- August 16, 2015
Piotr Kępiński: The Suwalki Treaty
History sometimes happens to be trivial and provincial. It can smell like a burdock from a yard and not like big cities where important treaties are signed. Such is history of the Polish-Lithuanian conflict from the beginning of the twentieth century.
The struggle for shabby European province, villages, manors, rivers, country towns more likely resembles the conflict of Kargul and Pawlak (main characters from a Polish comedy Sami Swoi), not serious battles for strategically situated lands, rich estates and treasuries.
Here we have two former allies fighting each other right after they were both fighting a common enemy – the Russian Empire. They started battling each other so viciously, that they basically cannot stop to this day. Word for a word, argument for an argument, threat for a threat.
I cannot count how many essays, documents and reports I have read about this topic. Countless debates on this issue took place and still, there are more.
Thank God that in this stalemate, in which the politicians literally do nothing, the historians took action. They have been doing that for a long time. They have always acted, trying to explain to their societies even the most uncomfortable facts. Alfredas Bumblauskas and Krzysztof Buchowski’s works may serve as a great example.
Naturally, not everything has been thoroughly discussed. For example the Ponary Massacre topic is still to be talked about, hidden somewhere in a dark closet in Lithuania.
But all went better with the Suwalki Treaty, even though this topic enrages both Poles and Lithuanians. Despite that, the historians got their act together, gathered in Suwalki in 2010 and honestly talked about this issue.
An interesting book was written by Ceslovas Laurinavicius i Jan Jerzy Milewski basing on this debate titled Umowa Suwalska: fakty i interpretacje (Suwalki Treaty: Facts and Interpretations).
Impressions? It is very pleasant to read and to listen to objective arguments, deprived of nationalistic rhetoric. Indeed how good it is to have contact with a calm discourse that explains things and does not instigate.
While I was reading Umowa Suwalska, completely by accident I also started looking at Granica polsko-litewska w terenie (The Polish-Lithuanian border) by Stanisław Gorzuchowski from the year 1928, which I bought a very long time ago in a Warsaw antique shop.
This forgotten work by a scientist well-known before the Second World War [a former member of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), graduate of the Warsaw School of Economics (SGH), a member of an expedition to “the Ruwenzori Mountains situated on the border between Uganda and Congo and which highest peaks reach up to 5 thousand metres above sea level. Stanisław Gorzuchowski took part in this expedition along with an anthropologist Edward Loth, a botanist Tadeusz Wiśniewski, and experienced alpinists Tadeusz Bernadzikiewicz and Tadeusz Pawłowski.”(Joanna Żelazko, Uczony, którego zabrakło)] partially introduces us to the atmosphere of the Polish-Lithuanian quarrels. Written after the end of the conflict, it is a description of Polish arguments from the perspective of the Piłsudskiites.
Naturally, it is full of patriotic references. Sometimes one can give up, while reading propagandist views, such as those that name marshal Piłsudski and general Żeligowski as heroes whilst describing Lithuanians as losers who are ready to break down Europe because of a simple fuss.
But let’s forgive the professor his comments, those details are not important. What is crucial about this publication are… statistics.
Besides the obviously interesting data (statistical and political regarding for example Lithuanians, Jews, Poles) we can come across, for example, a fascinating, detailed comparison of cow husbandry between the Vilnius and the Kaunas regions. And so, the cow population near Vilnius counted exactly 10,100 units while only 1,727 units near Kaunas. On the other hand, rams were definitely less popular in the Vilnius region than in the eastern parts (23 versus 104. Pigs, however, must had been the pride of Vilnius, because they were excessively bred here, counting up to 5,899 units while in Kaunas region only 471 pigs existed. Gorzuchowski’s work seems to be a source of knowledge about the material culture of both nations.
Most importantly, it is a testimony of poorness and marginality of our societies. It also shows how unindustrialised we were. Naturally, in Gorzuchowski’s publication we will not find descriptions of big factories being built in the areas near Vilnius, Kaunas or Białystok. There is no information about influx of significant funds. What about harbour revenue? It was little. Innovation (using modern terms) was non-existent. Only cows, wood, iron and roof tiles mattered.
I had a fragment of one of the essays included in Umowa Suwalska in front of my eyes when I was mentioning this laughable, from today’s perspective, data.
