Hilaire Belloc’s 1938 Return to the Baltic and Poland

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                              28 August 2019

Saint Augustine of Hippo (d. 430)

Epigraphs

“With every people of Europe outside the old limits of the Roman Empire [such as the Danes] there is a moment of origin to be discerned, a moment in which it passed out of the formless mist of barbaric paganism into the fixed culture of Christendom: a moment in which there came to it for the first time in sufficient strength the formative institutions of our civilisation, writing and record, the monastic centres, permanent building, and also, and above all, the kernel of the whole affair, the Mass.” (Hilaire Belloc, Return to the Baltic (London: Constable & CO LTD, 1938), page 5—my emphasis added.)

***

“Yet Cracow [in the southeast Poland, in “Carpathian Poland” and at the upper waters of the Vistula] will always be the real heart of the people, the sacred place. And one feels in Cracow the reality and the presence of the Polish soul as one feels it nowhere else. That is but the judgment of a chance foreign visitor, and as like as not romantically out of perspective, for after all Cracow is a frontier town not central to the Polish realm [like Warsaw on the Vistula, “the political center of Poland”]. Yet never have I trodden the streets of Cracow when I have visited and re-visited the town without a feeling of being in the immediate presence of that holy something which inhabits Poland like a secret flame.

“The Church of Our Lady from within, when you enter from the market place, strikes you suddenly like a vision: something hardly of this world. It is of a supernatural beauty.” (Hilaire Belloc, Return to the Baltic, page 159—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

***

“But there is another nucleus, the famous shrine of Czenstohowa [Our Lady’s Shrine, which is located not very far to the north from Cracow itself]. It is characteristic of our ignorance, here, in the west, of all things Polish that the monastery, the spire, the altar of Czenstohowa should be hardly known to us. It was the turning point of the invasions. It was here that the last of the [invasive] Swedish effort turned back.” (Hilaire Belloc, Return to the Baltic, page 161—my emphasis added)

***

“Oddly enough the one man, the only man then in the public eye, who wrote in English something sufficient about Poland, was Lord d’Abernon. He understood the full significance of the [August 1920] Battle of Warsaw and you would do well to read his book on the sharp turning-point in the history of the world. [See Viscount D’Abernon’s The Eighteenth Decisive Battle of the World: Warsaw, 1920 (1931)]. (Hilaire Belloc, Return to the Baltic (1938), page 147—my emphasis added)

***

At sixty-eight years of age and only one year before the grave outbreak of the Second World War in Poland in September of 1939, Hilaire Belloc visited with a friend some of the Baltic-Scandinavian countries (Denmark and Sweden) as well as his cherished Poland on the southern shore of the Baltic.1 Belloc was now again traveling to the coasts of the Baltic Sea with his close friend (and exquisite illustrator) Edmond “Bear” Warre with whom he had also earlier visited the Baltic back in 1895, forty-three years earlier and when Belloc was but a youthful twenty-five years of age.

In light of the then impending war in Poland, Belloc’s mature perceptions and vivid historical comments in 1938 will still teach us many things of import, especially when we, from the outset, also candidly acknowledge (and unflinchingly remember) that the Soviet Army itself destructively invaded Poland from the east, in September of 1939.

The Russian invasion began on 17 September 1939, slightly more than two weeks after the German Army had first come into Poland from the west. The Soviet actions might also have been part of the intended vengeance to be inflicted for the Polish having twenty years earlier defeated and effectively humiliated the Russians themselves in the decisive 1920 Battle of Warsaw.2 (It was fought from 12-25 August 1920; the victory is also reverently now called “The Miracle of the Vistula.”)

But who denounced or actively tried to counteract this consequential Soviet invasion of Poland which was soon afterwards also to be imposed on the Baltic Republics and Finland? Did Pope Pius XII himself even say anything, or take other public or covert measures? But what of the Soviet Union’s later alliance with the West against Germany and Finland?

