Monday, February 22, 2010

Jeepers Creepers, Where'd You Get That Commonwealth?

The Bastard of Yonkers asks an interesting question: is the Polish Commonwealth from the Drowned Baby Timeline based on the Kingdom of Poland in Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories?

Short answer:

Long answer:
A hundred years ago, there was no Poland. The old Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania had been divided up among its neighbors at the end of the 18th century, and the Poles were nothing more than a trio of minority groups within three empires. But the memory of the lost Polish state lived on, and many Poles dreamed of a reborn Poland in the future. In fact, there came to be two dreams, mutually incompatible, and two men appeared who embodied those dreams.

Józef Klemens Piłsudski was a scion of an old Polish family in Lithuania. He drew inspiration from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 16th century, a vast entity that included the modern nations of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Piłsudski envisioned a modern incarnation that encompassed all the old territories united in a federation. Being Polish would not be based on language or religion, but on loyalty to to an idea -- the idea of the Commonwealth.

Roman Stanisław Dmowski was a Pole of Poland. He drew inspiration from the Kingdom of Poland of the 11th century, a compact realm that consisted largely of Polish-speaking Catholics. Dmowski envisioned a modern incarnation that excluded Germans, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and especially Jews. To be a Pole was to be a Polish-speaking Catholic.

After the three empires came crashing down at the end of World War I, Poland was indeed reborn. However, circumstances produced neither Piłsudski's vast multiethnic federation nor Dmowski's compact, homogeneous unitary state, but something in between -- too large and diverse to be Dmowski's Poland, but too small and Polonocentric to be Piłsudski's. In the end, it was left to Poland's enemies Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin to choose between the two competing visions, and for reasons of their own, they chose Dmowski's. The Drowned Baby Timeline can be seen as a glimpse of the other choice -- Piłsudski's Poland.

Not that I meant it to be. When my wife learned about my alternate history hobby, she suggested that I write about a timeline where Hitler drowned at birth, and so I wrote one -- a few hundred words that I posted to the soc.history.what-if newsgroup on January 22, 2001. With no Hitler around, I figured the various groups that made up Germany's radical right -- the blood-and-soil populists, the proto-skinheads, the run-of-the-mill anti-Semites -- would remain disunited. The situation in Germany in the early 1930s was so chaotic that pretty much anything could happen, so I had the proto-skinheads -- in our history they became the S.A., Hitler's army of street fighters -- seize power in a coup d'etat led by Ernst Röhm. I figured Röhm would suck at running the country, and that he would try to head off popular unrest through the old trick of ginning up a war with another country -- Poland, of course. But in this timeline, instead of facing Hitler's Wehrmacht, the Poles would be facing Röhm's undiscipled thugs, and the Poles would beat them. I ended the post with Piłsudski striding through the bombed-out ruins of the Reichstag building.

My one-off post proved sufficiently popular that several commenters urged me to continue the timeline, so I sat down and tried to work out what came next. Let's say that the British, French, and Poles divide defeated Germany up into zones of occupation, like the Allies did in our timeline after World War II. And let's say that Piłsudski's political opponents on the right start clamoring for him to annex the Polish zone of occupation. And Piłsudski does, because, clever old guy that he is, he knows that this will make the Poles a minority in their own country -- now they'll have to agree to his old federation plan. And since his stomach cancer is acting up, he chooses a successor -- the war's most popular military hero -- and convinces him to carry out his plan. That gave me Part 2 of the timeline, "Passing the Torch".

From there, everything followed more or less logically: an anti-Soviet alliance with the Finns and the Japanese, war with the USSR over Lithuania, early victories over a Red Army still reeling from Stalin's purges, and an armistice that ends with Poland annexing Belarus and the Ukraine. So now we have a timeline where Piłsudski's Poland comes into being -- the Polish Commonwealth.

And all it took was getting rid of Adolf Hitler.


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Thanks for the shout-out, and even more thanks for the body of the post. I know a little bit of Polish history (I dated a Krakow girl for a year and a half), but really need to read more. On one of our regular strolls through Central Park, we passed by the statue of King Jagiello, and I received a most pleasant history lecture.

The DBTL actually made me break out my copy of the 2002 Baen Books "Lord Darcy" compilation, which is a fun read. Thanks are in order for this, too.

Blaise316 said...

The DBTL was great, but one part gives me nightmares: the accordion instead of the guitar as the basis of rock music? ARRRGGGH!
We might be better off living in Orwell's 1984!