Modern history




Poland Reborn

THE REBIRTH OF POLAND was one of the great stories of the Paris Peace Conference. It was also a source of endless difficulties. The commission on the borders of the new Poland had more meetings than any other at the conference. Should they be drawn to punish Germany for past wrongs and present defeat? Should there be a large Poland to act as a barrier against Bolshevism? What did it need for survival? Coal mines? Iron? Railways? A proper port on the Baltic? Wilson had promised, in the thirteenth of his Fourteen Points, that a reconstituted Poland should have “free and secure access to the sea”: as with so many of his points, the meaning was elastic. He talked, too, of giving Poland territory “indisputably” Polish. Finding indisputable territory of any kind in central Europe was never easy. The Poles made matters worse by disagreeing among themselves over whether they wanted their new country to encompass the farthest reaches of their past glory (in which case they would find themselves with a great many non-Poles) or to limit itself to the Polish heartland (which would leave many Poles living outside the country). The peacemakers were reaching out hundreds of miles from Paris to impose order on a protean world of shifting allegiances, civil wars, refugees and bandit gangs, where the collapse of old empires had left law and order, trade and communications in shreds.

A couple of days before the Allied armistice with Germany, a grizzled Polish soldier with fierce blue eyes in a thin pale face had read the proposed terms with anguish and frustration. There was no mention of Poland and he was in a German jail. Józef PiƗsudski had spent much of his life trying to re-create a country that had disappeared at the end of the eighteenth century. Now, with the destruction of its great enemies—Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia—Poland’s chance had come. Germany’s collapse gave PiƗsudski back his freedom; on November 10, 1918, he arrived in the old Polish capital of Warsaw. Poland itself was a dream, not a reality. It had few friends but many enemies, no clearly defined borders, no government, no army, no bureaucracy. In the next three years PiƗsudski made a country.

PiƗsudski was probably the only man who could have survived and triumphed on such a mission. He had, in a way, been training for it all his life. He was born into the Russian part of Poland, in the town of Vilna (Polish: Wilno; now Vilnius, in Lithuania). His mother read him the Polish literature that the Russian censors had outlawed. She taught him the history of his tragic country, from the great days of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth stretched from the Baltic almost to the Black Sea and included much of what later became Germany and Russia, and when Polish republican government, Polish learning, Polish cities were the admiration of Europe; to the partitions of the 1790s, when Poland vanished into the hands of its neighbors. He learned about the repeated hopeless uprisings, the executions, the imprisonments, the long lines of exiles sent off to Siberia and the attempts to root out Polish culture. From 1795, Poland had existed only in the memories of its patriots, in the work of its great writers and composers.

It had looked, to most rational observers, as though the passage of time was setting the division forever. The Poles of Germany, perhaps 3 million out of a total population of 56 million, shared in the prosperity of one of the most developed nations of Europe. They kept something of their language, but culturally, they were increasingly German.1 The Poles of Austria-Hungary, concentrated in Austrian Galicia, lagged far behind. Corrupt, poor, the most backward part of a decaying empire, Galicia was a byword for misery. Those who could, emigrated, many of them to North America. The rest of Europe’s Poles, about half the total number, lived under Russian rule, the most brutal, oppressive and incompetent of all.

PiƗsudski, like other Polish boys in Russia, was forbidden to speak his language. Although a Catholic, like the overwhelming majority of Poles, he was forced to attend Orthodox services. He became a radical socialist, which raised apprehensions among the peacemakers about a Bolshevik Poland, but he was above all a nationalist. The day after he arrived back in Warsaw after the armistice, his old socialist friends came to see him and made the mistake of calling him comrade. “Gentlemen,” he told them, “we both took a ride on the same red tram, but while I got off at the stop marked Polish Independence, you wish to travel on to the station Socialism. Bon voyage—but be so kind as to call me Sir!”2

Temperament and experience had made PiƗsudski a lone wolf who found it difficult to trust anyone. He was arrested for the first time in 1887, for participating in a plot organized by Lenin’s older brother to assassinate the tsar, and sent to Siberia for five years. (Lenin’s brother was executed.) In 1900 he was arrested again, but escaped by feigning madness. He spent the years before the war in the socialist underground, as an organizer and fund-raiser. (He robbed banks and mail trains.) He married a fellow conspirator, but the marriage collapsed when he started an affair with a younger woman in the underground.3

When the war started, the Poles were caught in the middle, some fighting for Austria-Hungary and Germany, others for Russia. Sometimes they could hear Polish songs coming from the enemy trenches. PiƗsudski threw in his lot with Austria-Hungary, yet another black mark against him in Paris. His calculation was quite straightforward: Russia was the chief obstacle to Polish hopes. When Russia collapsed in 1917 and Austria-Hungary grew shakier, he watched with alarm; the last thing he wanted was a powerful Germany. He refused to put his Polish Legions under German command and ended up in prison again.4

On his return to Warsaw in 1918, PiƗsudski, who with his Legions possessed one of the few coherent forces left in central Europe, seized power from the German occupation authorities in the name of Poland. “It is impossible,” said a Polish politician, “to express all the excitement and fever of enthusiasm which gripped Polish society at this moment. After one hundred and twenty years the cordons broke. ‘They’ are gone! Freedom! Independence! Our own statehood!” One noble family brought out wine from 1772, the date of the first partition, which they had kept to toast this moment. (“Strange to say it was drinkable,” reported an English diplomat.5)

PiƗsudski had many opponents: conservatives afraid of his socialism, liberals who disliked his enthusiasm for violence, and those who looked to the Allies, even Russia, for help. Their spokesman was his great rival, Roman Dmowksi. Where PiƗsudski came from the gentry, Dmowski was a poor boy from the city. A biologist, he loved science, reason and logic. Music, he told the great Polish pianist Paderewski, was “mere noise.” He despised grandiose schemes, noble posturing and futile gestures, all of which he felt Polish nationalism had seen far too much of. He wanted Poles to become modern and businesslike. He had little nostalgia for the old Poland, for its tradition of religious tolerance or its attempts to compromise with other nationalities such as Lithuanians or Ukrainians or Jews. Like the Social Darwinists he admired, he held that life was struggle. The strong won and the weak lost. He was generally admired in western Europe, although the British had reservations. “He was a clever man,” said a diplomat who had to deal with him, “and clever men are distrusted: he was logical in his political theories, and we hate logic: and he was persistent with a tenacity which was calculated to drive everybody mad.”6

Dmowski’s Polish National Committee in Paris claimed to speak for the Poles, and in 1918 the French government agreed that an army of Polish exiles in France commanded by General Józef Haller should come under its control. When the war ended, Poland had two potential governments, one in Paris and one in Warsaw, and two rival leaders, each with his own armed forces. In contrast, the Czechs were already speaking with a single, clear voice.

