[in:] Historie trudnych alternatyw. Dylematy polityczne czasów zaborów i II RP, Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej, Cracow 2012.
Points of view
It is known that the field of view depends on the place of observation. The higher we stand, the more we can see, although broadening the horizon will result in losing numerous important details from the area of observation. The same is the case when we try to travel in time. If we look at current things, we can see them in detail (at least have a chance to see them this way). We do not always know, however, what is important and what will last. Intuition may be misleading, and the media clutter does not always offer the right measure for assessment of various phenomena. What is worse is that – unlike in the case of topographical observations, where we simply look for elevated places with good visibility – it is difficult to find anything equally useful here. In theory, the necessary distance will appear after years. How many of them need to pass, however? Sometimes just a few or a few dozen is enough for the general situation to change. But does that mean that the perception is better when we gain new experience? Not necessarily. A lot of time would have to pass so that emotions disappear and all cause and effect relationships become visible, but the question will remain - or may even become the main problem - who the person giving answers will be, and what his listeners will be interested in.
A few examples. If we had asked about Poland before 1914 and expected rational answers, they could not ignore the tough realities set out by the numbers illustrating the military potential of the countries interested in keeping the Polish case in non-existence, disregard the outcome of the pro-independence efforts of the 19th century, as well as the disputes within the Polish public, which was extremely divided regarding all important issues. It would have been a very pessimistic picture from the Polish point of view. One should not be deluded about the assessment of chances of not only regaining – even in the rump shape – of the statehood, but also even about making the next attempt in this respect. What is more, even the survival of the Polishness in the long term might have raised doubts in the face of the assimilation policy conducted by the partitioners. Ethnic statistics dispelled all illusions.
The global conflict that broke out in August 1914 changed everything in this respect. The manner in which the Polish elites took advantage of the opportunity must arouse admiration: their actions taken in the years 1914-1921, assessed from the point of view of their results, could be an example of a nearly optimum strategy. Given the fact that they were conducted at many centres, in the conditions of fierce competition, with a limited possibility of coordinating the actions, their results are even more impressive. Taking advantage of the new opportunities, they, simultaneously, tried not to disturb one another, acting in such a way as not to ruin the gains achieved by the competition. Consequently, over a few years a state with the aspirations of a local superpower was created out of nothing. It is difficult to deny that everything took place in really favourable external circumstances which lasted for a short period of time – after all, in the deteriorating political situation, the state managed quite well, and that good period was put to an and by the disaster in the form of the next world war.
The problem of the inevitability of the disaster is the key issue which is worth coming back to. Disregarding that issue now, if we made the assessment from the point of view of the late 1930s, it would not be positive at all; in contrast to the one made just twenty years earlier. The state quitened the propaganda conducted against its own borders, achieved detente with its main neighbours, and its aspirations influenced, to a growing extent, the manner in which it was perceived by the partners. The ethnic problems, poverty, unpopularity of the authoritarian dictatorship – all of it limited the possibilities of the state. After all, the young demographic age of its society was not only a source of problems; the Polish culture preserved its vitality and assimilation attractiveness, and the direction in which the political system would evolve after Piłsudski’s death was not determined. There was a possibility – which was not very likely, but existed anyway – that the relationships will return to the path of the constitutional law and order, which was supported by the tendency to keep political relations with the West. In general, the internal problems of that state looked serious, but the situation was not hopeless, and the disaster was brought about by the discontinuation of the independence experiment.
Due to the fact that the topics discussed in the article encourage the reader to speculations, it is difficult not to mention here the humorous attempt made ten years ago by Rafał Ziemkiewicz. Given that a significant number of mistakes made in the economic and military policy was avoidable, he assumed that under a different leadership Poland could survive the German invasion of 1939. Skilfully and effectively organised defence effort (which succeeded in Finland), and, consequently, aggressor’s big losses, defeat of Hitler and Stalin’s withdrawal from his actions – it is, naturally, pure imagination, a drastic difference between the dreams and reality. However, given all consequences of the tragic September, it is not an absurd to assume that without that disaster our history would have been different. It is quite possible that the positive tendencies noticed in the late 1930s could have strengthened, and it is even more justified to speculate about the possible positive consequences of the actions taken by that huge group of talented people which, as a result of the series of disasters which began in 1939, lost their lives or were not able to demonstrate their talents. It is also quite obvious that our elites today would look different and would be made up by different people.
