An Overlooked War

“In the years 1914–1918 millions of Poles were conscripted to all three armies of the partitioning powers. Approximately 450,000 Polish soldiers in the Russian, Prussian and Austrian armies were killed and 900,000 were wounded.” These two brief sentences, these few laconic numbers, are literally everything that Adam Zamoyski, the author of the monumental work Poland: A History published five years ago in the West, has to say on the participation of Polish soldiers in World War I, called the Great War in the victorious Entente countries.

We can learn slightly more from the book The Suicide of Europe: The Great War 1914–1918 by Andrzej Chwalba, published on the centenary of the first global armed conflict in the history of mankind. The most extensively discussed event here is the capture of Warsaw, “the third largest city of the Romanov Empire, with almost one million people.” By July 1915, as many as 350,000 inhabitants of Warsaw fled east, among them were not only the local Russians, tsarist officials, but mostly Poles. “Polish citizens of Warsaw essentially did not share the joy of the winners [i.e. the Germans],” writes Chwalba. “In contrast, the Jews were satisfied, because the cultivated Germans were an attractive offer for them, much better than the Russians, who were known for their hostile behavior towards the followers of the Mosaic religion. For the Jews, the German capture of Warsaw was tantamount to liberation from the power of an occupier known for discriminating and humiliating them.”

The “hostile behavior” often took the form of spontaneous pogroms. Such an event is described in the memoirs of the parish priest of St. Anne Church in Grodzisk near Warsaw, Fr. Mikołaj Bojanek. Bojanek, who later became a chaplain of President Moscicki, and who stood up in defense of the local Jews, harassed by a group of marauders. Cossacks beat him and ransacked the rectory, then fled the German forces from 8th, 9th and 12th Armies advancing from Skierniewice. On August 5, 1915, the Germans occupied Warsaw practically without firing a shot, and two weeks later they seized the fortress of Modlin, not very zealously defended by 90,000 soldiers. They preferred to go into captivity rather than to die in the forts crushed by the heaviest guns brought in from the western front by General Hans Beseler, who commanded the siege. Over the next three years he served as a governor of German-occupied Warsaw.

It is amazing how little we know about it. American historian Robert Blobaum labelled this first twentieth-century German occupation of a capital “Warsaw’s Forgotten War” (Remembrance and Solidarity, 2/2014). The same can be said about World War I. From the Polish point of view—that is, from the perspective of the current interpretation of national history—this war simply did not happen. Compared to the later Apocalypse of World War II, the previous global war faded into the background, and today it may seem “small.” And yet, “contrary to what we think, the damage was greater than during World War II,” said professor Andrzej Chwalba in an interview with Bogdan Zalewski for radio RMF FM, “during World War II Warsaw was destroyed, but other cities beyond western Poland were not. In World War I the Polish extensive parts of the Kingdom of Poland or Galicia were one big trail of destruction. No village or small town was spared from fire. It was quite unbelievable.”

This makes it all the more difficult to understand why the memory of these events was so fleeting. Why nobody but a handful of specialists remembers about hunger riots that repeatedly erupted in 1917 occupied Warsaw? About thousands of people dying of hunger, cold and disease? The only commemoration of the ordeal of the Warsaw civilian population under German occupation is the Herbert Hoover Square, where the Monument of Gratitude to America, sculptured by Ksawery Dunikowski, was unveiled in 1922. The memory proved as impermanent as the monument itself (which soon began to crumble and was dismantled in 1930).

Hoover, who later became president of the USA, founded in the early days of the Great War the American Civic Assistance Committee, which saved thousands of Polish children from starvation. However, as Professor Chwalba writes, “in the propaganda texts issued by this American organization, the Serbs and the Poles were decidedly losing out to the Belgians and the French. The Poles did not become the conscience of the world, because they were unknown and unrecognizable. (…) When President Wilson, persuaded by the brilliant pianist and composer Ignacy Paderewski, proclaimed the January 1, 1916 as the National Day of Support for Poland, less than $5,000 were collected in the United States.”

Now we are closer to understanding why the Poles, “unknown and unrecognizable” in the days of the World War I, drove it away from memory so comprehensively. There were three fundamental reasons for that.

First, the Great War was a time of great humiliation and shame for the Polish elites. There was no reason to dwell on the death and suffering of hundreds of thousands of men, mostly of plebeian and petty-bourgeois origin, who died in foreign service. The victims themselves, uneducated and often even illiterate, were unable to “rescue from oblivion” their experiences and memories. In the reborn Republic, where one third of citizens were members of ethnic minorities and three-quarters were peasants, it was quite easy to remove the uncomfortable facts from the so-called collective memory. Such as these: in the summer of 1914, thousands of young Warsaw citizens volunteered to serve in the Tsar’s army, and the largest party (the National Democrats) and almost entire local press were strongly pro-Russian up to the February 1917 revolution.

