It is an old truth that in the long run the foreign policy of any country is determined less by ideological forces than by the facts of geography and history. And so it is in postwar Poland. The striking feature of the political scene in Poland today is that, while Communist ideology has failed to take any firm roots among the Polish people, the government's foreign policy is endorsed by an increasing number of Poles. The explanation of this apparent paradox is that since 1945 the gap between Communist goals in the international sphere and Polish national interests has considerably narrowed.

Poland's foreign policy always has been exceptionally sensitive to the facts of her geographic position. Squeezed between Germany and Russia, with no natural borders to protect her, she has been repeatedly threatened by powerful neighbors ready to deprive her of her very existence. Had it been otherwise, Poland might have achieved the status of a middle power, to which her human and material resources entitle her. Power in international politics being relative, by virtue of her location Poland has been reduced to the status of a small country.

Yet the Poles themselves are to a great extent responsible for the vulnerability which has so consistently plagued them. When opportunities existed to gain advantage in relation to the Germans or the Russians, the Poles failed to exploit them. At times they won brilliant military victories, but neglected to translate them into lasting political successes. As a result, at the turn of the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries Poland's power dwindled to the point where she was no longer a match for either Russia or the German states. At that stage of European history, Poland was not the only great power on the decline. Her case was, nevertheless, unique. While the countries located on the periphery of the European continent, such as Sweden, Spain or Turkey, all suffered loss of territory, they retained their independence; but Poland, because of her central geographic position, was totally dismembered by her neighbors. Having lost their state, the Poles strove to save at least their existence as a nation. Against successive waves of Germanization and Russification since the end of the eighteenth century, the Poles have waged a desperate battle to preserve their national identity.

It is their unhappy history which has made the Poles intensely, at times boisterously, nationalistic. With their state dismembered, the Poles' last line of defense became nationalism, the sine qua non of their survival as a people. It inspired them in their repeated efforts to cast off foreign bondage and to restore a viable Polish state. The founder of modern Polish nationalism, Roman Dmowski, taught his compatriots that in Poland's geographic position there is no room for a small, weak nation.

The preoccupation with external matters was reflected in the character of Polish politics. Political groupings in Poland traditionally formed or broke apart over issues not of social reform but of foreign policy. This did not mean, of course, that the Poles were indifferent to domestic matters. But in their scale of values, national independence took precedence over social reforms. Indeed, social reform was often advocated less as an end in itself than as a means of strengthening Poland against external enemies.

The early Marxists were by no means immune to these traditions in Polish politics. The socialist movement in Poland was repeatedly torn into two wings: one primarily interested in promoting the struggle for national independence, the other more concerned with advancing social revolution. It was the former wing which, through its patriotic appeal, commanded the support of a majority of the Polish working class. And it was from this faction that there emerged the group led by Jozef Pilsudski which governed Poland through most of the inter-war years-although by that time it had shed completely its socialist character. Meanwhile, the minority wing maintained close ties with the Bolshevik Party in Russia, and from its ranks came most of the leaders of postwar Poland.

Between the two World Wars Communism had little appeal in Poland. This was not because the Poles were opposed to social revolution, but primarily because Communism was viewed as a disguised form of Russian domination. The Poles not only feared a party which was subordinate to the Comintern,1 hence a tool of the Soviet Government; they also bitterly resented the territorial concessions which the Polish Communists, acting under instructions from the Russians, were willing to make at Poland's expense. They were ready to cede to the Soviet Union the eastern provinces, representing almost half of Poland's territory, although populated largely by Ukrainians and Byelorussians. In order to strengthen the position of the German Communists, who in the eyes of the Comintern were more important, the Polish Communist Party was prepared to yield Upper Silesia and Pomerania to Germany.2 Most Poles looked upon these concessions as treasonable.


