A History of the Intermarium: Or, Poland’s Place in the World

By: Jacek Bartosiak

The Baltic Sea is responsible for Poland’s place in the world.

It turns near the mouths of the Vistula and Niemen rivers, following the path where the Black Sea, that most distant outlet of the Mediterranean Sea, extends to its northernmost point.

The Baltic-Black Sea bridge, which we call the Intermarium, is located here.

The Poles of centuries past rightly understood the Intermarium to be the most geopolitically influential region in Europe, but as an organizing principle of statehood, it is an entirely different matter.

It is a region of transition between Western Europe and Eastern Europe, two starkly different regions with starkly different political geographies. Western Europe has been under the influence of the world’s oceans throughout its history. From the sea came the influence of the Goths, the Angles and the Saxons, the Arabs and the Vikings, the English and the Spaniards, and in the 20th century, even the Americans. Similarly, Western Europeans created world empires by accessing and exploiting the oceans at their disposal.

But the rest of Europe, the part that starts at the eastern edge of the Intermarium, has always had a more continental character, influenced as it has been from the seemingly endless lands of Eurasia. The Black Sea is its only reprieve. The continental spaces of this region have determined the political and economic development of the region and, to a large extent, its status and political anchoring. It is continental, sure, yet it is also between-the-seas, creating a peculiar bloc with three frontiers in Asia.

The Modern Intermarium

Its peculiarity is perhaps best illustrated by the contrast in river systems between Eastern and Western Europe. Whereas Eastern Europe was cut off from the oceans and the great routes of economic and social ideas of the world, Western Europe boasts a different geographical layout, a different outline of shorelines and surfaces, different road systems and water communication networks that formed the political history of the region – this bizarre mosaic of nationalities, cultures, religions, political tendencies and social temperaments.
Major Roadways along the Oder Basin

River systems in Western Europe are more or less symmetrical, and the main rivers – the Rhine, the Seine and others – sport similarly sized basins on either side. However, starting at the Oder to the east, this symmetry clearly ceases. There are many more right tributaries, including the Vistula, the Niemen and the Dzwina basins, that are longer than the left ones. (Farther east, the basins become symmetrical again.)

The water divisions herein are usually very low and narrow and thus easy to cross. This means Intermarium rivers are an excellent communication network that can be easily connected by canals with very short relocations. The valleys they created also naturally gave way to easily traversed land routes.

Poland's Strategic Geography

So the historical significance of the river network, especially in the Intermarium, was enormous. This can be explained in large part by the natural expansion of the Polish people to the east. (Credit is also due to the Moravian Gate, in western Poland, which discouraged north-south migration.) But it also explains why these liminal lands that constitute the Intermarium were subject to invasions from both directions that meant to subordinate or destroy all their political organs or, at the very least, prevent the creation of a unified political entity – after all, the Intermarium covers an area of about 1 million square kilometers (roughly 400,000 square miles).

This area was for a time a military training ground for more powerful enemies, whose campaigns frequently ran from west to east and from east to west. Mongol power and Tatar-Turkish expansion spilled into it. Fights took place between Western and Eastern Europe, and the routes of Napoleon, the Swedes, the Russians, the Germans and the Soviets led through it.

The front of World War I stopped on it. Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and Napoleon’s strike against Moscow in 1812 emerged from the narrowest place of the Intermarium between the Carpathians and the Baltics. Russia’s expansion and the political influence of Western Europe stopped there. In short, no war for domination in Europe spared the Intermairum.

Succeeding Where Others Failed

Outside dominion over the Intermarium began in earnest in the 8th century. Strong eastward pressure and geopolitical and demographic expansion created several German states in colonized areas, the most important of which were, eventually, Prussia and Austria. But before those great kingdoms came to be, the Mongols, who had recently finished taming China, came through, devastating the powerful Kievan Rus in far eastern Europe.

The only answer the rulers of the Intermarium could muster was the integration of the “Old State,” the polity that existed before partition in 1795. Polish King Casimir the Great annexed Red Ruthenia, located in what is now the easternmost stretches of Russia, and attempted to bring Hungary into the fold.

The Union of Krewo, which brought Poland and Lithuania together as one in the late 14th century, finally succeeded where these other attempts had not. It established Great Lithuania, the anchor of the Intermarium, and thus stabilized the region for about 400 years. (It also arguably created an opportunity for the European rimlands to develop more peacefully because it eased pressure on them emanating from Asia Minor.)

