I have always been fascinated by the so-called Partitions of Poland which saw the complete and utter destruction of the Polish state in a space of only 23 years, from August 1772 to October 1795. Together, the annexing powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria wiped Poland off the political map of Europe for an astonishing 123 years, an amazing feat as Poland had been one of the largest and more influential states of 16th and 17th century Europe.
From Sea to Sea
To this day, Poles still recall the days when Poland stretched from ‘sea to sea’ (from the Baltic to the Black) and how the evil powers took their land away from them. History shows that it was a combination of malign motives from Poland’s neighbours and gross mismanagement. However, this romantic vision of Poland is still present in Polish society. Even Józef Piłsudski, former head of state, wove an impressive idea of federative enlargement into his policies in the form of a future (possible) state of Intermarum (between the seas).
The idea of a Poland reaching from sea to sea was taken up by Piłsudski on the basis of Prometheism. In simple terms, ‘Marshall’ Piłsudski, having been in exile in Russia for a large portion of his life, believed the only way to guarantee Poland’s future survival was to impede the expansion of Russia. This policy led also to Intermarum but at the heart of Prometheism was the weakening of Russia through the support of nationalist (independence) movements within Russia. This deep-rooted policy explains Poland’s need to support Ukrainian independence, the Belarus opposition and, most significantly, Lech Kaczyński’s insistence on supporting Georgia in the growing Russian-Georgian conflict.
The disappearance of Poland off the face of the map for 123 years led to two opposing concepts which are strictly woven into the fabric of Polishness. The first is the romantic notion of the Kresy, the former eastern borderlands of Poland lost after the partitions and, again, after WWII. The second concept, intrinsically linked to the first, is the idea of Ściana Wschodnia (eastern wall/zone) which depicts the current east of Poland as being economically and culturally inferior to the west. In other words, Poland is divided into two halves – west and east.
Inspiration on a Train
I remember travelling by train from Łódź to Poznań many years ago. I spent most of the journey staring at a Polish State Railways (PKP) map of the Polish rail network (see map to the right). I stared and stared. Like most people, my mind has a tendency to find patterns where there are no patterns in reality. I drew an imaginary line between the western area of high rail network density and the eastern sparsely ‘populated’ area of rail network density. Something in my mind clicked.
It became apparent that this ‘imaginary’ line was not imaginary at all. The demarcation between east and west almost exactly matched the borders of the former ‘partitionary’ powers. In fact, if we superimpose the 1795 borders of Russia, Prussia and Austria onto a contemporary map of Poland, or even better, the rail network map, we find that the two almost exactly match. Prussia’s policy of incorporation and development was in stark contrast to Russia and Austria who invested little, if anything, into their newly acquired lands. Poland lost its place among the countries of Europe in 1795 yet still, 213 years on, people in Poland still speak of Poland A (the west) and Poland B (the east).