No Big Bang - a replica by Adam Krzemiński

Adam Krzemiński © Monika Lawrenz
Adam Krzemiński © Monika Lawrenz

1914 was not some Big Bang that laid low an ideal world, but instead the end product of fateful developments in 19th century Europe. The entire process began in this part of Europe with the parallel dismantling of two old empires – the liquidation of the Rzeczpospolita, the Polish-Lithuanian Aristocratic Republic, by Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1795 and of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 by Napoleon.

Both these centuries-old entities were federal in character and since the 14th century – 400 years long – had waged no border wars against each other. The monastic state, later East Prussia, was not part of the Holy Roman Empire. The border between the Empire and the Rzeczpospolita was not a natural one, there were no major rivers or mountain chains there, but it was the most peaceful one in Europe. However, in their amorphous inner structure, neither of them were modern empires. The Holy Roman Empire wasn’t, either. Both had their civilising and military heyday - with the Renaissance, Reformation, and the Baroque – not least with the Coalition of 1683 and the relief of Vienna. Both included elements of separation of powers in their constitutions. And neither of them could hold their ground against modern great powers that had arisen in the 18th century.

Sacrificing “lesser states”

Around 1760 – as Jürgen Osterhammel conjectures in his history of the 19th century, The Transformation of the World – a world of new empires arose. This world was based on the principle of individual nation-state egoism, was not stabilised by any overarching visions of peace and maintained itself by means of sacrificing “lesser states,” Poland for instance; which was divided up amongst its larger neighbours several times over.

This “sacrificing of lesser states” must be defined more precisely. A German historian couple, Bianka Pietrow-Ennker and Benno Ennker, have sketched it out in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Starting in the 17th century, Moscow presented itself as a protecting power for Orthodox communities within Polish-Lithuanian territory. Until the division of Poland-Lithuania, Russia’s strategy was to promote internal instability there in order to reap benefits in terms of power politics. The presence of Russian troops, manifestations of violence against Sejm representatives and financial assistance for pro-Russian forces ensured the maintenance of Russian influence until Poland was made the victim of three partitions. First of all, for 50 years any and all government reform of the Rzeczpospolita was militarily blocked, and then complete annexation was justified on the basis of so called “Polish anarchy”.

The authors posit the same mechanism for the annexation of Poland 75 years ago. First the secret additional protocol of the Hitler-Stalin Pact with the delineation of zones of influence, then the German invasion on 1 September 1939, and finally the Soviet invasion to “protect our Slavic brothers” following the allegedly self-inflicted collapse of “fascist” Poland.

Balance of power

Napoleon’s attempt to transform this system of balance of power in a continental empire foundered. The pentarchy (Concert of Europe) was re-established in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, this time expanded with some consultation mechanisms. This ordering secured peace in Europe for about thirty years. The price, however, was Russia’s crushing of the November Revolt in Poland in 1830/31 and the Russian military intervention in Hungary in 1849. By no means did the Viennese system secure the longed-for “perpetual” peace. It was dismantled step by step during the second half of the century. Revolts, wars of unification and imperial competition amongst the European great powers unsettled not only Europe, but other continents as well.

The role of diplomacy

In January 2014 Frank-Walter Steinmeier compared the failure of the elites 100 years ago with our sophisticated institutional instruments for containing and controlling comparable crises. Later developments have only partially validated this, but despite this contemporary crisis management is better by far than that of a century ago. I would nonetheless like to mention diplomatic factors that functioned below the level of the great powers in 19th-century Europe, but which were only able to unfold in the second half of the 20th century. And they are very much connected with the thorny issue of the “Polish question” and even more with the concept of Europe as such.

In Poland, the role of the military revolts against Russian or German occupation in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries that were constitutive of national liberation are what are highlighted. Józef Piłsudski, founder of the independent Polish state in 1918 and in 1920 victor over Bolshevik Russia, is celebrated in Poland more or less as a Polish Bismarck. But it was not his legions that alone at the side of the Austrian troops wrested Poland free.

That the “Polish question” became a European one right in the first week of the war was the result of decades of informal diplomacy by Polish intellectuals, politicians and artists who were present in the imperial capitals. Among them in the first half of the 19th century was Prince Adam Czartoryski, first a friend and foreign minister of Czar Alexander I and who was thinking about a liberal personal union of a united Poland with Russia before he became the prime minister of an insurgent government in Warsaw in 1831, ultimately informally representing Poland in Paris and applying to Napoleon III for support for Polish concerns.

In August 1914, people in St. Petersburg, Berlin and Vienna were also aware of the fact that the Polish question was still an open one and sought to win over the Poles from the other partitioned areas for their own imperial goals, to be sure without considering giving up their own shares of the Polish booty. In spite of this, the new state foundings after the fall of the Russian and Habsburg empires in 1918 were no gift by the victorious powers, but instead the result of national uprisings, diplomatic support during the peace conference and – unfortunately – border wars.

Europe and its psychodramas

In four years, on the occasion of the centennial of the Treaty of Versailles, we shall in all likelihood have to go through yet another European psychodrama. Old traumas about the “stupidity” and “injustice” of the 1919 peace settlement by the former great powers will probably be revived. Even now Götz Aly condemns the right of self-determination of peoples as “poison”. The concept arose – he recently wrote in the Berliner Zeitung – “in the 19th century as a nationalist rallying cry. It was used propagandistically in the First World War, by Germany as well to stir up national movements in the Baltics and Ukraine against Russia; however, the leaders in championing this principle were Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, president of the USA.” One might interpret Aly’s lucubrations as meaning that the restoration of the Polish state in Versailles was poison for Europe. But then this must also hold for the reunification of Germany in 1989/90. It is nonsense to adjudge the ability or lack of ability to form states by nations that had been oppressed until 1918 according to dry Hegelian concepts.

The “Saisonstaaten” (short-lived “states for a season”) of the time, among them Poland, prevailed in the 20th century despite renewed partitioning and annexations by totalitarian wannabe- empires, all of which have failed. Just like Ukraine – today’s “Saisonstaat” – will prevail. “The age of empires and spheres of influence is over,” stated Barack Obama in his speech in Warsaw. A noteworthy statement, as it entails that the USA is also no old-style empire, to say nothing of the EU. Classical empires foundered on themselves and on the power of the weak.

In Poland, Adam Krzemiński is considered an outstanding expert on Germany. He studied German language and culture in Warsaw and Leipzig. He has served as editor of the weekly magazine Polityka since 1973 and reports primarily on themes relating to German history and society. Adam Krzemiński has received numerous awards for his engagement: in 1993 he was awarded the Goethe Medal for his work in German-Polish understanding and in 1996 the Essay Award of Poland’s Pen Club. In 1999, the German Federal Republic awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit and in 2006 Viadrina European University awarded him its Viadrina Prize – an award for Gernan and Polish personalities who have performed outstanding services in connection with the two countries’ neighbourly relations.

Übersetzung: Edith C. Watts

    PERSPECTIVES: Back to Overview >>

    Calendar of events >>

    Projects of Goethe-Institutes worldwide >>