Real Europeans see history as a battle: first, to organize human life in accordance with national and popular principles, with traditions and habits; and second, not to be ruled by even the most perfect ideas thought up by foreigners…

Author’s Note: French President Macron had harsh words for Poland, threatening the country with sanctions. But he would do well to recall to mind that what he percieves as Polish recalcitrance against Europe is Polish recalcitrance for Europe. The translation below of Major Henryk Krzeczkowski’s text to a German audience likewise wary of Polish recalcitrance in 1980 is a good reminder to all Europeans of why the Polish view matters.

We see a law of nature in the ebb and flow of interest in Polish affairs: the world remembers that Poland exists only when Poles become unruly. If we are unruly on a local scale and our neighbors are able to pacify us, we can count on the sympathy of the whole world. In such cases, Poland gives rise to what Tomas Mann called “romantische Assoziationen, Vorstellungen von historischen Leiden, von Stolz, von Freiheitsliebe und Ritterlichkeit,” and we turn then toward platonic reflections over the idea that “sich mit dem polnischen Namen verbundet: die Idee der Westostlichen Synthese, des Ausgleichs und der Überbruckung gewaltiger und spannungsvoller Weltgegensätze.”*

It is, however, when our unruliness threatens grave consequences that the world reacts by complaining about Poland, accusing Poles of speaking up when they should have quieted down, of aggravating our neighbors and disturbing the peace of the world.

It is true that we at times aggravate our neighbors, but please believe me that we only do so when they threaten us, and it is not our fault that they are prone to do very stupid things. Please recall the partitions of Poland in the eighteenth century. We were trying to save ourselves from a very deep internal crisis and the last thing we were thinking of at the time was aggravating our neighbors. In fact, we were ready for far-reaching reasonable compromises. What did our neighbors do? Poland’s great statesman and modern political theorist, Roman Dmowski, opined that had the Great Powers which undertook the partitions considered the very obvious consequences of their actions rather than their own immediate gains, they would never have allowed for the liquidation of an independent Polish state.

Contrary to stereotypes, we Poles are realists. We are not unruly without good reason. The world has learned this truth the hard way more than once. Perhaps we do fail to keep our emotions in check: for example, I believe we were provoked to engage in unnecessary uprisings in 1831, 1863, and 1944. Yet this is a matter of Polish temperament. Let us consider whether Europe behaved rationally in deciding not to help us and instead revel in the fact that we were skinned alive during the war? Ladies and gentlemen—in my country, in Poland, the people continue in the faith that marriage is sacred and irrevocable. Poles like to say that there is only one thing to do if you can’t stand your wife: fall madly in love with her. No one in their right mind would accept their neighbor pacifying his wife because we all know that would just be the beginning of troubles. We Poles believe ourselves to be tied to Europe in a similarly irrevocable way. I suppose it is wishful thinking that Europe will ever fall madly in love with us, but it is high time Europe finally understood that there is no divorcing itself from us. Europe needs to understand this for its own good.

In point of fact, anyone wishing to understand Poland must start from accepting that Poland is in Europe. This is an obvious fact that is most often forgotten by those who undertake to discuss Poland and even believe themselves capable of deciding on Poland’s fate. The cause of this state of affairs rests in part in the fact that geographic imagination is often not coupled with historical, cultural, and civilizational imagination. For Metternich, Europe ended at the Viennese Landstrasser Hauptstrasse, beyond which lay the Balkans. General de Gaulle liked to talk about Europe “stretching to the Urals,” but this was mere rhetoric. For de Gaulle, Europe was contained in the boundaries once formed by the Roman legions. What was Europe for Roosevelt and Stalin when they divided it?

I fear that for these two politicians Europe was a mere geographical term. A term which filled them with mixed feelings of admiration and hatred, fear and antipathy, jealousy and impatience. Perhaps these hidden and not altogether conscious sentiments weighed on their decisions…

Once we realize how much danger and tension the divisions they brought into being caused in the years between Yalta and the Helsinki accords, we can begin to recognize the clearly false premise upon which the divisions of the Cold War were based. The first of their false premises was the idea that the only real effective force in politics is military and economic power. The second premise, which flowed from the first, is that post-war America and Russia were the lone superpowers capable of governing Earth. These premises led to two conclusions. The optimists came to believe that the peaceful coexistence of the superpowers would lead to one world government. The pessimists feared an apocalyptic war between Gog and Magog.

