The Problem of Poland
Shall The Poles Be Restored To Nationhood And Independence?—One Of The Most Interesting And Important Questions That Must Be Settled At The End Of The War
By Willis J. Abbot
[Munsey's Magazine, January 1918]
I take it tor granted...that statesmen everywhere are agreed that there should be a united, independent, and autonomous Poland."—President Wilson's Address to Congress, January 22, 1917.]
Not until it had been thrice hacked into segments by the sword of tyranny, or treacherously divided by Machiavellian diplomats, did Poland begin to show the qualities that would fit it, as urged by President Wilson, for independence or even for autonomy. For almost twelve hundred years Poland was free, united, autonomous—and its people were debased, oppressed, persecuted. It was independent of foreign domination, but scourged by innumerable princes, counts, and barons whose profligate courts were perched upon the backs of the peasants toiling and starving that the nobles might riot and misrule.
The wastrel nobles and their parasites; the oppressed, plundered, and downtrodden peasantry—those were the classes in Poland prior to its first partition in 1772.
Poland is one of the most ancient of European nations, though her name was long ago blotted out of the list of independent powers. Her written history dates back to A.D. 600—a history of internecine struggles, of raids and counter raids by feudal lords and their vassals. Of all her rulers, two only left even a temporary impress on the map of Europe—the one Queen Jadwiga, or Hedwig, whose shrewd marriage with Jagello, Prince of Lithuania, made Poland the greatest state in eastern Europe; the other John Sobieski, whose sword delivered Vienna, and perhaps all of Christendom, from the Turk.
Of no other Polish monarch has history any glorious deed to commemorate, and it was perhaps fitting that the last king should have been Stanislas Poniatowski, a once favored lover of whom Catherine of Russia had wearied, tossing him the throne of Poland as a sort of alimony.
A strange social condition characterized Poland until its much-discussed partitioning began. It suffered a curse worse than any of the seven plagues of Egypt—the pest of nobles.
This favored class was as numerous and as rapacious as a swarm of mosquitoes in a swamp. Every one who owned a bit of land was a noble. The kings multiplied the caste lavishly. When the people of Lemberg distinguished themselves by a peculiarly heroic defense of their city, Casimir III ennobled every one of them. Later John Sobieski made nobles of all of his cavalry who participated in the relief of Vienna.
To the less romantic mind of this era, being a Polish noble would seem to have had its disadvantages. True, the nobles were the only Poles permitted to own land, but a gift of land from the sovereign did not always accompany the patent of nobility, and as they were strictly forbidden to do any profitable work, one wonders how they acquired any land. Perhaps the fact that they alone had the right to wear swords may explain the problem. Nobles as great as William II of Germany have not scrupled to acquire large domains through the medium of this potent persuader.
The Polish nobles, then, were doomed to be professional soldiers, Courtiers, or bandits operating under a shadow of authority. They might work on their lands, but they might not engage in commerce or practise a trade. The shrewder of them laid field unto field, tilled their domains by the enforced labor of serfs—who could not wear a sword—and built great castles on the hilltops, whence they occasionally sallied forth to harry the lands of a neighbor, to drive off his cattle, and perchance to carry away his wife or daughters. This was the sort of life and civilization that characterized Poland in the years when our Pilgrim Fathers were subduing the wilderness of a new world, founding schools and colleges, and raising their white temples to God.
Religion, or rather the strife of religious factions, played no small part in keeping Poland in turmoil. The Roman and Greek churches struggled desperately for the mastery. Great gray monasteries rose on many a commanding height, and the monks fought and farmed as did their rivals, the nobles. In 1079 Boleslaus II slew a bishop of Cracow at his altar, and for nearly three hundred years thereafter the Pope refused to recognize any ruler of Poland as a king. Great orders, like the Teutonic Knights, the Brethren of the Sword, and the Knights of St. John sprang up and added to the numbers of wastrels whom the overburdened peasants had to support. Their story is writ large in scores of monasteries scattered all over the provinces of Poland.
