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More than independence. Poland and 1918

After the First World War Poland regained its independence. At the same time, it failed to recreate its former state, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and reconstruct a map of western Eurasia.

In 1918 a newly independent Poland appeared on Europe’s stage with a complex and ambitious vision to rebuild the western parts of the former Russian Empire. The new opportunities that Poland saw were a result of Germany and Russia’s defeat in the First World War. Poland, seeing a geopolitical vacuum in the East, came up with three visions.

November 5, 2018 - Adam Balcer - Articles and CommentaryIssue 6 2018Magazine

Illustration by Andrzej Zaręba

The first was a recreation of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth through a federation of Poland, Belarus and Lithuanian (and maybe Latvia) that would be closely allied with an independent Ukraine. The second vision, called Prometheism, was the liberation of non-Russian nations. At a later stage it was also to offer support to non-communist Russian left groups. The third vision, Intermarium, foresaw co-operation among the newly independent states located between the Baltic, the Black and possibly the Adriatic Seas.

Historical roots

In the years 1918-1921 these visions became the foundation of Józef Piłsudski’s foreign policy. Before 1918 Piłsudski, who is widely considered to be the father of Poland’s independence and was affiliated with the Polish Socialist Party, was convinced that imperial Russia should be seen as the biggest threat to Polish independence, no matter who the ruling elite. After 1918 Piłsudski had hoped that a reconstruction of western Eurasia would bring about a guarantee of Poland’s independence. His view was opposed by Roman Dmowski, the leader of the National Democracy party – a nationalist party propagating a vision of Poland as a regional power dominated by ethnic Poles. Unlike Piłsudski, before the First World War Dmowski treated Russia as a potential ally against Germany, which he believed was Poland’s greatest enemy. The rivalry between the two politicians and their visions dominated Polish politics from the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century.

The ideas promoted by Piłsudski – mostly associated with the Second Polish Republic which lasted from 1918 until 1939 – were deeply rooted in pre-modern Poland. The concept of a Lithuanian-Polish federation was inspired by the 1386-1569 dynastic union as well as the later Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which lasted from 1569 to 1795. The latter was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state, one that hosted also Muslim Tatars on its territory – quite unusual for a Christian state at that time. However the Commonwealth gradually became dominated by Catholic Poles.

The concept of Intermarium was also linked to the experience of the Commonwealth and, especially, the Lithuanian dynasty of the Jagiellonians, who ruled Poland and Lithuania from 1386 to 1569. In fact, the term Intermarium (in Polish Międzymorze, meaning in between the seas) was first used in 1564 in a poem by the great Polish poet, Jan Kochanowski. It was used to describe the state’s location between the Baltic and the Black seas, Poland’s and Lithuania’s territorial reach between the early 15th century and the 16th century. For Kochanowski it was a symbol of their greatness. It is worth adding that at the turn of the 16th century the Jagiellonian dynasty also ruled the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Hungarian Kingdom which had access to the Adriatic.

Intermarium was also an attempt to establish an anti-Moscow alliance, which would include states located on the North-South axis, between the Baltic and Black Seas. It included at different periods Lithuania-Poland, Sweden, the Duchy of Livonia, the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire. The belief that Poland’s power came from its vast territory stretching between seas became an element of national identity after Poland lost independence in 1795. It was based on the prophecy of the legendary Cossack Wernyhora, who foresaw Poland’s rebirth. However in this prophecy the key role was to be played by…Islamic Turkey.


Prometheism, as the name suggests, was a vision inspired by Prometheus, who was chained to a rock in the Caucasus for stealing fire and giving it to humanity. As a foreign policy concept, Prometheism assumed the liberation of non-Russian nations from the oppression of Tsarist rule. These nations were then to become brothers in arms, despite their religious and ethnic differences. In their fight they were to be supported by Russia’s neighbours.

The term Prometheism was coined in the interwar period, but its roots date back to the early 18th century when two Ukrainian Cossacks hetmans – Ivan Mazepa and Pylyp Orylyk – started to co-operate with Sweden, Poland, the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire, as well as the mountaineers of the Northern Caucus, the Volga Tatars, Bashkirs and Don Cossacks. In the 19th century this tradition was carried on by Polish political emigration, led by Prince Adam Czartoryski. He invoked a concept of different rings for opposing Russian imperialism. Two of them were within Russia and included Ukraine, Don Cossacks, Latvia and Estonia (the first ring) as well as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (as it existed before Poland’s partitions), Finland, Tatars, Northern Caucuses and Central Asia (the second ring). The external ring was made up of the Russian empire’s neighbours: Sweden, Austria and Turkey.

