Western advocates of Polish independence

Poland’s independence in 1918 was both won by the Poles and was offered to them. In other words – it was a unique coincidence of both internal and external circumstances. The former certainly included the activity of socio-political leaders or the armed efforts of a section of society. The latter included, above all, the deep crisis in which the partitioning states were plunged, as well as the programmes and political goals of the leaders of the victorious  states attempting, after the end of the WWI, to shape a new order on the ruins of La belle époque. The attempt to answer the question of which of these factors played a decisive role, and which a secondary one, is inevitably charged both on the political and emotional level to a considerable extent. This is because it raises the question to what extent Poles owe the restoration of their independence to their own efforts, and to what extent to a favourable international situation. In fact, this is not a question that concerns only the period of the establishment of the Second Polish Republic. Similar considerations can also be made with regard to the breakthrough events of 1989.

The source materials on the “lobbyists” obviously do not provide an exhaustive answer to this difficult question. However, they do allow one to look at the issue of Poland’s regaining independence from a hitherto less frequently cited perspective – that of the Western participants in the Paris peace negotiations who, to varying degrees, took part in the complicated process of “arranging” post-war Poland and those involved in ensuring the stability of the newly formed state.

This material can be interpreted as a counterweight to the independence mythology associated, for example, with the role of individuals in the course of international processes. Others may find it confirming the exceptional importance of the prominent figure of Ignacy Jan Paderewski for winning the favour of the Allies towards the Polish cause. He enjoyed the respect and admiration of the mighty and powerful of his day, as is well illustrated in a text by the then US Secretary of State, Robert Lansing. One thing is certain: these materials introduce a new perspective to the understanding of Polish history in the 20th century. Moreover, by learning about the beliefs and motivations of the “lobbyists”, we gain a unique insight into the attitude of the Western elites of the time. This is also of considerable importance from the perspective of contemporary Poland, still “getting to know” its Western partners.

The “lobbyists” referred to are politicians, journalists, businessmen and military men who contributed to the establishment of the Second Polish Republic – both by presenting a position favourable to the Polish cause during the negotiations at the , and by participating in the management of the post-war chaos in the Polish lands.

Their actions were motivated by personal reasons – they were influenced by the Poles they had met – and by their principles, which conditioned their sense of justice. The vast majority of them were Americans. When we look at their social background, their elitism comes to the fore. A reading of the records of the “lobbyists” shows a great deal of unheard-of idealism. This was the hallmark of a section of the American establishment at the dawn of US global hegemony. The most momentous expression of this idealism was President Woodrow Wilson’s famous – the vision of the post-war order he set out in his address to the US Congress, which included a promise to restore the Polish state on the map of Europe. The Polish cause thus found itself closely dependent on the bold – and, in retrospect, cheeky – aspirations of the Americans to build a better world according to their own ideals. Not for the last time in history.

Among the “lobbyists” we will find people coming from different fields of social activity. The war effort and, subsequently, the need to make difficult settlements during the peace negotiations meant that not only professional military officers and diplomats, but also journalists and university researchers were mobilised to serve the state. Quite a number of the latter became part of the , a group of advisors appointed by Woodrow Wilson in 1917. The US president gave them the task of preparing expert reports on the issues to be negotiated and settled at the .  included, among others, the pioneers of American studies of Eastern Europe – Archibald Cary Coolidge and Robert Howard Lord, as well as the eminent geographer and specialist in territorial issues – Isaiah Bowman, the lawyer – David Hunter Miller, and the historian and international peace activist (which earned him a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize) – James Thomson Shotwell.

The importance of the experts to the Polish cause, and – in broader terms – to the shape of the peace settlement, was based on their provision of data and analysis allowing for the concretisation of the general principles guiding the US diplomacy, headed by the principle of self-determination of nations within ethnic boundaries. Secondly, some of them, such as the aforementioned Bowman, gained direct access “to the ear” of President Wilson during the Conference. It is worth mentioning here that the American leader was basically surrounded by lobbyists for the Polish cause. It was not only Bowman who showed favour in this regard, but also Wilson’s right-hand man, Edward Mandell House, who was strongly influenced by Ignacy Paderewski. House himself chose Stephen Bonsal as his personal assistant while Bonsal’s views on Polish affairs were shaped, among other things, by his experience as a press correspondent in Berlin. This allowed him to observe at close quarters the anti-Polish actions of the German authorities in the area of the German partition of Poland. Having drawn up a note on the subject for Edward House, Bonsal – usually not shying away from irony and humour – noted in his diary: “I was really glad to be able to testify that what I was sure of on the basis of my personal observations was the real and true situation”.

