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Whither Poland?

ISSUE:  Spring 1927


On first glance it would appear that no subject nation could have launched so auspiciously upon a career of political independence as has Poland. Its people and its lands which Russia, Germany, and Austria had ruthlessly slashed apart some one hundred and fifty years ago, have been reunited. Its resources in agriculture, in forest, in coal, in petroleum, in zinc, in other raw materials and in human energy, make it potentially one of the richest nations in the world. Its intelligentsia, which battled for years for its independence, is cultured and inordinately patriotic. Its peasantry, embracing about two-thirds of the population of twenty-eight millions, is of the sturdiest of stock, not as vivacious, save for the Ukrainians, nor as philosophical as the Russian muzhiks, yet inherently more business-like, more cultured and of irreproachable morality. Upon its becoming independent, its gifted sons, from the world over, writers, teachers, musicians, soldiers, rushed back to offer themselves, at great personal sacrifice, to the task of material and cultural regeneration. Above all it entered upon its career of national independence without the shackles of a Dawes plan, which is making Germany pant with despair and without a burden of reparation that is making France groan with agony. And it had the good-will of the Allied world and of the neutral peoples, especially of the liberals, who have ever remembered the words of George Brandes that “to love Poland is to love freedom.”

And yet during the few years of its national existence Poland has had sixteen changes of government; it fought a war with Russia that nearly cost it its independence; it executed unofficially in the person of General Zeligovski a coup upon its neighbor Lithuania and detached from the latter the Wilno territory, including the ancient city of Wilno, the former Lithuanian capital; it had to fight a costly tariff war with Germany, and quite recently it startled the world with the news of Marshal Pilsudski’s couv d’état. It has since performed an operation on its constitution which must force out some of its democratic life-blood. And to all appearances the end is not yet. Rumors of pending events in Poland float over Europe. Will Poland attempt to hoist its flag over Lithuania? Will Poland go Fascist? Will it go Bolshevik? If so what will be the outcome in Europe, in the world? These questions bother Poland’s friends no less than its enemies. They know that the little republic is in a feverish state, that it is suffering from some serious ailment, perhaps only constitutional or perhaps organic. They realize the importance of its geographic position, its closeness to all Europe, east and west. They know that it can, nay that it must, serve as a bridge or a barrier, but between what and whom?


To understand the nature and meaning of Poland’s difficulties we must go to the source of their origin and this source is rooted in subjective and objective causes; that is in certain traits in Polish character and even more in external conditions, in accidents of fate, in historic heritages and in other forces over which the Polish people and its leaders have as yet been unable to exercise effective control.

I was talking once to the editor of a leading Polish daily, an organ of the National Democrats, the most conservative and most influential political party in Poland. He was outlining to me the principles and policies of his party and incidentally emphasized an idea or rather a movement, which I had thought long dead, as dead as Russian Czar-dom which had fathered it. I mean Panslavism, the formation of a union or an alliance of all the Slavic nations in the world. This editor assured me that Czecho-Slovakia and Jugo-SIavia were solidly for this movement, and that if Russia would sober from her political inebriety and join it, Panslavism would become a reality and a momentous one.

“And what would be its purpose?” I asked.

“Purpose?” he repeated as if astonished at the question, “why, so that we, Slavs, can play our big part in the affairs of the world.”

“You mean,” i ventured, “so that the Slavs can jointly combat a possible Germanic menace?”

“Yes and more than that.”


“So that we can play our big part in the affairs of the world,” he repeated in his original phraseology. “But to what end?” I persisted.

He smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and motioned with his hand as if to indicate that the question needed no answer.

I have narrated this incident not as evidence of a widespread Panslavic movement in Poland. Perhaps this editor was giving utterance to a view held only by certain Polish factions. At any rate with Russia separated from the other Slavic nations by an unbridgable social chasm, Panslavism remains a pure fantasy. The words of this editor gain significance only because they are in my judgment characteristic of a certain trait in the Polish nature and offer a clue to the subjective element in Polish life that is one of the causes of Poland’s troubles.

