to spread the revolution to the West: the only time the Red Army was ever defeated in the field and actually lost the war. And it was not a civil war. It was a clash of civilizations.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

Washington, DC, 15 March 2020



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