Piłsudski and his party further developed this idea at the turn of the 20th century, believing that ethnic heterogeneity of the Russian empire was its Achilles’ heel.  According to him the division of Russia along ethnic lines should constitute a key goal for Poland. To achieve this Piłsudski used slogans of the social revolution which erupted in Russia and also reached Polish lands. The revolution, in his view, could bring about a complete collapse of the Russian empire. As a result, “independent states would emerge, including a Polish-Lithuanian state, a Latvian, an Estonian, a Finnish, an Armenian and maybe even a Tatar state. All of these states were to form a union which would squeeze and suffocate Moscow.”

 The concepts of Intermarium and Prometheism were interconnected. The former foresaw Poland as a power “from sea to sea” that would compete with Russia over dominance in Eastern Europe. The latter foresaw the breaking up of Russia, which would take place as a result of uprisings of non-Russian nations living in the empire, and that would be led by Poland. Both made references to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was idealised by Poles. Poland was seen as predisposed for the position of leader since its own Tatar minority could assist in the plight of the Russian Muslims who, at that time, were one of the largest Muslim communities in the world.

Piłsudski’s support for Intermarium and Prometheism was a reflection of his biography. His family came from Lithuania’s most Lithuanian  region – Samogitia. However, born north of Vilnius, he was, since childhood, surrounded by Belarusians, Lithuanians, Jews and Tatars. His cousin became the wife of Antanas Smetona, the father of independent Lithuania. In the 1890s when the first national gathering of the Polish Socialist Party took place in a forest near Vilnius, among its five attendees were two Tatars. One of them was Aleksander Sulkiewicz – Piłsudski’s friend and the party’s general secretary. Not surprisingly, when looking at Piłsudski’s support from the time they were implementing Poland’s foreign policy between 1918 and1921, there were some people who were more connected with the East because they were born and raised in Russia, Siberia, the Caucasus or even Central Asia.

Liberation and freedom

Shortly after gaining independence, Poland suggested to Belarus, Lithuania and even Latvia a “reconstruction” of the Great Lithuanian Duchy. In other words, it offered to rebuild a republic composed of three components (Vilnius-area Polish, Lithuanian and Belarusian). If Latvia was to be included, it could have been a four-part union. These republics would then become part of a federation with Poland.

The Polish political elite hoped that the main factor favouring co-operation of these nations was the Bolshevik threat. In April 1919, when Polish troops freed Vilnius from Bolshevik hands, Piłsudski issued a call, in Polish and Lithuanian, “To the inhabitants of the former Great Lithuanian Duchy”. After the takeover of Minsk, calls were also made in Belarusian. In these appeals Piłsudski wrote the following: “The Polish troops, which I had brought here, to expel the rule of force and violence, to abolish the ruling of a state against the will of the people – these troops are bringing you liberation and freedom. I want to give you the possibility to solve internal problems, ethnic problems and religious problems, in the way you want them to be solved, without any force or coercion on behalf of Poland.”

The Lithuanians, however, did not agree with the idea of a federation, seeing it as a threat leading to their Polonisation. Thus when Poland was at war with Lithuania over Vilnius (1919-1920) and the Polish offensive was progressing into Lithuanian lands, the war from the point of view of Lithuanians turned into a fight for Lithuania’s independence. After the war, in 1920-1922, Poland tried to force Lithuania into a federation by creating an internationally unrecognised state called Central Lithuania (Litwa Środkowa) where Poles were the majority. In the end, Poland annexed Central Lithuania.

The Polish appeal to Belarusians ended with a bit better result; however the Belarusian national movement was much weaker than in Lithuania or Ukraine. Thus, a part of the Belarusian political elite supported a federation with Poland. To achieve its goals, Poland began creating military units with Belarusians who supported a federation. However other Belarusians allied with Lithuania while others supported the Bolsheviks. Interestingly, Lithuanians and the Bolsheviks wanted a federation deriving from the tradition of the Great Lithuanian Duchy.

Poland had greater success with the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), led by ataman Symon Petliura – despite the war for Eastern Galicia in 1918-1919. In fact, a few Poles held key positions in the administration and army of the UNR. In April 1920 Poland and Ukraine concluded an alliance and began an offensive which led to taking Kyiv from the Bolsheviks for a short time. The Bolsheviks countered by moving deeper into Ukrainian and Polish territory. By the time the Bolsheviks approached Warsaw in August 1920, where they failed significantly, the Polish army had around 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers among its ranks – nearly ten per cent of its total field forces. No other country than Ukraine supported Poland’s independence to such an extent at this difficult time. Unfortunately there is not enough recognition of this fact today.

