Governmental priorities

For a Pole or especially a Polish-American holding a romanticized vision of Poland’s past, The Establishment of Communist Rule in Poland,1943-1948 by Krystyna Kersten makes for illuminating reading on many accounts. Perhaps the most striking element in Kersten’s text was the difference in Polish attitudes at the time towards Soviet hegemony as compared to the policies of other Soviet Bloc countries described by Tony Judt’s “The Coming of the Cold War” in Postwar: a History of Europe Since 1945. To be sure, Poland did, of course, have a notoriously long history of military and political conflicts with Russia. And yet, the insistence of the Polish government-in-exile on a negotiating policy ruling out any compromise with Stalin that was backed by virtually no support seemed to border on the delusional, or it appeared to be at least thoroughly misguided.

One might argue that the only alternative of the Polish government-in-exile in 1944-45 was to surrender unconditionally to Stalin’s demands both on the account of Soviet territorial claims and with regard to the ruling political system, so protests and an unwavering stance were the only way to save at least some face in the defense of Polish political independence. However, Stalin did not need to state any claims whatsoever – he was in supreme control of the sole army that was able at the time to thwart what appeared then to be a practically unopposed German expansion across Europe, and he was head of state of the country that was, as a matter of fact, going to liberate Poland from German occupation. His way was the only way that Poland was going to be, except for certain blatant outrages that would mobilize the Western countries in the name of political propriety. Still under German occupation, and later only partly “liberated” by the Soviets (who, of course, stationed sufficient troops east of the Vistula river to turn the facts on the ground into another occupation), Poland was in no position to pronounce any territorial claims or demand any assurances of political nonintervention.

Furthermore, the Western Allies had more important problems than the issues of one country to which their powerful partner in the ongoing war effort had already laid a claim. The unending, unsupported hopes of the Polish government-in-exile that the allies, who throughout the preceding five years of war had done precious little to assist Poland, would now take a determined stance against Stalin’s territorial and political claims in Eastern Europe and thus jeopardize their own hopes for an acceptable balance of power in Europe – all this can only be attributed to lofty idealism akin to naïveté.

Especially debatable is the Polish government-in-exile’s decision to start the Warsaw Uprising at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives just to deny the Soviets historical credit for being the liberators of their capital – and yet counting on the Soviets to join in the Polish effort, finish the work, and then hand the country to the Polish government-in-exile on a silver platter. The outcome was abundantly clear from the outset to all but the Poles themselves: “They were, in my eyes, the doomed representatives of a doomed regime, but no one could be so brutal as to say this to them…” as one of the Western diplomats in Moscow, George Kennan, put it blatantly. The decision to commence in 1944 a large-scale unilateral military action in Warsaw without consulting the Allies not only irritated the latter, but it also showed that the government-in-exile of a disbanded country tried to assert its importance without any regard to human sacrifice, and to force its allies into action by humanitarian pleas. That, however, could not happen to any significant extent in the larger geopolitical scheme of the time, especially in the face of Stalin’s stark opposition; his policy was to watch the remaining Polish combatant elements and underground government formations bleed to death. These unexpected events foreseeably made it all that much easier for him to carry out a thorough sovietization of Poland after the war.

Also, the government-in-exile’s insistence on the Polish Home Army behaving as “hosts” welcoming the Soviet Army even in face of evidence that all thus identified Home Army officers became instant subject to NKVD persecution, including summary executions and deportations to KZ Majdanek, is further proof of the desperate and utterly unreasonable attempts to assert the authority of a government safely ensconced in London – once again without regard to human costs on the ground. Especially when it became clear that the PKWN effectively took control of Poland and was organizing a functioning government from within Polish territory, the insistence of the Mikolajczyk government on maintaining international relations and continuing “negotiations” both with the Western Allies and with Stalin showed an ostrich attitude of outright denial of political reality. And later, Mikolajczyk’s disbelief in the sheer ability of communist activists to organize a functioning government and to rule Poland, even with assistance from Soviet cadres, presupposing some inevitability of the communists having to ask his government “for help,” evidenced a truly fatal under-appreciation of his most dangerous political opponents. The truly sad part is that, even when Stalin’s active support for Polish communists became abundantly clear, the government-in-exile could not agree on any feasible policy and engaged instead in patriotic rhetorics and mutual accusations, splitting itself into factions, and becoming so entangled in those internal ideological intrigues that it did not notice history passing it by at a distance – even forty years later, the self-appointed branches of a government without land or subjects refused to acknowledge the fact that Poland was, in fact, being ruled by communists, and that, like after a revolution, there was just no restoration in the cards for the ancien regime.

