Poland was the suffering martyr nation of the 20th century. Ukraine, with sense of cosmic destiny, is filling that role for the 21st century.
Poland revived after World War I after subsummation by Germany, Russia and Austria across 124 years. Woodrow Wilson had advocated Poland’s restoration in his Fourteen Points. Poland was the tripwire for World War II, as Stalin and Hitler divided it between their two totalitarian empires. France and Britain declared war on Germany in fidelity to their treaty with Poland but could not in time help Poland, which suffered perhaps a worse occupation under the Nazis than any other nation.
Nearly six million Poles died, about one fifth of the population, half of them Jewish. Auschwitz was in Poland. The Soviets, during their brief early occupation of eastern Poland, killed perhaps 150,000, most infamously 22,000 Polish military officers and other leaders murdered in the Katyn Massacre. The 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the most vigorous Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, brutally suppressed of course. The 1944 Warsaw Uprising by the Polish Resistance was likewise brutally defeated by the Germans, as nearby Soviet armies stood by, and as Stalin refused to permit Allied air assistance. Poland was “liberated” by the Soviets, who imprisoned Poland as a Communist satellite for 44 years.
Unlike other Soviet European satellites, Poland was culturally unified by the Catholic Church, which managed to maintain its autonomy under communist rule. The rise of the Solidarity trade union at Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, the first independent trade union in the East Bloc, loosed forces that brought down Soviet control of eastern Europe. Solidarity was preceded by the election of Pope John Paul II, an ardent Polish patriot whose 1979 visit to Poland was epic and subversive. The Soviets compelled Poland’s army to impose martial law to suppress Solidarity. But Poland reemerged victorious in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, electing Solidarity leader Lech Walesa as president in 1990.
During the 20th century, Poland had only three decades of independence. It suffered the worst of two world wars and the worst of two totalitarian empires. It was the center of the Holocaust. Yet it survived politically and spiritually. Its sufferings, sustained by Catholic faith, enhanced its nationhood. For centuries forward, succeeding generations of Poles will recall those torments and the Polish heroism that overrode them. Hopefully the world too will recall. Certainly, Polish suffering in WWII and under the Soviets helped catalyze Western resistance and reminded the West of the importance of its own democratic liberties. But memories in the West of those infamous decades are fading. Only the middle aged remember the Cold War, and only the elderly recall WWII.
But now we have Ukraine, the victim of an unprovoked assault by a dictatorship not fully equaled since perhaps Poland in 1939. Westerners can readily identify with the Ukrainians, who were building a democracy and an economy in which free people live and thrive as they do in the West. Yet on February 24 Ukrainians who otherwise would have been going to work or school or shopping or sitting in cafes or tending to their families suddenly were confronted by an invading army and bombs and rockets and artillery aimed at their cities. The invader is a nuclear power with more than three times Ukraine’s population and expected an easy extermination of Ukrainian nationhood in favor of a new Russian controlled satellite.
Instead, the Ukrainian nation, which has only been independent from the Soviet Union for three decades, has fiercely and heroically resisted. Its armed forces have been magnificently effective. Its previously undistinguished president has shone with his courage. Its people have shown unity in their defiance of Putin’s aggression and threats. Almost uniformly Ukrainians seem confident about their ultimate victory. Yet likely thousands of Ukrainians, civilian and combatants, have died, many in what appear to be brutal war crimes. Recalling Soviet army behavior during WWII, many Ukrainian women have been raped. Cities have been shelled into ruins. Historic buildings, museums and archives representing a millennium of Ukrainian history are destroyed. Crops that would have fed millions have been destroyed. Property on a vast scale has been stolen, and apparently thousands of civilians have been corralled into captivity inside Russia. All of it sounds very Soviet.
Putin and other Russian officials have behaved and sounded very Hitlerian, arrogant, lordly, boastful, malevolent, duplicitous, and deluded on epic scales. Ukraine, they insist, is not real, but only an appendage of Russia World. Pride goeth before a fall, and Russian hubris will ultimately defeat Russia in Ukraine, and likely end Putin’s regime. But until then, many more will suffer and die.
May peace and security for Ukraine come soon. And may its reconstruction be speedy. May God comfort all who have lost family. Nothing will compensate for these losses, but God’s tears are reminder that He defeats and redeems the worst horrors. Ukraine’s agony certainly was not needed nor sought, but it has strengthened and ennobled a nation whose foundation was previously wobbly. There can be no doubt now that Ukraine will survive as an independent nation, free and aligned with democracies. The result of a robust nation is the opposite of Russian aggression’s intent. Providence often works this way, confounding the wicked and uplifting the lowly.
Ukraine’s suffering has also been a gift to all in the world who cherish liberty and justice. An ostensibly weak nation found the strength to defend itself and inspire other potential victims of aggression. Ukraine is not unified by Catholic faith as Poland was. But Ukraine is demographically Christian and is one of the most religious of the former Soviet republics. Its Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical Jewish and Muslim leaders have been strong in their defense of Ukraine. Undoubtedly the war has strengthened Ukraine spiritually. The war also has revealed the sham and shame of Russia’s pliant state church.
Russia’s other victim, Poland, inspired the 20th century with its suffering endurance and triumphant revival. It is natural that Poland has strongly supported Ukraine in its trial. And now Ukraine is inspiring the 21st century with its own Golgotha.