Poland's Future: Russian or German?

By Gregory Mason

[The Outlook, February 2, 1916]

It was midsummer of 1772. Catherine II of Russia, Joseph II of Austria, and Frederick the Great of Prussia had just divided Poland among themselves. "Now," it is said the great Frederick remarked, with unctuous satisfaction we may imagine, "Poland is a holy sacrament uniting Russia and Prussia. So long as she is in that position we will not fight each other."

The Poles have never relished the rôle that Frederick gave them, and since the first partition of Poland they have looked forward to a war between the huge Slav nation and the principal Teuton Power "as their great chance of escape from the tripartite shackles forged at St. Petersburg in August, 1772. Their more far-sighted leaders welcomed this war as men going to jail under guard would welcome a falling out among their captors.

But obviously the opportunity for freedom presented by the quarrel among the guards is thrown away if the prisoners themselves proceed to bicker as to the selection of an avenue of escape.

That is what the Poles have done. When Austria, Germany, and Russia, guardians of the remnants of ancient Poland, went to war, by united action the Poles might have won a large degree of autonomy. Instead, they have shown again the dissension that has been their fundamental fault since the vast kingdom of Boleslaus III in the twelfth century was rent asunder by the disagreements among his successors that ushered in the two centuries of the "partitional period." Austrian and German Poles have called on their brothers in Russia to join them, but some of their own number have gone over to the Czar. Russian Poles have urged all Poles to rely upon the promises of an autonomous Poland that Nicholas II and his Ministers have thrown out, but many Russian Poles, convinced that nothing can be expected from Russia, are fighting with the Teutons. A Russian Pole of noble birth; General Pilsudsky, who had a large estate near Minsk, sacrificed his property and friendships in Russia to organize a legion of 10,000 Russian Poles for the German army, who fought with maniacal fury in the campaign that saw the fall of Warsaw. The first regiments to enter the capital of the ancient kingdom were composed of Poles, and as many as 100,000 Poles, most of them Austrian, but some of them Russian, had a part in the drive on Brest-Litovsk.

The German Poles who try to persuade their Russian brethren to join them point to the superior civilization enjoyed by the Poles of Posen and to their advanced economic position. The Austrian Poles, arguing also for the success of Teutonic fortunes, point out that in Austria the Poles have more liberties than in Russia or Germany, and they call attention to the fact that nowhere are so many political posts open to Poles as in Galicia.

Admitting this, the majority of the Russian Poles contend that, since Germany, not Austria, is the dominant figure in the Dual Alliance, in the event of Teutonic victory Germany would determine what the policy of the Teutonic allies should be toward the Poles. This majority element of the Russian Poles, who counsel adherence to Russia, are perhaps the largest element among all Poles, and their position is worth analyzing.

These Poles prefer Russia to Germany, not because they love her more, but because they hate her less. They believe that Germany is a greater menace to their ambitions than Russia. Look at the map and see how Germany, even at the outbreak of war, half embraced Russian Poland.

"The Polish civilization is superior to the Russian civilization," an influential Pole who is outwardly loyal to Russia said to me. "That is because Poland, like western Europe, inherits her civilization from Rome. But Russia gets hers from Byzantium. Because of this Poland is more honest and moral than Russia. The western European countries, where Protestantism and Catholicism are superimposed on the civilization of Rome, are more honest than Russia, where Christianity is fused with a barbarous Oriental political system. The Pole and the west European get Roman law and Rome's standard of honesty with its Church, while even the barbarism inherited from Rome is an orderly barbarism. But even a fine religion like Christianity cannot always cope with the defects of the political system and traditions inherited by Russia from savage tribes. Nothing is so bad, nothing is so unreliable, as a half-breed. I consider a Negro superior to a mulatto and the mule is an atrocious character. So it is a question if Turkey is not superior to Russia in government and in collective honesty.

"But we Poles do not fear the inferior civilization of Russia as we fear the civilization of Germany, which is on a parity with our civilization. Our nationality is much more apt to be undermined by Germany than by Russia. In fact, the Russian colonies planted in Poland to destroy its national integrity have failed, because Russians cannot thrive in the rarefied atmosphere of Polish civilization.

"So the Poles hope to have Russia regain all ancient Poland, and then hope for a large measure of independence under Russian protection."

These views represent approximately the feeling of the most influential party among the Russian Poles, the National Democratic party. This party is made up largely of nobles, big landowners, and the aristocracy in general, and is ably led by Mr. Roman Dmowski, of Warsaw. To Poles of this kind the outlook is brighter than it was a year ago. At the outset of the war, on the suggestion of the French Government, it was agreed by the Triple Entente, according to reports which the Poles believed, that the terms of peace after the war, if the Allies were victorious, would be dictated by them, not determined by an international conference with neutrals represented. England, France, and Russia were each to have its particular sphere of influence. Poland was to be a Russian sphere. England and France retained the privilege to advise Russia in regard to Poland, but they yielded all decision to her.

