Why Poland?

Churchill and Stalin stood together in the Government Box when the curtain fell and lights blazed on in the crystal chandeliers. The applause for the ballet shifted abruptly towards the back center of the Moscow Opera House and swelled to a sudden roar. Diplomats of all United Nations, men in uniforms of all the Allied Armies, rose from their seats, demonstratively greeting the Chiefs. Soviet officials and favored factory workers, bending over the railings of galleries, cheered wildly.

That night in early October, 1944, was the first time in all the years of war that I felt the tension in Moscow relax. The British Prime Minister had come for one of those conferences by which the Allies were working out a common program for our postwar world. When he publicly exchanged handshakes with Stalin and then with the American Ambassador, Averell Harriman, and bowed to the plaudits of the crowded theater, harmony – not alone from the orchestra – flooded the air. Over the bitter wrack of war stole a breath of the coming peace.

Days went by. The discussions dragged on longer than expected. It was easy to guess why. We correspondents did not need the hint of the British attaché at one of his daily press conferences, "Since the P.M. is spending four fifths of his time on Poland," to know that this was the snag. We knew that Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, prime minister of the Polish government in London, had come in Churchill's private plane, that Boleslaw Bierut and Edward Osubka-Morawski, the big shots doing the actual job in Poland, had flown in from the Lublin Committee. Four-cornered negotiations were going on. From the universal insistence that they were "progressing" it was clear that they hadn't reached the goal. When Churchill finally received us in the British Ambassador's big study in front of a cheerful log fire and under imposing portraits of the Empire's historic and reigning sovereigns and entertained us with reminiscences of the Boer War, we knew that Poland was still "off record" except for generalities.

Poland was no new caldron of conflict. It has been a source or an object of wars since the Middle Ages. It was both of these in that fateful summer of 1939 when Poland's refusal of Russia's proposals of aid against Hitler blocked the military negotiations between Britain, France, and the USSR. The collapse of that Allied conference gave the green light to the second World War of which Poles were the first victims. Throughout five years of war the same Polish Government's unsettled differences with Moscow clouded Allied unity, endangering the stability of the future peace.

The immediate problem that brought the British Prime Minister to Moscow arose from the liberation of one third of Poland. In the summer of 1944 the Red Army drove west and entrenched itself on the Vistula, preparing for further advance. A Polish Army of one hundred thousand Poles organized in the Soviet Union took part in these victories. The Soviet Government officially announced that the Red Army would set up no administrative organs in Poland but regarded itself as co-operating with the Polish Army "on the territory of a sovereign, friendly, Allied state." So far so good, but this didn't settle the question: With what Polish authorities was the USSR dealing? What Polish government would it recognize?

The Polish government-in-exile in London was still recognized by Great Britain and the United States. Its hostility to the USSR had been continuous and notorious. It considered the Red Army's advance an invasion rather than a liberation. The Soviet Government had finally broken off relations with these London Poles. Unless some consolidation of the anti-Hitler forces in Poland could be formed that would treat with the Red Army as an ally, Poland might be left in the hour of liberation without any civil government and in the chaos of civil strife.

Farsighted Poles in Poland, realizing this situation, had organized the Krajowa Rada Narodowa (National Council of Poland) at a secret meeting in Warsaw on New Year's Eve 1943-1944. Delegates came from a score of underground organizations – political parties and partisan detachments – engaged in active resistance to the Nazis and welcoming the Red Army as a liberating ally. They declared for the 1921 Constitution of Poland, modeled on that of democratic France, and against the 1935 Constitution, railroaded by a Nazi-admiring military clique and forming the legal base for the authority of the London Poles. They decided to organize underground county and district radas (councils) prepared to function at the moment of liberation and an underground "People's Army" of partisan bands ready to co-ordinate their activity with that of the Red Army.

