Wednesday, November 17, 2004

How Poland came to say "Non" to France and hitch up with America 

The most historic shift in Poland's international orientation in a half a millennium has been taking place in recent times. A staunch Atlanticist, a faithful ally both in the war on terror and in Iraq, and one of the few countries in the world that names streets and public squares after right-wing American presidents, it's hard to imagine that until quite recently - in historic terms - of all the Western states, Poland was most closely associated and allied with France.

The close political, military and cultural ties between these two pre-eminent Catholic powers date back to the Renaissance. Over the last three centuries up until the Second World War, not just in Poland but throughout the Eastern Europe generally, French was the lingua franca, so to speak, of aristocracy and the educated elites, and the East kept looking to Paris for the latest fashions, both physical and intellectual.

The traffic went both directions:
Chopin was half-Polish and half-French, the famous French poet Apollinaire was actually also half-Polish, and Maria Sklodowska married a French scientist to become Marie Curie and win two Nobel prizes. But it's the shared military heritage that has always proved most binding.

Poland is the only country in Europe outside France herself where Napoleon is still venerated as a hero. When I became a part of the Anglosphere it was a shock to me - although it shouldn't really have been - to discover just how much the Anglo-Saxon historiography and popular culture despise Napoleon, seeing him as a prototype of the twentieth century totalitarian, a bloodthirsty tyrant who for close to twenty years drowned Europe in blood to satisfy his obsession of power and grandeur. Yet in Poland he is still remembered as a great military leader who promised our country independence a few years after Russia, Prussia and Austria had wiped Poland off the map to the silent connivance of the rest of Europe.

And so, the valiant Polish cavalry had fought for Bonaparte from one end of the world to another; the only disciplined force covering the Grand Army's retreat from Moscow, fighting the Spanish guerrillas (
Samosierra is to Poles what the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava is to the Brits, except more successful), and putting down slave uprising in San Domingo in the Caribbean. After nearly two centuries debate still rages in Poland to what extent Napoleon, he of "for my Poles, nothing is impossible", was a serious philo-Pole and to what extent he was merely cynically using Polish cannonfodder for his own self-aggrandizement. Poland's collective consciousness leans towards the former view, and so he is still revered today as one of the very few great world leaders who gave a shit about Poland.

Even with Napoleon gone (and some faithful Polish adjutants even went to share the Saint Helena exile with him too), the love affair continued. Paris became the centre of political and cultural activity for tens of thousands of Polish exiles during the nineteenth century when Poland did not exist as a political entity. Poles (my great-grandfather among them) fought alongside the French on the Western Front during World War One, and when Poland regained independence in 1918 she again allied themselves with France, only to be disappointed in September 1939 by empty security guarantees. Yet still Polish soldiers (including my grandfather) fought to defend France in 1940. Charles de Gaulle, who as a young military advisor observed the conduct of the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 (and was offered a commission in the Polish Army) retained a life-long fascination and warmth of feelings for the Poles - arguably the last French politician to do so.

What accounts for this historic affinity?

Partly it has to do with the geo-strategic landscape of Europe and the perennial need to make alliances. Aside from Poland, there were only three other significant Catholic powers on the continent: but Spain was too outward looking, and was starting to decline anyway; and the Habsburg Austria was a neighbor, which never makes for comfortable friendships. That only left France, militarily as well as culturally the strongest of the lot, and therefore a natural choice for an ally, in particular to counter-balance the German-speaking peoples of Central Europe.

But there is more to it than just realpolitik. Many kind and less kind observers would argue that deep down, Poles share a similar temperament to the French: socially conservative, with a strong aristocratic and warrior ethos; fiery, temperamental, uncompromising, touchy about honor, romantic and impulsive. Many a more cold and rational politician, be they German, British or American, had found Poles and French to be difficult to deal with, to put it politely. Churchill, who during the war famously remarked that the hardest cross he had to bear was the Cross of Lorraine, was more exasperated only by the Polish government in exile, which constantly kept complicating his relationship with the Soviets over such trivial matters as murder of 15,000 Polish officers in Katyn and other NKVD internment camps. Franklin D Roosevelt similarly couldn't stand de Gaulle and found the Poles to be equally irritating, his temper only kept in check by the inconvenient presence of millions of Polish-American voters in several swing states.

Several decades later and the French are still causing indigestion in Washington and London, but the Poles are definitely in the in-crowd now. It's time again to celebrate the contribution of Polish fighter pilots among "the few" in the Battle of Britain, and the courage of Generals Kosciuszko and Pulaski in the American War of Independence (or for that matter sacrifice of Polish artillerymen at Alamo). And let's forget that Polish glassmakers were
the first workers to go on strike in America in 1608 - albeit to fight for the right to vote. Oh, and the Polish jokes are definitely out.

Strategically, Poland's American reorientation has everything to do with the Cold War history. Post 1945, the United States has become everything that France was not anymore - a great power, an anti-communist bastion, the leader of the Free World. Those of us who lived on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain in the shadow of the Evil Empire, the evil, capitalist, imperialist America was our only champion and the only hope. France was a nice country, to be sure, but its choice of moral equivalence as the guiding principle of foreign policy could not but to leave us largely cold; it was all fine for the French to talk about the need to balance the two superpowers while enjoying all the benefits of association with one and none of the costs of domination by the other.

This sentiment that France, unlike the United States, has done preciously little to liberate the Eastern Europe from under the communist yoke, merely built up on an already very common perception of France as an appeaser of the other totalitarian threat. As Bulgarian Foreign Minister
Solomon Pasi remarked last year at the height of the Old Europe-New Europe controversy over Iraq: "We all remember the hesitancy of the Allies, who weren't sure whether to attack Hitler. They could have prevented so much." Poland, in particular, has good reason to to resent the French inaction in September 1939 which allowed Hitler to strip his western border of military units and supplies and throw them into his first eastern blitzkrieg. Albion might be historically perfidious, but Gaul was at best an unreliable friend.

The communist, or indeed fascist, menace might no longer be with us, but Poland's fascination with America is set to continue for as long as the United States remains an economic powerhouse and the land of opportunity. Millions of Poles have already made America their home over the last century and a quarter, their stories of the land of milk and honey beyond the ocean whetting the appetite of millions more who stayed behind. Chicago remains, after Warsaw, the second largest Polish metropolis in the world, and coincidently the birthplace of my father's father. If and when the
Mikulski-Santorum bill to abolish visa requirements for the Poles passes the US Senate, Poland will not suddenly empty of all its wretched masses yearning to breathe free, but America's wealth, dynamism, optimism and imagination will undoubtedly continue to fascinate and inspire generations of Poles.

It's not that the historic ties with France will be completely jettisoned. It's certainly not that the French and Polish people are growing less fond of each other. After all, cultural and personal interactions between the two countries remain very strong and fruitful, as indeed do all the intra-European ones. But in an age of increased choice brought about by globalisation, Poland - like many other countries - chooses not to put all its eggs in one basket. Poles might still think first of France when they want high culture, good food and nice holidays, but defence and international affairs; well, that's a long distance call.

Here's to a beautiful new friendship.


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