There is no denying that the Poles love grandeur. They always have loved it. That is why there is so much of the heroic in Polish tradition and so much of the chivalrous in Polish usage. After all at one time they did play a grand role in the affairs of the world, and they have made a notable contribution to the culture of mankind especially in literature and music. The memory of their former glories and achievements has ever been a source of comfort and hope to them in the dark years of their subjection, and now that they are freed they do not want the world to think of them in terms of the civilization of their former oppressors, especially of old Russia with its Asiatic ferocities. They want to be among the select, to be regarded as an advanced people, as a western nation, the equal of any on the continent; nay, in the world.

I was especially impressed with this yearning for distinction on the fourth of July when Poland celebrated the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of America’s independence. The Polish public gloried in the occasion. There was no question as to their sincerity. They felt it more than an honor to pay tribute to the republic that has ever been their staunch friend, and they derived no little exaltation from the mere fact that this tribute was an expression and a proof of spiritual kinship between themselves and America: —America, to them the gallant and dashing Don Quixote of our times!

Commendable as may be this urge on the part of Poles to play a big and worthy part in the affairs of the world, it has this limitation; it is making them if not over-ambitious at least over-anxious, and in their efforts to hold high their name and place they at times rush into acts that hold the possibilities of great harm, that for one thing rouse the suspicion and the hostility of some of their neighbors. “If only we Poles could forget our heroic past,” said a Polish professor, “and cease to think of a heroic future!”

Then there is the Polish fear; yes, real fear, of the future, of Germany and especially of Russia. Official Poland naturally enough vehemently denies that it cherishes such fear. It protests that its friendships make its position secure, and on the surface it does appear that Poland has an imposing array of friends—England, France, Czechoslovakia, possibly the Baltic states, save of course Lithuania, also Rumania and perhaps Bulgaria. But who knows how much real friendship these nations will offer Poland in time of a crisis? And Poland is not very happily situated geographically. Not at all. It has no natural defences, save in the south, where it is not menaced by attack. The entire German and Russian front is an open road.

It is well enough to say that Germany is so bound hand and foot that she can cherish no policies of aggression toward Poland and that Russia is so overburdened with her own internal readjustments that she can think of no advance against Poland. But with the constant shift in spheres of influence, interests, friendships, in the international world, who can tell what the morrow will bring? Who knows what unwritten understandings exist now between Germany and Russia, neither of whom has manifested any special affection for Poland. Germany will not so soon be reconciled to the Polish corridor that splits her land into two unconnected parts, and Russia will not so soon forget the Polish march on Kiev and Minsk in 1920.

In their heart of hearts the Poles realize their danger, and this realization feeds their restlessness, fans their over-anxiety and directly and indirectly causes them to engage in acts that instead of strengthening only weaken their social unity and that promote not integration but disruption. It is due in no small measure to this fear of the future, of Germany and especially of Russia, as well as to the wish to reach the position of a first class power, to which its resources certainly entitle it, that there is so much tragic factionalism in Polish politics, with the sixteen parties continually wrangling with each other, paralyzing action and causing the fall of government after government.


In turning to the objective causes of Poland’s danger, we note this curious paradox; in not a few provinces of its social and economic life its very strength is a source of weakness. Consider, for example, the union of the three Polish territories, the Russian, German and Austrian. Surely that ought to constitute a bond of strength, and it does, but it also makes for a source of conflict and therefore weakness. German Poland in its outward appearance and in its economic development has been thoroughly Germanized. One sees the stamp of German culture at every step, in the good roads in the country, in the modern methods of farming, in the clean and spacious homes of the peasants, in the ability of the latter to read and write German in addition of course to their own language, in the manifest love of the populace for order, discipline, material progress.

Russian Poland bears the unmistakable stamp of old Russia, with its backward economic technic, its mass of illiterate peasants, its lack of social discipline, its indifference if not actual disdain for legality, for form, for system. Austrian Poland bears the stamp of Austrian culture, and these three cultures now united under one banner are in continuous conflict. There are even three bodies of law in operation in Poland, the same that existed in the pre-war days. If German Poland, which holds itself far superior to the rest of the nation, had only possessed physical power, it would unceremoniously impose its domination upon the rest of the country, teach it order, discipline, work, thrift; in short, clap its acquired German culture upon the entire Polish nation. German Poland is biding its time. It is hoping that something may happen, it will not say what, which will enable it to leap into the political saddle and gain a firm grasp of the reigns of government.

