In this series there have been several references to Poland already. No other country suffered from the war to quite the same degree as Poland. It was occupied for longer than any other, except the Czech lands, its people were treated with more brutality than any except perhaps the Russians, and on its soil stood the emblems of the atheist Nazi regime, the death camps. This was apt. Besides the six million Jews that were killed by the Nazis, they also murdered around two to three million ethnic Poles, many deliberately exterminated in concentration camps like Auschwitz, to ‘make space’ for German colonization.
In addition, Poland suffered not one, but four invasions. As the Nazi army moved in from the west in September 1939, so the Bolshevik army moved in from the east. There, too, Poles suffered heavily. Most famous is the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn, where some 22,000 Poles, mainly officers and leading civilians, were murdered by the Soviets in an attempt to decapitate Polish resistance in their zone of occupation. Close to two million Poles were deported to the Gulag. A third invasion came in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and brought the whole of Poland under their rule. They were in turn expelled by the Red Army, which finally imposed Communist rule on Poland which was to last until 1989.
The Poles had been here before, if not on this scale. Once, their country had been the superpower in the region, stretching from the Baltic to the Carpathians, and from the Oder to Smolensk. It had been an ethnically diverse country, and a multi-denominational one. However, Catholic Poles had always formed a major segment of the population, and the Church had long been the formative element in Polish national identity. Gradually, the country declined and was riven by factionalism, until, between 1772 and 1795, its neighbors partitioned it between them. Two of those neighbors would prove to be long-lasting oppressors of the Poles. Prussia, and its successor, Germany, and Russia would try for almost 150 years to extinguish Polish identity. The third country, the Habsburg Empire, would become a refuge for Polish nationalists, and would form the base from where the country would regain its independence in the aftermath of the First World War.
Four major and very bloody insurrections failed to dislodge the occupiers, and every time caused a wave of Polish refugees. Some of these would become famous, none more so than the composer, Chopin. For Poles, their country became identified with the crucified Jesus, suffering a Calvary in union with the Lord. This Messianism, as it was known, was intensified by the brutal suppression of the Church in both Prussian and Russian zones of occupation. In 1793, for example, the Empress Catherina of Russia suppressed all five dioceses in the zone she had acquired at the second partition.
The formative moment came during the so-called January Uprising. This took place in 1863-4, and led to the total identification of Polishness with the Church. Encouraged by Russia’s weakness in the wake of the Crimean War, Polish and Lithuanian Catholics rose against their Russian oppressors. At the first open demonstration, they sang Catholic hymns and carried processional banners. Interestingly, the Byzantine-Catholics were amongst the staunchest opponents of the Russians. To cement this Catholic uprising, Pope Pius IX ordered prayers to be said for the success of the Poles all over the Catholic world.
It was to no avail, and the suppression that followed was brutal. Several dioceses were suppressed, and the use of Polish banned in both the Russian and Prussian zones. In the latter region, the Church suffered more hardships after German unification, with the inauguration of the Kulturkampf by von Bismarck. It was only in the south, around Krakow, that the flame of Polish identity and Catholicism was kept burning brightly. It was from the south, that the first attempt came to restore Poland to independence in 1918. Since 1915, this had had the tacit blessing of Pope Benedict XV.
The collapse of Russia in 1917, and of the Habsburg monarchy and Germany in 1918, paved the way for a restoration of Poland. Polish divisions from the Habsburg army rapidly established an ever-expanding free Polish zone, and soon a large nation-state had come into being. This was almost destroyed by invading Soviet troops, but managed to take a stand on the Vistula River, just outside Warsaw. This ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ further enhanced the identification of Poland with Catholicism: it took place on the Feast of the Assumption, with the church bells in the capital ringing out as the army repulsed the atheist invaders.
Ironically, the general who saved Poland that day, Jozef Pilsudski, was rather anti-clerical. This notwithstanding, there was a substantial body of clerics in the first convention of the Sejm, the Polish parliament in 1919. The meeting ended with the hymn, Boże coś Polskę, God Protector of Poland. The scene for the Polish Republic had been set, and was cemented by the concordat of 1925, which safeguarded the position of the Church in Poland. Yet relations were not always cordial, and Achille Ratti, the later Pope Pius XI, who was the Nuncio in Warsaw, would have to leave the country when relations broke down.
This political conflict between a Liberal and Freemason elite and the Church did little to affect the Faith of ordinary Poles, and it has to be remembered that three-quarters of all Poles belonged to the Church, either in the Latin, Byzantine or Armenian Rite. Yet it did have an impact on how the Vatican saw Poland as a political entity. As long as it was seen as a buffer against the Soviets, a succession of Popes was happy to find a modus vivendi with its political elite. However, when, in 1939, it became obvious that Poland would no longer keep the Communists out of Europe and away from the Church, things became a little more complicated.
The Papacy was now caught between two evils: the neo-paganism of the Nazis and the atheism of the Soviets. In many ways, it found itself in the same situation as the Poles. At the same time, the Church in Poland was about to undergo one of those great cleansings that seems to occur from time to time. Symbolically, its primate, Cardinal Hlond, was out of the country when the Nazis invaded. He was a rather authoritarian man, supporter of the economic and political power of the great landowners, and, indeed, a great landowner himself. He was also distinctly Anti-Semitic.
Instead of the powerful Church personified by Cardinal Hlond, the Polish Church became the Church of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the priest who volunteered to be martyred to save the life of a Jew. Some 700 priests were killed in the first few months of the war alone, the victims of Operation Tannenberg and the Außerordentliche Befriedungsaktion, the German attempt to decapitate Poland’s leadership. Another 3,000 were sent to concentration camps, from which only some 400 were to return. Thousands of nuns were interred or used as slave labor in Germany, and at least four bishops martyred. The onslaught on the Church formed part of an onslaught on the Polish people, who were to be exterminated to make Lebensraum, living space, for Germans. To this day it is unclear how many priests died in the Soviet zone.
Pope Pius XII reacted with outrage, both in his first Encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, and in his Christmas radio broadcast of 1939:
“We find premeditated aggression against a small work-loving, peaceful people on the pretext of a threat which never existed nor was possible. We find atrocities and illicit use of means of destruction against old men, women and children. We also find contempt for freedom for human life, from which originate acts which cry to God for vengeance."
"our dear Poland, which, for its fidelity to the Church, for its services in the defense of Christian civilization... has a right to the generous and brotherly sympathy of the whole world.”
After that, the situation became rather more complex.
Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.
Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.
Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.
In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.