Why do we see things differently? On differences in thinking on geopolitics between the UK and Poland.

By Maciej Hacaga

When attending the 2018 RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum Mid-Term Conference at Royal Holloway, I was surprised to see presentations that engaged with elements of critical and feminist geopolitics. Yet, none of these papers were directly related to the deteriorating state of the international security in Europe. I asked myself: are UK students no longer interested in ‘classical geopolitics’ anymore?

This blog speculates on why a gap may exist between certain UK and Polish students’ geopolitical thinking. The main argument is that ‘classical geopolitics’ serves well as an intellectual framework for understanding modern Poland, that – compared to Western Europe – has been free for only 29 years. It offers an explanation as to why an affection for ‘classical geopolitics’ may exist in Poland, through a prism of fear and suffering induced by a long series of historical events that have primarily been caused by geography. Geography locks Poland in geopolitical thinking.

It is all about the geo- in geopolitics

Britain has not been successfully invaded for almost a thousand years. On the other hand, the last units of the Russian army left Poland in the early 1990s. History, along with a more traditional geopolitical interpretation, may tell us why Poland is far more susceptible to invasion. Things – whether they are tanks or goods – cannot simply pass from Western Europe to Russia over land without crossing Poland. According to Stratfor, the greatest threat for Russia comes from the West as there is no natural border to settle defense lines in the North European Plain (see image below).

There is ample historical evidence to support this with recurrent historical events affecting the territory of modern Poland since the late 1790s, having led to the change of its rulers on regular basis for almost 200 years.

Historical event taking place on Polish territory Direction of geopolitical influence exercised
Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) West to East
The Kingdom of Poland (1815-31) East to West
World War 1 (1914-1918) West to East
The 1920 Polish-Soviet War East to West
The 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact East and West cooperated in Poland’s dissolution in 1939
The 1941 Nazi Barbarossa operation West to East
The Cold War / Warsaw Pact (1945-1989) East to West

(A summary of the number of significant historical events have taken place in Poland since the late 1790s)

As the 20th century unfolded the story became more complex. During World War I, Germany’s counteroffensive pushed Russians back to the East, making enough space for Central-European countries to reemerge after the war. In 1920 the newly reborn Polish army stopped Bolsheviks at the outskirts of Warsaw, and – as European countries were devastated by the First World War at that time – the Polish victory arguably saved Western Europe from large-scale communist invasion. After the Nazi invasion in 1941, Moscow pushed back through the territory of Poland and even incorporated parts of Germany into its sphere of influence, until it finally retreated in 1989-91. As Tony Judt reflects, it is clear to see why historical factors may still play a part in Polish political discourse today:

“Western Europeans, despite the Cold War – to some extent because of it – are much less worried about Russia, think much less of Russia as a threat, see it as much less of a problem, than Russia’s former colonies or neighbors, and that’s crucial. It’s very hard for your Polish or Ukrainian listeners to understand because it seems bizarre and absurd. But it’s true.”

Sandwiched between Berlin and Moscow – an untold or unheard story?

Although the Polish voice is loud in the EU today, it seems to have been historically misunderstood. As Tim Snyder (2009) argues, it seems to be forgotten that “almost all of the worst acts of political violence in Europe in the twentieth century took place in lands that fell behind the Iron Curtain—most of it before the Iron Curtain fell”. Snyder also coined the term “bloodlands” for these territories (that extend from central Poland to western Russia) where both the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered 14 million civilians between 1933 and 1945.


Tim Snyder’s “bloodlands” (source: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2010/11/11/worst-madness/)

However, 1945 and the end of World War II brought divergent outcomes and narratives across Europe: a Western European story, a Soviet/Russian story and an Eastern European story. Often the two former narratives portrayed  “the glorious victory over Nazi Germany, successful postwar reconstruction, and the long period of postwar peace and economic development.” (Torbakov, 2011: 214; Snyder, 2009: 11) But for Eastern Europeans, it was only a handover from one totalitarian regime to another, of which economics was not only ineffective but also exploited subjected countries.

