Category Archives: Poland

When Poles Pined for Colonies, 1930s

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1766-90:

By 1930, the Polish Bandera had become the Maritime and Colonial League, a pressure group that raised funds for the navy and lobbied the government to pursue colonial interests. The league boasted 1,200 branches and 250,000 members as of 1934, and directly linked colonial demands to emigration, as well as to Poland’s perceived crisis of overpopulation. Colonial advocates argued that emigration had been the primary “solution” to Poland’s overpopulation crisis before World War I. But with the closing of international borders in the 1920s and 1930s, “another solution has arisen again . . . attaining our own colonial territories.”

In the wake of Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, Polish colonial advocates felt increasingly entitled to a place in the sun. “We Poles, like the Italians, are facing a great problem of accommodating and employing a large population increase,” insisted the Maritime and Colonial League. “We Poles, like the Italians, have the right to demand that export markets as well as areas for settlement be opened to us, so that we may obtain raw materials necessary to the national economy under conditions similar to those enjoyed by the colonial states.” In September 1936, Foreign Minister Józef Beck even formally appealed to the League of Nations for colonies—preferably those taken from Germany after World War I (he was unsuccessful). Popular pressure for Polish colonies culminated in the Maritime and Colonial League’s “Colonial Days” festivities in April 1938, a series of nationwide parades and celebrations attended by around ten million Poles.

Poland continued to lobby the League of Nations for colonies right up until the outbreak of World War II. A memo submitted in 1939 proposed that the League’s colonial mandate system, which governed former Ottoman territories, be extended to Africa. The new African mandates would then be parceled out to European states according to “their capacity for colonization and their real economic and demographic needs.” Of course, the Polish delegation insisted that Poland be placed at the top of the list. Poles had already “provided the proof” of their skill as colonizers, “by transforming the virgin forests and uncultivated plains of Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and Siberia into arable land,” the memo asserted. “In particular the tenacity of labor, love of the land and pioneering spirit of the Polish peasant has rendered him invaluable.” In response to British and French objections that redistributing African colonies would harm the “interests of indigenous populations,” the Polish delegation invoked the brotherhood of white men. “There exist rural populations in Europe whose economic standard of living are particularly painful, and whose interests are worth at least as much as those of the black population in Africa. By closing off access to colonial territories to overpopulated nations, the great powers betray the interests of the white race. This treason endangers the solidarity and entente among peoples.” Not surprisingly, nations situated on Europe’s imagined margins seemed to have the most invested in maintaining the privileges of white Europeans—and in asserting their membership in the club.

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How Many Slavic Languages vs. Dialects?

From Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2006-26:

Whether they’re from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad or from Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, there’s little difference in the way Russians speak. In Poland, the same holds true: North Poles and South Poles can chat away effortlessly to each other, as can West and East Poles. Even people speaking different Slavic languages can often communicate without much trouble. Bulgarians can converse with Macedonians, Czechs with Slovaks, and Russians with Belarusians and Ukrainians. And, for all their political differences, there is no great language barrier between Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrins. In fact, as the eminent nineteenth-century Slovak scholar Ján Kollár suggested, the Slavic world could, with no great effort on the part of its citizens, adopt just four standard languages: Russian, Polish, Czechoslovak and, lastly, what you might call Yugoslav or South Slavic.

There is one language, however, that wouldn’t so easily be absorbed into Kollár’s scheme: Slovene, also known as Slovenian. Admittedly, this is the language of a very small nation. Its entire territory fits no fewer than twelve times into the area of the UK (which is itself not large) and the population, at just over two million, is just a quarter of that of London. And yet, when Slovenes speak their local dialects, many of their compatriots can make neither head nor tail of what they are saying. So just imagine how these dialects would bewilder the members of some of the other nations that Kollár lumped together as ‘South Slavic’, such as the Bulgarians.

