In order to understand Poland, you must understand Chopin. First listen to his Polonaise and then to his Revolutionary Etude. They are about hope, despair and rage. In the Polonaise, you hear the most extraordinary distillation of a nations existence. In the Revolutionary Etude, written in the wake of the 1830 destruction of the Warsaw rising, there is both rage and resignation. In his private journal, Chopin challenged God for allowing this national catastrophe to happen—accusing God of being a Russian, and he condemned the French for not coming to Warsaw’s aid. Chopin never returned to Poland and Poland never left his mind.
In 1919, Poland finally became an independent nation. The Prime Minister it chose to represent it at Versailles was Ignacy Paderewski, a pianist and one of the finest interpreters of Chopin. The Conference restored the territories of Greater Poland, including the City of Gdansk. Paderewski helped create the interwar Poland and Gdansk (the German Danzig) set the stage for its destruction when Germany and the Soviet Union allied to crush Poland, and Danzig became the German justification for its destruction.
For the Poles, history is always about betrayal, frequently French. Chopin blamed the French for failing to come to their aid in 1830. Even had France (and Britain) planned to honor their commitments, it would have been impossible in 1939. Poland collapsed in less then a week. The rest was simply mopping up. No one can aid a country that collapses that fast. Wars take time to wage and the Poles preferred the romantic gesture to waging war. The Poles used horse cavalry against German armor [cavalry can be horse or tank]. As an act of human greatness, there was magnificence in their resistance. The waged war—even after defeat—as if it were a work of art. It was also an exercise in futility. Listen carefully to Chopin. For Poland courage, art and futility are intimately related. The Poles expect to be betrayed, to lose, to be beaten. Their pride was in their ability to retain their humanity in the face of catastrophe.
I think Chopin can be understood geopolitically. Look at where Poland is. It rests on the North European Plain, open country whose national borders to its west and east are not protected or even defined by any significant geographical boundaries. To its east is Russia, by 1830 a massive empire. To the west were first the Prussians and after 1871 the Germans. To the south, until 1918 was the Habsburg Empire. No amount of courage or wisdom could survive forces as massive as this. Poland is not the master of its fate or the captain of its soul. It lives and perishes by the will of others. Little can be done to stop the Germans and Russians when they join together. The most that Poland can do is hope that powers farther away will come to its aid. They can’t. No one can aid a country that far away unless it aids itself. Chopin knew this in his soul and knew that the Poles would not succeed in aiding themselves. I think Chopin took pride in the certainty of catastrophe
This is not an uncommon theme. A great American playwright, Eugene O’Neil, once said that "The tragic alone has that significant beauty which is truth. It is the meaning of life -- and the hope. The noblest is eternally the most tragic. The people who succeed and do not push on to a greater failure are the spiritual middle-classers." I think that coming from a family who has lived in catastrophic failure, I think that this side of American culture represents a failure of imagination. O’Neil simply failed to understand what tragedy can look like. There are worse things than being a spiritual middle classer. One is to be the victim of someone prepared to risk greatness with others lives..
P oland was not always about the nobility of failure, nor is this kind of nobility Poland’s certain fate. Before the Russian empire emerged, before the Habsburg’s organized southeastern Europe and before the rise of Prussia, Poland was one of Europe’s great powers.
When the Germans are divided, the Russians weak, and the Austrians worried about the Ottomans, then Poland stops being a victim. The Poles remember this and constantly refer to their past greatness. It is not clear that they fully appreciate why they were once great, why the greatness was taken away from them and that its resurrection is not unthinkable. The Poles know they once dominated the North European Plain. They are convinced that it will never happen again. Perhaps they are right, but I see things differently than do the Poles.
The Poles today want to escape their history. They want to move beyond Chopin’s tragic sense, and they want to avoid fantastic dreams of greatness. The former did nothing to protect their families from the Nazis and Communists. The latter is simply irrelevant. They were for a time when there was no Germany or Russia, not for now. For Poland today is not the fear that they will be left middle class, but that history will force them to face the abyss again. I have great sympathy for their view. The European Union is nothing if not “being a spiritual middle classer.” But given what Europe has thrown up in the last couple of hundred years, there are worst things. Were I a Pole reading O’Neil, I would think he had lost his mind. I just think that he failed to imagine how horrible tragedy could be in history.
Poland, Russia and Europe
The Poles, like the rest of Eastern Europe, look at the EU as the solution of their strategic problem. As part of the EU, their German problem is solved. The two nations are now to be linked together in one vast institutional structure that eliminates the danger that the two countries once posed to each other. The Russians are not a danger both because they are weaker than they appear, and because, as one foreign ministry official put it to me, neither Ukraine or Belarus are simply Russian satellites. Indeed, he thought of them more as buffers. As for the old Austro-Hungarian threat, that has dissolved into a mélange of weak nations, none of which can threaten the United States.