During World War II the program expounded by the Polish Communists was drastically altered. In place of the old Communist Party, the Polish Workers' Party was created, combining in its appeal the goals of social revolution and national liberation. The new party emphasized its independence from Soviet Communism, although it still upheld the cession of Poland's prewar eastern provinces to the U.S.S.R. But understandably it reversed completely its stand in the territorial dispute with Germany. The Communists now championed recovery of the ancient Polish lands which before the war had been a part of Germany. Despite such concessions to Polish nationalism and despite the pronounced swing of Polish society to the left under the equalitarian impact of the war, the new Communist program failed to produce any substantial response among the people. The Communist régime in Poland was established only after a prolonged and, at times, fierce struggle between the Polish Workers' Party, backed by Soviet military might, and the anti-Communist political forces supported by the overwhelming majority of the people.

The bitter resistance to the imposition of a Communist régime in Poland was essentially nationalistic and not social in character. The Poles distrusted the Communists' assurances that they no longer took orders from Moscow. The whole tradition of the Polish Communist movement belied this, and the Party's ready assent to the annexation of Poland's eastern territories by the Soviet Union impugned their credibility even further. These doubts were fully vindicated when in 1948-49, after expelling from its ranks a group led by Wladyslaw Gomulka on charges of "nationalist deviation," the Party reverted to open espousal of its ties to Moscow.

In the immediate postwar years the anti-Communist posture of the Poles was fully in harmony with their national interests. The effort to avoid Soviet subjugation did not weaken in any way Poland's position vis-à-vis Germany; occupied Germany posed no threat to Poland in the west. Moreover, in view of the consent of the Western powers to the removal of the German population from the prewar German territories acquired by Poland, it appeared that the border along the Oder-Neisse rivers was looked upon as final. Soviet support of Poland's right to this frontier, therefore, did not seem to the Poles exceptionally significant.

There is no evidence that since the late 1940s the Poles have revised in any fundamental way their opposition to Communism as a vehicle of Russian domination. The so-called October revolt of 1956 clearly indicated that Communist ideology had not taken root. Not only had the Polish Communists failed to win the people to their side, but they themselves proved vulnerable to popular pressure. In the face of ferment throughout the country, the Communist Party revealed itself to be weak and divided. An influential wing of the Party, by defying the Russians, however unwillingly, demonstrated that many were ready to place the interests of the nation before those of international Communism. In 1956, as before in Polish history, the issue of social reform was of secondary importance. The generally socialist direction of Communist policies was not seriously questioned by the Polish people. What they resented was that in the name of ideological uniformity the economic and social reforms had been made to follow blindly the Soviet pattern, instead of being based on Poland's needs. Above all, they objected to the adoption of a political system which was copied after that in the Soviet Union.

Since 1956 the attitude of the Poles toward Communism has not changed in any apparent way. If anything, Communist ideology has been undermined even more. During the period of relative freedom after the October revolt, sharp attacks were publicly leveled at various aspects of Marxism-Leninism. Such open criticism subsequently has been curbed but by no means extinguished. The lively debate on freedom among Polish scholars following the new de- Stalinization campaign indicates that the intellectuals in Poland remain restive. Likewise there has been little evidence that Communism has any increasing influence among the masses. The advancement of industrialization has not only failed to produce the new socialist type of society envisaged by the Marxists, but in several respects has brought the Poles closer to the West. The acceptance of Western mass culture in Poland has been markedly accelerated. Under its essentially agnostic impact the Polish people have become less susceptible to any ideology, least of all Communism. Finally, there are no signs of any revival of ideological zeal among the Communists themselves. The pattern followed by the Polish Party is a patchwork of political realism, pragmatic radicalism and sheer opportunism, but not Marxism-Leninism.3 Communist ideology in Poland has become diluted to a degree unprecedented in any Communist-bloc country.


The fact remains, however, that since the mid-fifties a considerable measure of accommodation has been achieved between the people and the Communist régime. Again, the explanation lies in the international sphere. In the last decade several changes have taken place in international politics which have greatly affected the position of Poland. First of all, the relative liberalization in the Soviet bloc following the demise of Stalin made the Russian overlordship less onerous. Since Gomulka's return to power in 1956, Poland has secured a measure of internal autonomy which, though still restricted, is nevertheless genuine. Second, West Germany reëmerged as an independent state, assuming a prominent role in the anti- Communist alliance. The revival of German military force, coupled with the persistent refusal on the part of the Bonn government to accept the western border of Poland along the Oder and Neisse Rivers, made the Poles once again fearful of their western neighbor. Furthermore, the indefinite postponement of recognition of this frontier by the Western powers made support of the boundary by the Soviet Union of crucial importance for Poland.4 The problem of retaining these prewar German provinces overshadowed the Polish-Soviet territorial dispute, which gradually faded into the background.