How come? Why does Russian span more than four thousand miles from west to east with next to nothing in the way of dialect diversity, whereas the Slovene language area, measuring just two hundred miles from end to end, is a veritable smorgasbord of regional varieties? Which in turn raises the question: how do dialects come about in the first place?

One school of thought, or rather thoughtlessness, holds that dialects are corrupted forms of the standard language – as, for example, in the view that ‘Scouse is just bad English’. This might be one’s automatic reaction, but it’s in fact the wrong way round: dialects come first, and tend to be at the root of any standard language, which is always an artefact. It would be nearer the truth to claim that standards are ‘corrupted’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverted’ dialects. For any other variation of any language, regional or otherwise, develops in a largely unselfconscious way, influenced chiefly by its degree of isolation and contact.

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Polish Rebels Exiled to Siberia

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2746-2776:

The Polish rebels shared the republican ideas of the Decembrists; theirs was a political and cultural nationalism that saw itself working in concert with the progressive nations of Europe, especially France and Italy. They sought to replace the autocratic “Holy Alliance of Monarchs” born of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 with a “Holy Alliance of Peoples.” Wysocki and his comrades rebelled under the slogan “For our freedom, and yours!”—making clear that their enemy was the Russian Empire, not its people. In Warsaw, the ceremonial dethronement of the Romanovs was preceded by a ceremony in honour of the Decembrists, organized by the Polish Patriotic Society. Five empty coffins, symbolizing the five executed ringleaders of 14 December 1825, were paraded through the streets of the Polish capital, and a religious service was held in the Orthodox Church, after which Wysocki addressed the crowd in front of the Royal Castle.

If the Poles had looked abroad for inspiration, their own insurrection catapulted them to the forefront of the European republican movement. There was an outpouring of support in the European press for the “French of the North” and calls (resisted by Louis Philippe I) for France to intervene in support of the rebels. French republicans, such as Godefroi Cavaignac and his fellow members of the Society of the Rights of Man, acknowledged their own debt to the Poles for having deflected Nicholas’s armies from intervention in France itself. The French general and hero of both the American War of Independence and the July Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, pushed unsuccessfully for France to recognize Poland. In Britain, there was a surge of indignation, followed by meetings and rallies in support of Poland, denouncing Russia and pushing for British intervention in the conflict. In July 1831, The Times fulminated: “How long will Russia be permitted, with impunity, to make war upon the ancient and noble nation of the Poles, the allies of France, the friends of England, the natural, and, centuries ago, the tried and victorious protectors of civilized Europe against the Turkish and Muscovite barbarians?” Across the Atlantic, there was also a tide of American public sympathy for the Polish rebels.

The November Insurrection, as it became known, quickly erupted into a full-scale military confrontation between the Poles and the Russians, with both sides fielding the largest armies Europe had witnessed since the Napoleonic Wars. The insurgents had, however, overplayed their hand. They faced the might of the Imperial Russian Army while they were internally divided and commanded by hesitant men who could not decide whether to fight the Russians or negotiate with them. On 25 February 1831, a Polish force of 40,000 repelled 60,000 Russians on the Vistula to save Warsaw but managed to secure not a decisive victory but only a postponement of defeat. As Russian reinforcements poured into Poland, the rebels found themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed. After months of stubborn Polish resistance, tsarist troops ground their way back towards Warsaw and finally retook the city in October 1831.

Russian retribution fell heavily on the prostrate Polish provinces. A government edict of 15 March 1833 reassigned 11,700 Polish officers and soldiers to penal battalions and fortress labour at a variety of remote and unattractive locations throughout the Russian Empire. Several thousand more were sentenced to penal labour and settlement in Siberia. The tsar was especially vengeful in the Western Borderlands of Russia, in today’s Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, which were better integrated into the empire than the Kingdom of Poland. The insurgents there, many of them Polish noblemen, were tried by field courts martial and summarily shot. Russian allies of the Poles were singled out for especially brutal treatment.