A NATION OF NOBLES AND PEASANTS
No society can thrive permanently which has not a large and contented middle class. That is just what Poland lacked. The nobles could not descend to trade; the peasants could not rise to it. As a result industry, other than agricultural, and all forms of merchandising passed into the hands of outsiders, largely Jews and Germans.
After the thirteenth century the country was filled up by assisted immigration. The great nobles and prelates employed the methods of our land companies to induce settlers from other countries to populate their towns and to develop their broad but untenanted acres. The effect was greatly to increase the diversities of opinion, habit, and station among the people. The Jews who came remained Jews, and remain so to this day, continuing strangers and a people apart in the land of their adoption, though they form a numerous class of its population. The Germans, on the contrary, were readily assimilated. There are in Poland many families, their residence dating back as far as the fourteenth century, who scorn the idea of being other than true Poles, but whose names betray their Teutonic origin.
Of the peasantry, it need only be said that up to the time of the first partition they were little better than slaves, degraded in their conditions of life, subject to the wholly unregulated power of the nobles, without property in land, practically without property in themselves, uneducated, unambitious, ignorant, and stolid. Their persons and their lives were at the command of their masters. Not until 1768 was the murder of a peasant looked upon as a crime demanding a punishment more serious than a light fine. With difficulty they wrung a living from an unwilling soil, and sustained the rigors of a most inclement climate.
Skarga, a famous Polish priest, who eloquently but unavailingly championed the cause of the peasants, said of them:
The sweat, the blood of our peasants which flow incessantly, and moisten and redden the whole earth—what a terrible future they are preparing for this kingdom! I know of no country in Christendom where the peasants are so treated. Hypocrites and declaimers! These peasants are your neighbors. They are Poles like you. They speak the same language and are children of the same country. Formerly the Christians gave liberty to their slaves when they baptized them, and they became their brothers in Jesus Christ; but you, you dare to keep Christians who are your fellow men in bondage.
Coxe, a traveler in Poland toward the end of the seventeenth century, described the country as one of all-pervading gloom—deep, dark forests, half-tilled fields, squalid farmhouses, melancholy villages, and miserable people:
Though we traversed the high road from Cracow to Warsaw, in the course of two hundred and fifty-eight miles we met only two carriages and a dozen carts. The country was equally thin of human habitation. A few wooden villages succeeded each other at long intervals, whose miserable appearance corresponded to the wretchedness of the surrounding country.
Let us keep in mind that this condition of degradation and misery that impressed itself upon the minds of travelers existed before Poland had suffered partition, and while it was still governed by its own kings and its diet of nobles. It was a bad and impotent government. The nobles elected the king, but never respected him. Those whom he paid with office or perquisites supported him—the rest intrigued for his overthrow, often with foreign aid.
Field-Marshal von Moltke—the elder Moltke, who won immortality in the Franco-Prussian War—wrote of the Polish government of this period:
The nobles were in exclusive possession of all political rights; they formed the entire state. Poland was a republic made up of about three hundred thousand petty suzerainties, each of which was immediately connected with the state, and was subject to the whole body alone, acknowledging no kind of feudal superiority or of feudal independence. Even the retainer, if a nobleman, shared the political rights of his master; the meanest of them appeared at the diet, in the full enjoyment of that power which belonged to all without distinction.
And, it may be noted in passing, they all voted for measures that favored their own estate, to the marked disadvantage of the peasants and burghers, who had neither vote nor voice in the making of the laws.
THE FIRST PARTITION (1772)
In course of time Poland became, like Turkey at a later day, the "sick man of Europe." She had neither coherence in her domestic government nor the means of defense against foreign powers.
Meanwhile her neighbors, under the rule of executives of great personal force, had become strong and aggressive nations. Frederick the Great, of Prussia, looked upon the defenseless country and coveted it. But he had two women to cope with—two queens, each of whom was every inch a queen.
Catherine II, Empress of Russia, had furnished Poland with its reigning king, and felt her influence in the country to be the dominant one. She had guaranteed the independence of Poland in terms no less specific than those in which, at a later date, Prussia guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium. At first she turned a deaf ear to Frederick's proposal that they should divide their neighbor's patrimony.
