"Poland," A Country of Faith in the Impossible,

Essay by Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz

Ever read James Michener's bestseller, "Poland"? For me, as with millions of others, it was an almost an epic story of the whole of Polish development and history, and cannot be forgotten by anyone who picked up that book and persevered through its hundreds of pages. Now that Poland is again at a pivotal point in history, a bridge country in eastern Europe that is destined to serve as a kind of bellwhether for what lies ahead in U.S. state policy toward Europe; for that reason we may need to review its position and value lest we mistake what is going on. With Poland's strategic position in mind, we can easily see that we are in danger of repeating the sins and disastrous errors of the past. Specifically, President Obama has just indicated he will scrub the US-NATO missile defense system President Bush started in Poland as a first line of defense against incoming Iranian missiles or even missiles from Russia. Poland, and the whole Europe beyond that country, would be left open to nuclear missile attack (and biochemical missiles as well). This increases the likehood Europe will be blackmailed into submission to the demands and ultimatums of Russia and Iran.

Doesn't this call to mind Great Britain's failed policy of letting smaller nations in Europe be sacrificed for the "good" of the bigger nations in Europe such as France and Britain? That was Chamberlain's bright idea, and it resulted in World War II, the deaths of 25 millions and 6 millions of Jews too, plus continent-wide destruction, and not peace. Chamberlain gambled and lost everything when he got Hitler to sign a peace pact with him that handed over part of Czechoslovakia (the German-settled western part). Hitler could not believe Chamberlain could be such a fool as to trust a mere scrap of paper with signatures on it! Once Hitler had gobbed the western part of Czechoslovakia, he simply marched his troops with tanks and fighter aircraft eastward and devoured the rest of that hapless, truncated country while Chamberlain and Britain wrung their hands helplessly, hoping Hitler's aggression would stop there.

Britain's ally of Czechoslovakia was no more, a victim of British statecraft turned treacherous toward Britain's friends and allies. Then Poland, lying eastward of German-occuped Czechoslovakia, was next! Hitler, emboldened with his succcesses at the expense of Chamberlain's Britain, attacked Poland and carved it up with Russia.

So too with Poland now, it appears! We are seeing a repeat of some kind with the Obama adminstration's backing down on supporting Europe's defense and Poland's own territorial integrity. Poland has been a staunch ally of the U.S. in the Iraq war, and now this is her reward under Bush's successor--being "thrown under the bus" of political compromise with America's enemies, the Iranians and the Russians. Russia's hands will now be freed to deal roughly with Poland, using economic extortion, threats, and maybe outright military action, just as it lately used military action on Georgia, an ally of the U.S. in the southern Caucausus.

Another reason, other than the striking historical parallels between the 1930's failed statecraft of Britain and our own under Obama, is to review Polish contributions to our country's founding. Our Federal government was made a limited government originally by our Founding Fathers. Poland pioneered the way to do this, inspiring our Founding Fathers no doubt, who all knew of Poland, as they were highly educated men who often travelled in European capitals and countries, possessing knowledge of the world far above the average today. Not only did a Polish patriot fight in the American Revolution, but many less known Poles no doubt fought too, who had become immigrants. And their libertarian ideals were just as significant, inspiring the framers of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. This is not what children will be taught in the public schools, so we need to keep the facts alive despite that, lest we become a victim of our own ignorance of the way things were in Poland and also in the early days of our new American experiment in freedom and representative goernment.

A nation, small as it is today, that gave us Copernicus the astronomer, Sobieski the king who defeated the Turks at Vienna, Kosciuszko the Polish patriot, Chopin the composer, Joseph Conrad the novelist, Paderewski the pianist and statesman, Madam Curie who was twice a Nobel laureate for radium research, not to mention Pope John Paul II, deserves some review and reconsideration, now that it is again being sacrificed and thrown to the lions.--Ed.

Poland has been always a country of faith in the impossible. It was often punished for that, but also more than once miraculously rewarded. Its history is unlike that of neighboring authoritarian monarchies. Emerging as a kingdom after its baptism in the Latin rite in 966, it gradually grew like a coral reef into a huge state in the center of Europe, stretching far to the east to areas subsequently claimed by Russia.

Prosperous, secure, with neighbors who for a long time were not a matlch to its power, Poland elaborated a political system of its own, an expression of a libertarian spirit. in its golden age, the 16th century, it was a "republic" headed by elected kings who were bound to respect the freedomn of their citizens. Guardian of the rights of the individual, the Diet in its parliamentary proceedings even applied the principle of unanimity, to protect the minority of one.