I was laughing at, please forgive me, one of the quite serious conclusions: “In the end, general Katche proposed to settle the line of demarcation between the Polish and Lithuanian armies in the Suwałki according to the one agreed on the 8th of December 1919. It would then go to Uciech’s manor in Niemno, railway bridge on the river Uła (north from the Marcinkańce station) and through the stations Bastuny, Dziewieniszki, Granżiszki, Oszmiana, Szurany, Domiszewo to Iłża.”
I know, I know perfectly. The Suwalki Treaty was a very serious matter. I am aware that the Poles did not act entirely fair by trying to double-cross the Lithuanians. Today, one can digress, search for nuances on the both sides, but the truth is, both sides wanted to achieve as much as they could, especially when it comes to territory. In the end, not only Poland wanted to have Vilnius inside its borders, the Lithuanians also had an appetite for some hectares of land.
But right now that is not the point. What made me laugh was, on the one side, the most accurate and detailed description of cattle in Gozuchowski’s work, as if he wanted to describe the list of after marriage assets for a family living in Trakai. On the other side, it was a detailed description in Umowa Suwalska of manors, bridges and deportee villages more or less undefined to, for example, a Greater Poland inhabitant, as if it was a depiction of a distribution of two stirred peasant families’ lands. This manor goes to me, this one to you. But I will not give you the bridge. Oh, and those four houses up on the hill I will also keep. Hands off of it.
Looks like grotesque and not bad literature? Right. Because Polish-Lithuanian disputes are a biggest grotesque of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Polish-Lithuanian magnates and noblemen from the sixteenth and seventeenth century would laugh at us. They would laugh and tap their heads. You were arguing over what?
From the perspective of time, those arguments seem really unimportant. I can state such a thing because Polish-Lithuanian military conflicts which, let’s be honest, were really rare, are gone forever. Who today in Poland remembers the Sejny Uprising? Who can recall what was the origin of this event? Was it actually in 1919 that the Prime Minister of Lithuania Mikolas Slezevicius instigated a resistance towards the Poles during his visit in Sejny? Did the Poles thought that the town is slipping out of their influence and, using their numbers advantage, attacked the Lithuanians? I am sure that both sides would state opposing arguments about this marginal chapter of history. I do not want to belittle the losses or any death, however one must remember that only 37 Poles died (the Lithuanian losses are not known) in this small battle and that it lasted only for five days.
The Suwalki Treaty is, naturally, an important element of our relations. It is obvious that we cannot forget about it. This conference that begun on the 29th of September and lasted until the 20th of October 1920 aimed at resolving problems regarding Vilnius and other territories.
Ninety years after this historical event in Suwałki, Poles and Lithuanian met again, this time to discuss history unbiasedly and maybe to straighten it up anew.
The book I mentioned that was created after this conference is a perfect source of knowledge about the Suwalki Treaty, but not only.
There is nothing surprising about that, anyway, since the scientists that arrived at Suwałki are the best ones from Lithuania and Poland. As a result we can read an engaging essay by Ceslovas Laurinavicius about “disputable notions in Polish-Lithuanian relations from 1920”, Rimantas Myknys’ draft on Michał Roemer’s reaction regarding the Suwalki Treaty, Halina Łach and Vlada Sirutaviucius’ conclusions on the Treaty’s consequences and further Warsaw-Vilnius relations or Alvydas Nikżentaitis’ brilliant treatise about historical memory.
Obviously, no one is arguing here. Nonetheless, the differences in understanding and defining history are visible with the naked eye. The Lithuanian historians like to forget about their own sins while the Polish ones justify their own misconducts.
This is why, with the most pleasure I read arguably the best essay put in this book, written by Krzysztof Buchowski from Białystok University, titled Obraz konfliktu z Litwą w powojennej świadomości historycznej okresu międzywojennego (The picture of the conflict with Lithuania in the after war historical consciousness of the interwar period). Buchowski, a renowned specialist in those matters, an author of brilliant books, such as: Szkice polsko-litewskie czyli o niełatwym sąsiedztwie w pierwszej połowie XX wieku, (Toruń 2005), Litwomani i polonizatorzy. Mity, wzajemne postrzeganie i stereotypy w stosunkach polsko-litewskich w pierwszej połowie XX wieku, (Białystok 2006), Polityka zagraniczna Litwy 1990-2012. Główne kierunki i uwarunkowania, (Białystok 2013), has extremely competently and unemotionally, and without taking sides analysed the Suwalki Treaty, pointing out both sides’ “mischiefs”. He also accurately defined the scale of the conflict, simply naming it a regional one. Because it really was only that. Finally, he adequately described the role of general Żeligowski in this conflict, stripping him from the mask of a daemon and the conflict leader, which in reality he was not.