Naturally, the consequences of the World War II impose a different point of view, i.e. much less favourable, and it is a lasting phenomenon. As a result of living for half a century in extreme conditions, or ones which caused a civilizational decline, Poland was downgraded to the role of a secondary state – one with small social dynamics, really limited development potential and little attractiveness (also in the cultural dimension). Even though after 1989 the barriers which used to block that development disappeared, a big part of our partners had been able to take advantage of its benefits for a long time. It is hardly surprising that in such a situation a tendency appeared to perceive the cultural heritage in terms of a burden rather than value. It would be different, if it was the other way around. But that “new reality” which emerges is hardly enchanting. As early as before the war, moralists frequently complained that in our conditions, political disputes tended to resemble scuffles of farm workers rather than sword duels. And they were quite right, but... what would they say today, if they had an opportunity to look around. The eruption of crudeness – to put it mildly – is particularly difficult to justify when it happens within a society which is incomparably better educated than the pre-war one, and, statistically, much older. If as early as before the war the signs of aggression were connected with the dynamics of a demographically young society, then today – when it is aging much faster – they may, at most, deepen the impression of decadence and decline.
The whole situation affects the scale of social aspirations. The desire to build a sovereign state – not only in declarations – supported by the belief in the possibility of achieving such an objective, does not capture the public imagination today. It is the element of the mental atmosphere in which it is probably the most difficult to look for connections between the contemporary times and the period which ended in 1939. It would be difficult not to consider it as characteristic, that the anti-independence satire Dzieje głupoty w Polsce created by Aleksander Bocheński after the World War II in the atmosphere of defeat, had, it total, four editions – including one after 1989. It was a sign of the times, which can also be said about the dissemination of pessimistic assessments both of the history of Poland, and its current (and future) shape. The question whether the widely disseminated collective complexes create a better, more stable ground for the current activity, which takes into account rational arguments, than the national megalomania can be considered to be a rhetorical one. Certainly they do not. Naturally, the best thing is to have one’s feet firmly on the ground, although it is not always easy to determine where that “ground” is. Mistakes are unavoidable here. However, although mass illusions may help activate social energy, which, if used rationally, may create lasting works, then pessimism combined with the conviction that certainly nothing will succeed has not built anything anywhere yet.
After all, traumatic experience was a fact, and the memory of it should not surprise; similarly, it is difficult not to consider the efforts aimed at avoiding further national disasters as justified.
A fascinating question which is asked and we cannot escape is: do we still deal with the long-term consequences of the state’s collapse in the 18th. century? What is the actual scale of those consequences? How much do we have to reduce the scale of the collective aspirations in order prevent Poland’s environment from forcing corrections again? Is it true that after the lost 19th century there was not and there is not a more favourable scenario for the reconstruction than only formal stabilisation of sovereign statehood, which, in reality, is entangled in a system of dependencies which stifles development? Does an attempt at going beyond dependencies always have to lead to a disaster? The Second Polish Republic, assessed from a pessimistic point of view, would seem as a sort of mistake of history, corrected after 20 years. However, maybe its collapse was just some kind of an accident, a result of an unfortunate coincidence, not connected with the fact that Russia and Germany were our neighbours, but rather with the fact that Poland’s neighbours were at that time ruled by aggressive dictators, which was a disaster both for their neighbours and themselves.
In Aleksander Bocheński’s interpretation, what was already the harbinger of the disaster was elites’ decision to adopt the programme of building a regional superpower after 1918. Currently (2009), a similar belief was expressed by Minister Radosław Sikorski, who called for “taking off the crown of thorns" and considering "to what extent the Polish defeats resulted from our mistakes and omissions”. He pointed out to the anachronistic and dangerous legacy of the Jagiellonian tradition, as well as the weakness of the structure of the re-born state, constituting a poorly integrated “bundle of contradictions” with a “patchwork” social structure, in which enclaves of modernity and “pre-modern” elements coexisted. In the context of the anniversary of the tragic September, which was commented on by the words quoted above, one can certainly indicate that the attacked country did not pursue a “Jagiellonian” policy, and the weaknesses of its internal structure did not have anything to do with the invasion. It is hard not to notice that numerous countries of a similarly (or more) "patchwork” structure exists until now, and the correction of excessive ambitions demonstrated by leaders of individual countries does not necessarily have to take the form of a bloodbath whose results later preserve decades of collective “purgatory”.
