Saturday, 30 July 2016

Prometheus and Poland: Greek Myth and Polish Foreign Policy during the Interwar Period

Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bysshe Shelley is perhaps the most famous piece of literature on the ancient Greek titan, that was one of the greatest benefactors of mankind in mythology. Although there are many narratives about the Titan, he has came to represent the theme of suffering for the greater good of mankind, following the eternal punishment he received from the Olympian Zeus for stealing fire for mankind. The themes of the legend of Prometheus have had a profound affect, for example the Romantics saw Prometheus as representing the rebel against institution (church, monarchy and patriarch), who is epitomised by Zeus. However, it may seem strange that this ancient myth has a connection to Poland during the interwar period (between WW1 and WW2).

           Prometheus by Gustave Moreau, facing his punishment from Zeus.

Poland had just regained its independence after WW1, situated between Germany and Russia, and thus it undertook various policies in order to preserve it's recently regained independence.As arguably the most powerful leader of Poland at the time Józef Piłsudski was the main architect of these plans. Miedzymorze, one of these, translates to 'Intersea' or 'Between Seas' and is also known in Latin as Intermarum. Through this Pilsudski in various forms proposed a federation of numerous Central and Eastern European states.

Pilsudski's second plan for Miedzymorze

However, it was the other- yet complementary policy- that has its ties to the ancient myth of Prometheus. Called Prometheism due to its link, the policy entailed supporting nationalist movements within the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union in order to weaken them, thus aiding Poland's independence before and after the creation of the Second Republic of Poland. The name for Prometheism comes from the idea of Prometheus's defiance of Zeus representing enlightenment and resistance to despotic authority. The despotic authority in this instance being Russian pre-revolution and post-revolution. Since large parts of Poland had been under Russian control since the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, it is easy to see why in this case the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were both seen as the Olympian, as Zeus.

The main chronicler of this concept was Edmund Charaszkiewicz, who wrote a history of the concept in 1940 in Paris after fleeing from Nazi and Soviet occupied Poland. From 1927 until he had to flee after the beginning of World War II in Europe, his responsibilities including coordinating the Promethean project. Charaszkiewicz was a Polish intelligence officer, but also an ardent Pilsudskiite, Charaszkiewicz wrote that the genesis of Promethism was born long before the interwar period. It's beginnings were apparently  from  a ' renaissance' in the 18th century Russian Empire of nationalist movements. Nevertheless, Pilsudski developed the idea as early as 1904 in a memorandum to the Japanese government. Pilsudski told the Japanese government the necessity of employing non-Russian peoples in the Black, Baltic and Caspian Sea basins. Charazkiewicz wrote that Pilsudski through its history and love of freedom (the Golden Liberty of the Kingdom of Poland and later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would atest to this belief) and its uncompromising stance to the countries that partitioned Poland-Lithuania in 1795 (in 1904 they existed as Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire) that Poland held would naturally take a leading role in the liberation of other oppressed peoples of the Russian Empire.

                                                          Józef Piłsudski

 Józef Piłsudski is a complex figure, he was the founder of the WW1-era Polish Legions and was chief of state from 1918-22. Pilsudskiites was the name given to his most ardent supporters and after a coup by Pilsudskiites in May 1926 resulted in him becoming Prime Minister in 1926-28. He was also Prime Minister for several months in 1930. A special position was also created for him, General Inspector of the Armed Forces, which he held from the coup until his death in 1935. In this role he was not answerable to the Sejm, but only the President.Thus, Pilsudski could be said to have had the power to project his Promethean project.

Edmund Charaszkiewicz said there five distinct phases in the Promethean project. The first period ran from 1918-21. Poland faced border conflicts with  Russia and Ukraine and also Czechoslovakia briefly and it was not until the second period that independent Poland had clearly defined borders. The key features of the first period were  Poland being one of the first nations to recognising the emerging nations with coasts on the Baltic Sea: Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Furthermore, nations started emerging on the Caspian and Black Seas: Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Don Republic, Kuban and in the North Caucasus. Other key concepts included Poland sending military aid to Symon Petliura's Ukrainian People's Republic in return for claims on the territories of Galicia and Western Volhynia. Both Poland and Ukraine took part in the Kiev Offensive of 1920.  A minister was appointed for the Caucasus and a military mission sent. At the League of Nations the Republic of Crimea motioned to become a protectorate of Poland.

In the second period of Prometheism (1921-23) we see the fall of the independent countries that emerged out of the revolution to the Soviet Union, thus we see Poland working with émigrés from these countries.This included working through foreign offices in cities such as Paris and Istanbul, but also through means such as accepting Georgian officers into the Polish military. The third period (1923-26)is also characterised with working with émigrés,now carried out without the consent or knowledge of the Polish government which removed the Promethean affair from its agenda, Joseph Stalin's nationalities programs in the Soviet Union was recognised therefore creating the Autonomous National Republics, while stamping out the last seeds of independence. However, contrary to the general rule of the lack of official government support, Georgian Prometheism enjoyed support from both the Chief of the General Staff. Gen Stanislaw Haller and the Foreign Minister Alexander Skrzyński.

                                                            Symon Petliura

The fourth period followed the May Coup of 1926 and it was by the far the most active period for Prometheism, with Pildulski now restored. In 1927 it received official organisation from the Polish Foreign Ministry and General Staff, thus for the first time it was centralised and not just a  policy advocated at various levels.

The Promethean agenda was expanding into the intellectual world. An example of this deepening was the creation of a Eastern Institute in Warsaw and an Oriental Youth Circle also being established within this institute, both having a role in the Promethean agenda. Promethean clubs were established in Harbin, Helsinki, Paris and Warsaw. Periodicals were published in the name of the agenda, the monthlies Promethee and Prometheus were established in Paris and Helsinki respectively.

However, in this period we also see more affairs with irredentist movements. Petilurist army officers of Ukraine were contracted to the Polish army. Officers also came from the Caucasus: Azerbaijan, Georgia and the North Caucasus, each recommended by their 'legitimate' national representatives. It is unlikely that the Promethean agenda  always concerned Poland directly for example, there plans for a Caucasian Confederation. However, it is hard to overstate Poland's role. Affairs were also carried out in Idel-Ural and Turkestan in regards to the Promethean agenda. The Cossacks also played a key role at the height of Prometheism, for example a campaign stimulated separatism in Cossack émigré groups.

The final and fifth period defined by Charaszkiewicz is marked by the decline of the Promethean ideal. It lasted from 1933 until the annexation of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II. The Polish-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1932 stopped Promethean work being carried out by Polish policy-makers in the field. The worldwide economic crisis resulted in severe cuts, thus the Promethean agenda only received funding to a level of maintenance. The creation of the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan in 1936 and later Italy in 1937, created difficulty for Promethean circles within the Polish sphere of influence due to the eagerness of these powers with their own Promethean agenda against the Soviet Union. Finally, the death of Józef Piłsudski in 1935 took the movement's largest supporter out of the picture. Thus, Prometheism and when in especially in regards to Poland faded out as an practicality.


The statue above was erected in Tbilisi, Georgia on November 22, 2007 on the land where Prometheus faced his punishment according to the Greek Myth. It was dedicated by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Polish President Lech Kaczyński. It's purpose is to celebrate Polish and Georgian efforts in trying to liberate Georgia and other states from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Therefore, the statue is not just a statue of Prometheus, but a statue of how his defiance against Zeus and his suffering for the greater good has inspired  and been used by people in the name of their political grievances. This statue is Prometheism embodied.

Image Credit to Wikicommons

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