Monday, 16 August 2010

Polish-Soviet War Commemoration

Polish victory in the Polish-Soviet War in 1920 was commemorated yesterday. This year it fell on the same day as a religious festival public holiday, so the shops were closed, but it is normally just part of the State calender of commemorative days. Even so, it is formally Polish Army Day rather than specific celebration of the victory. In a calender which has failed uprisings and an unimplemented constitution, I can't help think that a Polish success public holiday could useful replace a Polish failure.

It has often been said that you cannot understand a country unless you know it's history. My own take on this, which I haven't heard, but assume is a widespread view, is that you cannot understand the people of a country unless you know their perspective of their history. This is very true of Poland, where the people's perspective is fundamental in defining their country, society and their position in the world. The emotional weight that people I know give to long-past events are, from my London point of view, strangely disproportionate to their real current relevance. That people's knowledge of the events is often extremely limited and regularly distorted, but yet solid and unquestionable simply adds to the barriers of understanding. I have been harangued for over an hour twice for questioning the orthodox view of centuries old events, which I take to be the price a foreigner has to pay for being unable to mould a conversation to deal with the sympathies of people around me.

The Polish-Soviet war is of major emotional importance. See Jeziorki blog and polishmeknob blog for Polish perspectives. Whether the victory at the Battle of Warsaw was "One of the crucial battles of world history" is something I cannot even try to judge. That it is a forgotten war, is something I can agree with, but to be fair to my general knowledge - it was too recent an event to be part of my history education - it was just one of many conflicts in the area after World War I. That I was unaware of any details of these is a failure, but I would apply this equally to the Polish Ukrainian War, etc. These are forgotten wars.

However, I do think that the Polish Soviet War is of special importance in analysing the overall flow of 20th Century history. I can best describe this as an uninformed theory, but it seems to have some sense. Nationalism, imperialism and economic competition are standard themes for historical analysis. The social pressures of emancipation of the labouring classes and increasing democratisation can be added to the mix, but it was the excitement of communist ideology that really brought these to the fore as the dream of a new period of historical development, adding internationalism - the unity of peoples through consent.

It was in Poland at this time that the opposing pressures came to the test and ultimately set the pattern for the future. To many of the Bolsheviks, Poland must have seemed an inevitable convert. Piłsudski, the Polish leader, and many of his supporters were known to be communist. The Bolshevik revolutionaries included Polish enthusiasts. However, when it came to the test, it was nationalism that won with Piłsudski dreaming of a new Polish lead Commonwealth, which some of its subsidiary peoples (eg some Ukrainians) considered a proposed new Polish Empire. The Polish ruling elite from the past took its place in governing the country similar to its neighbours to the west.

It is my hypothesis that it was not just the Polish victory in battle that stopped the Soviet advanced, but that it defined the limit to which the new ideologies could defeat the old. It is from these ideological differences that the 'independent' Poland failed to be merged into the USSR and that Poland's Solidarity movement played its part if the end of Communism.

I recognise that my reference to Poland's independence will be considered by many (Poles in particular) to ignore the complete Russian domination that I am routinely told about. I suspect, however, that the completeness of this is part of contemporary Polish nationalist psychology. The routine implication that the many leaders and officials were vaguely sub-human, not-really-Polish people even though by any normal standards they were, seems to be more perspective than objective. (The position of the second nation - Jews - is a separate issue.)

I have no idea whether these trends have any relevance today beyond Poland's view of itself. Current Lithuanian, Belarusian and Ukrainian suspicions of Poland may as much be viewed as counter to my hypothesis as to support it. However, for anyone wanting to get a new perspective on 20th Century history, I would like to think that these principles might help focus on principles too look at. Would a European history exam question in England - "The spread of Communist development was limited by ideological pressure rather than political alliance. Consider this concept in the light of the Polish Soviet War" - be a good hook for gaining interest in Central European history?

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