Then consider Polish finances. Poland started its national career without a debt but also without a treasury. It floated an internal and raised an external loan; but try as hard as it might, it has been unable to balance its budget, not only because of a limited basic capital, but because of the enormous cost of maintaining its army. Among the powers of Europe Poland now holds first place in the share of the budget it appropriates for military purposes. And shall it reduce its army? Wedged in between Russia and Germany and with an open frontier on both sides and with both Germany and Russia continually gaining strength, it feels that it must have as large an army as it can muster together and be prepared for eventualities.

If only there were peace and trust between Poland and Germany and Russia! How free Poland would then be to develop and beautify its internal life! But in the absence of such peace and trust Poland must ever find itself in economic straits. After all Russian Poland during the period of its subjection to the Czars, adapted itself economically to Russia, and German Poland to Germany. Polish industry and Polish railroads were built specially for the German and Russian markets. Germany could use Polish coal, timber, oil, bread, and Russia its textiles. Germany and Russia are indeed ideal markets for Poland. But owing to mutual distrust and hostility, offical and even more unofficial, the Russian market is almost closed to Poland and the German not always certain. In pre-war days the Polish exports to Russia were more than three times those to all other outside markets. And now that Russia is not buying Polish textiles, the Polish textile industry is in a disastrous slump.

But cannot Poland trade in other lands? Of course it can and it does; at least it tries to desperately enough, but not always to an advantage. As for its textiles it cannot well compete with England, Germany, Czecho-Slovakia and America for the western market. These countries have been in the field ahead of Poland and it cannot wrest much ground from them. As for coal and food-stuffs, which with textiles constitute its chief articles of export, if it has to do without the German market, it faces a complicated transport difficulty. Poland has only one hundred and thirty kilometers of shoreline on the Baltic. Danzig alone cannot handle all its sea-going traffic at a time when it must dispose of its bread and coal in markets outside of Germany.

It is building a new port on the Baltic at Gdynia and is pressing into service another port, that of Tczew, but even with these added facilities Poland will not be possessed of sufficient outlet to the sea to export by water all of its available coal and bread.

Its recent experience with Germany during the tariff war has proved amply enough how disastrous it is for Poland to be deprived of the German market. It had a mammoth crop of rye and potatoes in 1925 and what happened? According to data furnished me at the American consulate in Warsaw, it exported only one-third of the rye it had available for the outside world and only an insignificant amount of its potatoes. It fed enormous quantities of the latter to cattle and even then had three and a half million tons left over. That, of course, reacted disastrously upon the peasant, impaired his buying power, which in turn reduced the consumption of the internal market and further aggravated an already acute industrial crisis.

This vicious circle of cause and effect resulting from the above circumstances—the financial difficulties, the industrial slump, the cost of maintaining the army, the lack of favorable outside markets, the factional convicts within the country, react painfully upon the Polish population. The official rate of interest in Poland is twenty per cent, which means that the unofficial rate is much higher. Business men told me, and their statement was corroborated by the American commercial attache in Warsaw, that in their private financial transactions they pay on loans from three to five per cent interest a month, that is from thirty-six to sixty per cent a year. All because of a shortage of capital. And the government in a desperate effort to balance its budget, is compelled continually to increase taxes, especially on the city, that is on business. The Polish business man pays a capital tax, an income tax, a turnover tax, a license tax, a residence tax, in addition to the many heavy indirect taxes. The small business man is in despair. He sees no hope ahead. He cannot expand. He can hardly stand still and hold his own. Nor is the laborer at ease. About half of the industrial workers in Poland are without jobs. The government pays them doles which are insufficient for a livelihood but which are a drain upon its depleted finances. The once prosperous city of Belostoc is like a house of mourning. Town after town in the textile belt is plunged in gloom.