Real Europeans are skeptical of “final solutions.” For real Europeans, the history of modern Europe is the battle for national sovereignty and popular self-government. Real Europeans see history as a battle: to organize human life in accordance with national and popular principles, with traditions and habits; and not to be ruled by even the most perfect ideas thought up by foreigners.

It was in the name of this inalienable right—a right rooted in our culture—that we Poles never accepted the loss of our independent statehood towards the end of the eighteenth century. It was in the name of this inalienable right that twice Poles went to war against Russia in the nineteenth century. It was in the name of this inalienable right that Poland defeated the Soviet Union in 1920. It was in the name of this inalienable right that Poles went to war against Germany in 1939 and, defeated on the battlefield, did not surrender their weapons, but continued the war on all fronts in the name of independence and national sovereignty. In recollecting these facts, it is not my intention to boast—though we Poles have much to be proud of— but rather to remind you that Poles always demonstrate their commitment to European principles with action, not words. We believe that war for national independence is simply a case of good European manners. You might accuse us of being stereotypical romantics for being willing to fight wars for good manners, but don’t make that mistake. As I have already pointed out: Poles are realists. We fought wars for freedom and for Poland because we believed we were fighting for the permanent things which constitute good European order.

European order is historically malleable. The statesmen responsible for the contours of European order believed themselves to be pragmatists taking into account such things as the balance of powers and dynastic and monarchic interests. Yet international order can only function when public opinion accepts its principles. Leopold Ranke noted: “public opinion changes, it can be shaped, it’s sense of truth and justice is at times stronger, at times weaker…public opinion is often reduced to the role of observing events. It crystallizes on the basis of the development of events it participated in. Yet if public opinion finds events to be pushing suddenly and forcefully against the people, public opinion transforms into a violent challenge.” I advise you to take special care to note the fragment of this quote having to do with truth and justice. Truth and justice are key matters in my view because I believe there exists such a thing as global conscience. The world is often at odds with its conscience. Such is Fallen human nature, but we are called to master our imperfections at some level. You do realize, of course, that to capitulate simply because you are Fallen leads to nothing good? And yet can’t we say that following World War II, Europe capitulated? Isn’t that really what we should call all that Europe allowed to be done to itself?

For the Polish people, the results of the second World War prove that the conflict was not worth fighting. Of course, some will say that no war is ever worth fighting, but please keep in mind that the second World War was really and truly—not simply declaratively—an ideological struggle. It was in the name of ideology that Poland made the fateful decision not to align itself with either Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia despite knowing that an inevitable war between the two states was imminent. Poland made a conscious decision to take the side of democracy against totalitarianism. The conflict between these two worldviews was complex and multifaceted, but from the moment the first shots were fired in the European theater, everything was reduced to the goal of liquidating the effects of the aggression and ensuring it could never take place again. The initial step towards this goal was naturally considered the return to the status quo—antebellum. The sudden alliance between the democratic world and the Soviet Union complicated the situation. We tried our best to weather this complication by constructing a certain hierarchy of priorities. The first priority was the defeat of Nazi Germany. Our allies seemed to share our priority. Yet while Poles still believed that the question of post-war European order remained vital and stood at the foundation of the entire war effort, the United States and Russia began to consider the matter divorced from ideas and only from the point of view of imperial ambition.

In the name of imperial ambition, a new concept of war aims was conceived; an anachronistic concept which did not take into account the inalienable right of people and nations to self-government. Thus, the fundamental question over which Poles fought the war was removed from deliberations over its conclusion. Restoring the antebellum status quo disappeared from the agenda, even though this was fundamental to building a lasting European economic order.

The Versailles treaty, which was the basis of the antebellum status quo, was far from perfect, due to the fact that it did not go far enough. Indeed, the treaty acknowledged the right of nations to self-determination, but it did so ineffectively. In the first phase of the second World War, it appeared for a moment that conditions were maturing towards the improvement of the conditions of the Versailles treaty. By the end of the war, the whole issue was abandoned in favor of dividing Europe into spheres of influence. In both the American and Soviet view, these spheres of influence were to pave the way for the utopia of one world government. The only question was whether it would be Pax Americana or Pax Sovietica. There was only one alternative to the struggle for world government: world war. Neither of the two sides that undertook this division ever stopped to consider that their hegemony might one day be threatened by the development of forces determined to smash these arbitrary spheres of influence…