Outsiders wondered whether Poland would make it. In 1919, all its borders were in question and there were enemies everywhere: the surviving units of the German army, many of them to the east, and Russians (Bolshevik or anti-Bolshevik, none wanted an independent Poland) and other nationalists competing for the same territory: Lithuanians in the north, Ukrainians to the east, and Czechs and Slovaks to the south. And Poland had few natural defenses. Between 1918 and 1920, PiƗsudski was to fight six different wars. He also had to watch his back, with supporters of Dmowksi to his right and radicals to the left.

PiƗsudski grew thinner and paler and more intense. He worked frantically, often through the night, keeping himself awake with endless tea and cigarettes. In those early months he often walked across from the palace he had commandeered to eat a simple meal alone in a cheap restaurant. His task was appalling. As much as 10 percent of Poland’s wealth had been destroyed in the war. The Germans had ransacked the Polish territories during their occupation. Raw materials, manufactured goods, factories, machinery, even church bells had been fed into the German war effort. “I have nowhere seen anything like the evidences of extreme poverty and wretchedness that meet one’s eye at almost every turn,” wrote a British diplomat who arrived in Warsaw at the beginning of 1919. PiƗsudski had to weld together different economies, different laws and different bureaucracies. He had to rationalize nine separate legislative systems. He had to reduce five different currencies to one, and he did not have even the means to print banknotes. Railways were a nightmare, with 66 kinds of rails, 165 types of locomotives and a patchwork of signaling systems.7

He was dealing too with a people whose ambitions, after a century of frustration, now far outstripped their strength. “The Poles are developing an appetite like a freshly hatched sparrow,” reported a German emissary less than a month after the armistice. There was talk of the frontiers of 1772, when Poland included most of today’s Lithuania and Belarus and much of Ukraine. In Paris, Dmowksi and his Polish National Committee promoted a huge Poland to act as a check on both Germany and Bolshevism. Their Poland would have significant minorities of Germans, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Lithuanians—40 percent of the total population—all ruled firmly by the Poles. While Dmowski talked the language of self-determination to the Allies, there was to be no such nonsense at home.8

PiƗsudski was more cautious. He, too, wanted a strong Poland but he was prepared to accept less than Dmowski. He was also willing to contemplate a federation, in which the Lithuanians, perhaps, or the Ukrainians, would work with Poles as equals. He recognized that he needed some help from the Allies. “All that we can gain in the west depends on the Entente, on the extent to which it may wish to squeeze Germany.” In the east, the situation was different. “Here there are doors which open and close and it depends on who will force them open and how far.”9

On one thing, though, all Poles agreed: the need for access to the Baltic. They were putting up with great hardships, reported an American officer from Warsaw, because they could foresee Poland being a great power again, with its trade flowing along the Vistula and the railways which ran to the sea. It was essential not to take that hope away: “Their confidence in the future rudely shaken, the acuteness of the present becomes more sharply defined and their patriotism is shaken to the foundation. Without this future why should they continue to resist Bolshevism?” Danzig, at the mouth of the Vistula, was the obvious choice for a port. It had once been a great free city under Polish rule. The Amsterdam of the East, people had called it, with its prosperous trade, its rich merchants and its elegant buildings. Since the 1790s, however, it had been under German rule. In 1919 its population was over 90 percent German, although much of the surrounding countryside was heavily Polish.10

The Allies agreed before the Peace Conference that Poland should be independent. The British, however, were not prepared to invest much to achieve this, since they had little national interest at stake. They also feared, with some reason, that Poland could become a liability. Who would defend it if its neighbors, Germany and Russia in particular, attacked? Moreover, the British did not particularly care for either Polish faction. PiƗsudski had fought against them and was a dangerous radical. Dmowski and the Polish National Committee were too right-wing. “In fact the prevailing opinion,” said a British diplomat in Warsaw, “which to a great extent influenced me at the time seemed to be that to do anything the Polish Committee asked for would be to fasten upon Poland a regime of wicked landlords who spent most of their time in riotous living, and establish there a Chauvinist Government whose object was to acquire territories inhabited by non-Polish populations.” Dmowski did not help himself when he was in Britain during the war by making remarks, as he did, for example, at a dinner given by G. K. Chesterton, that “my religion came from Jesus Christ, who was murdered by the Jews.” The British, who had their share of anti-Semitism, found him crude. Distinguished British Jews protested to the government about its dealings with the Polish National Committee. In the Foreign Office, Lewis Namier, himself of Polish and Jewish origin, waged a campaign against Dmowski and “his chauvinist gang.”11

The French, by contrast, were not only great supporters of Dmowski; they took a profound interest in Poland. In the autumn of 1917 Pichon publicly promised France’s support for an independent Poland, “a big and strong, very strong” Poland, several months before either Britain or the United States. French policy toward Poland was a mixture of the practical and the romantic. France no longer had Russia to counterbalance Germany, but a strong Poland, allied perhaps to Czechoslovakia and Rumania, could fill that role. Poland for the French was also memories of Maria Walewska, the beautiful mistress of Napoleon (their son had become foreign minister of France), of sad Polish exiles in Paris, of Frédéric Chopin, the lover of their own George Sand, of the Polish volunteers fighting for France against Prussia in 1870. Poland was a cause both for devout Catholics and good liberals. As a schoolboy, Clemenceau had chatted with Poles escaping tsarist repression. “Poland will live again,” he wrote in his newspaper on the outbreak of the Great War. “One of the greatest crimes of history is going to be undone.” During the war, the French gave money to Polish relief; during the Peace Conference, they ate dinners in Poland’s honor.12