This reported agreement dismayed the Russian Poles, who feel that from Russia alone they can expect nothing. But two developments of the past year of war have encouraged the Poles.

The first was Italy's entrance into the fighting on the understanding that her voice would be no less heard at the peace conference table than the voices of her three larger allies. This event displeased the Russian Government, but pleased the Poles.

The second was the retreat of Russia from the Carpathians to the present battle line and the capture by the Teutons of all Poland.

Owing to these two events, and particularly owing to the success of German arms in Poland, the Poles now feel that Russia alone will not have the power of shaping their future. If Russia regains Poland, it will be with the consent and to some extent by the aid of her allies, think the Poles. So it seems certain that after the war the Polish question will be an international one.

This will be true even if the end of the fighting finds the Kaiser's hand still clenched on Poland, for William II has already lost the war on the sea, and he can buy the liberation of his bottled dreadnoughts only by concessions ashore. So it seems settled that the Polish question will be one for international discussion. America's presence at the peace conference of the Powers would be welcomed by the Poles, for, as the influential Pole above quoted said, "with her passion for freedom and self-government America would naturally be an advocate of Polish self-government."

"Oh, if America would send only one warship against Germany!" this man sighed. But the Poles feel that America will be an influence in the determination of their future whether she enters the war or not, so great will be her economic strength by the time the last gun of the war has gone dumb. Therefore the Poles are trying now to mold American opinion.

The reason that the lot of the Poles in Austria has been better than the lot of their brothers in Russia and Germany is a political reason. In Austria proper there are eight principal competing nationalities, having their own interests and ambitions, their own languages and newspapers. As determined by the languages spoken by them, they are the Germans, Czechs, Slovenes, Poles, Rumanians, Ruthenians, Serbs, and Italians, The Teutons are in constant clash with the Czechs, and the Poles hold the balance of power between the two. When the Poles are with the Government it wins, when they are with the Czechs the Government breaks down. Consequently it has been the policy of the Government to conciliate the Poles, to allow them to speak their own language and to hold political office. In Galicia, in particular, the Poles have enjoyed a large degree of self-government.

But latterly, as Austria has been drawn closer to Germany by the pull of political exigencies, Germany has influenced her sister nation to treat her Polish subjects with more Prussian severity. Largely through Germany's influence, a few years ago Austria began to employ two weapons against her Poles. These two weapons were the Germans in Austria and the Jews in Austria. In commerce and in political life they were encouraged to compete against the Poles. During the half-decade just previous to the war the Poles were losing power rapidly and were beginning to view with great alarm the growing entente between the two central empires.

For the Prussians have ever been diabolically clever in their policy of Prussianizing their own Poles. The work of eliminating the spark of nationality which Frederick the Great began was accelerated after the futile Polish insurrections of 1831 and 1848, and it was particularly encouraged by Bismarck. Germany gives her Poles the material benefits of civilization, telephones, telegraphs, railways, etc., in much greater quantity than Russia gives these advantages to her Polish subjects. But in her systematic efforts to Germanize them she is much cleverer than Russia is in her attempts at Russification. Russia forbids the Polish language in schools and public institutions but the Russian officials sent to Poland are often obliged to speak Polish to be understood at all. Germany likewise forbids the Polish language, but Germany's officials with their greater respect for rules see that the prohibition is made effectual. Germany has successfully colonized much of her part of ancient Poland and has broken, down many of the racial barriers which the Poles would like to have maintained.

"Russia, by prohibitions and brutalities, makes life uncomfortable for us," one of the leaders of the Polish National Democratic party told me, "but she does not threaten our national integrity as Germany threatens it."

Therefore the programme of this party, which has its followers in all three Polands, is:

1. The assembling of ancient Poland under one government, Russia preferred.

2. Later, the constant increase of self-government until Poland eventually has a large degree of autonomy.

If all the Poles subscribed to this programme, we could admire their sagacity, for twenty million or more Poles united in one political entity could resist the strongest attempts at denationalization. But any one who knows anything of Polish character and Polish history would expect to find the Poles divided in their plans and hopes to-day. And so they are. As usual, we find the Poles at loggerheads with one another.

We can understand those Poles who are fighting to keep the commercial footholds or the political positions which they hold under Austrian or even under German regime, or who are fighting for Austria or Germany under compulsion. But what must we think of the Poles who refuse to admit that their fortunes are in any way bound to the fortunes of either Russia, Austria, or Germany?

"If you had to choose between Germany and Russia, which would you choose?" I asked a young Russian Pole of some prominence among the radical element of his people.

"Neither," he snorted, indignantly.

"But if you had to take one or the other?" I persisted.

"Neither—never either," was all he would say.

