Rational Security

Shield of the West

If it weren't for Poland, we'd all be speaking Mongolian right now.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Tadeusz Haska died last week at 93. A long-time chairman of the Polish department at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Dr. Haska joined the Resistance to fight the Germans during World War II. Soon after the war he ran for elected office, but was imprisoned when the communists took over Poland. He escaped to Sweden, then returned on a daring boat raid across the Baltic Sea to spirit his wife out of the country. They made it to America in 1949 and he began his Cold War career educating our service members during the protracted struggle against the Soviets.

In many ways, Dr. Haska personified the indomitable Polish spirit, something that neither Nazi terror nor communist control could ever break. Indeed, even as we marvel today at the people power of the Arab Spring and the "color revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia a decade ago, our gaze should extend back to an earlier mass movement: Poland’s Solidarity. Not only did the rising there free the Poles, it also sparked the collapse of Soviet control in central Europe.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his book Game Plan, a prescient strategic meditation on what was to become the final phase of the Cold War, pointed out Poland’s critical role then — and in the future. As he saw it, for Moscow, Poland was a "linchpin state" whose loss would prove a fatal blow to Russian geostrategic aims in Europe. So it was. By 1999, Poland was a NATO member. Today, it serves as a bulwark of strategic forward defense for the whole alliance — against a range of threats, perhaps even those posed by a looming new age of missile warfare.

It is interesting to note that Poland has played a similar role as shield more than once in its earlier history. In the 13th century, even in defeat at the Battle of Liegnitz (1241) against the Mongols, the Poles’ and their allies’ fierce resistance may have served to deter future invasions by the steppe hordes. Historians suggest that the Mongol commander was distracted by a budding political succession struggle back home. But the fact is that the Mongols never came back; they stayed on to rule in Russia, but left the Poles — and the rest of the West — alone.

In the 17th century the major threat to Europe came from the Ottoman Empire, which was already in control of the Balkans and battering at the gates of Vienna (1683). After two months under siege, the city was close to falling, but once again the Poles, under King John Sobieski, rode to the rescue. The Turks were defeated in battle, the siege was lifted, and the Ottoman threat to Europe was over for good.

In the following decades, though, Poland itself came under siege. Russia pressed from the east, Germany from the west, Austria from the south, and even Sweden encroached from the north. By the centennial of the siege of Vienna, Poland was being partitioned. In 1795, after an insurgency led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko — a "foreign fighter" who helped the colonies during the American revolution — was put down, Poland disappeared from the map of Europe. Hardly a fitting reward for a shield of the West.

Poland was restored to Europe’s map in 1919 by the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles. The nation was reborn fighting. Russia’s new communist rulers, in the process of winning a civil war against tsarist loyalists and defeating an intervention by the Western Allies, began to look to the heart of devastated Europe as a field of easy conquest. The only thing standing between the Soviets and their goal was the newly minted Polish military.

The Poles were outnumbered and, for reasons that still defy logical explanation, on the receiving end of pro-Russian Western press accounts that left them virtually without external support — save, that is, for a small French contingent whose members included Charles de Gaulle. The war raged back and forth, with the Soviets finally seeming on the verge of capturing Warsaw. The Poles, refusing to accept defeat, conjured the "miracle on the Vistula" that autumn of 1920, saving their country — and probably the rest of Europe.

While Poland was swiftly overrun by German and Soviet forces in 1939, the Poles continued to resist at home and tens of thousands made their way to the West to continue the fight. One of their most notable contributions came in the fall of 1940, during the Battle of Britain, when about 1,500 Polish pilots comprised a very significant percentage of those that Winston Churchill called "the Few" who saved Britain — and so much more. The Normandy invasion would never have been possible had England fallen.

So there it is. Whether in ferocious resistance to the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks, the early- and late-Soviet Union — even the Nazis — Poland has repeatedly served to shield Europe from aggression, and in its own distinct way. A Slavic nation, but Roman Catholic rather than Orthodox. Sharing an open, hard-to-defend geography with its Prussian neighbor, but liberal and peace-loving rather than militaristic. In short, a most paradoxical nation, cast against type for the role it played.

Dr. Haska embodied the Polish national character. A thoughtful intellectual, a master of nine languages, and a historian, he had also been a partisan who mounted hit-and-run raids against the Nazis. And he was so proud of his heritage. When I first met him, greeting him with a passable Dzien dobry, his face lit up and he spoke only Polish with me. Most of which I could not understand — but I got the gist.

At his wake last Thursday night, most of the whispers I heard were in Polish, too. There was much sorrow in the words, but there was a strong current of pride as well, duly honoring this fallen shield-bearer.

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