THE best — probably the only — way to understand the paradox that is Poland today is to visit it twice, first en route from a Western capitalist country to Moscow, fountainhead of Communist orthodoxy, and then again on the way back from the Soviet Union.

On the first visit one realizes, as soon as one crosses the Polish frontier, that one is behind the Iron Curtain. The expected, painstaking, suspicious examination of passports, visas, and currency declarations, the comparative scarcity and shoddiness of consumer goods, the general drabness and all-pervading lack of zest in life that seem an inescapable consequence of Communist rule make an immediate, unhappy impact.

Yet, what a difference there is in the sensations that Western visitors to Warsaw feel after a stay in the U.S.S.R., where not only the government is Communist, as it is in Poland, but the man in the street, too, generally supports the regime under which he lives. By contrast, on the return visit, the people of Warsaw look fashionably dressed, the restaurants and the hotels seem pleasant, and the officials appear to be helpful in their reception at airport or frontier.

There are many factors, deriving from both history and widely different racial characteristics, that contribute to this contradictory state of affairs. Most of all, it is due to the fact that only the harsh logic of geography and the pattern of post-war political developments in cast and central Europe make possible a situation in which an avowedly Communist government continues to rule over a population that is at least 90 per cent convincedly anti-Communist. Furthermore, this rule is carried on with little buttressing by local security police and militia, so evident in other satellite countries; and Warsaw Pact Russian troops and bases on Polish soil are discreetly situated well out of the public eye.

From conqueror to conqueror

If the Poles have learned nothing else from their long history of being a bloodied battledore and shuttlecock between Russia and Germany, they know now, at long last, that there is no escape in the foreseeable future from dominance by the stronger of their two powerful neighbors. There is no doubt today in any Pole’s mind, ringed as his country is by Communist-bloc countries, on whose side he has to throw in his lot.

Two other vital factors drive this point remorselessly home. When the Soviet Union cut from Poland at the end of the last war 70,000 square miles to be incorporated into its own territory, and partially replaced these stolen lands with 39,000 square miles excised from conquered Germany, the Kremlin accomplished more than a mere expansion of its national boundaries. There was also created a frustrating situation for Poland, because as long as Germany continues to claim its lost eastern provinces, with the inevitable extinction which would follow to Poland as a national state, Poland has to rely, willy-nilly, on the Soviet Union for survival.

It is for this same reason that the Poles are utterly opposed to the reunification of West and East Germany, even though, as long as this division exists, it provides a valid legal reason for the unpopular garrisoning of Russian troops in their homeland. This last is based on the Kremlin’s excuse that it is necessary to maintain lines of communication with its satellite, East Germany, in order to protect the integrity of the latter against West German absorption. At the back of every Pole’s mind are memories not only of the 1939 deal at Poland’s expense between Ribbentrop and Molotov, but of no less ruthless partitions on the same lines in 1772 and 1793. Poles are conscious that, if they get too far out of step with their Kremlin overlords, yet another agreed RussoGerman dismemberment of their country could result.

An ever-present Polish nightmare is the thought that, as Germany grows more powerful, the U.S.S.R. may one day find it a worth-while bargain to bribe Germany out of the Western fold into neutrality between East and West, if not into a new Russo-German alliance, by offering the reunity of the two German sections and the reincorporation of Germany’s lost Silesian and East Prussian provinces, which now make up more than one third of Poland’s national territory.

The inability to escape from a strait jacket may compel a country to be submissive; it certainly does not engender affection or trust. Nowhere can this be more clearly illustrated than in Poland, where the hatred and fear the Poles feel for the Germans, West and East alike, to whose past aggression they rightly attribute their present unhappy state, are matched only by the detestation they have for the Russians and for their system of government.

The Communist minority in Poland, fully but uneasily aware of these emotions, does its best, by constant, reiterated propaganda, to remind the people of the appalling brutality and atrocities they suffered at the hands of the Nazis during the last war, in order to keep Polish popular resentment concentrated on the Germans. The more hatred the Poles feel for the Germans, the less they will have to spare for the Soviet Union.

How long the success of these tactics will last is doubtful. A new Polish generation is growing up that may well find it easier to blame the devil they know rather than the one their parents tell them about; but, above all, Soviet success will depend on the German attitude toward the disputed frontier along the OderNeisse line. Furthermore, Polish antagonism to die U.S.S.R. includes an inherited contempt, irrespective of political differences, for the cultural backwardness of Poland’s barbarian eastern neighbors.

Revolution or compromise

Despite the checkmates inexorably imposed upon post-war Poland on any freedom of political maneuver, the near-revolution of October, 1956, always discreetly referred to nowadays simply as “the October events,” proved vidly that Poland could simply not be molded into an orthodox Communist satellite. Collectivization of farms, furiously resented by an intensely individualistic peasantry, was rapidly reducing the important agricultural sector of the economy into total chaos. There were no reliable, ruthless regiments at the disposal of the then Polish government, as there were for Stalin in the Ukraine in the twenties and thirties, to shoot uncooperative farmers into compliance.

