1.6 After 1918
Out of the Great War a new Polish republic arose under the leadership of Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935), who liberated a large part of the Grand Duchy in a war with the Soviets (1919-1920) and later partitioned Belarus with them. The Russian part of Belarus, with Minsk as its capital, became nominally autonomous, but it was in truth ruled by Lenin’s Kremlin. Subsequent repression by the Soviets outstripped the cruelty of the tsarist regime. Stalin went a step further by virtually eradicating the intelligentsia, the church and Jewry. The peasantry succumbed to forced collectivization. Stalin’s Great Terror made millions of victims.
The Second World War brought further horrors. To begin with, the Nazis ceded Western White Russia and Lithuania, which had been independent since 1918, to Russia by a treaty that brought with it deportations, mass executions and repression. The German invasion of June 1941 brought no relief. If the remaining population was at first able to muster some enthusiasm for the liberators, they were soon disillusioned. Massive war crimes were committed in Poland by the General Gouvernement Poland and the Reichskomissariat Ostland, including the destruction of the European Jews and the systematic starvation of Russian prisoners of war. The Germans used the tactic of scorched earth on their retreat from Russia, while the Russians expulsed them with singular violence. The toll that this took of the civilian population is difficult to comprehend. The ‘second liberation’ was also accompanied by indescribable cruelties. ‘Then the world’s record-breaking murder machine, Stalin’s NKVD, appeared to filter, arrest, shoot, torture, deport and terrorize the survivors’.1 After 1945 Belarus and Lithuania again disappeared silently into the Soviet Union, without having any voice in determining their own destiny until 1991, when the curtain finally fell on the Soviet empire. Lithuania separated in 1991 and has since become a full-fledged member of the European Union.
Poland met with a different fate after 1918. From 11 November 1918, having been recognized by the Allied powers, the country formed a new republic under Piłsudski, which the Treaty of Versailles granted control over Danzig and West-Prussia (the so-called ‘Polish corridor’), giving it access to the sea. Poland’s diplomatic relations during the interwar years were characterized by great circumspection, especially after 1933, when the Nazi’s seized power in Germany. However, no amount of caution could prevent mounting friction with Hitler, especially over Danzig and the corridor. On 26 March the tension resulted in Poland’s formal refusal to sign a pact with Hitler’s Germany. Instead it closed an alliance with the United Kingdom, which established England’s famous guarantee of Polish independence.
World War II now seemed inevitable, especially after 23 August 1939, when Germany and Russia signed a ten-year non-aggression pact, giving Hitler carte-blanche to commence his Blitzkrieg. On 1 September he invaded Poland. After destroying Warsaw from the air and other excesses, Germany occupied its part of Poland as set down in the Nazi-Soviet treaty. Meanwhile the Soviet Union invaded on 17 September to claim its agreed-upon part of the booty. The Polish government fled and founded an interim government led by general Sikorski in Paris (transferred to London in 1940). After 1945 nothing came of the promises of the western allies of a newly independent Poland. The treasonous behavior of America and Great Britain during the Yalta conference (February 1945), at which the spheres of influence in Europe were settled between the Russians and the Americans (a nearly bankrupt Great Britain did not even take part in these discussions), meant the end of Polish hopes for democracy. Via a series of elections manipulated by the Soviets, the Polish communists emerged as victors.
Poland then became a Stalinist state which only came to an end late in 1956, when Vladyslaw Gomułka formed a communist government. Active and passive resistance from large segments of the population did not come to an end, however, leading to strikes by workers in Szczecin (1971) and demonstrations in Radom (1976) that were unprecedented for a communist society. Political change in Poland only truly sped up on 16 October 1878, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected as Pope and mounted the throne of Saint Peter as John Paul II. The anti-communist ferment truly got under way after his first visit to Poland (2-10 June 1979), so that he personally contributed to the democratization of Poland. The 1980 foundation under Lech Wałęsa of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’, which could not be broken even by imposition of Martial Law (13 December 1981), led to the disintegration of the so-called Polish People’s Republic of general Woiciech Jaruzelski. It was not until 1989, however, that the People’s Republic could be relegated to the trash heap of history. The first democratically chosen leader, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, took office on19 August 1989, and Lech Wałęsa followed Jaruzelski as prime minister in December 1990. This beginning of the development of Poland into an independent European democracy, which formally entered the European Union on 1 May 2004, must mark the end of this brief survey.
In Belarus murder and repression during the Great War had wiped out the upper strata of society, while the organized church was successfully eliminated. The country came to be run in almost complete isolation by a communist party which was increasingly infiltrated by the Russians and faithful to Stalin’s Moscow. Unlike in the Baltic and Poland, the indigenous national elite had not been able to hold its own or manage underground survival, so that 1989 did not bring freedom from the one-party system. Belarus is the only part of the former Soviet Union that is still not a democracy.
1 Davies 2011, p. 302.