The United States lay somewhere in between. It too had memories of Poles: Tadeusz Kościuszko, a hero in the American War of Independence; the Poles on both sides in the Civil War; Paderewski packing the concert halls. By 1914, Poles were the largest single group of immigrants from Central Europe, perhaps 4 million of them, with their own newspapers, schools, churches and votes. The war awoke their latent patriotism but it also created divisions between pro-Allied and pro-German Poles, giving the impression that Poles were always quarreling with each other. But Americans were moved by the sufferings of Poland, just as they were by those of Belgium. Wilson gradually came around to supporting an independent Poland but he was noncommittal on its borders. “I saw M. Dmowski and M. Paderewski in Washington,” he told his fellow peacemakers in Paris, “and I asked them to define Poland for me, as they understood it, and they presented me with a map in which they claimed a large part of the earth.”13

When the French tried to get Dmowski’s Polish National Committee recognized as the only representative of the Polish people, the British and Americans held back. They urged Dmowksi to build a coalition with PiƗsudski. The world’s most famous Pole, Ignace Paderewski, undertook to bring the two men together. In December 1918, the British arranged for him to travel back to Poland on HMS Condor. (He played the old ward-room piano for the officers on Christmas Eve.) His arrival in Posen (Poznan) on Christmas Day, 1918, produced immense excitement. Street demonstrations turned violent, and by the time he left for Warsaw on New Year’s Day, Posen had risen against its German rulers. In the hand of a huge bronze statue of the great German chancellor Bismarck, a wit placed a fourth-class ticket to Berlin.14

Paderewski came from a modest family in Austrian Galicia, where his father worked for a great aristocratic landowner. “A remarkable man, a very remarkable man,” the prince later reminisced to Nicolson. “Do you realise that he was born in one of my own villages? Actually at Chepetowka? And yet, when I speak to him, I have absolutely the impression of conversing with an equal.”15 Paderewski became an international star. Burne-Jones sketched him, George Bernard Shaw praised his musical intelligence, and women sent him love letters by the hundreds.

Voluble, untidy, he was a man of great learning with the open enthusiasm of a child. During the war he had vowed not to perform until Poland was free again. He devoted himself to raising money for Polish relief and lobbying the world’s leaders. In the summer of 1916 he played, Chopin of course, at a private party at the White House. “I wish you could have heard Paderewski’s speeches for his country,” Wilson told a colleague later, “he touched chords more sublime than when he moved thousands as he commanded harmony from the piano.” Paderewski’s supporters later claimed that his efforts were responsible for Wilson’s inclusion of Poland in his Fourteen Points.16

At their first meeting in Warsaw, Paderewski, the man of the world in his long fur coat, and PiƗsudski, the thin pale revolutionary in his shabby tunic, circled each other with suspicion. PiƗsudski needed both Paderewski’s influence over the Polish National Committee in Paris and his contacts, while Paderewski wanted a Poland that spoke with one voice. The two men agreed that PiƗsudski would remain head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces and Paderewski would become prime minister at the head of a coalition government as well as Poland’s delegate to the Peace Conference alongside Dmowski. Together they attended the celebrations, dinners, plays, even a mass in Warsaw Cathedral, to mark the opening of Poland’s newly elected parliament. Dmowski and PiƗsudski remained as far apart as ever.17

Paderewski was still in Warsaw when the Peace Conference opened, so only Dmowski was on hand when Poland first came up at the Supreme Council in January. PiƗsudski had sent an urgent request for supplies, particularly weapons and ammunition, to help Poland hold off its enemies. The French suggested sending back the Polish army in France under General Haller. The easiest way to do this, said Foch, was to ship the men to Danzig, still under German control, and then down the railway to Warsaw. The British and the Americans were doubtful. Haller’s army was in Dmowski’s camp; its return to Poland might well produce civil war. Wilson saw another danger in using Danzig: “With the object of sending Polish troops into Poland we were going to prejudge the whole Polish question.” This, of course, was exactly what the French had in mind. When the Germans got wind of the proposal, they protested loudly. The army finally went back by land in April. PiƗsudski did not press very hard for its return. He had no wish to irritate the Allies even further by insisting on the Danzig route as Dmowski was doing; he probably did not care passionately about Danzig itself.18

On January 29, Dmowski was invited to explain to the Supreme Council what was happening in Poland. He took the opportunity to outline Poland’s claims, or at least the ones he supported. He was not, he said, going to claim everything Poland had once possessed. Parts of Lithuania and the Ukraine no longer had a Polish character. Poland was, however, quite willing to help them out since they were a long way from being able to manage their own affairs. On the other hand, Poland should take possession of the eastern part of Germany. True, much of this had never been Polish, but there were a great many Poles living there, far more than the German statistics indicated. “These Poles were some of the most educated and highly cultured of the nation, with a strong sense of nationality and men of progressive ideas.” Even the local Germans looked up to them. Poland also needed the coalfields of Silesia and Teschen (Polish: Cieszyn; Czech: Těšín). Lloyd George listened with obvious impatience and Wilson studied the paintings on the walls. 19

The Poles had a knack for irritating even their friends in Paris. People joked that when an Englishman wrote a book on the elephant, he dealt with its habitat and how to hunt it; a German wrote a treatise on its biology; but the Pole started with “The elephant is a Polish question.” Even the French were alarmed by the extent of Polish demands in Russia, which, after all, might be an ally again one day. The British and the Americans complained about the rival delegations. Polish actions on the ground also raised suspicions. “The Poles,” said Balfour, “were using the interval between the cessation of war and the decisions of the Peace Congress to make good their claims to districts outside Russian Poland, to which in many cases they had little right, although in others their claims were amply justified.” Wilson agreed: moreover, the Rumanians, the Serbs and the Hungarians were doing exactly the same thing. PiƗsudski was moving troops into German territory around Posen, north into Lithuania and south to Galicia. The difficulty was how to stop him. The Allies could withhold supplies, but they had not yet sent much anyway. They could threaten, but they had very little real power in the center of Europe. Indeed, they had been obliged to keep German troops in place along the frontier with Russia. They also hesitated to come down too hard on the Poles. As Wilson said in May when the Council of Four was considering, yet again, ways of getting the Polish army to stop attacking the Ukrainians, “If Paderewski falls and we cut off food supplies to Poland, won’t Poland herself become Bolshevik? Paderewski’s government is like a dike against disorder, and perhaps the only one possible.” If the dike went, who could tell how far west the Bolshevik current might flow?

