Saturday, 23 February 2019
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Editor's note: This is the seventh installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman is writing as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he shares his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and will conclude, in the next installment, with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

To understand Poland, you must understand Frederic Chopin. First listen to his Polonaise and then to his Revolutionary Etude. They are about hope, despair and rage. In the Polonaise, you hear the most extraordinary distillation of a nation's existence. In the Revolutionary Etude, written in the wake of an uprising in Warsaw in 1830 crushed by Russian troops, there is both rage and resignation. In his private journal, Chopin challenged God for allowing this national catastrophe to happen, damning the Russians and condemning the French for not coming to Warsaw's aid. Afterward, Chopin never returned to Poland, but Poland never left his mind.

Poland finally became an independent nation in 1918. The prime minister it chose to represent it at Versailles was Ignacy Paderewski, a pianist and one of the finest interpreters of Chopin. The conference restored the territories of Greater Poland, and Paderewski helped create the interwar Poland. Gdansk (the German Danzig) set the stage for Poland's greatest national disaster when Germany and the Soviet Union allied to crush Poland, and Danzig became the German justification for its destruction.

A history of tragedy and greatness

For the Poles, history is always about betrayal, frequently French. Even had France (and the United Kingdom) planned to honor their commitment to Poland, it would have been impossible to carry it out. Poland collapsed in less then a week; no one can aid a country that collapses that fast. (The rest of the invaders' operations comprised mopping up.)

Wars take time to wage, and the Poles preferred the romantic gesture to waging war. The Poles used horse cavalry against German armor, an event of great symbolism if not a major military feat. As an act of human greatness, there was magnificence in their resistance. They waged war even after defeat as if it were a work of art. It was also an exercise in futility. Listen carefully to Chopin: Courage, art and futility are intimately related for Poland. The Poles expect to be betrayed, to lose, to be beaten. Their pride was in their ability to retain their humanity in the face of catastrophe.

I think Chopin can be understood geopolitically. Look at where Poland is. It rests on the North European Plain, an open country whose national borders to its west and east are not protected or even defined by any significant geographical boundaries. To its east is Russia, by 1830 a massive empire. To the west were first the Prussians and after 1871 the Germans. To the south until 1918 was the Hapsburg Empire. No amount of courage or wisdom could survive forces as massive as this.

Poland is neither the master of its fate nor the captain of its soul. It lives and perishes by the will of others. Little can be done to stop the Germans and Russians when they join forces or use Poland as their battlefield. The most Poland can do is hope that powers farther away will come to its aid. They can't. No one can aid a country that far away unless it aids itself. Chopin knew this in his soul and knew that the Poles would not succeed in aiding themselves. I think Chopin took pride in the certainty of catastrophe.

There is a book by Ivan Morris titled "The Nobility of Failure." It is about Japan, but the title resonates with me when I think of Poland, Chopin and Paderewski. The Poles were magnificent in defeat, something I say without irony. But it must be remembered that Polish history was not always about the nobility of failure, nor is this kind of nobility Poland's certain fate. Before