Maria Theresa, Queen of Austria, also revolted against the idea of cynically robbing a friendly Catholic state of its territory. But Frederick set his most astute diplomats to work. Maria Theresa was convinced that if she failed to cooperate with Prussia, Austria would lose all share in Polish plunder. A like argument stilled Catherine's opposition. In fact, the trick vulgarly described by politicians as the "double cross" was successfully played by Frederick upon two of the great women of history.
With their opposition stilled, the partition was speedily effected. To the Poles no excuse was made. To the world it was pleaded that the state of anarchy prevailing in Poland made necessary the drastic operation performed by her neighbors. The armies of the three predatory nations suppressed all resistance, and the first partition of Poland was accomplished in 1772.
There followed a curious result. Russia annexed a large strip of northeastern Poland; Austria acquired Galicia; Prussia took Dantzic and the region of the lower Vistula. Having despoiled Poland of one-third of her territory, the three powers then solemnly guaranteed the integrity of the rest. The guarantee held good for twenty-one years.
Meanwhile, however, Poland, maimed and mutilated, prospered as she had not in her earlier state. Trade and commerce thrived mightily. Education advanced. Wealth increased rapidly. The people of that part of Poland which retained its nationality seemed actually stimulated by the disaster which had befallen their ravished provinces, and made such forward strides in a few years as put the record of their past centuries to shame. But they felt the humiliation of the partition, and the ignominy of living under a constitution dictated by Russia and a king who was but a puppet in the hands of the Russian minister at Warsaw.
THE SECOND PARTITION (1793)
With growing prosperity the seeds of liberty sprouted. The Poles determined to have a new constitution and a new king when Stanislas should die. That new constitution, one of the most liberal ever formulated, was adopted in 1791. Prussia, which for the moment was engaged with England in plans for checking Russian aggrandizement, congratulated the Poles upon their action, but Catherine of Russia declared it revolutionary and sent her troops into Poland to suppress the rising spirit of liberty. Then, notwithstanding his earlier approval, Frederick William of Prussia played the traitor and supported the Russian intervention.
Austria was out of the quarrel. Her endeavors were just then enlisted in the vain effort to stay the French Revolution and to save the head of her young archduchess, Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. As a result the two other predatory nations destroyed the armies of Polish liberty under the famous Kosciuszko and proceeded to the second partition of Poland in 1793.
The effort to give a fictitious air of legality to the treaties of partition led to a curious incident. The treaty with Russia was forced through a Polish diet specially convened and packed for that purpose; but even this venal and intimidated body refused to approve the agreement surrendering Posen to Prussia. In the course of the controversy four members were arrested by Cossacks. Their fellows immediately resolved to transact no business, nor even to speak, until they were released.
Silence reigned in the hall. The king was appealed to, but declared that he could not force the deputies to speak. By his side sat a Russian general, who ordered that the doors should be locked and no deputy permitted to go out. Midnight passed in silence—one, two, and three o'clock.
The general then threatened to call in the grenadiers. Thereupon the marshal of the diet put the question of the approval of the treaty with Prussia. Not a voice was raised. A second call for a vote was made, but only dead silence resulted. After a third call had failed to break the stolid restraint of the deputies, the marshal cried:
Silence gives consent!"
The chamber dissolved in turmoil, ending what came to be known as the "dumb sitting" of the Diet of Grodno, and on that doubtful ruling rested the legality of the second partition of Poland. By it the kingdom lost one-half of its remaining territory, retaining only about one hundred and forty thousand square miles, or a smaller area than that of the State of Montana.
THE THIRD PARTITION (1795)
The Poles were too deeply embittered to abide long by this lawless and piratical action. In barely a year they rose in revolt under the leadership of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who had inhaled the breath of liberty fighting in the armies of American independence under General George Washington. Their war-cry was "Liberty, integrity, and independence!"
Kosciuszko was a soldier of brilliant genius, indomitable courage, and a wonderful ability to arouse all that was best in his followers. Under his inspiration the revolt spread rapidly, and some glorious victories were won over the armies of Russia, Prussia, and Austria—for all three made common cause against Polish liberty. After a frightful battle near Warsaw, however, ending in a butchery in which thirteen thousand Poles were killed and two thousand drowned in the Vistula, the whole revolt collapsed. Before that Kosciuszko had been wounded and captured—an occasion that led to Campbell's famous couplet:
Hope for a season bade the world farewell,
And Freedom shrieked when Kosciuszko fell.