Moreover, says Belloc:

When [General] Pilsudski won the famous [1920] battle he did more than save the city called by its name (the Battle of Warsaw). He saved, as I have said, everything east of the Rhine. [However,] It looks as though the Germans may not have been saved for a better fate. It looks as though another barbarism, almost as bad as the modern barbarism of Moscow, were to take the place of the German culture, for that culture shrieked when Vienna fell [to the German National Socialists on 12 March 1938]. (175—my emphasis added)

Adding some further details (and hints) a few pages later, Belloc returns thereby to the strategic importance of the Baltic and to the reality of power in 1938, to include financial power:

Since it was taken for granted [after 1919 and Versailles] that the new Poland could not live [long], the international banking system, of which the chief exponent was the Bank of England, put all their money on Berlin. The English politicians, but still more the English banking power, restored Prussia, and that is why Prussia is not only leading and organises all the German millions, but unhappily dominates the Baltic to-day [in mid-1838]. (179—my emphasis added)

Leading us back to an earlier time of religious strife, Belloc will now expound some important history for us in light of the realities of Baltic geography:

So far so good. But the interest of Poland to a man who is considering the Baltic of the past, and the story of Scandinavia, is the varying fortunes of the two cultures into which Europe split after the Reformation, their struggle to have the Baltic in their hands: to leave the Baltic a Protestant or a Catholic lake. Poland made its effort towards the close of the Middle Ages. It was on the way to achievement when the storm of the Reformation burst and it was under that storm, and its later effects, that Poland lost the Baltic shore.

All energy polarises. The intense energies of the turmoil which shattered the unity of Christendom polarised as a matter of course, and the Baltic swung between two poles. Anti-Catholicism centered in Sweden, the revival of Catholicism centered in Poland. (147-148—my emphasis added)

In his characteristic light-hearted way, Belloc brings out some important points about the opacity or inaccessibility of a foreign language and how to begin to deal with it in public affairs:

The test of the business is [German] Dantzig [on the northern shore of the Vistula River] ….Meanwhile, the rival [Polish Gdynia] that cannot but kill Dantzig grows apace…..But can Gdynia remain Polish….

Gdynia has one disadvantage [with regard to Germanic Dantzig] however. It is a disadvantage attaching to many another Polish thing—it is the disadvantage of a name which the West cannot pronounce: the old language difficulty again. It would be of service indeed to Polish relations if the Poles would consent to transliterate for the purpose of those relations and to spell their place names and the rest so that we of the West—especially those of us who are the friends of Poland—could read the names and pronounce them. I know that one is here up against a point of honour. There is the same trouble with the Welsh. There is no great harm done to Europe by the bristling difficulties of the Welsh but a great harm is done to Europe by anything which makes Poland the bastion of our civilisation seem outlandish.

Yes, Poland is the bastion. It saved us in the [1920] Battle of Warsaw as it saved us more than 200 years earlier in the [17 July-12 September 1683] Battle of Vienna. It is of high moment to Europe that Poland should be in full communion with the rest of Europe, and the Polish place-names—and personal names for that matter—are the difficulty.

It was with the Poles as with the French. They lay balanced between two forces [Protestant and Catholic] which made a battlefield of all Christendom from 1530 and 1600. (148, 151-152—my emphasis added)

The struggles of the Faith, and the struggle for the Faith, during the early years of the Reformation were intense, but Belloc will reasonably be able to show us now only some of the results:

The recovery of Poland was a chief triumph of the Jesuits. The Society [of Jesus] re-established Poland, though here, as in France, it was the wealthiest men who most inclined to the new doctrines. Happily for Poland and for Europe there had not been so much loot available as in England and Sweden. The lesser gentry were not so much tempted, but perhaps what did most good was that irrational force of a nickname and the mere association of ideas. The Reformation began to be talked of as “that German thing,” and the Poles, like the Danes, though a very different nation, dreaded the power of the empire [as in the oft-misunderstood historic formulation of “the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations”].

Yet remember that Poland, had she received the full effect of the Reformation, might well have benefited on the material side. The breakdown of European civilisation let usury loose and the letting loose of usury created that credit system which had so vastly increased the wealth of the nations which adopted it and which is only now beginning to appear as a poison. Also in Sweden as in England the Reformation depressed the peasantry to the advantage of the wealthy, favoured adventure, and therefore enhanced leadership, judgment in commercial adventure, a readiness to accept novel instruments and new methods.