A huge goal

For Intermarium, Poland’s relations with Lithuania were crucial; and partly because the Polish-Lithuanian alliance would provide clear proof of Warsaw’s ability to co-operate with the Baltic states and the newly independent countries of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the survival of these states was perceived as a precondition for the strengthening of Polish independence. As Tadeusz Hołówka, a Polish diplomat and politician at that time, presciently said: “Poland’s independence would not be thought about without the independence of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Ukraine and Belarus. Poland’s independence is one of the displays of a deep process which is today taking place in Europe; that is the liberation of nations from political imprisonment. If Poland is left alone, if other states that emerged from Russia’s collapse do not succeed, then we will have a sad future ahead of us.”

Even more ambitious was the idea of regional integration put forward by Włodzimierz Wakar, a distinguished commentator who saw a threat to Poland’s independence not only from Russia but from Germany. In his essay titled “The Jagiellonian idea in today’s times”, he claimed that Intermarium would lead to “the creation of a huge union of liberated nations that would be between Germany and Russia, which would prevent them from future conquests. As a result, they would become tamed for centuries, would need to moderate their greed, and a just peace would rule over the nations; it would be from us that the Russians and Germans will finally learn to lead an honest national life. This is a significant goal that is worth working towards.” Wakar assumed that an “honest, just and free from ‘secrets and tricks’ Polish politics will encourage the newly independent states, starting with Latvia, down to Yugoslavia and Greece, to become united”. Clearly for Wakar, Intermarium was the biggest guarantee of Poland’s independence, which since the 18th century had been threatened by the presence of Germany (before Prussia) and Russia.

Soon after gaining independence, Poland proposed the establishment of a Baltic Union, which would be made up of Poland, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania and Latvia. Poland also played a very important role during conferences with these states that were also often attended by representatives of Ukraine and Belarus. For example, during a conference in Bulduria (near Riga) in August 1920, soon after Poland’s victory at the battle over Warsaw, a pact was signed. It stipulated that the Baltic states would be solving “disputes between themselves by peaceful means and not make any pacts against each other, not tolerate any activities directed against any of the agreeing parties on their territories, guarantee the freedom of ethnic minorities and together conclude a defensive military convention”. This pact did not enter into force, however. It was hindered by the Polish-Lithuanian conflict over Vilnius.

Yet Poland pursued initiatives that went beyond diplomatic ones. It established military co-operation with Estonia, Finland and, especially, Latvia. In early 1920 Polish and Latvian troops liberated Latgale (a south eastern part of Latvia inhabited by a large Polish minority) from Bolshevik control. This region became part of Latvia.

Southern ties

The most ambitious idea in interwar Poland’s foreign policy was the attempt to put Prometheism into force. The biggest asset in this regard were the Polish-Lithuanian Tatars –recognised in the 19th century by their Turkic relatives as a source of inspiration for the processes of modernisation and nation-building. This shows that the concept of Prometheism included a notion of freedom that was also closely connected to the programme of social modernisation and the building of modern national identities. Therefore it is not surprising that the Tatars of the former Great Lithuanian Duchy took up key positions in the government of the autonomous Crimea.

 Moreover, in 1920 the Crimean government in exile approached the League of Nations to establish a Polish protectorate in Crimea. After the Bolshevik takeover of Crimea, Lithuanian Tatars moved to Azerbaijan, which was the first secular democratic republic that legally recognised the equality of men and women.  Crimea’s former prime minister, Maciej Sulkiewicz (Suleyman bey Sulkiewicz), became the head of the military force, and established Azerbaijan’s army from scratch. However he was murdered in 1920 after the Bolshevik’s takeover of Azerbaijan.

Looking at Poland’s relations with the Caucuses states during the interwar period, it is worth remembering that many representatives of their elite studied in Poland, while many Poles moved to Tbilisi or Baku for employment. While settling there, they had a huge impact on the development of both cities. Not surprisingly the father of Azerbaijan’s independence, Mahmud Rasulzade, had a private Polish teacher, while his Georgian counterpart, Noe Zhordania, became a socialist during his studies in Warsaw, where he established contacts with future builders of independent Poland. Therefore, it should not be difficult to understand why in 1918 the parliament of the Federation of Southern Caucasus changed its name into the Polish “Sejm”.

In the spring of 1920 Poland sent a large delegation to Georgia and Azerbaijan. In Tbilisi, Polish diplomats proposed a military alliance. It included plans of shared support to start an anti-Bolshevik uprising among Muslim mountaineers in the Northern Caucuses. However during the visit of the Polish delegation in Baku, there was a Bolshevik invasion and the Polish diplomats were arrested.

