Timothy Snyder’s history of Eastern Europe in the last two centuries covers Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine during some terrible years. He begins, however, on a more glorious note, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth established at the Union of Lublin in 1569.
The Commonwealth prospered in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, it had a rich agricultural economy with a surplus that fed grain-deficient Western and Southern Europe. Called a nobleman’s democracy, the Commonwealth had a sejm or lower chamber that over–represented the gentry, a mostly Polish-speaking landowning class, some 700,000 at one time. For most of its 225 years, the sejm elected the king, who served a life term. His son or some other relative might or might not be elected to succeed him.
This political arrangement was complicated by the Commonwealth’s religious diversity. The Poles were mostly Roman Catholic but the Lithuanian and Eastern Slavic peasantry mostly practiced some version of the Eastern Orthodoxy. Commonwealth politics were also complicated by its menacing neighbors with powerful military establishments: Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Prussian, and Swedish. Outside money flowed into the Commonwealth’s election process.
Snyder has chosen to follow closely three of the many strands in this reconstruction: Poland (through its disappearances and reappearances), the city of Vilnius (eventually awarded by Josef Stalin to Lithuania), and thirdly the region of Galicia (today mostly in Poland and the Ukraine). In doing so he has admitted to slighting the Jews, Germans, and the Russians.
Snyder’s book has an interesting discussion of two concepts of nationalism that flourished in Eastern Europe. The commonwealth idea involved a group of territorial entities associated by their own choice and linked by common objectives and interests. Nationalism, based on ethnicity and language, could be accompanied within the idea of a commonwealth but only if one admired diversity rather that purity. The triumph of the Romantic nationalist idea, on the other hand, required that state boundaries be drawn so as to delineate populations by ethnicity and language. Eastern Europe began the nineteenth-century with no such clarity and hence conflict ensued.
The situation was shaped by the Great War (1914-1918), the Versailles Treaty, and the triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia. The destruction of Eastern European empires created an opportunity for the restoration of the Polish state and the creation of the republics of Belarus and Ukraine within the Soviet Union. While recognizing Polish nationalism, Stalin had no sympathy for the old Polish landowning class that had been a pillar in of the Czarist and Austrian regimes in Slavic lands. It and the more prosperous farming class (the kulaks) were eliminated by the Soviets, causing much disruption of agriculture and a famine with enormous loss of life. This was the first of what Snyder calls the “decapitation” of the Ukrainian and White Russian nations..
The Polish Chief of State, Józef Piłsudski (died 1935), was the great hero of the Polish rebirth. The interim between the collapse of the Czar’s armies and the creation of the Red Army gave opportunity to the Poles. Piłsudski organized a Polish army which had some early successes, taking control over parts of the western Ukraine and Belarus. Piłsudski, thinking big, wanted to thwart both German and Russian imperialism in the region. The Red Army pushed the Poles back to Warsaw, but then the Poles pulled off an unexpected victory, giving the new Polish state an eastern border that included many ethnic Ukrainians. That meant trouble down the road.
Down the road was World War II. Snyder explains that within the larger conflict there were smaller wars, one of them the vicious partisan conflict between Poles and Ukrainians from 1943 to 1945. In 1941 thousands of Jews and other enemies of the new order were murdered by the German Einsatzgruppen at Babi Yar and other locations, sadly with the collaboration of Ukrainians and some Poles. Snyder argues that the murder of the Jews created a model for the cleansing of other ethnic minorities from ‘national homelands’ in the old Commonwealth regions. Also in the midst of the Nazi threat to Soviet survival, Stalin proceeded to “decapitate” the Polish state at Katyn Forest and other sites. The Russian victory at Stalingrad in early 1943 created uncertainty amongst Polish and Ukrainian partisans about the post-war borders of Eastern Europe. The result was the fight between Poles and Ukrainians.
Thus does Timothy Snyder weave together the various strands of national histories to give us the Reconstruction of Nations -: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus. The result, sadly, is a dark tapestry.