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Decembrists as European Celebrities

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1667-1683:

Nicholas and his ministers had sought, if not the physical, then the political annihilation of the Decembrists as representatives of constitutional reform within the Russian elite. But in these terms they failed, for the story of the Decembrists’ exile to Siberia is the story of a victory snatched from defeat. Lionized by their supporters, their moral authority only grew over the course of Nicholas I’s reign and would inspire a subsequent generation of radicals after his death. In exile in London, Herzen became the leading draughtsman of the inspiring legend of the Decembrists and their wives. His journal, The Polar Star, took its name from an almanac published by the executed Decembrist poet Ryleyev, and boasted a masthead adorned with the faces of the five hanged ringleaders of the rebellion. Herzen established himself as the most influential radical intellectual of the first half of the nineteenth century and was one of the leading architects of the Russian revolutionary movement in the 1860s and 1870s. The tale he crafted of the revolutionary martyrs of 1825 went on to inspire a later generation of the autocracy’s enemies.

The Decembrists’ uprising and their exile also resonated far beyond Russia itself. In the Italian peninsula, Giuseppe Mazzini and his republican movement, Young Italy, saluted the memory of the men “who gave their lives for the liberation of the Slavic peoples, thus becoming citizens and brothers of all who struggle for the cause of Justice and Truth on earth.” The Decembrists had also blazed a trail for Polish patriots. By the end of the 1820s, republicanism in Poland, buoyed by developments elsewhere in Europe, was very much in the ascendancy. Polish rebels would look to the Decembrists’ attempt to restore “ancient Russian freedom” as a source of inspiration. The next armed challenge to Nicholas I would come not in the streets of the imperial capital, but on the westernmost periphery of his empire, in Warsaw. Siberia would beckon for the Polish rebels as it had for the Decembrists.

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Logistics of Penal Migration

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 715-748:

The European empires all struggled with the formidable logistical problems of penal migration. Britain’s transports to its Australian penal colonies in the late eighteenth century were dreadful ordeals for the convict passengers. Prisoners languished in the ships’ holds, “chilled to the bone on soaked bedding, unexercised, crusted with salt, shit and vomit, festering with scurvy and boils.” Of the 1,006 convicts who sailed on the Second Fleet in 1790, 267 died at sea and at least another 150 after landing. The British government took swift and decisive action to curb the lethal excesses in transportation because the organized and efficient transfer of healthy convicts was understood to be necessary to the wider project of penal colonization. It bombarded the private contractors responsible for transportation with demands for improvements in conditions, and deferred payment for each convict until he or she disembarked in decent health. A naval surgeon was placed on board each vessel and was answerable to the government, not to the contractors. Negligence and abuse still continued on some ships but, by 1815, the death rate in the transports had fallen to one in eighty-five. By the end of transportation in 1868, it was only one in 180.

The deportation of convicts to Siberia presented logistical difficulties not less (and possibly even more) daunting than those of the roiling waters of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The annual deportation of thousands of unruly and sometimes violent convicts several thousands of kilometres across the most inhospitable territory would have taxed the resources of any contemporary European state. The Siberian continent boasted only the sketchiest network of roads, and rivers that flowed unhelpfully south to north and north to south, rather than west to east, and turned each winter into a hazardous ocean of snow.

When compared with its European rivals, the tsarist empire’s state machinery was primitive and already creaking under the weight of its administrative burdens. St. Petersburg’s remit did not run as deep as that of London or Paris. Even within European Russia, the state had little direct contact with its own population. It devolved governance onto the landed nobility, the Church, merchant guilds and village assemblies. The Imperial Army was the only direct and sustained confrontation with state power that most Russian subjects—the peasantry—ever experienced. The enormous distances separating Siberia’s administrators from their masters in the capital amplified the effects of this bureaucratic weakness. Under-resourced and virtually unaccountable, officials manoeuvred within the deportation system for private gain, neglecting, exploiting and robbing the convicts in their charge.