Second, this monstrously bloody war, during which in just one operation, namely the battle for the fortress Krakow at the end of 1914, more than half a million Russian soldiers were killed; this war, which turned out to be the suicide of Old Europe, ended very happily for the “unknown and unrecognizable” nations of New Europe. “It is like in a Hollywood movie. After three hours of sitting in the theater, after a tragedy, there is a happy ending,” said professor Chwalba. “It was possible due to three factors. First, because it lasted so long; second, because the main players did not want peace; and third, because they therefore destroyed each other. Those who gained were the nations which had dreamed of independence. Not only the Poles, but also the Czechs, Finns, Estonians, Lithuanians and others were able to achieve what for centuries they could only dream of.”

In other words, the nations in our part of the continent owe their independent states to a happy confluence of events: the main actors of the war, including the winners, came out of it too debilitated (and indebted) to oppose their independence aspirations. “This new Europe is the happy ending,” said Chwalba, adding, “it is good that this war lasted for so long, because independent Poland could come into being.” And the fact that 13 million people died? “Let the whole world be at war… as long as the Polish countryside is quiet and peaceful,” as Stanisław Wyspiański mockingly said.

Third (and most important), the Great War, the first “total war” in the history of mankind, the quintessential twentieth-century war, was too modern to be graspable for contemporary Poles—with their anachronistic, post-feudal social structure, uneducated masses and meagre elites, mentally still living in the nineteenth (if not in the sixteenth) century. For example, they could not understand the fact that the term “total war” did not refer to the monstrous number of victims. The Great War was the first total war, because—as Ernst Junger wrote in Total mobilization—the warring “states were transformed into giant weapons factories, attempting to send arms to the frontline for 24 hours a day, where a bloody—and yet already fully mechanized—process of consumption played the role of the market.”

“Marx compared nineteenth-century industrial workers to soldiers, but the Great War overturned this model,” writes Italian-French scholar Enzo Traverso in his excellent book The European roots of Nazi violence. This army has adopted the principles of a rationalized factory. Soldiers manning machine guns were automatons, which, just as workers at the production line, were to feed guns with ammunition. The machine gun turned inflicting death into a mechanical or even industrialized act, according to military historian John Keegan. “The officer caste bureaucratized itself,” senior officers were absent at the front line and “rarely even carried weapons.”“Officers do not kill, because killing is not an occupation for a gentleman: in the era of total war this was one of the most deeply engrained principles of the military system of values,” writes E. Traverso.

Separation of planning from production of war significantly contributed to its transformation into a “specialized industry of human slaughter” and opened“a new perspective of viewing human life, providing an important prerequisite for the subsequent genocide” (Traverso calls it an “anthropological quake”). According to John Keegan, during the massacres of the Somme something “appeared that looked like Treblinka.” On July 1, 1916, in just a few hours, the British lost 60 thousand people. By the end of the offensive, on November 18, 1916, English and German losses totaled about 1.2 million men.

The war transformed armies into “factories producing death.” And soldiers were turned into workers (Arbeiter) of war. This was noticed by Ernst Jünger, Erich Maria Remarque, and even Jaroslav Hašek (although the eponymous character of his Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik is not involved in any clashes besides drunken punch-ups behind the lines). Polish writers, taking up the subject of war in the same period, either did not create significant works, or focused on a completely different armed conflict.

A good example of this is an outstanding military novel by Stanislaw Rembek “In the Field” (1937). One of its protagonists was a humble clerk in a district court in Piotrków. In the summer of 1914 he was drafted into the army, but thanks to the connections of a tsarist general, father of his friend, he spent the Great War in a military office in Odessa. His “great war” is the Polish-Bolshevik war in 1920. And the novel is about this conflict.

The issue was similarly presented by the authorities, often in opposition to genuine social initiatives and sentiments. In 1923 an anonymous group of Warsaw citizens sponsored a stone plaque dedicated to unknown Polish soldiers who died in the years from 1914 to 1920. In the West such monuments were built several years earlier and were an eloquent testimony to the “trivialization of death”: it lost the epic nature of “death on the field of glory for the sake of the typically modern, anonymous mass death” (Traverso). The hero of the war was no longer a unique Warrior, but the Unknown Soldier (i.e. Hašek’s Good Soldier—good because he got himself killed); “This poor man, whose body was the most mutilated and shredded; the one whose face had been massacred, so he no longer resembled a human figure. (…) It was his only virtue,” wrote Roger Caillois quoted by Traverso.