Poland also established co-operation with Don, Kuban and Terek Cossacks who lived in the vicinity of the Caucuses. After the Bolshevik revolution, they also came up with the idea of building a common state that they would share with Muslim mountaineers from the Northern Caucuses and Cossacks from Astrakhan, the Urals and Central Asia. Those aspirations were partially linked with the emerging idea of Cossacks as a nation separate from Russia. Even though no independent federation of Cossacks and Northern Caucuses emerged, Cossack military units were created in Poland in 1920. Together with Polish and Ukrainian troops, they fought against the Bolsheviks. There were also plans to create a unit   of Caucuses mountaineers to fight with the Cossacks in the Polish military forces.

The apogee of Polish Prometheism was Poland’s support for socialist, non-communist and non-monarchist political forces inside Russia. In 1920 Piłsudski established co-operation with Boris Savinkov, a socialist revolutionary with Russian-Ukrainian roots. As a result, a Russian Army that was to fight against the Bolsheviks was set up in Poland. However, it did not manage to join the fight before the signing of the Polish-Bolshevik truce (rozejm) in October 1920. Nevertheless, Poland managed to train around 6,000 soldiers.

I am sorry, gentlemen

Between 1918 and 1921 Poland defended its independence and became the largest state that emerged after the First World War in Europe. However the Riga Peace Treaty, signed in March 1921 between Poland and the Soviet Union, marked a failure in Poland’s attempts to build the Polish-Lithuanian federation which was to be strictly linked with Ukraine, promote the liberation of all non-Russian nations and build an Intermarium. The Peace of Riga meant that Poland withdrew its support for independent Belarus and Ukraine. Their delegations were not allowed to participate in the negotiations in Riga. In turn, Warsaw recognised the new Soviet republics of Belarus and Ukraine, created by the Bolsheviks. In fact, both countries were divided between Poland and Bolshevik Russia. This situation was perceived by many Ukrainian and Belarusian politicians as a betrayal. Such was the policy promoted by the National Democrats led by Roman Dmowski. At this time, they became the most popular political force in Poland.

As a result, Piłsudski could only say the following to his Ukrainian soldiers: “I am sorry, gentlemen. This is not how things were meant to be.” It turned out that history, contrary to Piłsudski’s convictions, was more of a burden than an advantage in Poland’s relations with its eastern neighbours. Since the beginning of Poland’s independence, Lithuania refused any kind of a union with Poland. At the same time, Poland’s harsh policies towards Lithuania, which included an attempted coup d’etat and an attack on ethnic Lithuanian lands, raised concern among the small Baltic states regarding Warsaw’s intent. Quite often they interpreted Intermarium and the federation as an expression of Poland’s imperial aspirations and an attempt to impose its dominance over them. Russia succeeded at concluding separate peace treaties with all of the Baltic states, including a de facto alliance with Lithuania, undermining regional solidarity.

Belarusian and Ukrainian peasants, who were a decisive majority of inhabitants in Eastern Europe, were unwilling to accept the presence of Polish military forces and a provisional civil administration on their lands. The Polish army clearly supported Polish aristocracy, which had large land holdings and disregarded the non-Polish population in the administration. This situation made it very difficult to break the unwillingness of the Ukrainian and Belarusian peasants towards the idea of a federation with Poland. Piłsudski and especially people from his inner circle were concerned about this situation but they were incapable of overcoming the strong opposition of Dmowski’s National Democrats.

As stated above, the establishment of a Polish-Lithuanian federation in an alliance with an independent Ukraine was the basic condition for implementing the concept of Prometheism. That is why the failure of the former did not allow for the success of the latter. Despite that fiasco, Piłsudski’s policies had important long-term positive consequences. Without the Polish victory in the war for independence, probably the entire Central Europe might have been conquered much earlier by the Soviets. The Treaty of Riga together with the Treaty of Versailles established an international order in Europe which allowed several nations (Poles, Baltic countries, Finns, part of Ukrainians, etc.) to remain outside Soviet rule for almost 20 years. This situation contributed significantly to the strengthening of their national identities. Thanks to that strength they were able to survive Soviet aggression or domination. Today it helps them to counter the neo-imperial policy of Russia.    

 As stated by the Polish historian Jerzy Borzęcki: “Even though Polish federalism was not the most popular, it forced Moscow to activities that were aimed at maintaining the illusion of Belarusian and Ukrainian independence. As a result it contributed to the establishment of the Soviet Union as a federation of republics, which included two most important ones, apart from Russia – Belarus and Ukraine.

It is worth noting that in 1922 the Soviet Union added one more republic: the Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Republic (which was made up of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan). The federal nature of the Soviet Union, though often only nominally, was different from the centralised system of Tsarist Russia. And in 1991, after the collapse of the USSR, it became the foundation for the creation of over a dozen newly independent states.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Adam Balcer is head of the foreign policy programme at WiseEuropa, a private Polish think tank. He also works as a national researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and is a lecturer at the Centre of East European Studies (SEW) at the University of Warsaw.

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