After several months, sometimes years on the road, convicts who had departed hale and hearty from European Russia finally reached their destinations in Eastern Siberia as ragged, sickly, half-starving mockeries of the robust penal colonists envisioned by officials in St. Petersburg. The deportation process itself thus frustrated the state’s wider strategic ambitions for the penal colonization of Siberia. The downcast and desperate figures trudging eastwards in marching convoys were indictments of the imperial state’s weakness and incompetence. The boundary post was not so much a symbol of the sovereign’s power as a marker of its limitations.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, exiles almost all made the journey to Siberia on foot. They would set out from one of five cities in the empire: St. Petersburg, Białystok in the Kingdom of Poland, Kamenets-Podolsk and Kherson in Ukraine, and Tiflis in Georgia. Most were funnelled through the Central Forwarding Prison in Moscow, from where they and their families would march eastwards through the town of Vladimir that gave its name to the road that wound its way eastwards. Synonymous with Siberian exile, the Vladimirka gained such notoriety over the nineteenth century that Isaak Levitan’s eponymous landscape painting from 1892, which today hangs in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, seemed to echo to the clumping steps of exiles marching eastwards.

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Numerology of 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4676-4704:

Many of the events of 1979 are linked with the mysterious power of anniversaries. The Communist Party in Poland feared the incendiary potential of the nine-hundredth anniversary of the martyrdom of a saint. The thirtieth anniversary of the Communist takeover in China was shrewdly exploited by Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues to reinforce the sense of a new beginning. The forty-day Islamic mourning cycle proved a crucial dynamic for the revolution in Iran—as did the millennial expectations of Khomeini’s followers, whose habit of referring to him as the “imam” fanned a longing for the realm of justice promised by the reappearance of the Hidden Imam. Indeed, the Islamic calendar itself was one of the many issues that fueled the discontent of Iranian believers. The shah’s decision to introduce a new, non-Islamic calendar in the mid-1970s served as yet another bit of evidence to good Shiites that the monarch was an enemy of their religion—and gave Khomeini’s supporters yet another potent argument.

In the Julian calendar of the West, 1979 is not an especially evocative date. But this was not true for Muslims. In the Islamic calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon and takes as its start the Prophet’s exile from Mecca in 622, the Western month of November 1979 coincides with the dawning of the new year of 1400. According to certain traditions, that is the year that the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, is supposed to reveal himself to the faithful and usher in a new age of eternal justice. For Iranians, this is the moment when historical time and the forces of eternity coincide, and this apocalyptic expectation fueled the fervor with which Khomeini was greeted as the country’s new savior. Some demonstrators wondered whether he might, indeed, turn out to be the Imam of the Age himself; some of the faithful even claimed to have seen his face on the moon.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a group of provincial zealots came up with a particularly fateful reading of the Mahdi myth. Like the majority of Saudis, they were not Shiite but Sunni, and they hailed from a remote corner of the kingdom that had largely missed out on the new prosperity. In November 1979, as pilgrims were arriving for the annual hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, heavily armed members of the group took over the al-Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, and took thousands of pilgrims from around the world hostage. They then announced that one of their leaders, a young man named Abdullah Hamid Mohammed al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi, the long-prophesied redeemer of Islam. All Muslims, they said, were religiously obligated to obey his commands. The Saudi authorities declined to do this and immediately set about the task of clearing the mosque. It took them weeks, covertly assisted by a team of commandos lent to the kingdom by the French government, to kill or capture the hostage takers. In the end, according to official Saudi figures, 270 people—hostages, hostage takers, and members of the assault force—lost their lives. Foreign diplomats who managed to get access to local hospitals concluded that the actual death toll was much higher, closer to 1,000.

The leader of the group, Juhayman al-Otaibi, was captured and executed a few weeks after the end of the siege. But his ideas would prove prophetic. He had categorically denounced the corruption of the Saudi regime and rejected the presence of infidel foreigners in a country that was supposed to be the undefiled home to Mecca and Medina, two of the three most holy places in Islam. (The third is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.) A subsequent generation of Saudi radicals—Osama bin Laden among them—would not forget.