I spent several days wandering around in Polish villages. Primitive communities they are with unpaved streets, without sidewalks, with hollows that are filled with mud which never seems to dry out. The houses are small, built of logs and consist of one or two rooms that house large families. The Polish peasants are very clean folk, immeasurably cleaner than the Russian muzhik. The inside of their homes is usually painted or whitewashed, occasionally even papered, and the walls are hung with pictures, crucifixes and embroidered draperies. Kindly talkative people they gathered about me wherever I went and bombarded me with questions as to life and work in America and especially as to a possible way of getting admitted to the country. They seemed very eager to emigrate, old and young, men and women. The independence of Poland, its past glories, its possible future triumphs seemed to mean little to them. I suspect that the Polish peasant, unlike the intellectual or the aristocrat, is not especially patriotic, particularly in time of a personal crisis.

Some of the peasants I met had no land of their own or very little of it, and they were especially bitter. Land, they said, was promised to them but they did not get it. They could buy it, there was a law now authorizing landed proprietors to sell their estates to an individual, but they had no funds, and they could obtain none from the government. Meanwhile the rich peasants were buying up the big estates. During the summer they could somehow drag along, hire out to a well-to-do neighbor or some landlord, working twelve hours a day and receiving a money wage of twenty-five cents a day in addition to eighty pounds of flour every month. But in winter there was no work for them. Bad as were conditions in the old days before the war, they were much worse now, so they complained, for then it was always possible to obtain work, summer and winter, in the city if not in the village, abroad if not at home. And now people from the city were coming to the country to look for work and competing with them in the village. They would go anywhere to get a job, to Germany, to France, to America. But everywhere the doors were now closed. They were not wanted.

So in addition to financial difficulties and an industrial slump Poland is facing an agrarian crisis of no small dimensions. The government is seeking to placate the farmer by keeping his direct taxes low. But that is of little aid to the peasant with a small allotment of land, and none to the one without any land. Two-thirds of the peasants in Poland own only about one-fifth of the land, while 16,000 landowners, constituting no more than half of one per cent of the farming population, hold more than one-fourth of the land. The government would like to break up the big estates, but its hands are tied. It has no funds with which to carry out an extensive agrarian reform, and it will confiscate no land. It holds to the inviolability of private property. How to help the poor peasant in straits, is a problem that is perplexing the best political minds of Poland. Again what a boon it would be to the Polish nation if the German and Russian markets were wide open for its goods!


There is yet another major problem that is violently agitating Poland. It is the question of racial minorities. At a conservative estimate a good one-third of its population is made up of non-Polish groups, chiefly Jews, Ukrainians, White Russians and Germans. Now diversity of population need not necessarily constitute a source of weakness, especially when the groups involved have lived side by side for generations, nay for centuries, have suffered from common repressions and have each in its own way battled against a common foe. But in Poland diversity of population has led to unrelenting friction.

Consider the case of the Jews who constitute about ten per cent of the population. In the old old days Poland was the hope and haven of the Jew. During the crusades when he was hounded in Europe, Poland offered him asylum and bestowed upon him rights and privileges which left him unhampered to pursue his own religious and social life and his career as a trader. Poland, of course, needed traders, for the Poles themselves, I mean the ruling group, regarded trade with aversion, as unworthy of the efforts and dignity of a gentleman. In time the Jews had a monopoly on Polish trade, and they continued to hold it even in the days of the industrialization of Poland. In fact the Jew became the Polish middleman and as such constituted the main group in the Polish middle class.

However, toward the end of the last century Polish thinkers and patriots, always dreaming of and working for an independent Poland, underwent a crucial change of mind and heart. They saw that in Western lands, particularly in those that had risen high in the economic and political world, the middle class was the main builder and supporter of civilization, and in their own Poland the middle class was made up mainiy of Jews, aliens. With such a middle class, so they reasoned, Poland when freed could not develop a purely Polish civilization. Hence they began to work for the development of a native middleman, and Poles began to enter in large numbers the occupation of traders, Competition between Jews and Poles constantly increased, led to boycotts, to social and economic reprisals that sharpened their mutual animosities. In Warsaw Jews told me frankly that they would not trade in a Polish store unless they absolutely had to, and Poles likewise confessed that they patronized Jewish merchants only when the Polish one could not accommodate them.

