Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz recently assisted Ryerson University student Téana Graziani with a research project entitled “No Pierogies in Africa: How the first modern refugee camps in Africa were in fact for White Europeans.”
The complete project is posted here, and the Q&A between Ms. Graziani and Dr. Chodakiewicz is below.
TG: What was Poland like socially/politically before the Second World War? What were the most common tensions felt by Poles? What form of government was in place at the time?
MJC: Poland was a modernizing incarnation of the old, multi-ethnic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The interwar Second Polish Republic inherited its legacy and people. However, new Poland set itself up as a nation-state; until 1926, the dominant strain in politics was Polish Christian Nationalism. After 1926, it was civic Polish nationalism. The former was associated with Roman Dmowski and his rightist National Democrats. The latter reflected the preferences of Józef Piłsudski and his liberal and leftist followers, including from the Polish Socialist Party.
Until 1926, Poland was a parliamentary democracy with the center-right sweeping most elections. In 1926, Piłsudski overthrew the government. His coup d’état ushered in the rule by an eclectic leftist-progressive and technocratic coalition based on the military. Piłsudski eventually split with the parliamentary left (the Socialists and the Populists/Peasantists) and solicited the support of conservative landed elements. All the while, his so-called Sanacja (renewal) government suppressed ferociously the right-wing National Democrats and, of course, the Communists. Yet, it was a rather mild dictatorship: mostly bark, and very little bite.
There were several serious fissures in the society of Poland. First, there were class problems. Foremost among them was the peasant question, as land-hungry farmers at over 70% constituted the largest social class, while landed nobility just a tiny group. In comparison, the proletarian issue was rather minor.
Second, there were minority problems. Ethnic Poles constituted 70% of the population. The rest included, in order of size, Ukrainians, Jews, Byelorussians (White Ruthenians), Germans, Lithuanians, and others. The majority thought of Poland as their Polish state. The minorities were either hostile or alienated or indifferent to the new state. Further, the national question tended to overlap with the social issue: most Ukrainians and Byelorussians tended to be peasants, and Jews urbanites who usually plied crafts and trade.
Third, an unbridgeable cultural chasm separated the educated (intelligentsia of any political hue) and the uneducated. This is applicable to any and all ethnic groups.
Last but not least, the greatest challenge was geopolitics. Both of Poland’s powerful neighbors, Germany and Russia, were unhappy with the post-1918 Versailles settlement and wanted to overthrow it. Poland was annoyingly in the way. Thus, the Poles felt an increasing enmity of the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany (later the Third Reich) throughout the interwar period. Both were hell-bent on destroying Poland.
TG: What led to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact? Why did the pact result in the deportation of Poles to uninhabited areas of the Soviet Union? How many Poles were deported? Were there other ethnic groups that were targeted?
MJC: A collusion of interests of Hitler and Stalin led both dictators to formalize the relationship. It triggered the Second World War with a joint invasion of Poland by the Third Reich and the Soviet Union in September 1939.
Just like the Nazis in conquered western and central Poland at that time, the Communists set out socially to engineer their partition of newly captured lands. That entailed the slaughter of the elites (mostly Polish Christian) and the deportation of their families along with others who were considered national and class enemies.
The Christian Poles were the main group targeted. However, the Jews were also overrepresented among the victims: the Chief Rabbi of the Polish army was shot in the Katyn forest along with his other Polish army brother officers; the chief rabbi of Warsaw died in the Gulag. About 200,000 Jews were deported, most of them refugees from western Poland. The Soviets paranoically assumed that those unfortunates were German spies. Further, about 25,000 of the elites were exterminated in a series of executions, including in the Katyn Forest. We still do not know what the victim count was. How many died? We can’t even agree on how many people have been deported: the lowest estimate is ca. 400,000 to 1.5 million.
TG: What took place in the camps in the Soviet Union? How many of them were there? How long did they exist? Why were Poles allowed to leave after a few years even if they were not joining the Polish army? (mostly women and children) Who decided where they were going?
MJC: The Gulag was set up in the early 1920s; it still exists in the Russian Federation. The camps were extremely numerous. There must have been at least 100,000 of such installations, if not more (counting subcamps and even smaller installations).
The Soviet camp experience was very similar to all political prisoners (and POWs). It was gruesome: extermination through hard labor and hunger. The Communists did not discriminate too much among the victims, even though one should take the ingrained prejudice of the Soviets/Russians against so-called “Polish lords.” That must have exacerbated the situation of the prisoners. Further, perhaps the largest batch of the deportees was sent to so-called settlements, including in Kazakhstan. That means they became slaves on collective farms.
In 1941, Hitler attacked his erstwhile ally Stalin. Thus, the USSR became an ally of Great Britain by default. The Poles were allowed to leave through British pressure on Stalin. That included evacuating the families of the Polish military: all of them Gulag slaves. The Poles brought out to freedom many Jewish deportees and ex-prisoners. The Soviets denied that the Jews were Polish citizens and prevented most of them from leaving. Stalin considered only ethic Poles to be Polish/Polish citizens. Some Ukrainian and Byelorussian ex-slaves were also able to escape the USSR with the Poles by concealing their identity from the Communists.
The British decided to bring the Poles and other Polish citizens to Iran; from there, the men were sent to the front (Middle East, North Africa, and Italy, as well as to England to join the Polish army there). The women and children (as well as elderly men) were dispatched to India and Kenya, as well as Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and even Mexico. Many of them stayed in the West after the Second World War because the Soviets took over Poland and turned it into a Communist colony.