The problem, however, does not lie in weighing arguments, as we do not deal here with an academic dispute. Pronouncements of politicians may reflect their own views, but, at the same time, they are a reflection of social mood and desires. While the Third Polish Republic does not want to enter the path of risk, playing it safe, the Poland reborn in 1918 did that without qualms of that type, and the only thing it might have been afraid of was losing time.
If a wise foreign policy allows us – Roman Dmowski wrote to one of his associates in 1919 – on this basis we may become one of the biggest nations in Europe. With the area nearly as big as that of Germany, with more coal than any other country on the continent, with oil, with the Russian market just next to us (...), finally, with fast population growth, in a few dozen years we may be as populous as Germany. And then we won’t be afraid of anybody – except for God.
September 1939 – in the words of Barbara Tuchman – separates us from that period as a strip of scorched land. Today we think differently than that generation - we are stripped of illusions and, first of all, statistically much older.
Speculations about alternative solutions
The risk of implementation of a regional quasi-superpower programme, which is obvious from today's perspective, was noticed by people living at that time. In Poland, it was not always the case, but outside Poland, that risk was clearly noticed.
Once – Francesco Nitti, an Italian liberal politician, wrote in September 1921 – Poland’s borders reached from the Baltic in the north to the Carpathian Mountains and the Dniester in the south, as far as to Smoleńsk to the east, and from the side of Germany, in the west, to Brandenburg and Pomerania. Today’s patriots dream about a huge Poland, about a former, traditional Poland, and want to venture into the vast steppes of Ukraine and seize new countries. It’s easy to predict that sooner or later, once the Bolshevik degeneration has been overcome, Russia will come back to its strength, and Germany, against all attempts at rolling up and destroying its unity, will in 30 or 40 years become the most dangerous ethnic mass of the European continent. What will happen then to Poland, which tries to separate the two nations, which in terms of their population and in other areas are and will be the two biggest powers of tomorrow’s Europe?
As was the case for numerous liberal politicians at that time, Francesco Nitti did not like Poland – his book, quickly translated into Polish (1923), caused outrage in our country. After all, it turned out that the disaster of the reborn Republic of Poland happened before the lapse of the thirty or forty years which were announced. To put it mildly, any suggestions that Poland had aggressive intentions was a great exaggeration – they were not necessary to lead to the formation of a coalition which was lethal to Poland and then took actions.
Although there are no reasons for idealising the foreign and internal policy of the reborn Republic of Poland, it is difficult to indicate what it could do and should have done in those circumstances in order to avoid a disaster. If we tried to create alternative scenarios of actions (which, however, would take into account the realities), the range of the possible solutions is quite limited. In particular, it is difficult to indicate a more promising or, at least, a safe strategy. Even if we assumed (which is impossible) that the subsequent course of actions was so predictable that the decision-makers should have done everything to change it.
It refers to speculations on the possibility of Józef Beck’s pursuing a different policy from the one he pursued. When we clearly see its weaknesses, we need to be aware of the fact that, after all, the events could have been much worse. If – for instance – in spring 1939 we had rejected the British guarantees as insufficient and deepening Hitler’s anger, what would have been the most likely result of such a decision was Poland’s deeper isolation and the fact that the German invasion would not have led to the outbreak of the European war. It is likely that it would have broken out later and irrespective of the speculation about the role of the Polish issue in it, there are no grounds to conjectures that it would have looked better than it actually did. Disregard for the political consequences of the German invasion in the form of declaring the war on Hitler by the western allies is the result of the pressure of the interpretations inherited by Polish People’s Republic. They (it, unfortunately, also applies to the interpretations used in today’s textbooks) emphasise the alliance’s military inefficiency, but the fact that it meant the beginning of World War II is somehow ignored.