The peacemakers sent plaintive telegrams and fact-finding missions. “Action undertaken without further knowledge,” said Lloyd George sagely, “might lead to a mess.” They sent military experts, the French with a young Colonel Charles de Gaulle in their number, the British led by the war hero General Adrian Carton de Wiart. With only one arm, one eye and one foot, he impressed the Poles deeply with his complete disregard of danger and his willingness to fight duels.20

Otherwise the peacemakers left Polish matters largely to the experts. In February, the Supreme Council established a Commission on Polish Affairs, to receive the reports coming in from Poland. Two weeks later, Balfour, who was hoping to speed up the work of the Peace Conference in the absence of Wilson and Lloyd George, discovered that nothing was being done about Poland’s borders. On his suggestion, the Polish commission took on the job. Its members, in the absence of any detailed instructions, assumed that they should base their decisions on ethnic factors and on Wilson’s promise of access to the sea.21 This was nearly impossible.

Poland’s lack of natural barriers had let invaders in over the centuries; it had also let Poles flow out. In the east, Polish settlers had pushed north and south of the great forests and marshes lying across the border of what is today Belarus and Ukraine. The result was like a crescent moon, with a heavily Polish area around Vilna on its northern end, another around Lvov (German: Lemberg; Polish: Lwów; today, Lviv in the Ukraine) in the south. In the north, Poles mingled with Lithuanians and Germans. In the middle, said one of the experts in Paris, was a huge region “with its enigmatic population, which may be White Russian or Ukrainian, but is certainly not Polish.”22 The towns were Polish or Jewish (many Jews identified with the Poles) and in the country there was a thin sprinkling of Polish landowners.

In the west there was a similar ethnic jumble. For centuries, the Poles had been pushing north to the Baltic, and the Germans had been moving eastward. Along the eastern shores of the Baltic the cities were largely German. In the countryside the big landowners were usually German— the Baltic Barons, as they were known—although toward the south some were Polish and Lithuanian. A Polish majority lay along the banks of the Vistula. East Prussia, tucked in the southeast corner of the Baltic, was largely German-speaking and Protestant. If Poland got access to the sea, should it have control of both the banks of the Vistula and of Danzig itself ? That would leave hundreds of thousands of Germans living under Polish rule and perhaps cut off the land route from the western part of Germany to East Prussia.

Statistics were as unreliable as they were elsewhere in the center of Europe. In any case, even the inhabitants of that part of the world were not always sure who they were. Was identity religious or linguistic? Did Polish-speaking Protestants, a significant group in the southern part of East Prussia, identify with their coreligionists, who were German, or with the Poles, who were Catholic? Were Lithuanians a separate nationality or a variety of Pole? Were Ukrainians really Russian?

In the Polish commission the British and the American experts, meeting informally as they did on most matters, agreed that Poland’s boundaries should be drawn on ethnic lines as much as possible but that other factors, such as access to the Baltic, control of railways or strategic considerations also had to be taken into account. The French, who were headed by the wise old diplomat Jules Cambon, generally accepted this but, when it came to disputes, were invariably for giving Poland the benefit of the doubt. Poland, they said, must have borders that could be defended against Germany and Russia even if that meant including non-Poles. The Italians generally sided with the French. The Japanese, as usual, said little.23

The commission produced its first report, on Poland’s borders with Germany, which were going to be dealt with in the German treaty, a few days after Wilson arrived back from the United States. The experts had tried to keep rivers and lakes in one country, to make sure that railways did not wander back and forth across international borders, and to leave as few Poles and Germans as possible on the wrong sides. In the end, Poland would have its access to the Baltic thanks to a long arm that would reach northward along the Vistula. The arm—the Polish Corridor, as it came to be called—would bend westward at the elbow to bring in the largely Polish province around Posen. East Prussia, with the port of Königsberg (where Kant had lived), would remain German. Almost two million Germans would end up under Polish rule. Only Allenstein (Polish: Olsztyn), the part of East Prussia nearest Poland, with its Polish-speaking Protestants, would have a plebiscite. When it was finally held in 1920, 363,000 to 8,000 voted to stay with East Prussia.

The Supreme Council considered the report on March 19, at a meeting that also addressed the fighting between Poles and Ukrainians. (More telegrams were sent out, ordering both sides to stop.) Lloyd George thought the recommendations generally good. He had only one question: “Was it necessary to assign so much German territory, together with the port of Dantzig?” He noticed that there was a district called Marienwerder, about fifty miles south of Danzig and abutting East Prussia, which had a clear German majority. Surely its inhabitants should be allowed to vote on their future? The proposed corridor was not fair, he went on; worse, it was dangerous. Germany might well decide not to sign such a treaty. “He feared that this demand, added to many others which would have to be made on Germany, would produce deplorable results on German public opinion. The Allies should not run the risk of driving the country to such desperation that no Government would dare to sign the terms.” Were they not creating fresh Alsace-Lorraines and the seeds of future wars by leaving large numbers of Germans in Poland? The Poles, he added unkindly, did not have a high reputation as administrators. The commission was told to reconsider its report.24

Many Poles, both then and later, were convinced that Lloyd George had it in for them, perhaps because he wanted to appease Germany or even Bolshevik Russia, perhaps because he had an irrational hatred of all small nations. He was unprincipled and arrogant, overriding his own experts. He was also shockingly uninformed, for example about the amounts of traffic carried on the Vistula. Dmowski said baldly that Lloyd George was “the agent of the Jews.” He spoke for all who believed that the British prime minister was the tool of sinister capitalist forces opposed to a strong Poland.25

Like most liberals, Lloyd George in fact sympathized strongly with Poland’s sufferings. He liked and admired Paderewski, whom he saw socially during the Peace Conference. But he thought that some of the Polish demands were unreasonable and dangerous, creating enemies for Poland and trouble for Europe. As Kerr wrote on his behalf to the British embassy in Warsaw, “Mr. Lloyd George has always said that the real thing for Poland was a settlement which both the German people and the Russian people would recognise to be just.” It was true, as the Poles charged, that Lloyd George was preoccupied with getting the German treaty signed. This was not unreasonable. It was also true that Lloyd George had little faith that Poland would survive. This also was not unreasonable.26