Of course Polish patriots and philosophers had underestimated or rather had not foreseen the social consequences of the economic struggle between Jew and Pole in the attempt to build a Polish middle class, that is to squeeze the Jew out of his economic position. They had imagined that the Jews when pressed hard would emigrate to America and to Russia. But they had not figured on the new immigration laws in America and on the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The Jews now have no place to go to. They must remain in Poland and fight for their life as best they can.

Meanwhile racial feeling is not diminishing. The Jews complain that they are being discriminated against in nearly every walk of life in trade, in industry as entrepreneurs as well as laborers, in the civil service, in the educational world as students and as instructors, and even in the mode of taxation, or rather in the application of the tax laws—this despite the guarantees of absolute equality granted them by the constitution. Naturally they are organized politically and the thirty-seven Jewish members in the Diet, while divided amongst themselves on social grounds, are yet united as Jews and act as a solid Jewish block on matters related to their group welfare.

More acute is the case of the Ukrainians in Poland. They are mainly a peasant folk and they live on their own historic lands. Like the Poles they are Slavs and like the latter many of them are Roman Catholics. They are the gayest and most colorful of all the Slav peoples. They certainly are the wittiest. Gogol was an Ukrainian. Their poet Shevtshenko, a national hero now, holds high rank in the Slavic literary world. Americans who have heard the Ukrainian national choir that has been touring the country have some conception of the overflowing exuberance and exotic abandon of these highly picturesque people.

Now in the pre-war days Ukraine was divided between Russia and Austria, and in Austria even more than in Russia there developed a strong Ukrainian nationalist move, which the war and the Russian and Wilsonian doctrines of nationalist self-determination had greatly inflamed. The Ukrainian intelligentsia had sought for absolute independence, but without success. Ukraine remained a subject nation, divided between Poland and Soviet Russia.

The Ukrainians in Poland contend that they are being forced into a process of Polonization. They regard themselves in every way fully the equal of the Poles, entitled to as much right as the latter to pursue their own nationalist destinies. I had a session with the deputies of the Ukrainian group in the Polish Diet. With a map before them they pointed out to me territories in the Chelm and Volhyn districts where landed estates have been broken up, but the land has been given not to the poor Ukrainian peasants in the vicinity of these estates, but to Poles from other parts of the country. Now from the standpoint of the Polish nationalist government there are valid enough reasons for settling these estates with Poles, first because these settlers are former soldiers whom the government feels bound to provide with a livelihood, and secondly in the absence of a natural line of defenses on the Russian frontier, Poland feels that it must develop strong military protection there and it can do so only by planting in that territory Poles upon whose loyalty it can always rely.

The Ukrainians will not reckon with such considerations. Strong defences for Poland mean nothing to them. They only know that the land which they had hoped would be theirs, has been given to others, to outsiders, to people who in course of time might even become their fighting enemies. Moreover the Ukrainian deputies insist that Poland has scrapped many of those group rights which they enjoyed under old Austria, that it has repressed many of their cooperatives in the fear that they might become centers of political disaffection, that it has imposed rigorous limitations upon the use of their language in their schools, that it has even closed some of their non-Roman Catholic churches, and that it is in other ways seeking, as they see it, to force them into Polonization.

Now whatever we may think of the justice or injustice of the Ukrainian grievances and the Ukrainian nationalist cause, the result for Poland is another force disruptive of national and social unity. In 1922 the Ukrainians in East Galicia, as a protest against the Polish policy toward them, boycotted the elections to the Diet. The rest of Polish Ukraine elected twenty deputies, and these, like the Jews, while divided amongst themselves on social and political questions are united as Ukrainians and form a solid non-Polish block in the Diet.

The case of the White Russians differs but little from that of the Ukrainians save that among them the nationalist spirit is not as yet so highly developed, and their intelligentsia is proportionately more numerous and less aggressive, though the land problem is more acute.