And what if another policy had been pursued at least from the autumn 1938, or even from 1934, and the non-aggression pact with Germany had developed into a political and military alliance? It is hard to forget here about limitations of internal nature connected with the preferences of the public. Germany was universally distrusted, whereas France was loved. Obviously, the less and less popular authoritarian regime was strong enough to suppress any resistance – after all, using repressions it would have done so in order to defend the actions resulting in deepening dependence on Germany, territorial concessions, and, finally, complicity in crimes against humanity – against people defending their sovereignty and basic human rights.
Consequently, the costs of such a policy would have been extremely high, and benefits doubtful. Speculating on the possibility behind such an alliance, it is difficult to forget about the fact that the potential of the Second Polish Republic was quite insignificant in the context of the imminent global confrontation. It limited both Poland’s place in the alliance with Hitler, and the chances for exerting by it any significant influence on the war's general outcome. In other words, in my opinion the likelihood of the Polish-German parade in Moscow was smaller than putting Poland permanently among the countries which were co-responsible for the war, with all consequences of such a situation. It means that the general assessment could be much more gloomy than the one we struggle with today. In a nutshell, we would have had a Yalta imposing the Soviet domination of Poland – without the western lands, but with a store of justified accusations of complicity in the extermination of the Jewish population.
Given the combined potential of Germany and the USSR, as well as the nature of both totalitarian systems trying to dominate the world, independent Poland did not stand a chance of survival, even if we assume that the mistakes made would not have taken place. What was such a – fatal – mistake of the Piłsudski/Beck policy was to get involved in the competition with Czechoslovakia, which had disastrous consequences for the efforts to organise a strong and independent political entity in the form of lasting cooperation of the countries located between Germany and Russia. However, the chances for organising such cooperation were illusory, irrespective of the weaknesses of the Polish and Czechoslovak policy – in view of the counteractions taken by the superpowers interested and concerns of the countries from the region about entering into an open conflict with them. They had quite concrete reasons to express such concerns, as the possibility of a potential coalition, even if it had happened, would not have balanced the threat. Although it does not justify the actions taken by Warsaw and Prague, there are no reasons to believe – as Jędrzej Giertych did in his memoirs – that in 1938 we could jointly defeat Hitler.
Both the economic statistical data which show that the course of the crisis was more severe in Poland than in other countries with a similar economic structure, and the examples of incompetence and lack of understanding of the situation included in the memoirs of Ministry of Treasury officials as well as Piłsudski’s associates justify the speculations on the possibility of more active measures reducing losses. One cannot rule out that with a different monetary policy the domestic product would have been higher, and, consequently, the treasury receipts, including the military budget, would have increased. However, apart from the fact that a different policy was not possible under Piłsudski, the hypothetical benefits (assuming they were possible to achieve) would not have changed our chances in 1939. It also applies to the discussions on the possible consequences of a different human resources policy in the army, and bigger imagination in the use of the funds earmarked for military purposes. At best, we could defend ourselves longer, incurring, accordingly, more losses – however, the comparison of our and our allies’ military potential on one hand with that of (both) opponents on the other hand leaves no illusions about it.
To the extent to which deliberations on an alternative policy are limited to speculations about the consequences of avoiding the May Coup they may be considered to be futile. The Coup resulted from inefficiency of the parliamentary democracy in the shape in which it was established by the 1921 constitution. It is quite possible – I also believe so – that the system did not function as inefficiently as Piłsudski and the part of society which supported him thought – after all, survival of a political system based on the public opinion is, finally, the function of social moods. Those moods, however, were not favourable to it – frustrations were visible in all milieus, accompanied by all consequences for politicians’ and their supporters’ behaviour.
The ethnic policy was a source of numerous problems. Given the later resentments, one could wish it had been different. It did not result from any sadistic inclinations of the ruling nation or particular lack of the leaders’ imagination, but at least to the same extent was a consequence of a situation in which a significant group of Polish citizens was included in that country against their will.