The Reformation killed the Guild. It gave us in the long run industrial capitalism, but its first fruits were only triumphs among the towns, where it meant new energies, new adaptations. In these [areas] the Poles, like all communities which had preferred the sacred things and the traditions, lagged behind the rest. (154-155—my emphasis added)

These deeply fair-minded and magnanimously refreshing words will continue to give us much to reflect upon and so much to reassess in some portions of our history. Belloc has so many admirable gifts in these areas.

Belloc has also written worthy comments about the elective Polish monarchy and its insufficiency during the rebellious times of the extended Reformation, and how the monarchy’s weakening and eventual loss of position would lead not only to Swedish dominance (especially at sea and along the Baltic coast), but also to the greater benefit and dominance of Prussia, which then led to achieving the humiliating Three Partitions of Poland (enforced by Prussia, Russia, and Austria):

But probably what hurt the strength of Poland most was the loss of monarchy….But [on the premise that “the whole task of government is to govern”] how should kingship govern without continuity? This new Polish crown was elective at the hands of an aristocracy. Permanent kingship there was not. [King] Sigismund the IIIrd [Vasa], the champion of the old Faith, he who made Warsaw the capital, would have done it if any man could, but the forces of rebellion were too strong….He saved the Faith of Poland, he saved the soil of Poland, too, triumphing to the east by land—but he lost the sea.

He [Polish King Sigismund, as mentioned] was a Vasa [i.e., of Swedish lineage and blood], the legitimate heir of Sweden and indeed accepted as king, but his religion was too much for the new millionaires. That [very Catholic] religion endangered their great fortunes based on the loot of the church land and revenues. He was driven out and, though he triumphed in the great flats of the east [toward Lithuania], the sea was not recovered. From his time [1566-1632] onward Sweden is the conquering power, barring Poles from the ways that led to the open seas, and to the ocean. (155-156—my emphasis added)

Moreover, says Belloc, “It was in the second lifetime after the full effect of the Reformation that Catholic Poland, like Ireland, was submerged. In the late seventeenth century the effects of the Reformation were clinched. (156—my emphasis added)

That is to say, more fully, yet somewhat unexpectantly, perhaps even to the learned:

The Polish fortunes were at their lowest [in those late 1600s]. In the eighteenth century Poland [then] fell a prey to the growing power of Protestant Prussia. It is a good example of how the thing that is both prophesied and dreaded does not usually come off. Another unexpected evil takes its place. [For example:] Sweden had barred Poland from the sea. After that the Swedes continued to invade and at the worst moment reached the very heart of the country at Czenstohowa. Yet it was not they [the Swedes] that benefited by the collapse of the restricted, harassed and undermined Polish monarchy. The beneficiary was Prussia.

It was Frederick of Prussia who was the real author of the partition [the three of them!]. His active and willing accomplice was the empress of Russia, but the main responsibility lies with that great soldier, the Hohenzollern….

There was more than one partition of Poland [i.e., three of them: 1772, 1793, and 1795], but throughout the bad business—the launching of our modern moral anarchy in international affairs—it is Prussia that presides over the murder.

England being morally an ally of Prussia for nearly two centuries [as of 1938], the part Prussia played has naturally been under-emphasised in our official histories, the new Oxford and Cambridge historical school of the nineteenth century. (156-157—my emphasis added)

At one point near the end of his richly nuanced and little-known book—Return to the Baltic—Belloc has an important and timely reflection:

I wonder how many of those few Englishmen who go into Poland and feel something of the Polish story have so much as seen Czenstohowa? It remains unspoken of in our letters. It was not even revealed to us when the attempt at framing a new Europe was made—and ruined by London and the Banks—after the victory of 1918. Czenstohowa has not even been subject to the general abuse which has fallen on most things Polish from the enemies of the Christian thing. Czenstohowa is not deliberately ignored. It is simply unknown, unrepeated in the Western tongue. (163—my emphasis added)

On the prior page, Belloc had modestly and more intimately written:

Czenstohowa and the Lady Church in Cracow between them are the spiritual pillars of the State. Czenstohowa has survived the floods of invasion after invasion, the ebb and flow of armies right up to yesterday. It remains as certain of continuance as the unseen forces [and thus Grace] which inspired it from the beginning and raised its walls and towers [in honour of Our Lady and the Holy Mass, “the kernel of the whole affair” (5)]….