This revolt gave the three powers the excuse they wanted for completing their spoliation of Poland. For twenty years they had been consuming it in bites; now they took the last gulp and obliterated it from the map. Austria seized Cracow and the region of the upper Vistula, Prussia annexed Warsaw and the territory as far east as the Niemen, Russia took the rest.
Yet the Polish spirit still smoldered, and even fitfully blazed. It was said—though he always denied it—that in the hour of his defeat Kosciuszko cried aloud:
"Finis Poloniae!"—"Poland is ended!"
But the Poles repudiated the declaration, and in response was written their most patriotic song, still sung at the present day:
It is not all over with Poland,
Not so long as we live.
Historians speak of the three partitions of Poland. In a certain sense there were four, for in 1815 the Congress of Vienna rearranged the amputated fragments, although there was no longer a single state to carve up.
NAPOLEON'S TREACHERY TO THE POLES
Napoleon had meantime swept over Europe, and the patriotic Poles had thought that they beheld in the world-conqueror an angel of redemption. In 1807, after his crushing defeat of Prussia, he had built out of the Polish territory seized by that country and by Austria the Duchy of Warsaw, with a liberal government like that of France. In this the Poles saw a promise of the gradual regathering together of all their lost territory in a single autonomous state.
Napoleon trifled with them, deceived them. On the gold-decked raft anchored in the middle of the Niemen at Tilsit, he promised Alexander I that the name of Poland should never be revived. He used the Duchy of Warsaw as a mere source of money, troops, and rewards for his favorites. Yet so successfully did he hoodwink the Poles that in 1812, when he broke with Alexander and led the Grande Armée into Russia, some sixty thousand of the best soldiers they could recruit followed his fortunes, and shared with the French the horrors of the winter retreat from Moscow. The final Napoleonic collapse, two years later, put an end to Polish hopes of advantage from that source.
THE WORK OF THE CONGRESS OF VIENNA
The Congress of Vienna undertook to pull to pieces the map of Europe that Napoleon had made, and to build a new one. The diplomats did little better than the military autocrat. Their map was the result of a series of compromises, and was satisfactory to none of the powers who helped to make it. That, however, made no difference to the little nations, the submerged peoples like the Poles. They had to accept it as handed down.
Alexander of Russia had long been scheming to get all Poland into a single kingdom under his own rule, though with a considerable measure of autonomy. By fair promises he had won over to his project many sincere Polish leaders; but when the congress of the powers assembled, he saw the tide of European opinion running strongly against him. Prussia and Austria had both had slices of Polish territory, liked the taste, and saw no reason for giving up their claims. The result was a fourth partition, in which clever diplomacy, and an abundance of suave promises soon to be violated, won for Russia the lion's share of the territory for which the nations were playing—with loaded dice, so far as the Poles themselves were concerned.
Austria was deprived of all her former booty save Galicia, with one and one-half million people. Prussia was stripped of her old holdings except Posen, West Prussia, and Ermeland, with about a million people. The city of Cracow, with sixty thousand inhabitants, was left independent. To Russia went all the remainder, about one hundred and fifty thousand square miles, with a population of two and one-half millions. It may be noted here that despite revolutions put down with bloody hands, persecutions, pogroms, massacres, deportations, and a steady stream of emigration to the United States, the population of this same territory in the year of the outbreak of the world war exceeded ten millions.
Of all the fragments of dismembered Poland, that which was given to Russia by the Congress of Vienna seemed at the moment to have the most brilliant prospects. The award had been hedged about with every possible safeguard save one—there was no way to safeguard the plighted word of a Czar, any more than the good faith of a Kaiser to-day. Historians, basing their convictions on contemporaneous documents, believe that Alexander sought the kingship of the new state with a sincere purpose of ruling it wisely and developing it liberally. If so, he overestimated his own will-power and underestimated the autocratic determination of the house of Romanoff.
