Poland is with you: the country said in January it would release Leopard tanks to Ukraine with or without German permission. © Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The war for the soul of Poland

Warsaw has been one of Kyiv’s loudest champions since conflict returned to Europe. But one country can have multiple truths, and Poland has still not decided which to believe
March 1, 2023

Long ago, as the interminable years of the Cold War dragged by, a Polish exile in Paris had some mad ideas. Count Jerzy Giedroyc, editor of the émigré periodical Kultura, said that the mighty Soviet Union was going to fall apart. And not only that. When it did, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania, all Soviet republics, would become independent nation states.

His readers were shocked that Kultura was printing such ridiculous fantasies. Even worse, given that large slices of all three had been Polish provinces before Stalin invaded and annexed them after 1939, Kultura was saying that a future Poland must accept those new frontiers, and the loss of the ancient cities of Lwów and Wilno (Lviv and Vilnius).

But the old count was right. And, mercifully, the two men who created Poland’s foreign policy after the collapse of communism, Bronisaw Geremek and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, had been faithful readers of smuggled-in Kultura. They planted Poland in the “Giedroycian” position, where it remains. This stance involves respect for the independence of the three new states; no “revanchist” claims on lost territories within their frontiers; and a duty to help each of them towards democracy, prosperity and (with Russia looming over them) security.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago put that policy to the test. Today, as President Biden gratefully acknowledged on his recent visit to Warsaw, Poland is the most vigorous European supporter of Ukraine’s struggle. More than two million Ukrainian refugees were welcomed into Poland in the months following Putin’s attack; this January, Poland was the only state to declare that it would give its Leopard tanks to Ukraine with or without German permission. The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, keeps calling on his European Union partners to do more for Kyiv, materially and diplomatically. And to outsiders, Poland’s furious reaction seems natural. After all, hasn’t Russia been the ancestral enemy of Polish independence down the centuries, twice taking part in the blood-soaked abolition and partition of the Polish state? Isn’t Putin doing to Ukraine what the empress Catherine II did (over largely the same battlegrounds) to the old Polish-­Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century? Catherine, Stalin and now Putin: all unable to keep their claws off Russia’s western borderlands, reducing them to servile satrapies or boot-trampled Muscovite backyards.

But that is only half the truth. Poland must survive with two enormous neighbours, not one. For much of recent history, Prussia and its German Reich successor have been as contemptuous of Polish independence as Russia. The need to look for protection from one neighbouring power against the other has been strong. At present, Poland is linked to Germany via Nato and the EU, but it’s a strikingly unaffectionate alliance. When she was Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel was accused of hankering for a special relationship with Putin’s Russia; the new Nord Stream gas pipelines were laid from Russia to Germany, conspicuously avoiding Poland. And now the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government in Warsaw, nervous about the general election due this autumn, is encouraging anti-German paranoia. Its propaganda suggests that Polish opposition politicians—including Donald Tusk, back from Brussels where he was chairman of the European Council—are secret agents in a German plot to take control of the EU and force degenerate western permissiveness on heterosexual Catholic Poland.

Isn’t Putin doing to Ukraine what Catherine II did to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth?

Warsaw constantly snipes at Berlin for lack of enthusiasm about the Ukrainian war. But this is not so much about concern for Ukraine as out of suspicion of any German-Russian rapprochement. This touches an agonising Polish nerve. Twice in history, those two great neighbours dropped their mutual dislike to divvy up the pesky, defiant country between them: in the 18th-century partitions and in the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, when Hitler and Stalin agreed that the Poland page should be torn out of the European atlas for ever. Nothing can redact that treachery and the ensuing horrors out of collective memory—although Poland’s Communist party regime vainly tried to do so.

The government in Warsaw has been dominated in recent years by the PiS and its allies. Populist, morally repressive and hyper-patriotic, the PiS chips away at constitutional and legal limits on its power as its supporters infiltrate civil society and the media. Today, it is firm and loud in its support for Ukraine’s struggle. But how sound, really, is its commitment to the integrity of its three eastern neighbours? At the war’s outset, when it looked as if Ukraine was being swiftly overrun, there were curious wobbles from politicians and regime journalists. What if Ukraine broke apart? What role might Poland play in what had been western Ukraine (and part of pre-1939 Poland)? On the other wing, some liberal intellectuals in Poland wondered how democratic a victorious postwar Ukraine might be, in light of its historical authoritarian tendencies.

