Battlefield Poland

In a speech given by Andrzej Wajda to a conference on his work at the University of Lodz in 2001, he spoke about the importance of a national cinema. Given the near-hegemony of Hollywood, one might say that national cinema has seen its day. In the post-WWII period, a number of directors emerged who, paraphrasing Shelly, became the unacknowledged legislators of their nation. Satyajit Ray in India, the Italian neo-realists, Akira Kurosawa in Japan, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and the French auteurs, all were shaped by their experiences of WWII and their hopes that cinema could help to form a new identity out of the ashes of bombed cities and the mountains of skeletons left behind by the fighting.

For Wajda, the challenge was not just speaking for the hopes of the Polish people but in helping to form a national identity that had been suppressed since the early 1800s. In a subsequent CounterPunch article, I will provide a guide to Wajda’s most important films that are relatively easy to access as Video on Demand (VOD) but in order to make sense of his work, it is essential to preface it with a brief overview of Polish history in order for a left audience to properly grasp the mission Wajda set for himself as a director.

Before there was the modern state of Poland, there was a monarchy made up of the regions that constitute Poland and Lithuania today, a system based on feudal social relations and dominated by landowners. Like all feudal systems that began to decay, an emerging bourgeoisie organized politically in the hopes of creating a parliamentary democracy. In order to preempt such challenges, the aristocrats introduced reforms in order to accomplish what Don Fabrizio Corbera called for in Giovanni Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”: “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same”.

On May 3, 1791, the monarch approved a constitution granting democratic rights to its citizens, one that was the second in world history after the United States. Appalled by what it considered an outbreak of Jacobinism and a constitution that represented the “contagion of democratic ideas”, the autocratic states surrounding Poland led by Russia invaded the kingdom to avoid a “good example” from spreading. It would not be far-fetched to describe these states as determined to crush Poland in the same way that Reagan was determined to destroy Sandinista Nicaragua. After Russia crushed the weaker Polish forces, the territory was divided up between Russia and its two reactionary allies Prussia and Austria.

In an 1848 speech, Karl Marx paid his respects to the unsuccessful attempt by Krakow revolutionaries to launch a nation-wide revolution two years earlier against the triumvirate and build a democratic republic:

The Krakow revolution has set all of Europe a glorious example, because it identified the question of nationalism with democracy and with the liberation of the oppressed class.

Even though this revolution has been strangled with the bloody hands of paid murderers, it now nevertheless rises gloriously and triumphantly in Switzerland and in Italy. It finds its principles confirmed in Ireland, where O’Connell’s party with its narrowly restricted nationalistic aims has sunk into the grave, and the new national party is pledged above all to reform and democracy.

Again it is Poland that has seized the initiative, and no longer a feudal Poland but a democratic Poland; and from this point on its liberation has become a matter of honor for all the democrats of Europe.

For the most part, Marxists supported nationalist struggles in Poland, Ukraine and Ireland in the 19th and 20th century whether or not they were conducted in the name of socialism. But one of Marxism’s best known thinkers and leaders, Rosa Luxemburg—a Pole herself—rejected Marx. She considered Polish nationalism reactionary and called for a revolution led by Polish and Russian workers but one that put class demands over what might be called “identity politics” today:

From false premises come false conclusions: as if the existence of an independent Poland could deprive Russia of its powers at home or abroad. The restoration of Poland could bring about the downfall of Russian absolutism only if it simultaneously abolished the social basis of the tsardom within Russia itself, i.e., the remains of the old peasant economy and the importance of the tsardom for both the nobility and the bourgeoisie. But of course this is arrant nonsense: it makes no difference – with or without Poland these relations remain unchanged.

It was this sort of logic that led sects like the Spartacist League and the Communist Party to condemn Malcolm X in the 1960s. He was “dividing the working class”.

One hundred and twenty-six years after Russia invaded Poland, it finally achieved national independence in 1918 in the aftermath of WWI in accordance with Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination principles. It also satisfied Lenin’s more class-based understanding of the need for self-determination put forward  just two years earlier: “Russian Socialists who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., etc.—are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie.”

Despite Lenin’s laudable insistence on Polish rights, the Red Army invaded Poland in 1920. For those used to seeing the USSR and Lenin as sacrosanct, your first instinct would be to condemn the Poles for having instigated the conflict. Marxist scholar Paul Kellogg has an analysis that is based on historical evidence rather than knee-jerk loyalty to the hammer-and-sickle as presented in a 2013 article titled “Substitutionism versus Self-emancipation: The Theory of the Offensive, the Russo-Polish War of 1920 and the German March Action of 1921”.

In the Comintern conference of 1920, the Communist leaders decided that an invasion of Poland might spark a revolution in Germany. They assumed that the Red Flag would inspire the oppressed Polish peasants to throw roses in their path as they advanced toward Prussia. Kellogg explains why things went wrong in Poland:

But Poland was not Russia. True, the Polish peasants were oppressed by a rich and corrupt landlord class, just as were the Russian peasants,. But they were also oppressed by Russia, through a long history of invasions and occupations. The relation of Poland to Russia was analogous to that of Ireland to Great Britain, Quebec to English Canada, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) to the United States. The Polish people were an oppressed nation within the prison-house of nations that had been Tsarist Russia. An army of Russian peasants was not going to be greeted as a liberation army any more than would be a British army in Ireland, an English Canadian army in Quebec, or an 18th-century U.S. army in Haudenosaunee territory in what is today New York state.