And here is where Russia once more enters the arena of the internal life of Poland with a weapon, non-military and indirect, that is as if purposely calculated to heighten its racial conflict. Someone has written that Soviet Russia is imperialistic. If so its imperialism is of a new brand, a Red imperialism, differing from the old, the so-called White imperialism, in that it is not cultural, nor geographic, nor economic, but pre-eminently social. The Russian Soviet policy is not to impose the Russian language or Russian culture upon any nation, but on the contrary to allow every group within its fold to pursue its own cultural and nationalist life m its own way. All it seeks is to enforce the Soviet idea of society. Soviet Russia is now divided into more than a score of Soviet republics, among them the Ukrainian Soviet Republic and the White Russian Soviet Republic. The existence of these republics flatters of course the nationalist pride of the Ukrainians and White Russians in Poland, deepens their nationalist consciousness and fans their separatist proclivities. It is no secret that Ukrainian and White Russian nationalists in Poland are beginning to look with hope toward Soviet Russia. Though not Bolshevists they are forced to recognize, so their leaders openiy stated, that Russia is offering them the chance to realize their purely nationalist and cultural destinies, while Poland is attempting to thwart their expression. Since there is no Ukrainian university in Poland and since some of the Ukrainian youths will not attend a Polish university, they are now beginning to attend the universities in Soviet Ukraine. The reader can imagine how much Polish patriotism they will bring back with them when they return to their native lands, that is if they are ever allowed to return. And if they are not they will find some way of sowing disaffection among their peoples. If, in time of peace the attitude of the racial minorities in Poland constitutes an obstructive and disruptive social force; in time of war it may well result in a catastrophe. Imagine a case when Poland is at war either with Russia or Germany or both of them, and these countries jointly or separately promise complete national and cultural independence to the subject peoples in Poland? After all these peoples make up one-third of the population, are likely therefore to constitute one-third of the army, and some of them, like the Germans, Ukrainians and White Russians, inhabit strategic territories. In the last war in response to a similar appeal of the Allies Poland and other subject nations inflicted no little damage on the enemy nations.


Whither Poland? A wavering currency, an unbalanced budget, widespread unemployment, a usurious discount rate, an industrial slump, an agrarian crisis, racial disaffections, the clash of three alien civilizations, the German, Austrian and Russian, an international tenseness, a parliament split into factions that paralyze action and kill cabinets—an alarming situation. It is out of such conflict and confusion that the Pilsudski coup has sprung. Poland certainly needed that “moral rejuvenation” in the name of which Pilsudski overthrew the old government.

And what now? a good crop, a favorable trade balance and a substantial loan that will loosen the flow of capital in the country and help stabilize the currency, will materially aid Poland’s social and economic recovery, for a while at least. But that is not enough. To establish permanent stability and durable progress Poland needs above all internal unity and external peace, real lasting peace with Russia and Germany, whose markets it must have to dispose profitably and easily of vast stores of its surplus produce.

Will Pilsudski attain both of these ends? That he is a popular man with the masses there is no doubt. I was amazed at the admiration and trust with which peasants and workers spoke of him. Even the racial groups, especially the Jews, regard him with respect and have faith in his honesty. That he is an unselfish man and, unlike other Polish leaders, has never exploited his popularity or his official position for personal gain, his bitterest enemies in Posen admit. He is to this day a poor man. He has always lived modestly. He may be ambitious, perhaps over-ambitious. But he, if anybody, can whip parliament into line. He, if anybody, can act independently of parliament and have the support of the masses, if he gives them what they want most—material security.

But is he a great statesman? Is he an able administrator? Courage he has, an overabundance of it and no less of self-confidence. Can he bring Germany to a friendly understanding? Can he win the good-will of Russia? He will perform a miracle if he does, for Russia mistrusts him. The press in Russia speaks of him with vitriolic scorn. In other words has Pilsudski the organizing genius and diplomatic shrewdness of a Mussolini? Only time can tell.

But supposing something happens to him. Supposing he dies or, as a deputy in the Diet hinted to me, he is shot by one of his enemies, or supposing he fails to achieve internal unity and external peace? Then what? Communism? Hardly, unless Poland embarks upon a protracted and disastrous war or the army is debauched through internal strife. The universal hate of Russia, engendered by the Czarist government, the well-organized Roman Catholic church, the intense nationalism of all political parties including the socialists, would in themselves be a sufficient guarantee against a Bolshevik outbreak.

However, it would be futile to hazard prophecy. One can only trust that the Polish people, gifted, energetic, chivalrous and inordinately patriotic, will in the event of a catastrophe find a path to unity, peace, and progress.


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