This is reflected by different memory regimes. After the short period of 1940s/50s, when two totalitarianisms were equated, anti-Communism came under fire. This resulted in the West’s lack of moral concern with communists crimes, rooted in the idealization of the Soviet Union. Thus, while the Holocaust became the core of the Western European memory regime, for the CEE (Central and Eastern European) countries the communist past is equally important. Hence, “the acceptability of communism in postwar West European political discussion made a dialogue with East Europeans difficult” (Snyder, 2009: 10).

Impact of history on Polish intellectuals

Although reasoning from different ideologies, the Soviets and the Germans were united in carrying out a policy of “de-Enlightenment”, by purging the intellectual classes of the Polish nation (Snyder, 2009: 7-9; Snyder, 2010: 415) aiming on “the reduction of the Poles to the condition of a leaderless, friendless nation” (Davies, 2001: 58). After the World War II, courses in Marxism-Leninism were made obligatory for all students. Although abolished few years later, compulsory courses in political science – seen by the party as an instrument of ideological indoctrination – were introduced in the mid-1960s for all students at all universities. The field of history also suffered from Sovietization. 1990 marked the abandonment of Marxism in Polish political science. However, the field did not flourish as it did in other post-communist countries. Some argue that the spread of compulsory courses in political science resulted in employing former lecturers of Marxism-Leninism and regional party apparatchiks, and suggest that it was the main cause. Simultaneously, so-called “common-sense realism” – “a practical approach that focuses on identifying national interests and analysing foreign policy without referencing a theoretical framework” (Czaputowicz 2012, p.97) – has become the leading intellectual framework in Polish IR. This undertheorized approach remains a problem in European Studies in Poland too (Czaputowicz & Ławniczak 2014; Czaputowicz & Ławniczak 2017).

Currently, Polish IR researchers reside more on the “right”, compared to their international colleagues.  When surveyed, they, compared to scholars surveyed at a global level, turned out to be more liberal on economic issues (14% being “left” vs 57% globally) and more conservative on social issues (43% “left” vs 73% globally). This may be a leftover from Poland’s communist past (Czaputowicz 2012, p.105).

Yesterday it was Danzig, today it is Donetsk

As early as 1946, Hungarian scholar Istvan Bibo argued that all states of Central-Eastern Europe share the existential fear of the ultimate destruction of a national entity that is born from foreign conquests and violence exercised by the nearby empires. All of them – with the notable exception of Russia – became democracies in the 20th century.

Although states that share similar threat perceptions make security alliances (e.g. NATO), these obligations are not always executed. Polish fears are intensified by the remembrance of the so-called “Western betrayal”.  The concept refers to the lack of Western allies solidarity during the first half of the 20th century. It can be applied on two levels: the “betrayal” of the Central Eastern region as a whole, and at a national level (in this case, Poland). Due to the lack of space, I will focus briefly on the latter. The sense of the lack of commonality stretches from the Polish-Soviet War (1919–20), the Locarno Treaties 1925, through the Phoney War 1939, lack of outside support during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising up to the 1945 Yalta Conference. Poland’s and the Baltics’ “excessive pondering on the memory of the Western betrayal of Eastern Europe in World War II”, which “thus emerges as a key indicator of their European identity-related insecurities, revealing uncertainty about ‘whether the past really is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms’” (Mälksoo, 2009: 655–656).

Moreover, the recent failure to retain the Budapest Memorandum in force adds up to these fears. In 1994 Ukraine, a nuclear power at that time, voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from Moscow, Washington and London. 20 years later, in 2014, Crimea was annexed by Russia. A German analyst commented that “the agreement is not worth the paper on which it was written.” Therefore, Polish intellectuals appealed in 2014 to the West for solidarity, by paraphrasing famous anti-war 1939 French political slogan, “Yesterday it was Danzig, today it is Donetsk”.