The alliance was made formal in the 16th century, resulting in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which brought Poland, Lithuania, the Principality of Polotsk (Belarus) and Kievan Ruthenia (Ukraine) under one banner. The promise of the Intermarium as an organizational principle had finally been achieved.

Both neighboring powers – German and Muscovite – understood the danger that this union presented and so made every attempt to chip away at the commonwealth’s power and absorb as much of its land as they could. And so the Intermarium was partitioned toward the end of the 18th century. The fall of Poland led to the complete liquidation of the geopolitical system the nation-states here had created. At the same time, the geopolitical buffer protecting the western rimlands from Russia ceased to exist.

This, along with the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna, created a provisional line of demarcation between Europe and Russia that would last about 100 years.

The 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk gave temporary control over the Intermarium, including all of Ukraine up to the Don River, which was once considered the border between Europe and Asia, to Germany. The Russians lost all their holdings; no Intermarium nation wanted to be on Russia’s side in World War I.

But the late 1910s were, of course, a time of great upheaval. After the war, the Russian Revolution, Brest-Litovsk and the Treaty of Versailles, chaos engulfed the region, only to be calmed by the Treaty of Riga, which ended hostilities between Poland and the Soviet Union in 1921.

Throughout the interwar years, there were various attempts to promote the Intermarium, as an organizing principle, and the activities of the Promethean movement, aimed at dividing the Soviets by separating nations that did not want to be under the power of Moscow, incusing in the Caucasus.

They all shared the desire to reclaim geopolitical influence under the guidance of the Intermarium as a way to counterbalance the Soviet Union and Germany. But these attempts, like those before it, failed. In 1939, the Soviets and the Germans came to an agreement on the division of spoils in the Intermarium, concluding in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that Polish statehood should be abolished, thus disrupting the balance of power in Europe.

And since the Soviet Union was on the side that won World War II, it imposed its will by curbing Polish autonomy, thus crushing any hope for a formal Intermarium until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

What the West Tends to Forget

At the end of the 1950s, two Poles – Juliusz Mieroszewski and Jerzy Giedroyc – formed a geopolitical doctrine that contained a simple maxim: “There can be no independent Poland without a free Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.”

The editor-in-chief of the Paris-based emigre magazine Kultura called for the recognition of the independence of the Belarusians, Ukrainians and Lithuanians to help them regain autonomy regardless of whether they would be loyal to Poland in the future. He argued that the very existence of independent neighbors would mitigate the risk of clashing with Russia again.

Put simply, the concept was based on the assumption that Russia would not be able to threaten Poland if they were separated by the independent countries of the eastern part of the Intermarium at that time – i.e. the Soviet republics.

Poland’s primary foreign policy objective since the 1990s was therefore to support the independence of these countries and to promote bilateral relations with them so that they wouldn’t fall back into Russia’s orbit. Implicit to this policy, of course, was the renunciation of all revanchist claims to Intermarium territories.

Warsaw complemented this policy toward the East with focus on the West, represented by the U.S. military presence in Europe, the auspice of NATO, and the ability of Washington to organize and helm the economic world order that had been in place since Bretton Woods, with particular interest in Western European economic cooperation with the European community.

The biggest change Poland now faces is the fact that China and Russia are acting outside the world order the U.S. helped to build. If the U.S. no longer has unquestioned primacy, then Poland may need to reassess its options. At the very least, it requires Warsaw to better understand what its place in the world is. This, in turn, will result in an understanding of Poland's interests, and from a proper understanding of this might come a Polish grand strategy.

While much is made of the memory and possible resuscitation of other empires, the West has largely forgotten about the Polish land empire, and how it held the balance of power in Europe for centuries, creating a separate core area in a pivotal part of Europe and Eurasia, shaping a separate civilization and the strategic culture serving it.

Western strategists tend to ignore Poland’s strategic dilemmas, treating the country as a member of a Western camp (after 1991) or a hostile one (before 1991), and not an independent entity entering the 21st century with growing potential and superbly located in a strategic area of Eurasia. China, for its part, is beginning to understand as much, insofar as it pertains to the Belt and Road Initiative.

For the countries of the Intermarium, geography is a blessing and a curse. Being suspended between the world’s oceans and the Eurasian landmass gives it a lot of leverage, even as it imperils it from multiple directions. Western powers simply cannot influence the situation in the Intermarium – that is, the areas just east of Poland – without Poland itself. It’s up to Warsaw to figure out if it can capitalize on its leverage, especially when the world order is in flux.

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