Lobbying during the clash of interests and visions of the post-war order was, for obvious reasons, extremely important. However, it was not the only area of the “lobbyist” activity. Just as the vital needs of the resurgent state could not be provided for solely by cabinet discussions in Paris.

For it must be remembered that the Second Polish Republic was established in a situation of post-war chaos associated with the collapse of the great empires in Central and Eastern Europe. On the one hand, the resulting geopolitical void favoured the Polish cause – creating a political vacuum that could be filled by a Polish state. On the other hand, the enormous destruction caused by warfare and the plundering behaviour of the partitioning armies posed a serious threat to the newly emerging statehood. A mortal threat was posed by the plans put into effect by the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution, in which the establishment of a new order in Europe meant the liquidation of the young Polish state and its replacement by the Polish Soviet Socialist Republic.

The resurgent state needed legitimacy and acceptance on the part of its inhabitants, and this acceptance, in addition to patriotic feelings associated with national identity – which, by the way, at this historical stage outside the upper strata were incomparably weaker than in our timesSee, for example, Michał Łuczewski, Odwieczny naród. Polak I katolik w Żmiącej, Toruń 2012, p. 644. – is also a function of the ability of the state apparatus to meet the basic living needs of its citizens. This was pointed out by one of the “lobbyists”, William John Rose, who in his memoirs, commenting on the plight of the returning Poles, wrote: “yet it might have seemed to them that their newly-liberated homeland did not want them”.

The process of (re)establishing the state thus brought challenges at the organisational and food provisioning level. These included the reorganisation and construction of the administrative apparatus, the creation of a uniform legal and communication system, a financial system, the organisation of education and the provision of food for citizens. Andrzej Chwalba, who described the enormity of these challenges, summarised them as follows: “at first glance, it might have seemed that Poland and its inhabitants would not be able to cope with all this because of the unpleasant and painful consequences for them of the war and post-war destabilisation, disorganisation of social life and pauperisation. It turned out otherwise”Andrzej Chwalba, Rok 1919: Pierwszy rok wolności, Wołowiec 2019, p. 365..

Also contributing to the aforementioned success – particularly in the first post-war years – were the “lobbyists” who were directly involved in assisting the people and authorities of the newly formed Polish state – as initiators and executors of the policy of the Allies, above all, of the United States.

The extent of this aid was not trivial. According to Chwalba’s book, during the several years of the  activities – the most important aid effort – around four million tons of goods worth over five billion dollars (converted into today’s currency) were sent to Europe, of which around one fifth went to Poland. This was by no means the only aid channel – the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the American Red Cross and Polish diaspora organisations were also involved in various relief efforts. To this must be added assistance in non-material form – among other things, in the form of management know-how or the involvement of one’s own authority, position and international contacts for the successful resolution of numerous bureaucratic challenges.

However, before the Allies decided to provide assistance to the eastern part of the European continent, including Poland, it was necessary to obtain objective information on the situation on the banks of the Vistula river. To this end, successive missions, which included the “lobbyists”, arrived in Poland. The testimonies of a Canadian, William John Rose, and two Britons, Harry Wade and Esme Howard, show how huge the information deficit was among Western policymakers in the post-war chaos, and, at the same time, how necessary it was to channel information about the dramatic situation in the country to the right people among the  leaders.

One of the first representatives of the Allied powers in Poland was the aforementioned Harry Wade – sent by the British authorities in December 1918 to analyse the political situation and establish unofficial relations with the emerging centres of political powerSee Dariusz Jeziorny, Misja pułkownika Harry’ego Wade’a do Polski a wybuch Powstania Wielkopolskiego, „Przegląd Zachodni” No. 2/2016, pp. 43-56.. As a companion of Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s triumphant return to Poland, he witnessed the upsurge for independence in the capital of Greater Poland region [Wielkopolska]. Another of the “lobbyists”, Esme Howard, found his way to the Vistula river vicinity a little later – he was among the members of the  (acting under Joseph Noulens), which arrived in February 1919 with the task of obtaining information on border conflicts, including the Polish-Ukrainian one. In their accounts we find poignant descriptions of the critical state the country was in, appeals for help in the face of numerous crises, and a positive assessment of the political and social forces heroically striving to bring the situation under control.

Attempts to obtain and pass on information were also made by Polish leaders. The first of the “lobbyists” mentioned – William John Rose, a researcher on nationality issues who was stranded in the Polish-Czech borderland during the war – was sent by independence activists on a mission to reach Allied representatives in order to present them with a Polish interpretation of the tensions in that part of Europe. Although he became a diplomat by chance, the information he possessed and his ability to communicate it efficiently put him at the heart of the world politics.