So much for Czenstohowa. I could hope that the [Marian] shrine retains the memory of one, even dimly, as strongly as that pilgrim [Belloc himself] retains the scene of Czentsohowa. (162—my emphasis added)

Yet, we now know how much Poland had suffered and will soon have to face again many forms of betrayal between 1938 and 1945, and then once again after the Soviet post-War occupation of Poland, and thus after the broken promises of the British, to include perfidy from other Western Allies.

See the American Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane’s 1948 book, I Saw Poland Betrayed: An American Ambassador Reports to the American People. It is essentially about the betrayal of Poland by the Western Allies at the end of World War II. (What would Belloc also then have said to us?)

Our Lady of Czenstohowa, pray for us—and for the Polish people still.

CODA

Soon after the 22 June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, Great Britain was to ally herself firmly with those same Soviets who had invaded Poland first on 17 September 1939.

Moreover, on 6 December 1941—one day before the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack—Britain declared war on heroic little Finland, a long-time enemy of the Russian Bolsheviks.

Ambassador Lane’s 1948 book (just mentioned above3) will also make us consider again the nature of the purported 1945 victory in World War II.

In 1940, two years after Return to the Baltic was published, Hilaire Belloc had to face the sorrowful fact of the death of his beloved son, Peter, his second son to die in war. (His eldest son, Louis—an aviator—died in World War I and his body was never found.) Hilaire Belloc never quite recovered from this death of his son Peter and he even started, at age 70, to have some debilitating strokes.

Return to the Baltic, though regrettably too little known, is one of the last group of Belloc’s lucid and wise and fruitful books about history and strategic geography and culture—and the Faith. May the reader read and savor this fortifying book, which is about many other things, in addition to the increasingly vulnerable Poland, such as the Danes and the Protestant (and a few Catholic) Swedes.

Hilaire Belloc was to die on 16 July 1953, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, Return to the Baltic (London: Constable & Co, 1938). This hard-back edition’s excellent format also contains a set of twenty exceptionally beautiful illustrations and additional maps which were both made and provided by Belloc’s close friend and travel companion, Edmond L. Warre (affectionately known as “Bear” Warre). These pertinent and enhancing drawings are to be found throughout the book’s 191 pages, to include the vivid maps to be found inside the book cover, front and back.

2For an excellent and much fuller 1931 treatment of this decisive battle against the famous attacking Soviet Marshal Toukhatchevsky, see the original 1931 book by Edgar Vincent,Viscount D’Abernon (d.1941), entitled The Eighteenth Decisive Battle in the World: Warsaw, 1920 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1931; or the later 1977 Reprint of the 1931 Text—Westport, Connecticut: Hyperion Press, INC., 1977).

3Arthur Bliss Lane, I Saw Poland Betrayed (New York and Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1948). Lane was the American Ambassador to Poland during the transitional days to Soviet control, from 1944-1947. His report is candid.

One thought on “Hilaire Belloc’s 1938 Return to the Baltic and Poland

  1. Lord Jesus came to cast fire on earth. Saint Malachi’s prophecy locates, in space and time, the appearance of this fire: “De labore solis”. Pope John Paul II was from the labour of the Sun. When JPII arrived in Poland, on June 2, 1979, at Victory Square in Warsaw, on the eve of Pentecost, he exclaimed: “Let Your Spirit descend and renew the earth! This earth!” Jesus heard this plea. It became: “that holy something () inhabits Poland like a secret flame”. The time is near when the Lord Jesus will put him on the lampstand. Then the Polish language will cease to be a barrier to the Anglo-Saxons, yes they will learn it. A doozy deal, in polish: ‘duże dzieło’.

    On the commemoration day of Joshua the Patriarch

    Like

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