When Lloyd George produced his memorandum on the German treaty after his weekend in Fontainebleau, he reiterated that Poland must have access to the sea but warned against placing over 2 million Germans under Polish rule. “My conclusion,” he told the Council of Four on March 27, “is that we must not create a Poland alienated from the time of its birth by an unforgettable quarrel from its most civilized neighbour.” Make Danzig itself a free city and draw the corridor to leave, as far as possible, Poles in Poland and Germans in Germany. Clemenceau, who wanted Poland to have Danzig outright and a generous corridor, attacked Lloyd George’s reasoning. Let the Germans complain, he said. “We remember the children whipped for having prayed to God in Polish, peasants expropriated, driven from their lands to make room for occupants of the German race.” Poland deserved recompense and needed the means to live again.27

Wilson said little in the meeting but he was coming to share Lloyd George’s concern. He may also have been thinking of another issue that needed to be resolved: the dispute with Italy, which we will return to later, over Fiume. If he gave Danzig to the Poles, he might have to give Fiume to the Italians. The two men met privately and decided that Danzig should be an independent city and that Marienwerder in the corridor should also decide its own fate by plebiscite. On April 1 they persuaded a reluctant Clemenceau to agree. Lloyd George was reassuring; as Danzig’s economic ties with Poland strengthened, its inhabitants would turn like sunflowers toward Warsaw, in just the same way, he expected, as the inhabitants of the Saar would eventually realize that their true interests lay with France and not Germany. The Poles were enraged when they heard the news. “Danzig is indispensable to Poland,” said Paderewski, “which cannot breathe without its window on the sea.” According to Clemenceau, who saw him privately, he wept. “Yes,” said Wilson unsympathetically, “but you must take account of his sensitivity, which is very lively.” The fact that “our troublesome friends the Poles,” as Wilson called them, were continuing to fight around Lvov despite repeated calls from Paris for a cease-fire did not help Poland’s cause.28

Under the revised terms of the treaty with Germany, the Polish Corridor shrank. A plebiscite was eventually held in Marienwerder, and its population voted overwhelmingly to join Germany. That left one of the railway lines joining Warsaw and Danzig under German control. Danzig itself became a free city under the League of Nations in a customs union with Poland. Poland and Germany were to sign a separate treaty, which they duly did, guaranteeing that Poland would have all the facilities it needed for its trade, from docks to telephones. A high commissioner, appointed by the League, would act as arbiter in cases of disputes. There were, unfortunately, plenty of these: over who controlled the harbor police, over taxes, even over whether Poland was allowed to set up its own mailboxes. Much of the trouble arose because Danzig, its industry, its administration and its population, remained very German. The corridor, too, produced friction; there were quarrels over the railways and, of course, over the fate of the Germans still living there and elsewhere in Poland. Germany never really accepted its loss of territory, and virtually all Germans, good liberals or right-wing nationalists, regarded Poland with contempt.29 In September 1939, as he had promised, Hitler broke yet another of the links in what he called the chains of Versailles, and sent his troops storming across the border to seize Danzig and the corridor. In 1945, Poland got it back again, as Gdańsk. There are no longer any Germans living there and the city itself has fallen on hard times as its shipbuilding has languished.

Then there was the problem of Upper Silesia, an area of about 11,000 square kilometers (4,200 square miles) where Poland’s borders met Germany’s in the south. It was a rich prize, with mines and iron and steel mills. The Commission on Polish Affairs had awarded it to Poland on the grounds that about 65 percent of its inhabitants were Polish-speaking. The Germans protested. The Silesian mines were responsible for almost a quarter of Germany’s annual output of coal, 81 percent of its zinc and 34 percent of its lead. The German government argued that the award also violated the principle of self-determination: the people of Upper Silesia were German and Czech and the local Poles, whose dialect was heavily influenced by German, had never demonstrated the slightest interest in the Polish cause. Upper Silesia had been separated from Poland for centuries; its prosperity owed everything to German industry and German capital. Poland already had enough coal; Germany, particularly with the loss of the Saar, did not. “Germany cannot spare Upper Silesia; Poland does not need it.” If Germany lost Upper Silesia, the German note concluded, it would not be able to fulfill its other obligations under the treaty. 30

On May 30 Lloyd George had his old friend Riddell, the newspaper magnate, to dinner. “Just read that,” he said, handing him the note, “and tell me what you think of it.” To get Riddell in the mood, he put a roll of Chopin into his player piano. When Riddell argued that there were strategic considerations for giving Upper Silesia to Poland, Lloyd George agreed but pointed out the threat to reparations. “If the Poles won’t give the Germans the products of the mines on reasonable terms, the Germans say they cannot pay the indemnity. Therefore the Allies may be cutting off their noses to spite their faces if they hand the mines to the Poles without regard to the question of the indemnity.” The two men went off to a singsong in Balfour’s flat upstairs.31

The next day, Lloyd George brought key cabinet members over from London for an emergency meeting. On June 1, the British empire delegation authorized him to go back to the Council of Four and ask for modifications in the terms on reparations, on the Rhineland occupation and on Upper Silesia. Smuts was particularly firm on the need to revise the German-Polish borders. “Poland was an historic failure, and always would be a failure, and in this Treaty we were trying to reverse the verdict of history.” He also said privately that putting Germans under Polish rule was as bad as handing them over to a lot of kaffirs. Balfour thought Smuts a bit hard on Poland, but agreed, as did everyone else, that there should be a plebiscite in Upper Silesia. 32

Lloyd George’s colleagues in the Council of Four did not relish changing the terms, which had taken so long to put together. In an acrimonious meeting on June 3, Clemenceau categorically opposed a plebiscite. Although Poles were in a majority, they could not possibly vote freely when the local administration was still German. Wilson agreed. His experts told him that the big landowners and capitalists were all German. Well then, said Lloyd George, the Allies would have to bring in troops to supervise the voting. It would be a small price to pay if it avoided trouble with Germany over the treaty. “It is better to send an American or English division to Upper Silesia than an army to Berlin.” He quoted self-determination at the president. Wilson, who was fair-minded, began to back down. Clemenceau, considerably disturbed, saw no alternative but to do the same. A plebiscite would take place, but not until the Allies were convinced that it could be held fairly. Paderewski protested, to no avail. “Don’t forget,” Lloyd George said sharply, “your liberty was paid for with the blood of other peoples, and truly, if Poland, in these circumstances, should revolt against our decisions, she would be something quite other than we had hoped.”33