PROMISES THAT WERE NOT KEPT
The Congress of Vienna stipulated that the kingdom was to have entire autonomy in local affairs. Its king was to be the Czar, with either a member of the Romanoff family or a Pole as viceroy. Its legislature was to be elective, and to control the public purse. Legislators were to be inviolate in their persons, guaranteed against arrest save by due process of law. The Polish tongue was to be used without restriction.
All these things and more the Czar promised. The solemn obligations imposed upon him were accepted under the imperial seal, and the nations participating in the conference agreed under oath to enforce them in behalf of the people of the Kingdom of Poland should their Russian ruler prove faithless. Neither promise was fulfilled.
On the surface Russia acceded to the conditions imposed. Few nations have had a more liberal constitution than that which Alexander proclaimed. Russia itself did not maintain institutions by any means so liberal as those she guaranteed to Poland; but the Poles enjoyed their rights and liberties for only a year or two.
The brother of the Czar, Constantine, appointed viceroy, was a man of ungovernable temper, bordering upon insanity. His brutality drove several high-spirited Polish officers to suicide. He began at once to encroach upon the constitution. Members of the diet who criticised his rule were arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned. The dungeons were crowded. Spies were everywhere. The university provided for in the constitution was suppressed. The second diet rejected some of the viceroy's measures, and he refused to call another for five years, meantime collecting and expending revenues in flat defiance of the law.
Alexander I died, and his successor, Nicholas I, began systematically to destroy every last vestige of autonomy in Poland. Goaded to desperation, the people rose in the revolution of 1830, which was perhaps what Nicholas wanted, for in a contest of arms the Poles were hopelessly outclassed.
The outbreak was badly organized, and was led by intellectuals rather than by soldiers. There were more poets in command than generals; more peasants than trained fighting men in the ranks; more scythes, pitchforks, pikes, and hunting-pieces than rifles and bayonets in the hands of the revolutionaries. Yet for ten months the sheer force of patriotic enthusiasm kept these bands in the field against the trained armies of Russia. Women in multitudes fought beside the men. At Ostrolenka, at the end of the battle, every man of the scanty artillery force was found dead beside his gun, and an army literally died singing its hymns of patriotism.
Of course the revolt failed. It was not in the cards that disorganized peasants could defeat Cossacks and the trained legions of the Czar. Appeal was made to the signers of the compact of 1815, but not one nation had the pluck to defend the rights they had conferred upon the Poles. Never since then has there been a Kingdom of Poland, though the name has continued to describe incorrectly a section of vassalized Poland.
THE PENALTY FOR REVOLT
With the suppression of the revolt came the inevitable persecution. Dungeons, exile to the cold and cruel wastes of Siberia, were the lightest penalties inflicted on those suspected of conspiracy against Russia. The Polish intellect has ever been alert, imaginative, poetic, and through the ranks of the intellectuals the brutality of Czarism stalked with knout and fetters in hand. The universities of Warsaw and Vilna were closed. The contents of libraries and museums were transferred to Russia. Schools were closed, to reopen with Russian teachers only and with the use of the Polish language prohibited.
But persecution bred nationalism. The Poles, who under their own kings were constantly fighting one another, became a unit against the oppressor. In 1846 and again in 1863 their revolutionary efforts were renewed.
In the latter year a match was applied to the prepared explosives by a sudden raid by Russian officials upon the youth of Poland suspected of sedition. Two thousand were seized in their beds at night, and were on their way to Siberia and the Caucasus the next day. Savage revolt followed and was savagely suppressed. The whole nation blazed with patriotic fire and mystic fervor. The emotional nature of the Poles was roused to its fullest expression. Poets became warriors and warrior poets. When they had no weapons to fight with, they defied the Russians none the less and met death unarmed. Many were shot down as they knelt singing their national hymn. They were slain by hundreds in their churches.
In time the rebellion of 1863 degenerated into guerrilla warfare. Armed bands roamed the highways or lurked in the deep fastnesses of the Polish woods. Beaten whenever they encountered the disciplined Russian soldiery, they dispersed only to reassemble elsewhere. They braved almost certain death, for to be captured, even if wounded, meant to be shot, hanged, or sent to Siberia. But they fought on, hoping that some foreign power might intervene. Europe had guaranteed their rights under the treaty. Would not Europe enforce these rights against Russia, who had violated them?
