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“Poland, 1918-1945: A Review,”

Date: 11/11/04

First, a disclosure: I blush to report that my work received a favorable mark in Peter Stachura’s Poland, 1918-1945: An Interpretive and Documentary History of the Second Republic (London and New York: Routledge, 2004). This disclosure is relevant because Professor Stachura pits himself, and a tiny group of traditional historians of Poland, against those pundits whose works are all too often “full of opinions but scarcely any hard evidence” (p. 146).  He dubs the latter “the pessimistic school” (p. 2). Its adherents uniformly hold that pre-war Poland “was largely a failure” (p. 1). 

Professor Stachura cautions that “this verdict has often been shaped, or at least influenced to one degree or another, by political and ideological perspectives, most obviously during the Communist era in Poland, from 1945 until 1989” (p. 1). Censorship and the lack of academic freedom in Poland seriously limited the scope of independent scholarly endeavor by removing crucial topics like the Polish-Soviet War of 1920 and the Katyn Forest Massacre of 1940 out of the historical inquiry. Thus, Poland’s predicament was hardly ever scrutinized in its totality. In addition, both in the West and in Poland, many denizens of academe were either “card-carrying Communists or sympathizers,” or their liberal apologists, a vexing situation which persists to a certain extent to this very day. It was they who shaped the awful image of the interwar, free Poland, juxtaposing it scurrilously with “the putative egalitarian-proletarian ‘People’s Poland'” (p. 2). This Communist propaganda stereotype pervaded the discourse on the Second Republic to such a stultifying degree that even such fair minded scholars like Norman Davies felt obliged to pay lip service to it.

In other words, the Stalinist victors of the Second World War set the parameters within which it was permissible to discuss Poland. If they were to be taken seriously, both sympathetic and unsympathetic commentators had to situate themselves within the paradigm. Professor Stachura would have none of that. As a result, he has produced an incisive, vibrant, in-your-face, and much needed corrective on this crucial period of modern Polish history.

His textbook is divided into ten topical chapters. Within each, Professor Stachura discusses chronologically the most salient issues of the Second Republic, appending them with relevant contemporary documents. Stachura shows persuasively how Poland’s independence was regained and the state consolidated in the wake of the victory over the Soviets in 1920, Poland’s “founding myth”. He traces the evolution of its society and the developments in its economy, culture, and education. He navigates successfully through the shoals of Poland’s foreign policy and paints both a terrible and a heroic picture of the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland, delving into the resistance and the subsequent “defeat in victory.” Fighting Poland defied her “Two Enemies,” Stalin and Hitler, but was ultimately betrayed by her Western allies, destroyed in 1945, and subjected to the Soviet occupation until 1989.

Last but not least, Professor Stachura addresses the lot of the ethnic minorities in Poland and devotes a whole chapter to Jewish-Polish affairs during the Holocaust. Since his treatment of the minorities is sure to raise more than a few eyebrows, let me stress unequivocally that Professor Stachura has tackled the topic in a fair and balanced way. He correctly warns that hitherto the topic had been handled in a “blatantly tendentious” way (p. 80). Pace a legion of pundits, interwar Poland was not an oppressor nation, terrorizing its minorities. “An objective analysis of a wide body of pertinent information might well postulate that the long-standing historiographical consensus is ill-founded and unreliable, to put it no more strongly, and in urgent need of radical revision” (p. 80). And revise he does.

On the one hand, Peter Stachura depicts the great cultural, economic, and political achievements of the minorities, feats impossible if there had been real oppression. On the other hand, he stresses that the minorities lived in denial of the Second Republic. Most of them refused to become actively loyal citizens of Poland. In fact, most Germans and Ukrainians were openly hostile toward the Second Republic, while Jews and Belorussians at best remained passively detached from the Polish state. To complicate things, elements of class and ethnic struggle were often interwoven in Polish-minority relations and even Marshal Józef Piłsudski failed to disentangle them. Why? Simply heeding the minority demands for “ceding territory, or granting autonomy, federalism, or more assistance to their cultural aspirations” would have “compromised not only the integrity of the state, but also Poland’s very independence” (p. 89). Thus, according to Professor Stachura, throughout the interwar period the minorities chose to play the role of “an enemy within,” rather than that of constructive Polish citizens. The sad truth of the Second Republic is that it was mostly ethnic Poles who cared about her.