The agricultural breakdown had repercussions on an already overcentralized and inefficient bureaucratic system of food distribution to the town workers. This, together with an ill-thought-out plan of rapid industrialization, geared to the needs of the Soviet Union rather than to those of Poland, caused riots and strikes.

A compromise was essential if the U.S.S.R. was to avoid putting down by armed force a Hungary type of revolution, or seeing Poland slip altogether out of its ideological grasp. The compromise reached was that Gomulka, a convinced Communist but disgraced and imprisoned in Stalinist days for being too national minded — and, even more heinous, tor being a Marxist revisionist — was exculpated and made the leader of the country. Gomulka agreed with Khrushchev that, internationally, Poland would remain firmly within the Communist orbit and continue to support the Warsaw Pact.

On the other, less-publicized side of the coin, an uneasy understanding was reached with the still immensely powerful Roman Catholic Church, restoring much of the lost freedom of religious observance and education. This agreement even granted that, when the parents wished it, religious education be given in state schools at state expense after school hours. Furthermore, collectivization of farms was to cease forthwith, and state farms were to be offered for sale back to private ownership. Nationalization of the remaining privateenterprise sectors in commerce and industry, including many small factories, restaurants, and service workshops, was to be halted. Last, but not least, the secret police were to be drastically curtailed. Imprisonment for political offenses was to end, and censorship of criticism of the state and its servants, in press and other organs of publicity, was to be modified.

Gomulka became a national hero, and the Poles came doubtingly to believe that it might be possible for them, within the limits fate had set, to develop as a nontotalitarian country under totalitarian rule.

Return to suppression

What remains today of October, 1956? Sadly, their ingrained cynicism once more justified in the event, the Poles are coming to admit the illusory nature of their aspirations. The concessions in regard to religious teaching in schools have been withdrawn in favor of courses in materialist philosophy. Rigorous censorship of the written word, if not yet of the individual spoken word, is back, in the interests of maintaining Communism’s monolithic character. In particular, the magazines of students, traditional sources of anxiety in autocratic societies, have been singled out for repression.

There is talk again of fresh advances in the fields of state industrialization and farming collectivization, but not yet any significant action. Perhaps most sinister of all, two of the toughest of the formerly discredited Stalinist politicos, Eugeniusz Szyr and Julian Tokarski, who were sacked when Gomulka took over, have been recalled to high office.

It is hard to guess how much these reactions are due to Soviet pressure and how much to a realization by the Polish leaders themselves that no one has yet evolved a satisfactory method of keeping the lid half on and half off a boiling kettle.

So it is that the Poles — proud, frustrated, and bitter — stage their own continuing brand of passive resistance. They go slow on their jobs; absenteeism is rife; they cheat on their production quotas and earn extra money for themselves by, for instance, plying for hire as volunteer taxi drivers, using government vehicles. Yet, here is no people bursting to change to a capitalist system. A largely socialist economy is now a part of life, and anyhow, there is no lost tradition to mourn of the advantages of a free-enterprise, liberal Western economy. But if ever a day dawns on which the counterbalancing German menace recedes, the Russians will need more troops and tanks than were required to crush Hungary to keep the Kremlin’s yoke on Poland.

In the Poland of today, too, drastically pruned in size as it is, compared with what it was before 1939, a sense of proud nationalism is far more deeply entrenched than it was between the two world wars. The reason is not difficult to find.

The old Poland that was born in the aftermath of the World War I collapse of the three great empires of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary included several million nonPoles within its borders. Balts, Czechs, Russians, and Germans felt no more inherent allegiance to Poland than the Russianor Germanruled Poles of earlier eras felt, simply because circumstances outside their control had drawn the map in a particular way.

Now, however, with its former, eastern, largely Russian-speaking provinces incorporated in the U.S.S.R., with the erstwhile Bohemian and Slovak cantons inside Czechoslovakia, and with 90 percent of the Teutonic inhabitants of its compensatory territorial acquisitions having fled to the West, a new Poland, smaller geographically and in population, has emerged. This new Poland is a natural, cohesive, national state to a degree never previously attained in the country’s unhappy history. Instead of a patchwork conglomeration of racial and religious minorities, Poland today is a close-knit ethnological entity, an additional source of unity being its intense, virtually universal faith in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Russians rely on the rising Polish generation for a friendly, integrated Communist society. But inherited frustration is notoriously resented by youth, especially intellectual youth, and young Poles have their full share of the spirit of nationalism that colonialism breeds, whatever the color of the imperialist flag. Today, political expression debarred, they show their feelings by breaking away in art, dress, and behavior from their political mentors. Tomorrow, who knows?