These developments in the international sphere had, in turn, a profound impact on the Poles' conception of their own national interests. What in the late forties seemed a straightforward choice between submission to or independence from Russia became blurred a decade later. The Poles are now faced with a dilemma: if they demonstrate an uncompromising opposition to Communism, they run the risk of losing their western territories. There seems to be little doubt that in the past few years Polish opinion has shifted in favor of putting up with modified, but none the less unmistakable, dependence on Russia in exchange for security against Germany. It was the beginnings of this shift which gave the upheaval of 1956 its moderate outcome. Significantly, during the October revolt the necessity of Poland's alignment with the Soviet Union was not seriously questioned. Since 1956, after the easing of Russian oppression, the process of accommodation with the Soviet Union has been carried further as a result of Poland's changing appreciation of her position vis-à-vis Germany and Russia.

It is Germany which in the eyes of the Poles represents the arch-enemy. A millennium-long territorial dispute with Germany has concerned the lands which had been the cradle of the Polish nation. It was largely under the impact of the Drang nach Osten that the Poles were driven to seek outlets in the east which brought them into conflict with the Russians. Also, because of the superiority of German technology and organization, Germanization usually presented a far greater threat than Russification. Consequently, at least since Bismarck launched the systematic suppression of Polishdom in the Prussian provinces, the Poles inclined to seek coöperation with Russia against Germany rather than vice versa. The memory of the German occupation of Poland during World War II, when the Poles were literally threatened with national extermination at the hands of the Nazis, only intensifies this inclination. It makes the Poles skeptical of the changes which have taken place in West Germany and causes them to overestimate the strength of elements there which stand for revision of the Polish-German border.

The reasons why the Poles are so determined to preserve their postwar gains in the west should not, however, be attributed solely to their anti-German sentiments. Most of them are convinced that the western provinces are essential for continued resistance to Russia as well. They feel that Poland's present boundaries make her far more viable politically, economically and even strategically than before the war, and give her a better chance to withstand pressure from the east. Indeed, many Poles believe that it was their relative strength which enabled them to extract a substantial degree of internal autonomy from the Soviet Union in 1956. Conversely, they claim that Poland, crippled by the loss of her western provinces, would have become an easy prey to Russia, and thus to Communism. In short, the Poles consider the preservation of their present western border as literally a matter of national survival. We are back to the centuries-old focal point of Polish politics.

It is clearly not Communism but nationalism which is today, as much as ever, the major political force in Poland. Because Soviet policy vis-à-vis West Germany meets with the approval of virtually all Poles, and because the Soviet Union has permitted the Polish régime to move one step nearer to the wishes of the people, some degree of reconciliation between the Communist government and Polish society has occurred. On the other hand, friction between the government and the people continues as a result of the régime's adherence to the international Communist ideology, which requires Poland, under the guise of preserving the unity of the "socialist camp," to follow the course of domestic policies prescribed by Moscow. The traditional interlocking of Poland's external position and her internal politics has reappeared in a new form.


Poland's centuries-old objective-namely, to protect its interests from both Germany and Russia-is unlikely to undergo any essential change in the near future. Thus, the Poles in the years to come will strive to widen the scope of their independence from Russia without simultaneously acceding to German claims to the Polish western territories. Although these two goals are in some degree incompatible, it is not impossible that Poland may improve her position in relation to both her principal neighbors. The Poles foresee at least two developments that might provide them with a satisfactory way out of their dilemma.

First, the Poles place their hopes in further transformation of the Soviet bloc in the direction of "polycentrism," thereby giving them greater freedom in domestic policies. They hope that their country may become less a semi-satellite and more a genuine ally of Russia. The alliance would be based not on an artificial affinity between the Soviet and Polish political and socio-economic systems, but on their mutual interests and common policies toward Germany. The Poles feel that the chances of such a trend in Polish-Soviet relations are enhanced by the widening rift between the Soviet Union and China. It is not only that Chinese defiance of Soviet supreme authority has the general effect of promoting polycentrism in the Communist bloc. As the third largest country in the bloc, Poland is likely to profit most from the dissension between its two giants. In exchange for Polish support in its dispute with China, the Soviet Union might be amenable to a greater diversity in Poland's domestic policies.