Greetings from the new organization were radioed in January 1944 to Moscow, London, and Washington by a weak radio which apparently did not reach. So, after forming many local radas and People's Army detachments, the new Rada sent a delegation across the front to Moscow “to contact all Allied Governments.” The American and British Embassies in Moscow paid little attention – it was May of 1944. But Stalin immediately saw that this new Rada could help the Red Army's offensive across Poland and could relieve the Russians of the embarrassment of setting up military government on the territory of a friendly state. He consulted with them and sent arms to their People's Army.

In July, when the Red Army entered Poland, this Rada Narodowa, still underground in German-occupied territory, set up in Lublin a Committee of National Liberation to exercise functions of government in the liberated area. The USSR recognized this Committee as de facto civil authority and even transferred to the Rada's jurisdiction the well-equipped Polish Army of one hundred thousand Poles organized in the USSR. The London Poles denounced the new Rada and Committee as puppets of Moscow. Since these London Poles were still recognized by Great Britain and the United States as the government of Poland, the world press exploded into acrimonious discussion. The situation was serious enough to warrant the British Prime Minister's trip to Moscow and the lengthy discussions he held there.

We could not guess at the time that these discussions would drag out for more than eight months, outlasting the war itself, engaging the attention of the Crimea Conference and of the United Nations at San Francisco. They were finally resolved in late June of 1945, by the formation of the Provisional Government of National Unity, based on the Russian-recognized Rada, with the addition of some prominent figures recommended by Britain and the United States.

To me Poland offered the sharpest example of the problems facing all Europe. How can new governments be created out of the chaos left by the Nazis? How can they unite their people into democratic states? What part can be played by those governments-in-exile which have been separated from their countries for five years? What policies can such states propose to unscramble Hitler's Europe? What economic base and what political forms? What will be their relation to the western democracies? To the USSR? Will their inevitable inner conflicts widen into international friction between their greater Allies? Or will their experiments in adjusting within their own states the different ideals of democracy assist a wider understanding between nations?

My desire to go to Poland began in that moment when the British attaché so airily informed us that Churchill was giving so much of his time to that country. If the Poles were so important it was time to find out why. I sought information in the libraries of the American and British Embassies in Moscow. I found no book of any kind on Poland. The only compiled information was an article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and some sections in the Encyclopedia of World History, both published years ago. I was shocked at the paucity of printed knowledge. Let's do a book on Poland, I said.

I met the Poles who came to those conferences in Moscow. They were of two quite different kinds, The Poles from London were suave and eloquent; they could build a towering edifice on a few contested facts. I caught them on their claims to those eastern areas; I myself worked in Poland in 1921 for the American Friends' Service and saw those miserable villages of Ukrainian and White Russian peasants, little better than serfs under the Polish lords of the big estates. But the London Poles twisted these things very adroitly. They convinced me that Poles are smooth diplomats, difficult to outmaneuver except by another Pole.

The Poles from Lublin – later from Warsaw – convinced me of something quite different, that Poles can be frank and honest men. Not the kind one expects in a semifeudal Eastern Europe but the kind one meets on Western American plains or anywhere in the world where there is hard, straightforward work to do. They seemed to be realists and moderns. They understood that a country the size of Poland cannot prosper by playing one big power against the other but must live in friendly relations with its great eastern neighbor; that whatever past conflicts interfere with this must be quickly settled and not kept alive. They intended to build a democratic Poland and to be independent, or as nearly so as a nation may in today's interdependent world.

These are problems not only for Poland but for all of us. At the moment Poland faces them squarely in a new form. So when they invited: ''Come to Poland, see for yourself our difficulties and the ways we try to meet them," I decided to go.

The urgent need for firsthand information about Poland's immediate problems led me to write this brief account of what I saw and experienced in that country, with only enough historical reference to make those experiences understandable. I had the good fortune to be the only writer from America or from the Western world in Poland during the period which Poles in days to come may think of as a new beginning in their history.

Anna Louise Strong

July 1, 1945

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