France, under Napoleon III, England, and Austria did indeed address remonstrances to Alexander II; but Prussia, under the masterful hand of Bismarck, upheld the Czar in all his tyrannies. Even then Bismarck was planning hostilities against Austria, and no doubt foresaw the war with France. He wanted Russia's friendly neutrality in both cases, and was insuring it by supporting her in Poland. Europe lacked the courage to rush to the defense of the Poles as Great Britain drew her sword for Belgium in 1914.
THE WRONGS OF THE POLES
Since the suppression of the last rebellion the so-called Kingdom of Poland had been crushed under the hard heel of Russian autocracy. But the Poles under German rule have suffered almost equally, though they had not given their oppressors the same excuse for harshness. In both territories the effort has been to crush out every remnant of Polish nationality. The native tongue was forbidden in the churches, in the schools, in public places, even in private talk. German officials listened at windows to discover if Polish was being spoken. In the schools the children were taught even to pray in German or Russian, and were pitilessly flogged for refusal or for sheer inability to learn. Parents who protested were cast into jail. Letters addressed in Polish were held at the post office. When they were called for, the applicant was arrested and fined.
In Russian Poland the Polish clergy— Roman Catholics—were savagely persecuted, deprived of their dioceses, driven from their pulpits. In German Poland an archbishop was cast into jail for two years and banished for having refused to substitute German for Polish in his services and Sunday-school. The efforts directed against the Polish faith in Germany were under the direction of the famous kulturkampf, which to-day, but for the resistance of the Allies, might be imposing its brutal bigotry upon all Europe.
Russia robbed the Kingdom of Poland of its very name, and called it the Vistula Province. Its people were banished by the thousands to Siberia, until there remained not enough to till the soil. Germany, in 1885, forcibly deported more than forty thousand Poles on forty-eight hours' notice, and was then obliged to import Chinese coolies to take their places in industry.
Both nations tried to expel the Poles by forcibly buying their lands and selling them to Russians or Germans. But the Poles rebought faster than they could be expropriated, and laws against their ownership of land had to be passed. Germany put such heavy taxes on buildings owned by Poles that the peasantry took to living in vans, and put wheels under their chicken-coops and corn-cribs. On the eve of the world war the Prussian legislature passed a still more rigorous expropriation bill, of which Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote:
The Poles, who are subjects of the Prussian scepter, will at last be driven forth, from that soil which is their native land, that beloved earth where for centuries generations have been born, have lived, and are buried.
Then befell the great war. Long before Adam Mickiewicz, poet of Poland's purgatory, had prayed in his "Litany":
From Russian, Austrian, and Prussian bondage deliver us, O Lord.
By the martyrdom of the thirty thousand knights of Bar, who died for faith and freedom,
deliver us, O Lord.
By the martyrdom of twenty thousand citizen of Praga, slaughtered for faith and freedom, deliver us, O Lord.
By the martyrdom of the youth of Lithuania, slain by the knout, dead in the mines, and in
exile, deliver us, O Lord.
By the wounds, tears, and sufferings of all Polish prisoners, exiles, and pilgrims, deliver us, O Lord.
For a universal war for the freedom of nations we beseech Thee, O Lord!
A NEW ERA OF SUFFERING
The war thus piteously besought has come. Thus far it has brought to the Poles only new suffering and new spoliation. Always their oppressors have been polite and deferential to the downtrodden nation when its aid was needed in war. Thus in the Franco-Prussian War Prussia decreed the use of Polish national airs as battle-hymns when Polish troops were engaged. After the war it again became treason to play or to sing them.
In this greater war Russia was first to seek to cajole her Polish serfs. Autonomy was promised to the Poles in her dominions, and in Galicia, much of which she had captured from the Austrians; but the proclamation came not from the Czar or the Duma, but from a general in the field, and had not taken effect when the onrush of the Germans drove the Russians from Polish territory. Speedily thereafter followed the Russian revolution, and what the Czar and his government might have intended doing for the Poles was relegated to the class of purely academic questions.