I do not think that the mistakes made at the stage of its establishment led to the country’s disaster in 1393. Recovery of the land under the Prussian rule and Silesia led to a strong Polish-German antagonism, which would have been visible also if the scale of the claims had been smaller. Given the mood in Germany, one could have doubts as to whether even the border based on the 1914 line could be the basis for subsequent harmonious relations. The war hecatomb of 1914-1918 made inevitable expectations of compensation, which the Polish public could not accept in a situation in which Germany lost the war... In the east the situation was dynamic; more far-reaching plans overlapped the need to react to various current problems. It is worth pointing out in this context that the Polish-Ukrainian war for Lviv broke out before a centre able to take responsibility for the course of the actions formed in Poland. Wherever there was no possibility of steering, any discussions about alternative scenarios become futile.
It also applies to the 1920 confrontation. Its result corresponded to the military potential of both sides, and it is pointless to ponder another course of the military operations, as well as speculate about the effective Polish-Ukrainian cooperation in the military area. Actually, one can imagine that after the summer solstice Poland, as was the case in the previous year, would have evaded the peace negotiations – after all, contrary to the legend, the difference between Poland’s and Soviet Russia’s forces did not give good prospects for the conflict entering the next, 1921, year. Earlier there was no chance either for effective political and military cooperation with the “white” Russia (about which after years Józef Mackiewicz bore grudges against Piłsudski), or for organising a consistent anti-Russian coalition of the nationalities which made up the Russian Empire.
And maybe constructing a state politically based on the western allies was a mistake? Well, but what to do about the fact that it was them who won the Great War? What certainly was an alternative vision of the Polish statehood was the project of building the state on the basis of the Act of 5th November, announced in 1916 by the emperors of Germany and Austria. Had the war’s outcome been different, it was quite likely that Poland would have ended up as a small country based on an ethnographic “body”, which would have been deprived of, at least, the land of the Prussian Partition, which was politically dependent on Germany. Although – if we compared it with the status quo preceding the year 1914 – its appearance would have, undoubtedly, constituted some progress, its inhabitants would have had to take into account the possibility of barriers being in place which were not a problem before 1914. It mainly concerned the prospects for development of industrial infrastructure, which were doubtful in the face of opening the market up for competitors from the Reich, but, first of all, due to the consequences of the requisition policy pursued in the territory of the Kingdom of Poland by the occupying authorities. The inability to resist them by the authorities of the proclaimed Polish state compromised them in the eyes of the general public, which fuelled disappointment and frustration among the political milieus which were oriented on Germany and Austria-Hungary.
As was the case with other new countries (the biggest of them being Ukraine), such a small Poland would have been an industrial and agricultural base for the Reich. It is doubtful as to whether it could, at least, expect the stability of such a situation in the face of the problems brought about by the stormy 20th century. Apart from the external threats of Mitteleuropa (where speculations are the most risky), it would have certainly suffered as a result of tensions and internal conflicts. The number and size of national minorities within it would have been much bigger than in the post-Versailles reality. All those problems would have undoubtedly surfaced during the next global shake-up. If – with journalistic exaggeration – we treated a state constructed in such a way as the precursor of the Third Polish Republic, then there are no grounds to assume that it would have survived without major shake-ups until today; and given its rump nature, there are also no grounds to assume that the problems which dogged the Polish People’s Republic and those which we experience today would have been less severe. But this is pure speculation...
What was possible...
The orientation on the western allies was devoid of the majority of the weaknesses indicated in the project implemented as part of the Act of 5th November. The reviving country could be bigger, which translated into its ability to survive and attractiveness. Any programme of building a regional quasi-superpower did not have the support of the allies, which perceived it as a too far-reaching one, did not make an attempt at counteracting the Polish actions – and the determination with which they were taken led both to criticism and respect.
What was common for the action taken by the National Democracy and the milieus which supported Piłsudski was the aspiration to build the Polish state as a big and strong entity, able to play an active role in the international arena. Those actions were taken with the freedom of movement which was unthinkable before 1918, which was possible thanks to the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy and Germany’s defeat (let’s point out that Russia was out of the game earlier). The choice of their direction was the outcome of the intentions and assessment of the situation conducted on an ongoing basis. What was within the range of actual possibilities and what was actually achieved should be treated as a type of final check on the plausibility of competitive concepts. It is obvious that political planning does not include a very distant time horizon, and refers to what can be predicted and what can be explained rationally. The same is the case today. After 1918 it was expected that the aversion to Bolshevism and anti-German resentment would persist, that the stalemate with Russia devastated by the civil war would prolong, and that the cooperation between the victorious allies, mainly the Great Britain and France, would be continued on a permanent basis. Most of these assumptions turned out to be too optimistic, which does not mean, however, that – if one had looked into the future more sceptically – some actually ‘better”, alternative path of actions could be seen. In particular, there are no grounds to speculate that Poland would have had bigger chances of survival as a smaller country. It is true it would have been easier for the neighbours to accept, and it would have defended itself at least against some problems resulting from its ethnic structure. The problem is that in the situation in question it was less important than the military potential and determination of the group which ruled to defend the sovereignty. The example of the Czechoslovak Republic, which fell victim to Hitler’s policy a year earlier than the Second Polish Republic – despite the fact that it was a country with incomparably more cohesive internal structure, similar to western countries in terms of civilisation, and which pursued a much more liberal policy towards its minorities than Poland – makes one think.
There is a lot to think about. This is due to the fact that if the 1939 disaster had actually been an unavoidable cataclysm, then we can feel exempted from deliberations on our participation in that disaster. If, however, it did not happen or was unimportant, then there is no need to beat one’s breast or reject as potentially dangerous any elements of the political project shattered by September 1939. It is true that we probably have fewer assets today than during the interwar period. However, some of them still remain.
 P. Łossowski, Polska w Europie i świecie 1918-1939, Warsaw 1990, pp. 86-97.
 R. Ziemkiewicz, Żadnych marzeń, [in:] (by that author), Cała kupa wielkich braci, Lublin 2002.
 A. Bocheński, Dzieje głupoty w Polsce. Pamflety dziejopisarskie, Warsaw 1947, p. 17.
dla__Gazety___1_wrzesnia___lekcja_historii.html#ixzz1cs1rppi3). See also: A. Wolff-Powęska, Wspólnota ponad krzywdami, “Rzeczpospolita” of 14-16 August 2009.
 As cited in: R. Wapiński, Narodowa Demokracja 1893-1939. Ze studiów nad dziejami myśli nacjonalistycznej, Wrocław 1980, p. 176.
 F. Nitti, Europa bez pokoju, Warsaw 1923, p. 77.
 What is a separate problem is, obviously, the admissibility of such speculations. Alexander Demandt, the author of a fascinating book devoted to the “history that never happened”, which has recently been translated into Polish, basically rejected such a possibility. “Conjectures about history that never happened are taboo among historical scholars. Reflections upon possibilities that did not occur, hypothetical alternatives to what actually happened, are dismissed as idle fantasy, as frivolous speculation. How else it might have happened – that is no subject for a historian. As he writes no novels, designs no utopias, makes no prognoses, so he dispenses about speculations about possibilities. That kind of things leads into the unprovable and unbounded, is unscholarly, indeed is not even susceptible of scholarship, and should be left to poets and dreamers. The virtues of the historian's trade include conscientiousness, soberness and objectivity” (A. Demandt, Historia niebyła, Warsaw 1999, p. 9). Why did he write his book them?
 Although before 1989 it was logical, because it deepened anti-western phobias, currently sticking to them is doubtful - but maybe not to everybody.
 See J. Giertych, Stronnictwo Narodowe a kryzys dziejowy 1938, London 1987.
 See: P. Johnson, Historia świata (od roku 1917), London 1989, pp. 116-150.
 More on that: W. Suleja, Tymczasowa Rada Stanu, Warsaw 1998, pp. 141-151.
 K. Lundgreen-Nielsen, The Polish Problem at the Paris Peace Conference. A Study of the Policies of the Great Powers and the Poles, 1918-1919, Odense 1979, pp. 90-91. Cf. P. Latawski, Roman Dmowski, the Polish Question, and Western Opinion, 1915-1918: The Case of Britain, [in:] The Reconstruction of Poland 1914-1923, London 1992, pp. 8-10; P. Wandycz, Dmowski’s Policy at the Paris Peace Conference: Success or Failure, [in:] The Reconstruction of Poland…, Op. cit. p. 129.
 It was believed – and that view was more widespread among the Poles – that a weak Polish state would not survive between Germany and Russia, in particular as an independent entity (M. Kornat, Polityka równowagi 1934-1939. Polska między Wschodem a Zachodem, Kraków 2007, p. 61).