Peter Hetherington: How Republics Die

Peter Hetherington is the author of "Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland and the Struggle for Eastern Europe," winner of the 2012 Independent Book Publishers Association’s Ben Franklin Award in history.

Many believe republics are the best form of government. Successful long-lived examples include Rome, Venice, and the United States. Yet two of these republics failed, as did those in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy in the early part of the twentieth century. Why did these countries lose their system of government and, in some cases, their sovereignty?

For centuries, Poland was a successful, powerful, and progressive republic with advanced democratic institutions. When looking at a seventeenth-century map, one might be surprised to learn that Poland was once the largest country in Europe. At their zenith, Polish lands included all or part of present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Romania, Russia, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine. Yet examining a map of the same area made two centuries later shows no vestige of Poland at all. This tremendous disappearing act is even more perplexing when one realizes that, during the intervening time, Poland lost no major wars and was the most militarized nation in Europe. The explanation for this geopolitical sleight of hand is complex, but involves what in effect was assisted national suicide on a scale that is perhaps unprecedented in human history.

The case of Poland is not unusual; lack of internal unity resulted in a chaos that was easy for the nation’s enemies to exploit. While the United States today has not approached that level of destructive infighting, at times we seem headed down this dangerous path.

The failure of the “Noble Republic” was the result of a cruel combination of related factors. Poland’s government was so decentralized as to be impotent. Fear of tyranny was so acute that healthy skepticism was replaced by outright paranoia, resulting in a paralyzed, polarized parliament. Deputies in the Sejm (lower house) were often immune to debate, as their constituents had given them irrevocable voting instructions.

Unable to enact an adequate tax system, government revenues were not able to properly fund the military, which for centuries had defended Poland against a host of rapacious invaders. Citizens jealously guarded their privileges, creating an imbalance between rights and responsibilities. Making matters worse, Poles devised the so-called “liberum veto,” which allowed any single deputy to veto legislation. The procedure made the system shockingly easy to corrupt: every parliamentary session was only one bribe away from dissolution.

The most significant problem with the Polish government was probably timing. Poland developed its unique form of government when her enemies were weak and she was strong. Her civic leaders knew that Poland possessed some of the best fighting men in Europe and therefore believed the security of the state could not be seriously threatened. But while distracted by partisan infighting, they allowed Poland’s defenses to deteriorate. As long as the hard outer shell of Polish militarism protected Poland’s delicate inner workings, the republic survived. But when Poland’s predatory neighbors became increasingly powerful, particularly during the eighteenth century, the withering of the Polish state was seen as opportunity to capture the republic’s rich resources. In 1795, in a third and final partition, Poland’s “Republic of Anarchy” was absorbed by German (Prussian, Austrian) and Russian neighbors. As a result, Poles would be ruled by harsh autocratic governments for more than a century.

Polish political life was restored in 1918 in the aftermath of WWI. But the resurrected Polish state was in many ways animated by ghosts from the past. The Second Polish Republic was heavily influenced by an almost universal awareness and reverence for Polish history, and both the Right and the Left were keen to restore Poland’s greatness while avoiding her historical errors. The problem was that the opposing camps interpreted the lessons of Polish history in almost entirely different ways, and this disagreement led both sides to overreach.

Joseph Pilsudski, the inspirational leader of the Polish state, was determined to establish a powerful military and a strong executive branch capable of effective leadership. His opponents controlled the parliament, who, not wishing to repeat the distasteful experience with authoritarian governments, purposely emasculated the presidency. Consequently the Polish constitution of 1921, which concentrated power in the legislative branch of the government, was so unbalanced that it would wobble even in the best of times, and during moments of crisis threaten to spin out of control.

Although he had retired from public life in 1922, Pilsudski became disgusted with the petty political infighting that plagued the skewed Poland’s parliamentary system. He was keenly aware that Poland had been partitioned by her rapacious neighbors in the late 1700s, when partisan politics and democratic excesses left the once-powerful Polish state weak and divided, and therefore vulnerable to foreign intervention. To avoid this fate, in 1926 Pilsudski returned to power as virtual dictator. After his death in 1935, Poland was unable to muster the unity required for the coming storm, and the Second Republic succumbed to the combined invasions of Germany and Russia in WWII, who again joined forces to ravish their ancient foe.

Republics are notoriously difficult to implement and maintain, even in our time. As the two doomed Polish republics illustrate, it is important to appreciate the relationship between internal weakness and external threats. Most importantly, it’s important we remember that bitter partisan debate, over time, can erode a country’s collective resolve.

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