Arrant pride and egotism of this sort, an unwillingness to compromise when compromise is necessary, and an inherent incapacity for co-operation are the traits in Polish character that have made Poland's history a tragic history, and that will make it more tragic in the future unless these traits are suppressed.

For if Polish history, means anything, it means that long-continued Polish independence is impossible. The big kingdom of Boleslaus I fell apart because Poles could not live together amicably. Then in the fifteenth century, when Casimir IV was struggling with the Knights of Prussia, the gentry of Poland was so disloyal or so indifferent that the Polish King was obliged to hire Czech mercenaries to fight Poland's battles for him. Then, after the division of Poland, instead of supporting the liberal constitution secured in 1791, a small number of Polish nobles formed the traitorous confederation of Targovitza, and protested against the constitution as interfering with the ancient, privileges of these nobles. The result was that a Russian army invaded Poland, and the country was divided again in 1793. The subsequent rising under Kosciusko was on the brink of complete triumph when quarreling among the Poles ruined the cause of the fighting patriot. To give only one more instance of the fatal weakness of the Poles, consider the revolt that occurred in 1831, in spite of the liberal Constitution that Alexander I of Russia had given his Polish subjects in 1815. Polish independence was proclaimed. The Poles fought with their usual bravery, but with their usual bickerings and dilatoriness they allowed Warsaw to be retaken, and lost the struggle. If the history of any nation illustrates the converse of the proverb "In union there is strength," it is the history of Poland.

The real Polish question to-day is whether Poland is to exist under the protection of Russia or Germany; or, rather, the first question is whether Poland is to be reunited under one government or whether it is to continue divided, and, if it is to be united, the question then arises, under what auspices, Russian or German? For the two great Powers that have quarreled over Poland in the past, like two wolves quarreling over a sheep, cannot both be separated from the future fortunes of Poland, and it is better for the sheep to be given entirely to one wolf (to continue a somewhat unpleasant metaphor) than to be torn between the two. The worst enemies of Poland are those impractical Poles who cry for the immediate absolute independence of Poland, for this angers both Germany and Russia, and the sheep can throw off the grip of one wolf only with the help of the other, and alone can free itself from neither.

Between Russia and German Russia is the natural guardian for Poland to select. With the views on this question of the distinguished Russian Pole above quoted probably most impartial observers will agree, with the exception of his denunciation of Russia's civilization as barbarous, a tirade in which some inherited racial animosities came to the surface. Despite the bitternesses of the past, Poland is more indebted to Russia than to Germany, and the future of the Poles is more bound up with the future of their fellow-Slavs than with the future of the alien Teutons.

The world owes much to Poland for her services as "the Buckler of Christendom," a rôle in which she warded off many blows from the pagan East against the Christian West. The world cannot forget how that dauntless Pole, John Sobieski, threw back the Turks before Vienna in 1683. But the greatest faults of the Poles have resulted from her continued position as a buffer state, constantly subject to invasions. Poland developed a strong military caste, feudal in character. The armed nobles flourished at the expense of the merchants, tradesmen, and peasants, and to-day Poland is still handicapped by the wide rift that exists between her upper and lower classes.

A buffer state Poland has been and a buffer state she will continue to be. But her lot will be happier, if she is a Slav bulwark linked to Russia, used by Russia against Germanic onslaughts, but reinforced and protected by Russia, than if she is given a feeble independence and left to fear attacks both from east and west.

Moreover, Russia is the nation to whose greatest interest it is to reunite Poland, and there is a fair chance that if the Allies are victorious Poland will be reunited under Russian protection. .But even now, with German armies holding Poland, there is little chance that Germany can keep what she now has, for she must use some of it as a quid pro quo for the freedom of the seas that only England can give her.

The cause of the Poles really lies—and would that more of them could see it!-—with the cause of liberal constitutional government in Russia, unless the Poles in Europe wish to embrace the suggestion offered to some of them by an American war correspondent. This man was approached one day by a delegation of sad-eyed Poles who told him that by the might of his pen he could alleviate, perhaps end the sufferings of their people.

"How is that?" he asked.

"Well, we want you to write to your paper in America, urging all American Poles to sell all their property, get together all the cash they can lay their hands on, and come back to Poland to devote the funds to the needs of their unfortunate countrymen. If enough of them respond, we can buy the independence of our country."

The correspondent was silent a minute. Then, like a man in whose mind a great truth is dawning, he said, slowly:

"I have a better plan. It is the real and the only practicable solution to your troubles."

"What is that? Tell us at once," they asked, all eagerness.

"Why, all you Poles sell your property, get together your families, and go to America."

But it is not likely that the Poles will adopt this facetious suggestion, and unless they do so their salvation lies through the triumph of democratic principles in Russia. The pan-Slavists are right when they say that the little, narrow propaganda of the Poles is treason to a greater cause. The Polish question, like the Jewish question and the Finnish question, will be on the way to solution in Russia on the day of the establishment of a liberal, democratic government.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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