Religious tolerance spared Poland from interdenominational strife during the Reformation and in Europe and earned it the name of a "paradise for heretics," though the majority of its population remained Roman Catholic.

Tolerance had also attracted a great number of Jews, coming mostly from Germany and settling in the cities. Culturally, Poland was Italy-oriented, which is exemplified by its literature flourishing in the time of the Renaissance. The medieval city of Krakow with its famous university founded inh 1364, with its printing presses and art relics, was a mainstay of that Italian influence.

Not unlike the Americans later on, the Poles mistrusted a strong central authority and even proclaimed that "Poland be kept together by the lack of government." They were reluctant to vote taxes, beyond a bare minimum, and consequently Poland had virtually no standing army, only a levy of gentry buttressed by Cossacks and Tatars, called in case of war. Victorius in several campaigns (in 1610 Polish troops took Moscow), this force could not rival armies of professional soldiers, which in modern times became the basis of Russian and Prussian military strength. The ideal "republic" of the Poles, devised as if the nation lived on some happy island, invited external aggression.

Russia, Prussia, and Austria, alied against Poland, carved huge chunks of Polish territory, for themselves in the partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795 [right at the time of the American Revolution and founding of the country], the last erasing the state from the map. Theyw ere never able, though, to subjugate the Poles. First fighting on Napoleon's side, then organizing insurrections, often going into exile, moving the center of their cultural and political activity to Paris, that rebellious people succeeded in preserving its national identy throughout the 19th century. After World War I, Poland recovered independence in the fulfillment of President Wilson's Fourteen Points. This short period of freedom came to its end with the pact Hitler concluded with Stalin on August 23, 1939, by which the Soviet chief, in exchange for his neutrality, was to received the eastern part of the Polish state. The pact resulted in the German invasion and in the unleashing of World War II.

The undaunted spirit of the Poles is largely due to their identifying their cause with that of Roman Catholicism. This us understandable, as Poland for centuries has been an eastern rampart of Rome, both against the encroachment of Islam and as a geographic border between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In its western march, tsarist Russia used the Eastern Church as it ideological instrument. Thus, for a Pole, the very fact of being Roman Catholic meant defiance and resistance. It can be said that Poland has two spiritual capitals: one, Rome, the second, the shrine of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, with its miraculous medieval painting of the Madonna.

The 20th century brought to Poland a period of independence, 1918-1939, followed by many misfortunes. During World War II, while Polish aviators and soldiers fought on the side of the Allies, writing their most glorious pages in the Battle of Britain and in the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Nazi occupation of Poland and the resistance against it cost about six million victims, half of the number being Polish Jews. Victory had a bitter taste: At Yalta, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin placed Poland in the Soviet "sphere of influence," even though free elections were to be held--a promise the Russians never kept. A Communist system imposed in 1945 has been trying, in vain, to cope with the ten centuries of Polish history that shaped the habits and attachments of the people. Industrialization moved peasants to the cities, but, changing into workers or a new intelligentsia, they soon became fervent inheritors of the national spirit once incarnated by the libertarian gentry. Independent minded, individualistic, skeptical as to any propaganda, 36 million Poles have made a formidible onbstacle to attempts at indoctrination.

The modest place Poland occupies on the map doesn't correspond to insignificance for the political future of Europe [how prophetic, in terms of the missile defense system that Obama is now in the process of junking!--Ed]. The victory of the Polish workers' strike in August 1980 marked the first triumph of a grass-roots movement in the history of the Soviet bloc, where everything must be controlled from above. Does the seemingly impossible prove possoble by the sheer strength of the human spirit? Nothing is more symbolic than the fact that the Polish working class produced a leader, Lech Walesa, who is recognized as such by both workers and intellectuals.

The military coup of December 13, 1981, has temporarily put an end to a great hope. Presumably an internal Polish affair, it was in reality a facade for the action of the occupying power aagainst it rebellious possession. Gas and tanks were used against the aspirations of a people aware of its glorious past. And, of course, gas and tanks are bound sooner or later to lose.--C.M.

End Note: I cannot name the year, but it was in the 70's, I believe, when Readers Digest carried the amazing true account of a more recent Polish patriot, who learned from his high position serving the Communist masters of Polish government that the Soviet Union was preparing nuclear arsenals in Poland for an attack on Western Europe by the Warsaw Bloc Nations, so-called. Realizing that Poland would be first fired on in retaliation by the Western nations, and thus utterly destroyed, this secret patriot turned spy for the West, and sent many documents and pictures of the Soviet plans to the C.I.A. As soon as the Soviets learned that their plans were no longer secret, the game was up, of course. There was no all-out attack led by East Germany! Again, Poland saved the day for the free Western countries.--Ed.

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