Not only did the Comintern misread what they could expect in Poland, the Red Army made the fatal mistake of allowing a notorious anti-Semite to lead their invasion, one Mikhail Tukhachevsky who once said, “The Jews … are a low race. I don’t even speak of the dangers they create in my country.” Not only was the top officer an anti-Semite, many of the rank-and-file troops were peasants who retained age-old prejudices from the Czarist past. Completely isolated in Poland, the Red Army suffered major losses that forced it to retreat back to Russian soil. On the way home, the demoralized regiments carried out pogroms against the Jews who they considered their enemy. Some estimates place Russian losses at more than 200,000. Just as bad, and maybe even worse, the Red Flag became associated with the Czarist takeover of Polish soil going back to 1792.

Until his death in 1935, Poland was ruled by Józef Piłsudski, a one-time member of the Socialist Party who had evolved into a military dictator by the 1920s. But his ties to the left were extensive. In 1905, during the Russian revolutionary uprising against Czarism, he led the Socialists in a general strike in Poland that involved 400,000 workers and lasted two months. At that time, he might have been considered a neo-Jacobin of the sort that Marx had hailed in his 1848 speech—a leader who fused socialism and revolutionary nationalism.

As a result of commanding Polish detachments in WWI against Russia, Pilsudski began to abandon his socialist beliefs and operated much more as a warlord. However, socialism remained a strong force in the newly independent country, so much so that the first government passed legislation long associated with Pilsudski’s former comrades: the eight-hour day, free school education, and women’s suffrage.

According to Wikipedia, in one of his first meetings with his former comrades, Pilsudski announced his conversion:

The day after his arrival in Warsaw, he met with old colleagues from underground days, who addressed him socialist-style as “Comrade” (“Towarzysz”) and asked his support for their revolutionary policies; he refused it and answered: “Comrades, I took the red streetcar of socialism to the stop called Independence, and that’s where I got off. You may keep on to the final stop if you wish, but from now on let’s address each other as ‘Mister’.

Like the rest of Europe in the 1920s, Poland was wracked by conflicts between left and right that were exacerbated by economic distress. Alarmed by the assassination of Poland’s leftist head of state in 1922 by rightwing militants, Pilsudski—who had learned that he was next on their list—came to power in a coup in 1926 that was supported by the left. Whatever support he had earned initially rapidly evaporated as he began to function much more as an autocrat as the 1930s wore on. By the time of his death, he was deeply unpopular.

Four years later, in August 1939, Joachim von Ribbentrop of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia’s Vyacheslav Molotov signed a Non-Aggression Pact that in and of itself did not violate socialist principles. Indeed, Poland itself had signed such a pact with Hitler in 1934. Considering the appalling treatment of its colonial subjects, the British empire was in no position to lecture the Communists. But unbeknownst to the world, the two parties had a secret protocol that divided up Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Romania into German and Soviet spheres of influence. If many in the Stalinist left had stood fervently behind their idol’s brutal forced industrialization as necessary to ward off a Nazi invasion, they probably might have been a bit troubled by Molotov’s speech to the Supreme Soviet on October 31, 1939 but not enough to lose any sleep:

… A short blow at Poland from the German Army, followed by one from the Red Army was enough to reduce to nothing this monster child of the Treaty of Versailles… . One may like or dislike Hitlerism, but every sane person will understand that that ideology cannot be destroyed by force. It is, therefore, not only nonsensical, but also criminal to pursue a war for the destruction of Hitlerism.

Just a month later, when the ink on the pact had hardly dried, Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland with the intention of diving the country into half. For those on the left who still admire Stalin and find Putin nearly as fetching, it is customary to deny that there was an invasion. They argue that the Nazi invasion had led to the dissolution of the Polish state and hence justified the Soviet invasion to create a buffer against Germany. Since the USSR invaded Poland only 16 days after Nazi Germany did, it is doubtful that the collapse of the Polish state prompted Stalin to take action. Furthermore, after WWII the secret protocols were revealed to the world and made clear that Stalin and Hitler were co-conspirators in the destruction of the Polish nation:

“In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement of the areas belonging to the Polish state, the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R. shall be bounded approximately by the line of the rivers Narev, Vistula and San.”

Given what we know about how Russians lived in the late 1930s in a system dominated by secret police, show trials and gulags, it is no surprise that the Soviet half of Poland got the same treatment but in spades—a function of Great Russian chauvinism that persisted under Stalin.

Between 1939 and 1941, hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens—deemed as potential threats to Soviet law and order in its newly absorbed territory—were sent to Siberia and put to death. Control over the restive population was coordinated between the two occupying powers in a series of Gestapo–NKVD conferences that met until Hitler invaded the USSR.

Some Poles, particularly those on the left, initially welcomed the Soviet occupation since it ostensibly would legitimize attacks on Pilsudski’s bureaucrats who had imposed austerity and repression on them in previous years. Their hopes were soon dashed when they discovered that the NKVD was interested in total submission to the new regime and little else, especially rebellious acts carried out in the name of communism.

The USSR considered all service to the Polish state prior to September 1939 as counter-revolutionary. This meant that Polish military officers were considered unredeemable enemies of the state. So it was not surprising that the Soviet secret police systematically shot and killed 21,768 Polish military officers and other perceived as traitors such as university professors and physicians in the Katyn forest about 220 miles southwest of Moscow.

After the Nazis invaded Soviet Russia, they discovered the mass graves and blamed Stalin. Meanwhile, Stalin blamed the Nazis as did all Soviet leaders until 1990 when Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the NKVD was guilty and identified two other burial sites where mass executions took place: Mednoye and Piatykhatky.

Among those who died at Katyn was a cavalry officer named Jakub Wajda, the father of the director whose most important films I will be reviewing in my next CounterPunch article.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.