By Joe Gschwendtner
Poland’s expansive plains have made her lands a military corridor in regional skirmishes and world wars. Teutonic Knights, cavalry and tanks have controlled her vast spaces and she has been uniquely oppressed by outsiders. Outstripping this history and braving long odds, she is now a successful recovering Soviet client state, defiant and free, the beneficiary of a robust capitalism flourishing within her borders and Eastern Europe. We would do ourselves great harm to not remember that this is the Poland of Generals Kosciusko and Pulaski who fought for our freedom in the American Revolution and it is the heritage of Colonel “Gabby” Gabreski, likely the greatest American air ace in U.S. history. Her soldiers have fought bravely, shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is it possible she is now a friend betrayed, the casualty of a missile defense gambit in the broader initiative of global engagement?
The current administration’s decision to cancel the promised missile defense system has left Poles scratching their heads while other allies silently writhe. Is this really a small tactical decision that eases tensions and saves money? Or have we witnessed a grave course adjustment in the ship of state? Has Poland again become a pawn of a new war? Her history of being on the receiving end of plunder and partition is instructive.
Polonians (“people of the open fields”) are fiercely independent and resilient; they have had to be. Their first millennium was marked by dominance and manipulation, first by Mongols, Tatars, Swedes, Cossacks, and Russians, their own nobility, and then the late empires of Europe. These constant upheavals stunted the growth of both democratic institutions and a middle class needed to drive them. Not until World War I’s Treaty of Versailles in 1918 and the tenuous independence it granted was Poland really in a position to act strategically.
As that document’s ink was still drying, President Josef Pilsudski and the Polish people recognized the appetite of the Soviet bear to the east. Clearly, Lenin’s records prove his intentions to recover territories surrendered by Bolshevik Russia during World War I and then to later create a Communist “Anschluss” with German Socialists using Poland as his corridor. The Polish-Soviet War that resulted in 1919 was a pre-emptive effort by Pilsudski to thwart a reconstituted Russian military from resuming its march westward. The humiliating defeat of the Red Army at Warsaw resulted in the Treaty of Riga in 1921. With Russia’s territorial urges still unrequited and smoldering, the devil’s table was set for Stalin’s later revenge and en passant machinations at Tehran and Yalta during World War II.
Poland’s geopolitical significance would rise exponentially with the dominance of mechanized warfare in World War II. Germany’s invasion of Poland began with the bombing of Wielun and the overwhelming of Gdansk on September 1, 1939, an act of a war that would put 100 million men under arms globally. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, struck weeks earlier between Germany and Russia, committed the signatories to non-aggression while allowing the Red Army to move quickly into eastern territories ceded to Poland at the end of World War I. The pact also made provisions for a later, final partition of Poland between Russia and Germany.
In a ruthless seven months of terror, Stalin initiated a comprehensive round-up of Polish intelligentsia, primarily officials, policemen, academics, and military officers. His defining act of revenge and brutality was the April 1940 Katyn Forest Massacre near Smolensk where 4,421 Polish officers were summarily executed. At three other nearby locations another 14,400 leaders were shot and buried in mass graves. Killings were clinical and efficient, virtually all delivered with a bullet to the back of the head.
With Operation Barbarossa, Hitler double-crossed Stalin and launched Germany’s invasion of Russia in June 1941. With the Polish pawn in play, the ebb and flow of unchecked warfare was visited upon the people of the open fields. Brutalized or exterminated by the Germans, Poles were then subsequently raped, plundered, and finally yoked by their Russian Slavic brethren in their counter-offensive. Most of today’s aging survivors have long gotten over the Germans, but will never forgive Russian depravities.
In a final preview of things to come, an extraordinary Warsaw uprising staged against the Germans by the Polish resistance in 1944 was unaided by the Russian Army positioned just across the Vistula. Stalin’s unwillingness to help was motivated by his Katyn-like desire to see the German defensive force destroyed by a still vigorous underground in a fight to the death. That Polish pawn played in Warsaw resulted in over 200,000 military and civilian deaths and Hitler’s vengeful order to level the city block by block.
Whether Katyn, the Warsaw Uprising and other compelling evidence was conveniently overlooked or ignored by the Franklin Roosevelt’s State Department is debatable. Indisputable is FDR’s bad call on the beguiling Josef Stalin. Unmoved by Winston Churchill’s suspicions, Roosevelt remarked: “I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of man….I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.” The Iron Curtain and almost 45 years of oppression was the price of that gross miscalculation.
At the Potsdam Conference, Truman was more wary of Stalin, but east-west political boundaries had been established in Crimea and only minor adjustments were made. Pawned again, Poland’s national sovereignty continued to be ignored as was her ravaged populace. Russia unilaterally shifted her post-war boundaries, reclaiming Slavic peoples and territory in eastern Poland and returning territory to Poland in the west at the expense of Germany. In the process, millions of Germans and Poles were displaced and forcibly relocated.
Fortunately, the Polish people retained their indomitable resilience. They continued on with the business of rebuilding their lives after betrayal, living as Poles and not Communists, ever guided by their Catholicism. Poles who survived the German General Government and the Polish Communist State will tell you bluntly that their beliefs were unshakable and that they deceived their communist masters at every opportunity.
It was in this environment that a shipyard worker in Gdansk and the first Polish Pope concomitantly led worker-based and spiritual efforts that would finally set them free of Cold War bondage. Pawns no longer, and in concert with other eastern bloc uprisings, the Poles foiled their masters with unionized solidarity and simple Christianity. The award in 1983 of the Nobel Peace Prize to Lech Walesa was the signal event and when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Poland quickly made its own political transition. Mikhail Gorbachev himself would later acknowledge that the Wall’s collapse would have been impossible without Pope John Paul II.
Nowhere in the failed Socialist states of Eastern Europe did freedom take deeper root. Along with the Czech and Baltic republics, no countries were more anxious to embrace America as a partner in the quest for freedom and Poland proudly joined the European Union in 2004. Her current economic challenges are not insubstantial, but Poland is committed to an ambitious $3.5 billion privatization effort to eliminate remaining state-run industries.
The defensive missile agreement struck with the Bush Administration in 2002 was emblematic, proof positive that Poland understood the nature of her contemporary adversaries and readily accepted her role in the Free World’s defense. The cancellation of this agreement has significant implications beyond the current tactical situation. Unlike current American policymakers, Poland knows that new threats to peace are no longer limited to powerful nations with massive military might, but also include stateless terrorist rogues and bad state actors with enough nuclear capacity to annihilate millions in the civilized world. Few countries on earth could know more about the horrors people are willing to inflict on each other.
What other nation is better positioned and willing to protect the Free World against an almost certain destruction that can be rained down upon the northern hemisphere from Middle Asia? If one correct answer is a willing Poland, how is it that the politics of globalization seem to have prevailed over common sense? Has Poland served as a pawn yet again?
Is it possible that our President has not completely studied the success and failures of his idol FDR? Are Mr. Ahmadinejad’s intentions not clear for the entire world to understand? Does he really think that Russia is ready to disown a history of territorial aggression? Has a potentially fatal miscalculation been made about the many threats we face? Is it worth the risk to find out?
A useful phone call for President Obama would be to former President George W. Bush. I suspect the conversation would go something like this:
“Mr. President, this is Barack Obama and I need your advice. When you said that you looked into the eyes of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and you could see the measure of his soul, what did you really see?”
Joe Gschwendtner is a Denver businessman and writer