…This is not the first instance in European history of immorality in politics, nor is it the first time that the consequences of such immorality were so unexpected. The intention of the superpower governing the sphere of influence which Poland found herself under was the radical transformation of Polish society in a spirit wholly foreign to Polish traditions and ambitions. The Western Powers which accepted Soviet dominance over Poland hoped that this new European order would forever free Europe of the “Polish problem.” Both the Western Great Powers and the Soviets would be disappointed…

Poland ended World War II fundamentally transformed by force of arms. She lost one-third of her territory to the Soviet Union, for which she was nominally recompensated with German lands. This recompensation was far from equitable. Pre-war Poland covered an area of 390 thousand square kilometers. Post-war Poland was reduced to 312 thousand square kilometers. This is a loss of roughly 80 thousand square kilometers. The new borders were matched with forced population transfers. Prior to 1939, Poland was a multiethnic state. Ukrainians, Jews, and Belorussians were all Polish citizens. The tragic annihilation of Polish Jews, and the transfer of Polish Belorussians and Ukrainians to the Soviet Union as well as the exodus of Polish Germans remolded Poland into an ethnically homogenous state. This fact is in my view of immense importance, and combined with the inevitable alterations made to the structure of society by the new political and economic order, it is the key to understanding the political tumult overtaking my country…

With regard to the role of the Catholic church in Poland, I would like to make one thing very clear: You must understand the essential role played by the Church in Polish public life. Even the most well-intentioned observers don’t realize it. The Catholic church—throughout all of Polish history—has forever been the one, fundamentally democratic institution in society. I mean this in the most literal of senses. The ranks of the clergy were always open to everyone, irrespective of class. The institutional Church has always defended the weakest in society. It has also always placed the common good above any particular party good. The Catholic church obviously held a role in direct collision with the class dictatorship propagated by the communist party. The communists saw the Church as a challenge to their ambitions of transforming Poland into a republic modeled on the Soviets. It is no surprise that the Communists believed their principle adversary to be the Church.

Yet the Church did not desire a confrontation. To the extent it was possible, the Church worked to curb all confrontations. It did not surrender its role as the defender of the Christian faith. As one great Catholic writer put it towards the beginning of the Communist system: “Catholicism is indifferent with regards to the form a government takes. Catholicism is solely interested in the essential content of any government…the state must be unified, government must be possessed of sovereign authority, but the state is not a substantive unit; it is a unity composed of many parts. It is paramount then that the individual should never find himself consumed by the unified state. Individuals must persevere, they must have their individual lives, their personal lives, they must walk the path Providence has made for them alone. If there is any ethical sense to a state it is only to facilitate the development of the human person while respecting the relations proper to state and society…”

Human compacts are not eternal. Every treaty between human beings is a compromise made to create a tolerable order. The compromise towards which Poland aims is not only important for us, as we are trying to pave the way for a tolerable United and peaceful Europe. It will likely be an imperfect Europe, but it will better suit the times. We seek a compromise between those who believe they know the iron laws of history and thus feel it their right to force people to conform to those laws and between those who believe nothing else exists beyond the right of a man to seek out his own path in history. As a Christian, I tell you where I stand: I believe that sacred history is completed and contained in the Revelations of the Bible. The sacred history stretches from Creation through the Fall, the coming of Christ and the redemption of mankind. Within this sacred history lies our earthly existence, our earthly history, and that earthly history is a matter of our own free will.

—Henryk Krzeczkowski

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Translator’s Note: Major Henryk Krzeczkowski was a Polish Jew of the Catholic faith who fought alongside the Soviet forces in World War II. After the war, he was the architect of the preservation and fruition of conservative Catholic political philosophy in Poland. Many active Polish statesmen were his pupils. The above text has been edited, with certain sections cut from the body (principally the detailed description of the rise of Solidarity as a result of the socio-economic forces spawned by Communist government). The translator felt that this would better serve the aim of making the text relevant to present European politics, when Western voices are again moving from moderate and friendly criticism (the right of anyone in the international community) to an audibly hostile stance towards Poland. The translator is the last living direct heir to Major Krzeczkowski’s literary estate.

*Translation from the German: Romantic associations, conceptions of historical suffering, pride, freedom, love and chivalry, and the turn then toward platonic reflections over the idea that is linked with the Polish name: the idea of Western-Eastern synthesis, balancing and bridging more powerful and exciting world opposites

The featured image is by Remi Jouan, and is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email