I am not a historian and I will not thoroughly draft the history before the Suwalki Treaty. Nonetheless some of the facts must be mentioned.
After the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, the Polish forces appeared in the Suwałki Region and quite violent encounters with the Lithuanians begun. As Buchowski writes “contested territories were going the rounds. Eventually, the conflicting sides, begun talks in Suwałki. In the treaty signed on the 7th of October the conditions regarding ceasefire and the line of demarcation were settled. The accepted terms left the Vilnius Region in Lithuanian hands. However, by the order of the marshal Józef Piłsudski, general Lucjan Żeligowski took command of the forces that officially renounced allegiance to Poland and entered Vilnius on the 9th of October”.
This is how the body called Middle Lithuania was created. It had “all the attributes of independency” while practically it was fully dependent from Warsaw.
For the Poles, the Suwalki Treaty had no greater meaning than a military truce. However, the Lithuanians, then and today, treat the Polish position and the events that followed as a treason and a violation of rules.
To this day, the Poles are willing to support Piłsudski and Żeligowski’s arguments, above all underlining the historical and ethnographical issues; the Lithuanians constantly agitate the notion of Vilnius as the Lithuanian capital. The Poles eagerly talk that the Żeligowski’s undertaking was conducted when the Suwalki Treaty was not yet effective, therefore no obligations were violated. For the Lithuanians such arguments are nothing more than dialectics. Both sides accuse each other (even to this day) of bad treatment of citizens. Poles blame Lithuanians for alliance with the Bolsheviks, while Lithuanians blame Poles for their colonial ambitions purposed for surprising a newly formed nation. They point out, not without being right, that in 1919 the Polish government planned and even begun an attempt at military-political coup. Political structures were organised in Kowno, which aimed at creating a new, more pro-Polish government. Czesław Miłosz’s father took part in this undertaking, about which the poet reminded many times. However, the Lithuanians uncovered the plot and stopped it.
Essentially this is how it was and no one is arguing with those facts today. The Poles in Warsaw completely did not understand the will of Lithuanians to separate from Poland, once and for all. The Lithuanians were not, at that time, capable to understand that cutting off the Vilnius Region from Poland, a region regarded as a common heritage after the Jagiellonian dynasty’s age, would be too big of a shock for Warsaw or Cracow citizens. After all this land was considered as a core of the nation. And now they had to give it away to someone else? What to do with Mickiewicz, Słowacki and Piłsudski then?
Poles wanted to share this legacy with the Lithuanians but at a cost of the federal state in which the main role was to be given to Warsaw. The “older brother” proposed something resembling the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. But in the beginning of the twentieth century, the Lithuanians were not interested.
Obviously, in the western parts of Poland this was not the most important issue. There, people had completely different past. At that time, the Greater Poland Uprising had ended and the Silesian Uprisings were taking place. No one really cared about a war in which a dozen of soldiers died (with all due respect to the casualties).
Still, if back then a survey about public opinion on the actions of Piłsudski and Żeligowski was made, most of the society would support them, no matter the political beliefs. Vilnius was too deeply rooted in the Polish historical memory and the Lithuanian state seemed to be an abstract, objectionable notion in light of the Polish needs.
And so the little manors and rivers desired by the Lithuanians remained in Poland. The provincial lower class was divided for long years to come, some are still divided to this day.
And today? Even though the borders are set since a long time, old complexes make a competent “historian” out of a biology professor (I met one like that in Vilnius) in a matter of seconds. A journalist quotes old documents from memory and a chemist becomes a specialist on the Polish-Jewish problem from the 30s’ Vilnius.
Each one of them has an arsenal of unchanging anti-Polish arguments; similarly to every Pole having a set of concrete “truths of the faith”. No one is willing to compromise. I have witnessed such debates many times. “Read about it if you do not know”. “You have read what you should not have”. “The Lithuanians were there since ages”. “The Poles have the right to those lands, because they were there since ages too”. “Lithuanians deceived us”. “Poles are disloyal”.
Funny? Extremely. But also a bit scary. Because nothing seems to indicate the end of those duels.
Translated by Marcin Wus within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.