Under these circumstances the dangers of life on the North European Plain have been abolished. From my point of view, there are two problems with the Polish perception. The first, as I have said in previous essays in this series, is that Germany is re-evaluating its role within the European Union. This is not because the German leadership wants to. The financial and political elites are deeply wedded to the idea of the EU. But as with many elites around the world after 2008, the German elites have lost a great deal of their maneuvering room. Public opinion is deeply suspicious of the multiple bailouts that the German government has and might have to underwrite in the coming years. As Angela Merkel put it, Germans are not going to retire at 67 so that Greeks can retire at 58.
From the point of view of Germans—and the least interesting views are expressed by the increasingly weak elite—the EU is turning into a trap for German interests. For the Germans, a redefinition of the EU is needed. If Germany is going to be called on to underwrite EU failures, it wants to have a substantial amount of control over economic policies of the rest of Europe. A two tiered system is emerging in Europe, in which patrons and clients will not have the same degree of power.
Poland is doing extraordinarily well economically for the moment. Its economy is growing and it is clearly the economic leader among the former Soviet satellites. But the period in which EU subsidies will flow into Poland is coming to an end, and problems with their retirement system are looming. Poland’s ability to maintain its economic standing within the EU is going to be challenged in years to come. It would the be relegated to the status of client.
I don’t think the Poles would mind being a well cared for client. The problem is that the Germans and other core members of the EU have neither the resources nor the inclination to sustain the EU’s periphery at the style the periphery wants to be cared for. If Poland slips, it will have the same sort of controls put on it as are being placed on Ireland. One Polish official made it clear that he didn’t see this as a problem. When I mentioned the potential loss of Polish sovereignty, he told me that there were different kinds of sovereignty and that the loss of budgetary sovereignty does not necessarily undercut national sovereignty.
I told him that I thought he was not facing the magnitude of the problem. The ability of a state to determine how it taxes and distributes money is the essence of the sovereign state. If it loses that, it is left with the power to proclaim national ice cream month and the like. Others, most particularly the Germans, will oversee defense, education and everything else. I you place the budget beyond the democratic process, sovereignty has lost its meaning.
Here the conversation always got to the essence of the matter: intention. I was told over and over that Germany does not intend to take away sovereignty but merely to cooperatively restructure the EU. I completely agreed that the Germans do not covet Polish sovereignty. I also said that intentions don’t matter. First, who knows what is on Merkel’s mind? Wikileaks might reveal what she has said to an American diplomat, but that does not mean that she has said what she thinks. Second, Merkel will not be in charge in a few years and no one knows who comes next. Third, Merkel is not a free actor, but is constrained by political reality. Finally, call it what you will, if the Germans realign the structure of the EU, then power will be in their hands, and it is power, not the subjective inclination as to how to use that power that matters.
The second conversation concerned Russian power. Again officials emphasized two things. The first is that Russia is weak and not a threat. The second, was that their control over Ukraine and Belarus was much less than imagined—neither is fixed in the Russian orbit. On this I agreed partly. The Russians have no desire to recreate the Russian Empire or Soviet Union. They do not want responsibility for these two countries. But they do want to limit their options in foreign policy. They will permit all sorts of internal evolutions. They will not permit politio-military alliances between them and western nations. And they will insist on Russian army and naval forces having access to Belarussian and Ukrainian soil.
To me the argument about Russian weakness is not persuasive. First, strength is relative. Russia may be weak compared to the United States. It is not weak compared to Europe or its near abroad. A nation does not have to be stronger than its strategic requirements, and it is certainly strong enough for that. True Russia’s population is in decline, and it is an economic wreck. But Russia has been an economic wreck since Napoleon. Its ability to field military power disproportionate to its economic power his historically demonstrable.
I raised the question of Europe, and particularly Germany’s, energy dependence on Russia, and was told that Germany only imported 30 percent of its energy from Russia. From my point of view, that is a huge dependency. Cut that off and the German economy becomes unsustainable. That is a great deal of power. And while Russia needs the revenues from energy, it can stand a cut in revenues a lot longer than Germany and Europe can stand a cut-off in energy.
Finally, there is the question of German and Russian cooperation. Again this is something discussed before, but to repeat myself, the German dependency on Russian energy and the Russian requirement for technology has created a synergy between the two countries, reflect in their constant diplomatic consultation. In addition, German questions about the future of the EU have taken them on a more independent and exploratory course. The Russians for their part have achieved the essentials of a geopolitical recovery. Compared to ten years ago, Putin has taken Russia on an extraordinary recovery. Russia is now interested in splitting Europe from the U.S. and particularly Germany. As Germany is looking for a new foundation for its foreign policy, the Russians are looking to partnership with Europe.
The Polish leaders I spoke to all made it clear that they did not see this as a problem. I find it hard to believe that a German-Russian understanding does not concern the Poles. Yes, I know that neither German nor Russia intends Poland harm. But an elephant doesn’t necessarily plan to harm a mouse. Intentions aside, the mouse gets harmed.