Arranging the plebiscite took months, partly because the situation in Upper Silesia was deteriorating as Poles rose up against the Germans, partly because the Allies had trouble finding the troops. There were also disagreements over whether only those actually living in Silesia could vote (the choice of the Polish government) or whether former residents could vote as well (as the Germans preferred). The German government won that argument and on a Sunday in March 1921, as trainloads of German Silesians rolled in to the sound of band music, the vote finally took place. The north and west chose Germany, the south Poland, and the middle, which with all its industry was what both Poland and Germany wanted, divided almost evenly. Further months of negotiations, with the British backing Germany and the French Poland, produced only deadlock. The whole issue was finally turned over to the League, where four powers with no direct interest in the matter—Belgium, China, Spain and Brazil—drew a line that left 70 percent of the area in Germany but gave most of the industries and mines to Poland. In 1922, in one of the longest treaties ever seen, Germany and Poland agreed on economic and political cooperation and the protection of their respective minorities.34 But the Germans resented the loss of Upper Silesia as much as that of Danzig and the corridor. In 1939, Hitler annexed the whole to Germany. In 1945, it went back to Poland and most, but not all, of the Germans living there fled or were expelled.

Settling Poland’s borders in the east, where anarchists, Bolsheviks, White Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Baltic Germans were jostling for power, was even more difficult. The peacemakers did not know how many countries they would be dealing with, or which governments. The Commission on Polish Affairs was instructed to go ahead anyway and duly worked out a border that brought all the clearly Polish territories into Poland. In December 1919, what was left of the Supreme Council approved what came to be known as the Curzon Line (roughly the line of Poland’s eastern border today). The Polish government did not have the slightest intention of accepting this. While the peacemakers had been busy with their maps, Polish forces had been equally busy on the ground. All along the disputed borderlands, Poland had staked out much greater claims, which were to be settled largely by success or failure in war.

PiƗsudski’s emotions were most deeply engaged in the northeast. On his father’s side he came from a Polish-Lithuanian family; an ancestor had helped to create the union between Poland and Lithuania in the fifteenth century. Vilna was the only place where he truly felt at home. 35 He wanted his birthplace for Poland, together with a slice of southeastern Lithuania. This brought Polish demands up against those of the emerging Lithuanian nation and into the whole peace settlement in the Baltic.

A map of the eastern end of the Baltic in 1919 would have shown many question marks. Only Finland in the north had managed to establish a precarious sort of independence from Russia, after a vicious civil war between its own Whites and Reds. The Peace Conference recognized Finland in the spring of 1919. To its south the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians had also tried to declare themselves independent from Russia, but they had to deal with a German occupation and their own German or Russian minorities. None had secure borders or established governments, and what the Russians had not destroyed in their retreat, the Germans had requisitioned. White Russians, Red Bolsheviks, Green anarchists, the Baltic Barons, German freebooters, embryonic national armies and simple gangsters ebbed and flowed across the land. Cities and towns changed hands repeatedly. At sea, the remnants of the Russian Imperial Navy, now under Bolshevik command, darted out from Petrograd to spread revolution.

The Allies had concerns but no coherent policy. If they recognized the Baltic nations, they were, in a sense, interfering in Russia’s internal affairs. The Americans were for self-determination but hesitated to accord full recognition because Wilson did not want to change Russia’s borders unilaterally. The British and the French hoped, at least until the summer of 1919, that Admiral Kolchak would defeat the Bolsheviks, and Kolchak strongly opposed independence for any part of the Russian empire. The French preferred to let the British worry about the Baltic while they looked after Poland. The British sent a small naval force—all they could spare—to bottle up the Bolshevik fleet in Petrograd/Leningrad and to find, if it could, some local democratic forces to support. Its admiral was warned not to get caught by mines or ice and to resist Bolshevik attacks, but only at a safe distance from land. “The work of British naval officers in the Baltic,” wrote the Admiralty to the Foreign Office in the spring of 1919, “would be much facilitated if they could be informed of the policy which they are required to support.”36

As a stopgap measure, the Allies instructed the German government to leave its troops in the Baltic after the armistice. Rather humiliating, said Balfour, but there did not appear to be an alternative. This created its own problems. The German high command was delighted. Neither the military nor German nationalists wanted to give up their Baltic conquests, which they saw as a barrier against Bolshevism and the Slavic menace (often the same thing, in the lurid imaginings of the right). The Baltic lands were hallowed by the blood of the Teutonic Knights who had fought for them centuries ago; they were also a redoubt where Germany might regroup against the Allies. 37

On Christmas Day, 1918, the provisional president of Latvia, an agricultural expert from the University of Nebraska, appealed, with the acquiescence of the local British naval commander, to the Germans for help. His pathetically weak forces were about to be overrun by Bolsheviks. His appeal opened the door to a new type of Teutonic Knight, the Freikorps, a group of private armies forming in Germany. Their members had volunteered in order to stop Bolshevism, to save civilization, for the promise of land or simply for adventure and a free meal.