The position of countries such as Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria at the end of WWII contrast starkly with the lofty attitudes of Poland. Most countries in Eastern Europe recognized the fact that they were simply too weak to survive on their own, and actively sought allies and protectors to ensure their economic and political viability. Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, not to mention Albania, were not above the idea of merging into a federation to avoid marginalization and to strengthen all domestic political parties. Their different attitude might also be due to the fact that, throughout recent history, countries like Bulgaria or Yugoslavia had used the power of negotiation in the face of otherwise inevitable defeat in a potential conflict; this might have helped them to avoid significant losses both in economic and in human terms. Thus, Bulgaria had initially been allied with the Axis, but on September 9, 1944 it enthusiastically welcomed its Soviet “liberators” (although it bears mentioning that the population had been solidly Russophile at least since Alexander II had liberated Bulgaria from 500 years of Turkish occupation.) Joining the winning side helped small Bulgaria avoid to a significant extent the human costs associated for Poland with further resisting otherwise invincible totalitarian governments, and apparently even its archaic political system or its monarchy maintained by a German dynasty was not an impediment to developing friendly cooperation with the Soviets. The last king, Simeon II of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, even returned to the country 1990 after the fall of communism and served 2001-2005 as the democratically elected prime minister, though obviously his monarchy was not restored despite some notable support. It begs the question whether Poland could have obtained similar concessions if the government-in-exile had acquiesced to Stalin’s demands instead of maintaining entirely unreasonable stipulations when every other significant Western political power, including the US, knew they were outright impossible to implement – and tried to mitigate and coax the seemingly incurable Polish national pride into a measure of cooperation.

Yugoslavia’s situation was different in many respects, starting with the fact that it had expelled the Germans on its own and had introduced communist regime by democratic means without Soviet military intervention. It thus gained enough negotiating power with the Soviets to first become Stalin’s poster child and, after Stalin’s condemnation of Tito’s unsubordinated independent policies, including foreign relations often at odds with Stalin’s plans, Yugoslavia was banned from the Stalinist camp but was still basically left alone to work out its own version of communism. Economically, this worked to Yugoslavia’s advantage, since the economy was not drained by constant demands to support the largely inefficient Soviet central planning bureaucracy: Yugoslavia was considered the “rich aunt” of the Eastern Bloc, at least by average citizens of “brother nations” lucky enough to travel there and compare Yugoslav living conditions.

Another interesting aspect of Tony Judt’s overview is the methodology of the communist’s assumption of power in their target countries. It is impossible not to notice that, while in 1946-47 communists accused their opponents of fascist allegiances, the political methods used by them were identical to those used by the Nazi’s power grab in Germany more than a decade earlier. Especially the example of Hungary shows the vulnerability of democratic institutions in the face of takeovers by totalitarian or authoritarian rogue parties. It also seems that Stalin’s insistence that communist parties in the West should adopt aggressive methods without significant Soviet support intended precisely the inescapable results such actions had: the alienation and marginalization of Western communists, and thus the preservation of separate spheres of influence for East and West to which he had agreed at Yalta.

It is also difficult not to notice how territorial claims of various governments and the political ambitions of party leaders disregarded individual tragedies that resulted from mass deportations, expulsions and exchanges of ethnic minorities, even if the population in question was of their own nationality. In that regard, and no matter the government (or indeed regime), territorial ambitions eclipsed any considerations for the affected populations that may have existed: the territorial disputes of Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia present just some of the examples of the claims and counter-claims that reemerged in the early years following WWII when almost every country, conquered or liberated, tried to settle certain of its territorial ambitions by appealing to the allied powers engaged in the redistribution of the spoils of war by redrawing the borders in many parts of Europe.

One might agree or disagree with the policies of a ruling government, especially when it comes to foreign policy and territorial claims. However, a line needs to be drawn somewhere when the pursuits of national “prestige” – or rather, as it almost inevitably happens, of its ruling elites – take clear precedence over the basic well-being of the citizenry whom government officials purport to serve. 

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