As for Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War, Professor Stachura correctly posits a radical discontinuity from the ante bellum period. He eloquently argues that

the most significant and fundamental influence on Polish-Jewish relations during the war was provided by sheer brutality and uncompromising character of the racial anti-Semitism and slavophobia which lay at the heart of the Nazi ‘New Order’ in Occupied Poland. To attribute blame to the Poles for the Holocaust, the ghastly culmination of Nazi racism is surely to diminish somehow the unique horror of Nazism and to come close to the morally and ethically dubious practice of ‘relativising’ it and the entire experience of the Third Reich. To end up shifting the blame from Hitler and his cohorts, even to the slightest degree, would be tantamount to historical revisionism of the very worst kind, a denial of overwhelming, unequivocal evidence to the contrary (p. 148).

Just as he is unapologetic in his particular treatment of Polish-Jewish affairs, Professor Stachura also gives short shrift to the prevailing scholarly stereotypes of a general sort. He concludes that “without any doubt… the Second Republic, far from being a failure as so many historians have claimed since the end of the Second World War, was, when all relevant factors and perspectives are duly taken into account, a rather remarkable success during the years from 1918 until 1939” (p. 182). Poland would not have collapsed because of any real and alleged “contradictions” had it not been for its predatory neighbors and the Second World War. Why should Poland be treated any differently than the Habsburg Empire? After all, it is now recognized that despite serious ills the Empire fell apart only because of the First World War. Without that, Austro-Hungary most likely could have and would have endured, albeit in a changed state. The same is true for Poland unless one continues to insist on applying crude determinism to the Second Republic.

Poland, 1918-1945 is a very thoughtful synthesis of our knowledge about the Second Republic. There will be surely alternative interpretations of some contentious issues. Let us consider one of them, for example. Peter Stachura (along with Joseph Rothschild, among others) claims that Piłsudski’s coup d’état was necessary to stabilize Poland. Wouldn’t an Endek seizure of power have done exactly the same? Given that, as the author readily admits, the Sanacja failed to deliver on its federalist promise for it lacked a broad base and mass ideology, and was met with minority hostility and indifference, would not an Endek dictatorship, widely popular that the Nationalists were among ethnic Poles, have been better for stability and order?  Better yet, why not leave a parliamentary democracy in place? Governments could have continued to fall but the civil service would have remained pretty much the same, providing much needed stability to the country. Would a democratic Poland have been too weak to weather both its predatory neighbors and the Great Depression? The 1930s would have been perhaps more turbulent but at least the nationalist agitation would have been less radical as the Endeks would not have been relegated to the vexing state of permanent impotence in the opposition. Poland would have persevered without the coup of May 1926. A coup was only warranted if it were to pre-empt a Communist or a Nazi revolution. Neither was in the cards in Poland. Even the grotesquely weak Weimar Republic endured until it decided to commit suicide by embracing the National Socialists.

Be that as it may, trying to re-interpret Peter Stachura’s re-interpretation may be intellectually rewarding but, on its own, fails to address the central methodological message of Poland, 1918-1945. And the message reads: hit the archives; research before opining; ignore Communist propaganda; look at Poland with an unjaundiced eye firmly anchored on hitherto inaccessible (or ignored) evidence. Further research is the key to the success of the path intrepidly trailblazed by Professor Stachura. We can state confidently that it is bound to strengthen his arguments and even refine them. And nothing will ever be the same.

Peter Stachura, Poland, 1918-1945: An Interpretive and Documentary History of the Second Republic (London and New York: Routledge, 2004). ISBN 0-415-34358-5 (paperback)

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
November 11, 2004