By February 1919 the Freikorps were pouring into Baltic cities and towns. Some of the troops looked like soldiers; others grew their hair long and shot out windows and street lamps for target practice. They treated the locals, whom they had ostensibly come to save, with contempt. In April they overthrew the Latvian government and headed into Estonia, even though the Bolsheviks were withdrawing. The peacemakers, who had paid little attention to the Baltic, grew perturbed. “Odd,” said Balfour, “given the chaos now reigning in those areas, the Germans, by preventing the formation of local armies, and by forcing the countries which they occupy to rely entirely upon their aid against the Bolshevik invasion, are working for the permanence of their influence and domination.” In May the Allies sent a mission to help the Baltic governments organize their own armies. 38

The difficulty now was to get the Freikorps to withdraw. Stern notes went from Paris to Berlin. The German government sent its own orders to the Freikorps commander, General Colmar von der Goltz, who ignored them. “It is a frightful confusion,” complained Lloyd George. In August the German government finally managed to get von der Goltz back to Germany. His men remained behind, under the command of a braggart Russian aristocrat who dreamed of reconquering Russia. Since he announced that the Baltic states were Russian again and that he intended to recruit their inhabitants as slave labor, he failed to gain any support beyond the local Germans. By the end of 1919, the Freikorps had slunk back to Germany, where they fulminated against the Allies, the Slavs and their own government. Many, including von der Goltz himself, were to find a spiritual home with Hitler and the Nazis. The Allies finally recognized the independence of Estonia and Latvia in January 1921.39

Lithuania, the southernmost of the Baltic states, had an even more complicated birth, if possible, because it had also to deal with Poland. In 1919, the great majority of Poles wanted to restore the old union between Poland and Lithuania, but this time with Poland firmly in control. The Lithuanians, said Dmowksi dismissively, were merely a tribe; much better for them to become Polish. Poland should absorb all areas with a Polish majority—self-determination, of course—but also those where there was a large Polish minority, which could act as the agent of civilization. The areas to the north where Lithuanians were the vast majority could be made into a little Lithuanian state. If it wanted to unite with Poland, it could have home rule. PiƗsudski and the left were prepared to contemplate a looser federal arrangement. No one took account of the Lithuanians themselves, now in the grip of an awakening nationalism.40

Lithuanian national dreams were as extravagant as all the others in 1919, and included securing Vilna for their capital. In January 1919, as the Germans evacuated the area, a Bolshevik force made up of Lithuanians and Byelorussians seized the city; in April, the Polish army took over. PiƗsudski issued a proclamation to the Lithuanian people with the magic word “self-determination.” He was promptly attacked by Dmowski supporters, who wanted outright annexation. The Lithuanian prime minister exclaimed that his country would die without Vilna. In the city itself, a local Jew commented sardonically, “A new parade was announced—this time for Poles only. There were no more Greens, Whites or Reds. All and everybody became Poles overnight, except for the Jews. The Jews took it in their stride. They had served in their life under many flags.” 41

Both sides appealed to the Peace Conference. The Lithuanians sent delegates to Paris, who quarreled with the Poles and with each other. The peacemakers made sporadic demands for the fighting to stop and tried to draw a fair border. Lloyd George wondered idly whether Lithuania should be independent at all; after all, it had about the same population as Wales. On the other hand, the peacemakers saw the danger in letting Poland spread itself out over territory where Poles were in a minority. By the summer of 1919, Lloyd George had warmed to the idea of an independent Lithuania. Along with Estonia and Latvia, it could be a useful conduit for British trade into Russia when relations were finally established with the Bolsheviks, who appeared to be winning in the civil war. The French still preferred a large Poland. Very little of this actually made much difference as the armies kept marching.

A year later the Bolsheviks drove the Poles out of Vilna and handed it over to the Lithuanians. In October 1920, just after a truce between Poland and Lithuania which left the city in Lithuanian hands, units of the Polish army conveniently mutinied and seized the city. Two years later the area, still under Polish control, voted overwhelmingly for incorporation into Poland. After the Second World War the Soviet Union gave it to Lithuania, which was now a Soviet republic.42

At the time Lithuania eased its loss by seizing the sleepy little Baltic port of Memel and a strip of territory that ran inland. It was a foolish gesture, which alienated both the Allies, who had taken the area from Germany precisely to provide a free port for Lithuania, and Germany because the population was divided almost equally between Lithuanians and Germans. Memel itself was 92 percent German. In 1939 Hitler took it back, but after the war it became Lithuanian again, as Klaip≐da. Memel was not enough to make Lithuania forgive Poland for the loss of Vilna. The two countries did not speak to each other for fifteen years. When they decided to try to mend their relationship in 1938, it was too late. Today Lithuania is still trying to get Poland to apologize for that old wrong.

Far away from Vilna to the south, Poland was also quarreling in 1919 with its other neighbors over what had been the Austrian province of Galicia. Everyone agreed that almost all of the western half, with its clear Polish majority, and the Polish city of Kraków, with its ancient university and its superb Renaissance buildings, should go to Poland. The rich little duchy of Teschen, though, on the western edge, was to lead to a costly clash with the new state of Czechoslovakia. And the eastern half of Galicia was much more difficult to sort out. As in the north, the cities were Polish, the countryside most decidedly not. Lvov was a Polish island, as was Tarnopol (Ternopol) even farther east. Overall, Poles made up less than a third of the population, and Jews, who might or might not see themselves as Polish, about 14 percent. The great majority were Catholic Ukrainians— Ruthenians, as they were sometimes called to distinguish them from the predominantly Orthodox Ukrainians of the old Russian empire. The Ruthenians, Dmowski told the Supreme Council, were a long way from being ready to rule themselves. They needed Polish leadership and Polish civilization. And, although Dmowski did not mention it, Poland also wanted the oilfields near Lvov. When Lloyd George hinted at this, Paderewski was outraged. Poles had been badly wounded defending Lvov against Ukrainian and Bolshevik forces. “Do you think that children of thirteen are fighting for annexation, for imperialists?” His eloquence had little impact; only the French were sympathetic.43

It was not clear where the Ruthenians belonged. Language and culture drew them east, toward their fellow Ukrainians; their past within the Austrian empire, and their religion, drew them west. In November 1918, one faction of Ruthenians had declared their independence from Austria-Hungary and formed a union with the Ukrainian republic in Kiev, which, unfortunately, promptly came under attack by local communists and Russian Bolsheviks. The Ruthenian delegates who managed to get to Paris by the spring of 1919 could not say what they wanted.44

In Galicia the declaration of independence marked the start of fighting with the local Poles in Lvov. The fighting spread as Polish and Ukrainian reinforcements came in, and the confusion deepened as Reds and Whites of both nationalities joined their own battles. The Allies tried, with little success, to arrange cease-fires. “It is very difficult,” said Wilson in May, “for us to intervene without having a better understanding of our position vis-à-vis the Ukrainians or the Bolsheviks who are besieging Lemberg [Lvov].” The Poles did their best to drag out the armistice negotiations while they strengthened their position. This caused much annoyance in Paris, but the problem for the peacemakers was to enforce their will, once they had decided what that was.45

