Notes on Life and Letters HTML version
3. A Note On The Polish Problem—1916
We must start from the assumption that promises made by proclamation at the
beginning of this war may be binding on the individuals who made them under
the stress of coming events, but cannot be regarded as binding the Governments
after the end of the war.
Poland has been presented with three proclamations. Two of them were in such
contrast with the avowed principles and the historic action for the last hundred
years (since the Congress of Vienna) of the Powers concerned, that they were
more like cynical insults to the nation's deepest feelings, its memory and its
intelligence, than state papers of a conciliatory nature.
The German promises awoke nothing but indignant contempt; the Russian a
bitter incredulity of the most complete kind. The Austrian proclamation, which
made no promises and contented itself with pointing out the Austro-Polish
relations for the last forty- five years, was received in silence. For it is a fact that
in Austrian Poland alone Polish nationality was recognised as an element of the
Empire, and individuals could breathe the air of freedom, of civil life, if not of
But for Poles to be Germanophile is unthinkable. To be Russophile or Austrophile
is at best a counsel of despair in view of a European situation which, because of
the grouping of the powers, seems to shut from them every hope, expressed or
unexpressed, of a national future nursed through more than a hundred years of
suffering and oppression.
Through most of these years, and especially since 1830, Poland (I use this
expression since Poland exists as a spiritual entity today as definitely as it ever
existed in her past) has put her faith in the Western Powers. Politically it may
have been nothing more than a consoling illusion, and the nation had a half-
consciousness of this. But what Poland was looking for from the Western Powers
without discouragement and with unbroken confidence was moral support.
This is a fact of the sentimental order. But such facts have their positive value, for
their idealism derives from perhaps the highest kind of reality. A sentiment
asserts its claim by its force, persistence and universality. In Poland that
sentimental attitude towards the Western Powers is universal. It extends to all
classes. The very children are affected by it as soon as they begin to think.
The political value of such a sentiment consists in this, that it is based on
profound resemblances. Therefore one can build on it as if it were a material fact.
For the same reason it would be unsafe to disregard it if one proposed to build
solidly. The Poles, whom superficial or ill-informed theorists are trying to force
into the social and psychological formula of Slavonism, are in truth not Slavonic
at all. In temperament, in feeling, in mind, and even in unreason, they are
Western, with an absolute comprehension of all Western modes of thought, even
of those which are remote from their historical experience.
That element of racial unity which may be called Polonism, remained
compressed between Prussian Germanism on one side and the Russian
Slavonism on the other. For Germanism it feels nothing but hatred. But between