Such a hero, butchered in the service of the occupiers, was of no use to the reborn Poland. Although the said plaque was placed in front of the Saski Palace (then the seat of the Ministry of Defence), soon afterwards the Defense Minister General Władysław Sikorski came up with a new initiative, this time completely compatible with the interests of the state. He proposed erecting a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And among the thirteen battles fought in the years 1914–1918 named on the monument, built in 1925 under the colonnade of the Saski Palace, there was no single battle in which the Poles had not fought under their own banner. Armed action, or simply death, of almost half a million of our fellow citizens who were not members of the Piłsudski Legions, was treated in such a way as if they had fought in the Foreign Legion; they were simply not mentioned.

In the above-quoted article in the quarterly Remembrance and Solidarity Professor Robert Blobaum points out that many more Poles died in the service of the Kaiser, the Emperor and the Tsar, than in the war against the Bolsheviks, the Ukrainians or Lithuanians. Yet armed conflicts of the years 1918–1920 are commemorated by twenty-four battles listed on the monument. The Battle of Verdun turns out to be less of an important event than the defense of Gródek Jagielloński (perhaps because it was commanded by Sikorski). Blobaum also lists seventy three memorials of World War II and fifty-two places of memory from before 1914. And he concludes that out of 162 commemoration sites about 45 percent refer to the last war, 32 percent to the period from 972 to 1914, 15 percent to the years 1918–1920, and only 8 percent to the Great War. And among them there is not a single battle with the participation of Poles fighting in the occupying armies.

Interestingly, this concealment of the fate of the majority of Polish soldiers during the Great War is accompanied by forgetfulness of the sufferings of the civilian population. This oversight is still going on, and not because this ordeal was “eclipsed” by the subsequent suffering of civilians during the Nazi occupation. The American historian cites the results of research by Katrin Van Cant from the University of Leuven, who in 2009 analyzed nearly eighty Warsaw monuments erected after 1989. 30 percent of them refer to the period of World War II; they mostly commemorate the Home Army and the Warsaw Uprising. Only 6.5 percent of the new monuments concern the period of World War I, but none of them commemorates the fate of civilians. What is even more interesting, just a few of the monuments in Warsaw commemorate… the Warsaw residents.

“Warsaw is the showcase of the country,” writes Katrin Van Cant. It is a kind of shop window, in which we present to the world our spécialité de la maison—heroism and heroic martyrdom. In this story, in the official PR strategy of the Polish state, there was and is no place for those who fought for the Tsar (the Kaiser, the Emperor).

The protagonist of the novel by Stanisław Rembek, a modest official and petty bourgeois, became human in the eyes of his superiors only when he put on a uniform. Previously he was part of the masses, the commons. This is just one of many examples of anachronistic thinking of contemporary Polish elites—for the participants of the Great War donning a uniform was, after all, the first stage of being deprived of their humanity. However, in the tradition of Polish nobility the war was an aesthetic category. The war was beautiful, and fighting in it was glorious. Seen from this perspective, World War I was simply incomprehensible. You could survive it (even fighting on the front), but you could not understand it.

Therefore, while the so-called civilized world drew conclusions from the experience of the years 1914–1918 (they varied in Nazi Berlin and Stalinist Moscow, in the defeatist Paris and the calculating Albion), we were still singing the praises of cavalry charges in the east. So the first war was for us just a prelude to the second one, which was impossible to overlook.

We did not heed the warnings; we could not see the signs of the future fate: genocide, mechanized killing, Nazi colonial practices in the heart of Europe. However, it was already during the Great War that the “concepts of Mittelafrika and Mitteleuropa began to be used in parallel, to designate two inextricably linked aspects of German foreign policy” (E. Traverso). The phrase Lebensraum was coined in 1901 by the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel. According to him, the living space “was a necessity from the point of view of restoring in Germany the balance between the already irreversible development of industry and agriculture threatened by it. In the colonies, Germany could recreate harmonious relationships with nature and cultivate their liking for the soil” (E. Traverso).

It was then that the myth of the “German garden” was born. The Slovenian literary scholar Simona Škrabec writes in her book Geography imagined: The concept of Central Europe in the twentieth century that the garden “had to have the character of living space, the maintenance of which justified the use of any possible means. The spiral of thought explaining the superiority of the Germans evolved into a spiral of violence of World War II.”

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.