“I only saw a Ukrainian once,” commented Lloyd George. “It is the last Ukrainian I have seen, and I am not sure that I want to see any more.” As far as Ukraine itself was concerned, none of the Allies supported its independence. Both the British and the French, after all, still hoped for a single Russia under an anti-Bolshevik government. But they agreed that East Galicia, as the possession of a defeated enemy, ought to be settled by the Peace Conference. Lloyd George argued that self-determination required the wishes of the local inhabitants to be consulted. In grabbing East Galicia, Poland was doing exactly what they had all fought the war to prevent. “It fills me with despair the way in which I have seen small nations, before they have hardly leaped into the light of freedom, beginning to oppress other races than their own.”46

After much fighting on the ground and much arguing in Paris, it was settled that Austria would hand over East Galicia to the powers for disposal, perhaps to Poland, or, as the British preferred, to Russia or even Czechoslovakia. The Poles, already deeply suspicious of the British government, were enraged. The cream of Warsaw society, who had been invited to a dance at the British ambassador’s house just before Christmas in 1919, showed their contempt by eating the dinner but refusing to take to the dance floor. Carton de Wiart, head of the British military mission, went white with fury and told his hostess, “I should throw the whole lot out of the house if I were you.” The challenges and counterchallenges to duels that followed were settled quietly the next morning. While the powers mulled over the fate of East Galicia for another three years, the Poles quietly went ahead and established their control. In 1923, Poland’s possession was recognized. The Ruthenians complained bitterly but in the end they were more fortunate than their cousins across the border, who fell victim to Stalin.47

Poland’s greatest struggle, from early 1919 to the autumn of 1920, was with the Russian Bolsheviks. Where the Poles, even relative moderates such as PiƗsudski, wanted to push Poland’s borders well to the east and gain control, directly or indirectly, over Byelorussia (Belarus) and Ukraine, the Bolsheviks wanted to spread their revolution into the industrial heartland of Europe. Their history had left the Poles wary of all Russians, even those talking the language of international brotherhood. The Bolsheviks for their part saw in Polish nationalism and Polish Catholicism an obstacle to revolution. Nationalism, in their view, was simply an excuse for feudal landowners, factory owners and reactionaries of various sorts to try to hang on to power. “While recognizing the right of national self-determination,” wrote Trotsky, “we take care to explain to the masses its limited historic significance and we never put it above the interests of the proletarian revolution.”48 This was old-fashioned Russian imperialism in new clothes.

From February 1919, fighting between the Bolsheviks and the Poles spread along a wide front. The Poles pushed deep into Russian territory, taking much of Byelorussia in the north. Secret talks for a temporary truce in the summer of 1919 went nowhere when the Poles tried to insist on an independent Ukraine. On April 24, 1920, PiƗsudski launched a fresh attack, driving toward Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. By May Polish troops were in control of the city, but PiƗsudski, deeply superstitious, was uneasy; Kiev was notoriously unlucky for its occupiers. A month later the Bolsheviks recaptured the city and started westward. “Over the corpse of White Poland,” said the order to their troops, “lies the road to world-wide conflagration!” The British ambassador in Poland sent his wife and children home. By August the Soviet troops were outside the suburbs of Warsaw. “I have packed up all the plates, pictures, prints, lacquer objects, china, photographs, best books, best china and glass, carpets etc.,” the ambassador wrote to his wife. “I wonder what will happen to all the nice furniture and good beds etc. which I could not pack up.” The Poles appealed desperately for weapons or for pressure on the Bolsheviks to make a truce. None came. The French were drawing back. They did not like the Bolsheviks but they were by now tired of Polish ambitions. Lloyd George urged the Poles to open negotiations. The Poles were hopeless, he told C. P. Scott, the great editor of the liberal Manchester Guardian, and quite as bad as the Irish. “They have quarrelled with every one of their neighbours—Germans, Russians, Czecho-Slovaks, Lithuanians, Rumanians, Ukrainians—and they were going to be beaten.” Lloyd George, fortunately, was wrong. “If Poland had become Soviet,” Lenin later said, “the Versailles treaty would have been shattered, and the entire international system built up by the victors would have been destroyed.”49

The battle for Warsaw was one of the great triumphs of Polish history. The army, which had been racked with jealousy and infighting among the officers, pulled itself together in the face of a common enemy. “I continue to marvel at the absence of panic,” wrote a British diplomat, “at the apparent absence indeed of all anxiety.” PiƗsudski calmly planned a daring counterattack. On August 16 Polish forces attacked the Soviet forces in the rear, cutting their lines of communication. The Soviet commander began a hasty retreat. By the end of September 1920, Lenin asked for peace. The Treaty of Riga, signed on March 18, 1921, gave Poland a border in the east well beyond what the peacemakers had recommended and added even more minorities to its population: 4 million Ukrainians, 2 million Jews and a million Byelorussians.50

PiƗsudski did not adjust well to peace or to democratic politics. In 1926 he seized power in a coup, and until his death in 1935 he did his best to run Poland on military lines. His great rival Dmowski never held office and moved even further to the right. Paderewski resigned as prime minister at the end of 1919, deeply hurt by the way he was blamed for the Allies’ refusal to give Poland everything it wanted and by the attacks on his wife for being tactless and interfering (which she was).51 He never lived in Poland again. In 1922, he tried a few notes on the piano and found to his amazement that he still enjoyed playing. His second career was as successful as the first. He died in New York in the summer of 1941, happy in the knowledge that Germany had invaded the Soviet Union and that there might again be hope for his country.

Poland itself survived its difficult birth and even flourished for a time. It had not won back all its historic territories, but it was still a big country and it had its window on the Baltic. These gains, however, came at a huge cost. The powers, even the French, thought the Poles greedy and feckless. And its neighbors had much to resent: Lithuania, the Vilna region; the Soviet Union, the 150-mile-wide strip of what had been Russian territory; Czechoslovakia, the conflict over Teschen; and Germany, the corridor and Danzig. In the summer of 1939 Poland disappeared from the map yet again. When it surfaced again at the end of the Second World War, it was a strangely altered and shrunken Poland, emptied of its Jews by the Nazis and of its Germans by the Soviets, and moved two hundred miles to the west.

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