United against a common foe: Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, shaking hands with Volodymyr Zelensky in March 2022. © President Of Ukraine/ZUMA Press Wire Service United against a common foe: Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, shaking hands with Volodymyr Zelensky in March 2022. © President Of Ukraine/ZUMA Press Wire Service

But the truth is that Ukrainian-­Polish relations have never been warmer than they are now, in the midst of war. Given the past, that’s a wonder. Much of Ukraine west of the Dnieper—and much of Belarus and Lithuania—was effectively “colonised” by Polish landowners in previous centuries, incomers whose language, religion and culture were usually quite alien to the peasant masses working their estates. (The English ascendancy in Ireland felt much the same.) After the First World War, as Ukrainian nationalism began to crystallise, the western regions of Ukraine were annexed with fierce fighting by the new Polish Republic. In the Second World War, Ukrainian nationalist partisans supported by the Nazi invaders carried out genocidal massacres of the Polish and Jewish population in the province of Volhynia—crimes only recently, after years of silence, admitted and brought towards reconciliation. And yet in the Orange Revolution between 2004 and 2005, when young ­Ukrainians occupied the streets of Kyiv in protest against monstrous political misrule, young Poles by the thousand poured over the border to help, waving their red-white “Solidarity” banners—and were welcomed without a word about the “Polish imperialism” of their forefathers.

Since the invasion a year ago, the Ukrainian cause has been rewarded in two ways. As the latest Biden visit showed, Poland—always deeply and sentimentally pro-American—has been promoted to Washington’s favourite ally in central Europe. And that in turn has sharply strengthened the hand of the PiS government in its long quarrel with the European Union. Membership of the EU remains solidly popular. There’s no appreciable movement for a “Poxit”; in fact, the sense that Poland is actually more European than anybody else—through its old myth-role as “the bastion of western Christian civilisation” against the barbarian east—is still alive.

The sense is that Poland is actually more European than anybody else, through its old myth-role as ‘the bastion of western Christian civilisation’

But that has not restrained PiS—and the radical-right within the Catholic Church—from lurid abuse of the EU as a godless fount of moral and sexual laxity, and as a “Germanised” conspiracy to overrule the right of independent nations to make their own laws. Brussels saw the PiS campaigns to disable constitutional restraints on the executive, and to undermine the independence of the judiciary, as clear breaches of the EU’s commitment to the rule of law. After fruitless talks, the EU suspended Polish access to badly needed funding (€35bn in Covid compensation grants) and is fining Poland for non-compliance. Last summer Jarosaw Kaczyski, leader and co-founder of PiS and effectively the most powerful figure in the country, declared that Poland would never give in to blackmail: “We do not fit into the German-Russian plan to rule over Europe.” Since then, however, a look at the money markets (and probably at the awful fate of Liz Truss at their hands) has persuaded Poland to offer tactical reforms to its legal programmes.

It is Poland’s much-admired support for Ukraine, rather than the vague prospect of those concessions, which may persuade the EU to relent and unlock funds. But beyond its authoritarian offensive at home, Kaczyski’s party plays with an alternative future for Europe. This would be a Europe des patries, almost on de Gaulle’s model: an alliance of fully sovereign nation states, within Nato but independent of Brussels, which would include post-Brexit Britain rather than just the EU’s present members. But the first obstacle to such visions is domestic. PiS no longer looks invincible and its hold on parliament is thin, dependent on two small but extreme groupings. “National megalomania”—a phrase coined by that Paris Kultura—describes some of the postures struck by these factions, which, like the European Research Group at Westminster, have disproportionate influence on the governing party. Zbigniew Ziobro, minister of justice and leader of the PiS splinter United Poland, says ominously that the country cannot remain an EU member at all costs. The far-right party Confederation, a fogeyish little ­collection, “lives in the pre-1914 world” according to one commentator. Some members plainly inherit the policies of the National Democrats, the most powerful nationalist movement in that distant period, exhibiting autocracy, xenophobia and antisemitism.

For now, Putin has fastened Poland tightly into the west. If this autumn’s elections replace PiS with a liberal opposition, the bond will be even stronger. And yet Giedroyc’s ghost would warn of another supreme but unfinished business: Poland’s relationship to Russia. Fifty years ago, in grim Soviet times, his best columnist wrote: “We must seek contact and understanding with those Russians who are prepared to recognise the full right to self-determination of the Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belorussians.” When such men and women govern Russia—and one day they will—then not only Poland, not only those borderlands, but all Europe can feel safe. And that ascetic, chain-smoking old editor, who saw light ahead when others saw only darkness, can rest in his Paris grave.