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Media Manipulation, Poland, 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4181-4218:

The Polish secret police, the SB, and its Politburo masters created a special operation called LATO ’79. (Lato means “summer.”) As archbishop of Kraków, Wojtyła had already spent nearly twenty years as the focus of a considerable intelligence-gathering effort by the SB as well as, intermittently, the KGB, the East German Stasi, and other East-bloc secret services. LATO ’79 drew most of its operational intelligence from seven moles who had served in the archbishop’s immediate entourage over the years. They included both priests and laymen; one of them, code-named JUREK, was a member of the church organizing committee. Every possible measure to limit the effects of the pope’s visit was considered. Tens of thousands of police would be deployed in the course of the nine days. The SB informants who were involved in trip planning were advised, for example, to express worries about safety wherever possible (in the hope that this calculated disinformation would reduce the number of pilgrims). No effort was spared. In the event, 480 SB agents were deployed during the four days the pope spent in Kraków during the visit.

Presumably because a large number of East German Catholics also expressed a desire to see the pope, the East German secret police, the Stasi, deployed hundreds of its own agents to cover the event. The East Germans even set up a special headquarters post on the Polish border to coordinate their operations. The famous Stasi master spy Markus Wolf had planted his own mole inside the Vatican, a German Benedictine monk whose identity was not even known to the Stasi man in charge of the operation.

The apparatchiks were especially intent on managing the media coverage. In the weeks leading up to the visit, official media issued a stream of warnings. People should stay away from the pope’s events, the government urged: chaos and hysteria were sure to reign, and spectators could almost certainly count on being trampled to death. Foreign reporters were charged exorbitant accreditation fees, which excited a great deal of angry complaint and undoubtedly boosted the country’s desperately needed hard-currency reserves. But it doesn’t seem to have kept many journalists away. Domestic reporters were easier to deal with. The party issued reams of carefully considered guidelines and talking points. TV cameramen attended special training sessions. Their instructors told them to avoid shots of large crowds. Instead, they were supposed to point their cameras toward the sky while leaving a few people at the bottom of the frame. Shots of elderly people, nuns, and priests were to be preferred; young people, families, and laypeople should be avoided. The idea was to make it appear as though the pope’s supporters were a marginal, backward bunch, and certainly nothing like a cross-section of society.

Meanwhile, the party was taking no chances. In the weeks before John Paul II’s arrival, the Polish police arrested 150 dissidents—including Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron, one of the founders of KOR [Workers’ Defence Committee]. (A few weeks earlier a gang of toughs had attacked Kuron on the street and beaten him badly. No one was charged in the assault—a fact that suggested the complicity of the security services.) Another one of those detained was a Catholic activist named Kazimierz Switon, who was sentenced to a year in jail for the peculiar crime of attempting to set up an independent trade union. This was an intolerable offense in a country that claimed to be run with the interests of the workers at its heart. Surely, the dictatorship of the proletariat obviated the need for any new labor movements outside of the state.

But appearances were deceptive. In fact, by the end of the 1970s, the essential schizophrenia of life was firmly established. Publicly, officially, there was the Poland of Communist Party rule: a place of grandiose slogans, lockstep marches, and central planning. This nation coexisted with an alternative Poland defined by opposition-organized “flying universities,” underground publications from dissident groups like KOR, and the parallel moral universe embodied by the Catholic Church, long linked with the struggle to assert Polish nationhood. Poles of this era had grown up in a society were life was split into two parallel realms, the public and the private, each with its own versions of language and history. As in so many other authoritarian states, citizens of the People’s Republic of Poland learned from early on to parrot their allegiance to official ideology in public while keeping their real opinions to themselves and their families. Communist rule depended on ensuring that people persisted in paying public tribute to the official version of truth, thus preventing them from seeing how many of them actually rejected it. But what would happen when they were allowed to make their private feelings manifest, on a mass scale?

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