The Western Elites and the Intermarium: A Long Story of Bias

April 26, 2012  |  KOSCIUSZKO CHAIR

In his fifteenth and final lecture on the lands between the Black and Baltic Seas ("Intermarium: The Elite Views and Some Conclusions") on Wednesday, April 18, 2012, Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz addressed an enduring trend of Western elite bias towards Central and Eastern Europe.  

Generally, Westerners perceive the Intermarium as a fringe, as opposed to a distinctive region. It is, to use the sexy jargon of post-modernist academia, the ultimate "Other." The Intermarium, which has been a staunch defender of Western Civilization since the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, is all too often dismissed as a mere borderland or transition zone between more relevant powers, such as Germany and Russia.

One of the chief culprits of this neglect was the partitioning of the Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian Commonwealth at the end of the eighteenth century. Since then, the confused local elites failed to maintain a united, indigenous narrative of the Intermarium's history, while the partitioning powers (Russia, Prussia, and Austria) took care to portray the old Rzeczpospolita's history in the most unflattering light possible. After all, they wished to legitimize their conquests. Thus, the courts in Petersburg, Berlin, and Vienna awarded scholarships to cooperative pundits and scholars. One of them was the luminary of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire, who portrayed Poland-Lithuania as a pitiful bastion of benightedness and clericalism - without having once set foot in the lands of the Commonwealth. Many would follow his example by projecting their views onto an unfamiliar place (Poland, or the Intermarium in general) to utilize it as a vehicle to attack ideas they themselves hate.

Moreover, the Commonwealth had disappeared when history arose as a scientific discipline during the nineteenth century. During this time, the West was taught through the medium of the necessarily biased German intellectual model. Its famous exponent, the great Leopold von Ranke, who tediously researched the history of his own native Germany and even adjacent Italy failed to demonstrate a modicum of interest in the Intermarium.

Little changed once the three partitioning empires collapsed and the countries on the western edge of the Intermarium regained their independence. From the very beginning, Poland continued to be viewed as reactionary and anti-Semitic, in spite of the fact that some of the first legislation passed by the newly-sovereign Polish state included universal suffrage (extended to women as well), an eight-hour working day, and equal rights for minorities. During the interwar period, most of the new states between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic were viewed in a negative light, save for Czechoslovakia, whose official progressive rhetoric endeared Prague to the liberal and democratic West.       

This prejudice toward Central and Eastern Europe made the West fertile ground for Stalinist propaganda during the Second World War. As the Iron Curtain dropped, propaganda stereotypes were frozen for half a century as a result of blocked access to archives, and even the implosion of communism failed to thaw these stereotypes out. Instead, these gained a new lease of life while coalescing with novel trends, such as post-modernist deconstruction. In effect, crude Stalinist lies were reinterpreted and spun in a sophisticated (and sometimes not so sophisticated) liberal manner. Until the 1980s, entire collections at the Hoover Institution, which showed the unmitigated horror of the Gulag, remained untouched. One of the reasons was the the wartime paradigm, according to which Hitler (rightly) represented a great evil, while Stalin was a liberator who struggled against the Nazis and, whatever his faults and crimes, was still preferable to the former. In fact, both were evil, as the history of the Intermarium readily attests. Only a veritable deluge of evidence countering this false and ahistorical image has forced a certain amount of "spin control," such as The Black Book of Communism, written by post-Trotskyites/Maoists/Stalinists (i.e. lapsed communists of various stripes) to prevent the Right from allegedly capitalizing on revelations about the enormity of communist crimes.

Even so, an unholy alliance of post-communists and left-liberals on both sides of the former Iron Curtain continues to retard the reconstruction of historical memory in the Intermarium. Yet, collective memories must be restored, in all their beauty and ugliness, which also involves dealing with nationalism without hysteria. Otherwise, Stalinist lies in liberal garb will persist.

Meanwhile, Washington either ignores the Intermarium or views the region through the lens of Sovietology, and now, post-Sovietology. This perspective includes a tendency to concentrate on Moscow; a reluctance to look beyond Soviet times; a reflex to demonize the nationalism of "small nations;" and a strong inclination to downplay post-communist continuities. A solution to this problem, Dr. Chodakiewicz emphasized, requires not only reconceptualization, but indeed an intellectual counter-revolution within our psyche, a task admittedly quite ambitious.