Since the shift toward polycentrism in the Soviet bloc would not bring about any swift changes in the Polish political system, this development would be welcomed primarily by the Polish Communists, but it would not be objectionable to a great many non-Communists. The latter, of course, would like this trend to go so far as to allow some form of "national Communism" providing for complete independence from Moscow and a considerably widened scope of freedom at home.

Second, the Poles have not abandoned all hope that some settlement in Central Europe along the broad lines of "disengagement" may eventually be reached between the West and the East. Such a solution would fulfill their national aspirations in high degree. On the one hand, by leaving the Communist bloc and assuming the position of a neutral country, along the lines of Finland, Poland would regain genuine internal independence.5 On the other, with Germany neutralized, the pressure on Poland's western border would be lifted. An additional advantage for the Poles would be that by removing this political barrier their traditionally close cultural ties with the West could be restored.

Since the adoption of a policy of disengagement in Central Europe would be likely to result in a drastic transformation of Poland's internal political system, paving the way for a very substantial increase of freedom, it is favored primarily by the non-Communists. However, as their persistent advocacy of the Ra-packi Plan indicates, the Polish Communists also seem to be interested in some version of disengagement which would improve their position in the international sphere but not undermine their rule at home.

Whatever the currents of politics in the Soviet bloc and in the world at large, one thing seems to be certain: the Polish question will reappear in one form or another in many conflicts and in many attempts to settle them. This has very little to do with the global ideological struggle, for Poland's aspirations cut across the lines dividing the two blocs. Her importance in the international sphere is a natural consequence of her crucial geographic location between Russia and Germany. It is also a result of the stand taken by the Polish nation, which has proved throughout its history that it is not content to leave its fate to others but seeks to shape its own destiny. 1 The Polish Communists now admit their subordination to the Russian Communists prior to 1956. A recent article published in the theoretical journal of the Polish Communist Party acknowledged that the relationship between the foreign Communist Parties and the Soviet Communist Party meant in practice "the imposition upon all the parties of the views and opinions of one party, or to be more precise the opinions and views of its leadership." (Nowe Drogi, December 1961, p. 48.) 2 The readiness of the Polish Communists to make territorial concessions to Germany in the inter-war period is rarely mentioned in Poland today. Nevertheless, since 1956 some indirect references to it have appeared. "While writing these words," one writer stated in digressing from his theme, "I recall an old comrade from the Communist Party of Poland, who did not agree with the concessions to the Communist Party of Germany concerning Upper Silesia." (Wladysiaw Machejek, Zycie literackie, October 28, 1956.) 3 The lack of ideological zeal among the Polish Communists is at times conceded in Poland. In an article expressing concern over this development, the opinion of an "earnest Communist" was quoted: "The period of intense ideological activities, discussions and creative thought belongs to the past, and all attempts to stimulate an interest of a large number of party members in those problems are at present doomed to failure." (Romana Granas, Polityka, November 26, 1959.) 4 There exists a widespread view in the West that the Soviet Union intentionally let Poland push her territory to the Oder in order to make her dependent on Soviet support for the defense of this border, and thus virtually to chain her to Russia. What this argument ignores is that in 1945 neither the Russians nor the Poles could anticipate that, after agreeing to the removal of the German population from this territory, the West would refuse to recognize its acquisition by Poland as final. And it was only in the light of this inconsistent position that the Soviet Union emerged as the sole champion of Poland's right to the frontier along the Oder-Neisse line. 5 The comparison of Poland's possible neutrality with that of Finland requires a qualification. Poland, located at the center and not at the periphery of Europe and flanked by Germany rather than Sweden, would tend to be more pro-Russian in her foreign policy than Finland. For a discussion of the possible impact of disengagement on Poland, see my "Disengagement in Eastern Europe," International Journal, Summer 1959.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now