Is Poland a Real Country?

Poland has the things you’d expect of a real country: a flag, a currency, and its own phone number. But it lacks others, like borders that stay in the same place. The national anthem, entitled Poland Is Not Yet Lost, suggests something’s not quite right.

The national anthem was written in 1797, when Poland was no longer a real country, having just been divvied up by Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick William II of Prussia, an arrangement that would be echoed in 1939 with the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

The question of whether Poland is a real country is not raised as a moral question. Nobody asks, “Does Poland have the right to exist?” the way some people do about Israel. It is a question of pure realpolitik. When Poland does exist, it gets invaded a lot, it tends not to remain in place for long, and its borders get moved around at the whim of outsiders.

A map posted on Brilliant Maps recently claimed to show just how many countries had invaded Poland. While some of the claims are a bit dubious – Italy is coloured in because the Romans once invaded the area – it’s clear why Poland has earned the grim nickname “God’s Playground.”


In my recent post on the rise of Democracy in Greece, I said:

The legal description of how power is distributed must closely match the facts of how power is distributed. A society where the laws of power and the facts of power are mismatched is an unstable place.

This observation comes from Carroll Quigley’s Weapons Systems and Political Stability. In the introductory section on security and power, Quigley briefly mentions Poland (p25).

His contention is that small countries can only exist in the spaces between multiple competing states. He cites the Netherlands, a small country surrounded by more powerful neighbours. By itself, it would be incapable of defending itself. However, it has survived invasion by the Spanish Empire, Bourbon France, Napoleonic France, the German Empire, and the Third Reich.

None of the Netherlands’ neighbours has been able to fully extend their power over it. When one tries, the others come to its defence, meaning no one can ever dominate, allowing the Netherlands to exist in the gap. The laws that give the Netherlands its formal existence have for centuries been backed by the physical power of competing neighbours. That shifting, two-against-one defensive power has kept the Netherlands independent for centuries.

Poland has been less fortunate. It’s bounded by two powerful neighbours, Germany and Russia. Without the defensive advantage from playing off multiple competing powers, it has usually been dominated by one of its big neighbours or, worse, when they cooperate, crushed between them. Unlike the Netherlands, Poland hasn’t been able to call upon an enemy-of-an-enemy to come to its aid.

In the 1790s, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was surrounded by three big powers: Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Rather than keeping each other at bay, these three ganged up and each took a piece for themselves. Poland didn’t exist from 1795 to 1918.

At the end of World War I, Germany and Austria were defeated and the Russians were fighting themselves. None were capable of projecting any power. American president Woodrow Wilson took the opportunity to pick up the pieces of broken empires and hand out countries to everyone in the audience, like a geopolitical Oprah. With the major powers – Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire – all in tatters, it didn’t matter that none of these countries had the ability to defend the borders they’d been given.

Germany and Russia inevitably regained strength and the Second Polish Republic only lasted twenty years before disappearing under Nazi and Soviet tank tracks. Poland’s security was supposedly guaranteed by the United Kingdom and France. In September 1939, they declared war on Germany but could do nothing to defend Poland.

After World War II, Poland was again reconstituted, this time a bit further to the West. With Germany defeated, the Soviet Union more powerful than ever, and Poland itself still indefensible, it became part of the Soviet empire. When communism collapsed, Poland looked West for protection and joined NATO.

How long will this arrangement stick? Who knows? The lesson from Quigley is that the legal arrangements need to align with the facts of power. Where they match, and are known to match, the country will be stable.

As long as NATO has the means and the will to defend Poland against Russia, and Russia believes it, then the border will remain stable. If American power wanes or Russia believes that its will to intervene is weak, Russia may try and extend its reach. Conversely, Russia may decline faster than the West and the facts of power will push the other way. I have no special knowledge about Poland’s future.

This post isn’t even really about Poland. The broader principle is that where the facts of power change, the institutions supported by those facts are at risk.

Since World War II we’ve grown up to think that borders don’t change. Superpowers have locked continent-sized blocs in place. Historically borders have changed all the time, or even not existed at all, with power fading off into the marches.

No one can afford to police the world any more. If the pendulum swings back to a less centralised world, local power calculations will matter more. If the facts of power don’t match the lines on the map, expect the map to change.

Poland is as real as any other country on the map, but let’s not pretend that the map is drawn in permanent ink.

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