When the Allies, and above all the United States, finally took up the relief effort – Herbert Hoover, the future 31st President of the United States, played a central role in organising it. This gifted entrepreneur became spontaneously involved in humanitarian aid while the war was still in progress, organising the return of American tourists home from Europe and then setting up the Commission for Relief in Belgium at the request of the American ambassador. In December 1918, he secured President Wilson’s approval to create and send a food mission to Poland, which was part of a wider plan to rebuild war-ravaged Europe (similar missions were sent to Istanbul and Copenhagen, among others).

The mission to Poland was headed by Hoover’s former lecturer Vernon Kellogg, who arrived in Warsaw in January 1919 with the task of analysing the needs of Polish society. He could not do it without consulting leading figures of the domestic political scene. Hoover’s “team” also included William Remsburg Grove – a gifted military logistician who was to assist Kellogg in examining the food situation, and Anson Conger Goodyear – a skilful businessman entrusted by Hoover with the task of “setting coal in motion throughout Central Europe”. It is worth noting that the American mission had not only a humanitarian dimension, but also an advisory one. In addition to the last two figures mentioned, such services were also rendered to the Polish government by Colonel Alvin Barton Barber as an advisor to the Ministry of Railways and Dr Edward Dana Durand as an advisor to the Ministry of Provisions, or William I. Shuman – as personal economic advisor to Prime Minister PaderewskiSee Mieczysław Biskupski, The United States and the Recreation of the Interwar Polish Economy, 1919-20, “The Slavonic and East European Review”, vol. 94, no. 1, 2016, pp. 93-125..

The situation of national minorities, especially the Jewish population, also appeared in the accounts of the official representatives of Western countries who were in Poland. Controlling ethnic and religious tensions was another challenge the Polish leaders had to deal with. The situation was not made any easier by the fact that some of them, led by Roman Dmowski, had written confrontation into their political programme rather than attempts to alleviate the situation. Supporters of confrontation were not lacking on the part of the leaders of the Jewish community, either.

The case was all the more serious because ethnic tensions were not without influence on US politics – the local American press at the time was full of articles about real and often alleged systemic persecution of the Jewish population. In order to verify this information, President Wilson, at the request of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, appointed a special commission () to investigate reports of pogroms against the Jewish population on the spot. Its members included: Henry Morgenthau, an American Jew and opponent of the Zionist movement and supporter of assimilation, who served as chairman of the Commission, and its legal advisor, Arthur Lehman Goodhart, a noted lawyer.

The mission was in Poland from 13 July to 13 September 1919, and resulted in a final report (the so-called Morgenthau Report)See Marcin Urynowicz, Raport Henry’ego Morgenthau. Przemoc antyżydowska podczas wojny z Rosją bolszewicką, „Biuletyn IPN” no. 11/2010.. It did not fit into the aforementioned narratives, provoking fierce opposition from some Jewish circles, expecting an unequivocal condemnation of the Polish authorities. The document, in turn, was appreciated by the New York Times, writing: “Mr. Morgenthau’s investigative report on anti-Jewish excesses in Poland is a document of great value, both for its content and for the spirit in which it was written”Mr. Morgenthau’s Report, New York Times, 21 January 1920 (translated by A.T. to Polish).. The perspicacity and drive to rise above vested interests and conflicted identities comes through strongly in Morgenthau’s memories of his time in Poland.

The texts of the “lobbyists” show not only successive dimensions of their activities, but also present interesting descriptions and observations of Polish reality: the socio-political and economic situation, the main players on the political scene or individual social strata from the aristocracy to the workers. These are observations made from a specific point of view – of people from the outside, who had no previous contact with Polish reality. Thus, one can find in them a freshness of perspective, as well as a lack of entanglement in local rivalries, which so often determine the view of situations and people.

The value of these insights, however, is not only in the chronicle dimension, and reading texts from a century ago can inspire reflection on more contemporary issues. Thus, in the events at the turn of 1918/19, one can see an analogy with the arrival, 70 years later, of the famous “Marriott Brigades” – American economists tasked with assisting the Polish elites in the country’s economic transformationThe relationship between the “Mariott Brigades” and the elites of Central and Eastern Europe was perceptively written about by the American anthropologist Janine Wedel in her book Collision and Collusion: the Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, New York 2001.. This term, referring to the famous Warsaw hotel (then a symbol of luxury and modernity), somewhat ironically underlined their detachment from local realities. It could not have been any different for the “lobbyists” either, the vast majority of whom were visiting Poland and even Eastern Europe for the first time in their lives. This detachment is mixed with a great deal of idealism and sympathy for the Poles whose situation was very difficult. At the same time, one must not forget the hard political interests – which lay behind the decision to involve the Allies in helping the nascent state. In 1918-20, it was primarily a matter of halting the progress of the Bolshevik Revolution. However, such a mix seems to have been a constant in the attitude of the United States towards our country, or, in broader terms, the whole region – even today.