I think the real point the Poles are making is that they have no choice. When I pointed out the option of the Intermarium with American backing, a senior foreign ministry official pointed out that under the new NATO plan the Germans have guaranteed two divisions to defend Poland while the United States has offered one brigade. He was extraordinarily bitter on this score. Following on the American decision to withdraw from a commitment to construct a fixed, permanent Ballistic Missile Defense installation from Poland, and the tentative nature of a rotational deployment of a single Patriot battery, he saw this as a betrayal by the United States of earlier commitments. I lamely made the argument that one American brigade provide more effective fighting force than two contemporary German divisions, but that is debatable at best, and I deliberately missed the point. His charge was that there was no American commitment under the new NATO plan or at least nothing credible.
Polish Self-Reliance and the United States
My real response to these points was something different. Poland had been helpless for centuries, the victim of occupation and dismemberment. It had been free and sovereign in the inter-war period. It had thrown away its sovereignty by simply depending on French and British guarantees. Those guarantees might have been dishonest, but had they been honest, they could still not have been honored. Poland collapsed to quickly.
Guaranteeing Polish national sovereignty is first and foremost a Polish national issue. First, a nation does not give away control of fundamental national prerogatives, like its economy, to multi-national organizations, particularly ones dominated by historical threats like Germany. Certain a nation doesn’t do that based on their perception of the intentions of the Germans. All nations change their intentions. Consider Germany between 1932 and 1934. Second, taking comfort from Russia’s economic weakness is to deliberately misread history.
But most important, a nation’s sovereignty depends on its ability to defend themselves. True, Poland cannot defend itself from a treaty signed by Germany and Russia; not by itself. But it can buy time. Help may not come, but without time, help can’t possibly come. Of course Poland can decide to accommodate itself to the Germans and Russians, knowing that this time it will be different. It is a comfortable assumption. It may even be true. But Poland is betting its nation on that assumption.
My reading of the situation is that both Polish officials and public understand that they are safe for the moment, but that the future is unknown. They also feel helpless. Poland is simultaneously a bustling European country, full of joint ventures and hedge funds. But all of the activity only covers the underlying tragic sense of the Polish nation—that in the end, the idea of the Polish nation is not in Polish hands. What will come will come, and the Poles will make a heroic stand if worse comes to worse. Chopin turned this sensibility into high art. In the end, survival is more prosaic and ultimately, harder to do than the creation of art. Or more precisely, for Poland, survival is harder than artistic works of genius, and more rare.
I am ultimately an American and I am therefore less taken by the tragic sense then by a viable strategy. For Poland, that strategy comes from the recognition that it is not only caught between Germany and Russia, but is the monkey wrench in the German-Russian entente. It can be crushed by it. It can prevent it. To do that it needs three things. First, it needs a national defense strategy designed to make it more costly to attack Poland than to find another way around her. This is expensive. How much would the Poles have paid to avoid the Nazi and Soviet occupation? What is expensive in prospect is cheap in retrospect.
Second, Poland by itself is too light. As part of an alliance stretching from Finland to Turkey, the Intermarium, Poland would have an alliance that would have sufficient weight to matter, and would be free from the irrelevancies of NATO. NATO was the alliance of the Cold War. The Cold War is over but the alliance lives on like a poorly fed ghost administered by a well fed bureaucracy. Poland needs to coordinate with Romania, regardless of Portugal’s opinion on the matter. This alliance requires Polish leadership. It will not emerge from it. But Poland must first overcome the fantasy that the 18 years old EU represents Europe’s millennial transformation into the peaceful Kingdom of Heaven. 18 years isn’t much time by European standards, and Europe has been looking under the weather of late. If Germany bets wrong on the EU it will survive. Will Poland? National strategy is based on the worst case scenario, not on hopeful understandings with transitory leaders.
Finally, the Poles must maintain their relationship with the global hegemon. Certainly the last years of the Bush Administration and the first years of Obama’s administration have not been pleasant for Poland. But in the end, the United States has fought three times in the 20th century to prevent German-Russian entente and the domination of the domination of Europe by one power. This was not been sentiment. The United States had no Chopin. It was geopolitics. A German-Russian entente would threaten the United States profoundly. That is why it fought World War I, World War II and the Cold War.
There are things the United States cannot permit if it can stop it. This tops the list. At the moment, the United State is more concerned about ending corruption in Afghanistan. This will not last. Of course the United States runs by a different and longer clock than Poland. The U.S. has more room for maneuver. But Poland has time now as well. But it must use it in preparation for the time the Americans regain their sense of perspective.
The EU might right itself and what emerges is a confederation of equal nations that was originally planned. The Russians might go quietly into that good night. Whatever my doubts, it might happen. But the problem the Poles have is what they will do if the best case doesn’t emerge. I would argue that there is no nobility in a failure that could be avoided. I would also argue that if you listen carefully to the Polonaise it is an invitation to not only survival but greatness.
The Polish margin of error is extraordinarily thin. What I found in Poland was not an indifference to that margin, but a sense of helplessness coupled with intense activity to do well while living well is impossible. But it is the sense of helpless fatalism that frightens me as an American. We depend on Poland in ways that my countrymen don’t see yet. The longer we wait, the greater the chance of tragedy. The Germans and Russians are not evil monsters at the moment nor do they want to be. As Chopin makes clear, what we want to be and what we are are two different things, a subject to be considered in my concluding essay.