Germany followed by proclaiming the creation of a new Kingdom of Poland, made up of Russian possessions of which the German forces were in occupation. Much discussed at the time, this has as yet amounted to very little. It was speedily discovered to be merely a German device for raising an army of Russian Poles to fight against Russia.
A kingdom was proclaimed, but no king named, nor any constitution formulated. The so-called autonomous kingdom was treated merely as captured territory, and was plundered without mercy. The German wagons that went into Poland empty went out full. So cruel were the persecutions, so insatiable the exactions of the invading Germans, that Poles who had hated Russia turned back to her with a feeling almost of friendship, as the milder of two oppressors. The project of the Kingdom of Poland under German sponsorship seems to have been practically forgotten.
What, then, is to come to Poland out of the present war? The question has elicited a multitude of answers, but to Americans the one most authoritative and significant pronouncement is that of the President of the United States.
PRESIDENT WILSON'S WORDS OF HOPE
"I take it for granted," said Mr. Wilson in his address to Congress on January 22, 1917, "if I may venture upon a single example, that statesmen everywhere are agreed that there should be a united, independent, and autonomous Poland."
Upon none of the questions to be settled at the end of the war has the President been quite so specific of utterance. Yet up to the moment when he spoke the opinion of statesmen had not been quite so unanimous as he seemed to think. A considerable school of publicists had urged that Poland should be made autonomous but not independent. They held that the suzerainty should be granted to Russia, whose statesmen should control the foreign relations of the new state. They pointed to the turbulent record of Poland under her own kings as a reason why she should not be left to her own devices.
Since that time the Russians have risen and overthrown their Czar and the bureaucracy. They have not yet convinced the world that they are competent of working out their own destiny, and while that doubt exists it would be folly to entrust them with authority over a new state.
That either Germany or Austria should be vested with it is unthinkable, though it is fair to Austria to repeat that of the three nations who have held authority over the Poles, hers has been the mildest and most just rule, and has bred the least antagonism among her subject people.
It would appear that the whole course of the war is making for the accomplishment of President Wilson's ideal of a "united, independent, and autonomous Poland." Her record under her own kings, closed in the eighteenth century, may be set aside as irrelevant. No apothem ever sounded wiser or contained a greater fallacy than Patrick Henry's statement, "I know no way of judging the future but by the past." Nations, like individuals, develop new character under new conditions.
Poland, indeed, after her twelve hundred years of turmoil and anarchy under her elective kings, was tried in the fires of persecution, and the dross of the nation was burned out. What remains is a passionate sense of nationality. What men's fathers and brothers have died for, the great cause for which men have suffered persecution, for that they will still fight, and the goal once won, they will defend it with their lives.
The Poles have been fitted by adversity for self-government. The ridiculous fustian of their ancient class of nobles has been sloughed off. It was the chief obstacle to an orderly and efficient government in the days of the Polish kings, and it is gone.
But what as to complete independence, as urged by the President, whose views are echoed by the more representative Poles?
If Europe is to be merely the old Europe, temporarily pacified, but armed to the teeth and steadily arming with a view to new wars, the position of an independent Poland would be precarious. In the territory which would constitute her kingdom are about twenty million people—say two million bayonets; but she would be hedged about by those intensely military and aggressive nations, Russia, Germany, and Austria. She would be forced into the race for armament, into imperiling alliances. Unless we radically change the European theory, independent Poland would be merely a temptation to a new war.
But given the boon of a league of nations to enforce peace—which President Wilson has also indorsed, in company with many of the most eminent statesmen of Europe—and the wholly independent and autonomous Poland becomes practicable and almost necessary. Its creation will remove from the three neighboring nations a racial problem which has endangered their domestic order for more than a century. It will end an era of cruel persecution that cries to heaven for vengeance. It will give to a brilliant, emotional, industrious people a chance to work out their own destiny. It will create a new state in Europe that may speedily rival its elders. It will undo a century of oppression and render justice to an undeservedly downtrodden nation.
To what greater end could the United States and its Allies be at war than to overthrow oppression and reestablish justice among the peoples of the earth?
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald