Prof. Chodakiewicz Delivers Lecture on the Intermarium Between the World Wars

“The False Dawn: 1914-1939”

November 2, 2011  |  KOSCIUSZKO CHAIR

Intermarium Jagiellonians EnglishOn Wednesday, 19 October 2011, Prof. Marek Chodakiewicz - Professor of History and current holder of IWP's Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies - delivered a lecture on the Intermarium region. This event was the fourth in a series of biweekly brown bag lectures entitled "Intermarium: The Lands on the Edge."

For most of the nineteenth century, the region between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas was under the control of four exogenous empires: Prussia-Germany, Austria, Russia, and Turkey. These polities had expanded from their core areas outside of the Intermarium and eventually established their complete domination over the indigenous societies. 

Of particular importance in this process were several major events: the Turkish conquest of the Balkans, cemented by such Ottoman victories as the Battle of Kosovo Field (against a Serb-dominated army) in 1389; the Turkish victory over the Hungarians at Mohacs in 1526, bringing most of Hungary under the Ottoman yoke, and the remainder (along with Bohemia) under Habsburg rule; the Polish-driven victories against the Turks at Vienna and Parkany (1683), which allowed Austria to capture all of Hungary; and the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1772, 1793, and 1795), in which Russia seized most of its territory.

Yet, the native societies never completely reconciled themselves with the domination of these foreign empires, and the rise of modern nationalism during the nineteenth century certainly reinforced their resistance. The Poles, for example, launched five great anti-Russian uprisings (1772, 1791, 1794, 1830-1831 and 1863-1865), in addition to participating massively on the side of Napoleon (1795-1815). 

Ottoman domination was the first to crumble as a result of Turkish decline and foreign pressure. The Greeks were the first to break free, during the 1820s, whilst the other Balkan Christian nations managed to secure initial autonomy and eventual independence during the course of the nineteenth century. Yet, only the Balkan War of 1912 dislodged the Ottomans from most of the Balkans. 

The predicament of the remaining Intermarium nations to the north was more complicated, for only a major war between the great powers allowed them to (re)claim their independence. The cataclysm that was the First World War provided just such an opportunity, although the empires slogging it out for the Intermarium turned the region into a war zone. The lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Serbia were particularly devastated. The collapse of the three partitioning empires as a result of strains unleashed by a prolonged war enabled the reestablishment of indigenous, sovereign entities in the lands between the seas, such as: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Hungary was trimmed to about one-third of her former territory whilst Romania and Serbia (now the Kingdom Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which became Yugoslavia in 1929) were enlarged significantly. Even a short-lived Ukrainian republic appeared, only to be destroyed by the Bolsheviks.

Lenin's communists had seized control of Russia in an October 1917 coup and gradually consolidated their hold on the former Tsarist Empire in a bloody civil war (1917-1921). Their aims were not limited to the territories of the former Romanov realm, however, but laid claim to the entire world in the name of socialist revolution. In this context, revolutionizing Germany was of paramount importance for Sovietizing Europe. Poland and other Intermarium nations straddled the road to Germany, and thus had to be swept out of the way by the Red Army. Such was the origin of the Polish-Bolshevik War (1919-1921). Poland's victory safeguarded Europe from a Bolshevik-style revolution and secured the independence of the Intermarium states for almost two decades. 

Prof. Chodakiewicz also pointed out the important contribution of American volunteer pilots who formed the Kościuszko Squad to provide crucial air support to the Polish forces, in addition to 20,000 American Poles and Americans of Polish descent who volunteered to fight for Poland.

During the interwar period, both the Soviet Union and revanchist Germany continued to threaten the Intermarium. Yet, this danger failed to generate geopolitical unity in the region. The losers of the Versailles settlement - such as Hungary and Bulgaria - seethed in anger against such beneficiaries as Romania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Among the latter group, the relations between Warsaw and Prague were quite strained and laced with distrust. Moreover, folk-based ethnonationalism exacerbated conflicts between majority and minority populations, both within and without state borders, thereby further weakening Intermarium unity. During this time, it was only the Poles who embraced a universalistic cultural supra-nationalism based on Christian ethics and the legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Throughout the region, an inverse relationship reigned between the level of Christian influence on any particular nationalism, the less predisposed it was toward a neo-pagan deification of the nation.    

Yet, the multiple problems plaguing the interwar Intermarium paled in comparison to the situation in the Soviet Union. Initially, following the devastation wrought by the Bolshevik-generated civil war, Lenin implemented a series of limited pro-market concessions known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). This tactic, Prof. Chodakiewicz explained, reflected the host-parasite model upon which communism was based. The parasite (i.e. the regime) would gorge itself on the life essence of the host organism (society): releasing slightly when the latter appeared on the verge of exhaustion, and clamping down for another feasting once the host partially regained its strength. With this in mind, Lenin's successor, Stalin, scrapped the NEP and introduced collectivization and forced industrialization. In the process, collectivization consumed approximately 15 million lives (see e.g. the Terror Famine of 1932-1933) and the subsequent Great Purge claimed about 10 million additional victims, adding up to a whopping 25 million killed - well before Hitler commenced his Holocaust!

Prof. Chodakiewicz pointed out that the difference between his estimate and those of the revisionist school (approximately 3 million for the famine, and 1 million for the Great Terror) derives from the fact that the revisionists fail to take into account "unregistered" deaths. Yet, many deaths in the Gulag or resulting from the famine were not registered. The higher estimate is also further corroborated by the unofficial 1937 Soviet census result, which exposed a glaring gap of 25 million people.  

In addition to the Terror-Famine, the Soviet-ruled Intermarium also bled as a result of one of Stalin's many genocides, the Polish Operation of the NKVD (1937-1938). An ethnic cleansing campaign on the USSR's western border with Poland, the Polish Operation involved the mass murder of up to as many as 200,000 ethnic Poles. It must be emphasized that in this case, the communists clearly selected their victims according to their ethnicity. According to historians of the Great Terror in the Stalinist Soviet Union, ethnic Poles were, in fact, the most victimized national group.

Meanwhile, riding upon a wave of post-Versailles revanchism, political frustration, and economic discontent, a new menace arose on the western edges of the Intermarium. Following his rise to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler embarked upon a policy of rearming Germany with the aim of conquering "living space" (Lebensraum) in the mostly Slavic East-Central Europe, which meant German domination of the Intermarium. The Poles realized this, and pitched to the French the idea of a preemptive strike against Hitler's Germany in 1934. Yet, these feelers came to naught as a result of pacifistic sentiments in Paris.  

Although officially anti-Communist, Hitler's National Socialism often closely resembled Soviet Communism. Not surprisingly, Stalin secretly referred to Hitler as the "icebreaker of the revolution," who would light Europe aflame. According to Soviet strategic doctrine, the ensuing conflict would feature a replay of the First World War. The two "capitalist" camps would eventually succumb to war fatigue and revolution, enabling the Soviets to extinguish the fire and Bolshevize Europe. With this thinking in mind, Stalin signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact with Hitler on 23 August 1939. This infamous treaty partitioned Poland and the Baltic states between Moscow and Berlin and sparked the Second World War. As a result, the two totalitarian aggressors carved up the Intermarium amongst themselves. The Germans thus gained western and central Poland, in addition to subordinating Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria as satellites. The Soviets, in turn, subjugated eastern Poland, parts of Romania and Finland, and the Baltic states. Yet, the two aggressive totalitarianisms were, by their very nature, incapable of peaceful coexistence.              

The Armageddon which befell the Intermarium during and directly following the Second World War shall be the subject of Prof. Chodakiewicz's lecture, which shall take place on Wednesday, 2 November, at 2PM.