Snyder argues that although Polish suffering is underappreciated, the country also exemplifies the politics of inflated victimhood (Snyder, 2010: 405-406). The Polish approach to international relations, based on historical experience, may be justly seen as fear-driven. The disproportionate focus of its elites on hard security issues is tightly connected to its geographical position and resulting, prolonged periods of severe threats for Poles.

This, in my opinion, results in Polish affection to classical geopolitics for several reasons – and grim future for the application of “critical” theories on a larger scale. Firstly, for Poles, history has not come to an end, neither in 1945 nor in 1989.  A ‘power politics’ logic is strengthened by Moscow’s return to power politics in the 2000s, and the lack of unconditional support of our Western allies in the past. Secondly, the negative connotations of the Soviet occupation may discourage Polish IR researchers from applying “critical” theories that are intellectually connected to Marxism. Political science was much more vulnerable to political and ideological pressures, compared to other disciplines that retained relative ideological independence. The lack of definite condemnation of socialism from the West contributes to this reluctance. Thirdly, Polish intellectual elites were targeted by both the Nazis and the Soviets. Subsequently, Polish scholarship suffered from the damage the imposition of Marxism, 45 years of dependence on the USSR, and separation from Western science (Czaputowicz & Wojciuk, 2017: 163).

What can be done about it? Not too much, I am afraid. Recently observed security challenges are being (often ab-)used by politicians to raise fears against “Others” and pushing Poles again into the arms of populists and nationalists, a trend that is being observed in other states (e.g. Italy and Hungary) as well. Present trends also encourage a simplified black/white worldview, that is strengthened by social media and fake news, with decreasing trust in experts and academia that can be observed worldwide. Hence, neither politics nor higher education could help Polish students to come to terms with the tragic events of their past, and develop more nuanced strands of thinking about the international realm. Unfortunately, the geopolitics of Poland seems to keep its academics locked in a classical geopolitical intellectual framework.

Maciej Hacaga is a PhD candidate in War Studies University, Warsaw, Poland. He holds academic degrees from the London School of Economics, University of Vienna and University of Warsaw. You can find him on Twitter: @MHacaga

NB: This article was prepared in the author’s personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of War Studies University.



Czaputowicz, J., 2012. Theory or Practice? The State of International Relations in Poland. , 11(2), pp.196–212. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/eps.2011.69%5Cnpapers2://publication/doi/10.1057/eps.2011.69.

Czaputowicz, J. and Ławniczak, K.,2014. ‘The state of European studies in Poland–analysis of PhD theses and scientific articles’, in ECPR Conference in Glasgow. Available at: https://ecpr.eu/Filestore/PaperProposal/d9775e7d-e109-4e23-bac7-2417b105cc5b.pdf (Accessed: 26 August 2018).

Czaputowicz, J. & Wojciuk, A., 2017. International relations in Poland : 25 years after the transition to democracy, Palgrave Macmillan.

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Mälksoo, M., 2009. The Memory Politics of Becoming European: The East European Subalterns and the Collective Memory of Europe. European Journal of International Relations, 15(4), pp.653–680. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1354066109345049 [Accessed July 27, 2018].

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2010. Interview With Historian Tony Judt: ‘Dreaming About Washington Is One Of East Europe’s Great Mistakes’. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/Interview_With_Historian_Tony_Judt_Dreaming_About_Washington_Is_One_Of_East_Europes_Great_Mistakes/1841206.html.

Snyder, T., 2005. Balancing the books. Eurozine. Available at: https://www.eurozine.com/balancing-the-books/.

Snyder, T., 2010. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York: Basic Books.

Snyder, T., 2009. The historical reality of Eastern Europe. East European Politics & Societies, 23(1), pp.7–12. Available at: http://eep.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/0888325408328750.

Torbakov, I., 2011. History, Memory and National Identity: Understanding the Politics of History and Memory Wars in Post-Soviet Lands. Demokratizatsiya, 19(3). Available at: http://demokratizatsiya.pub/archives/19_3_J773U5477844263L.pdf [Accessed July 27, 2018].


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