United Europe’s Polish forerunner. Life and political thought of Oskar Halecki

10.10.2018 | By Jan Woźniak

Oskar Halecki was an enthusiast of the League of Nations because that was where he saw a future guarantee of the inviolability of Polish borders. He believed in the need to strengthen international scientific cooperation because he was convinced that it could prevent a spiral of hostility between European nations from re-emerging. Throughout entire life he would relate to his conception of the federalist organisation of East Central Europe borders, meaning the existence of independent countries (preferably, including Belarus and Ukraine) working with Poland to maintain security. He believed that only that would ensure the peaceful existence and cooperation of the countries in the region. Especially today, it is worth remembering his geopolitical concepts inscribed in the tradition of the twentieth century’s European political thought, which sought to answer the question of how to build international relations in Europe based on respect for freedom and peace.

Wacław Jędrzejewicz, a Piłsudskiite, solider and historian, recalled the following scene, which took place in the New York Town Hall in 1943: a crowd of listeners was submerged in a live and broadcasted nationwide debate regarding the future course of Poland’s eastern borders. The Soviet point of view was represented by the eminent expert on the history of Russia, the British scholar Bernard Pares. The task of defending the Polish position was taken by Professor Oskar Halecki, director of the Polish Institute of Science in the USA. Many years later, Jędrzejewicz noted: “After the short, pre-prepared opening statements of both sides, a heated debate on the Curzon Line, Vilnius and Lviv began. I saw Professor Halecki, who with his perfect English, parried the attacks of Professor Pares and with persuasive argumentation defended Poland’s rights to its eastern territories. I saw how Professor Pares, unable to find the right data in his notes, blushing and nervous, getting lost in arguments. Time passed quickly, and in a debate,  you have to answer right away. In this verbal duel of two scholars, Professor Halecki was wonderful.”

This episode, remembered by Jędrzejewicz, well illustrates characteristic of the Polish historian – profound erudition, remarkable memory, and extraordinary linguistic abilities that enabled him to engage in international intellectual cooperation during the interwar period and organise Polish scientific institutions abroad during World War II. Above all, however, a key element of his legacy is the concept of a federalist organisation of Central and Eastern Europe countries, in which he saw the natural successor of the Jagiellonian era on the one hand, and a chance to prevent the region from “balkanization” on the other.

The son of a Croat and an Austrian officer was Polish by choice

Halecki’s views were most probably influenced by his family home. His mother, Leopoldyna Halecka (previously Dellimanić), came from the Croatian nobility, and father Oskar Alojzy Halecki von Nordenhorst was an Austrian field marshal who at the end of his life became interested in his Polish roots. That’s why he made sure that his son born in 1891 was fluent in Polish. After finishing secondary school in his hometown of Vienna, young Halecki didn’t choose to study in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but went to Cracow and in 1909 started his journey at the Jagiellonian University. He studied history and engaged in the activity of the scientific society. It was there that he met his future wife, Helena Szarłowska, who was supporting him for the greater part of his life. The death of Mrs Halecka in 1964 was a massive blow to her husband, after which he never recovered. Later he radically limited his scientific and public activities.

Soon after his marriage in 1914, Halecki defended his doctorate, and shortly after got his tenure.

He studied history and engaged in the activity of the scientific society. It was there that he met his future wife, Helena Szarłowska. Soon after their marriage in 1914, Halecki defended his doctorate, and shortly after got his tenure. Helena was actively supporting her husband for most of his life and her death in 1964 was a massive blow to him, after which he never recovered. Later he radically limited his scientific and public activities.

Studies in Cracow were also the time when Halecki finally defined his own identity. The symbolic breakthrough happened in 1917 when a historian – who had previously signed as Oscar Ritter von Halecki – rejected the German elements of his name.

In the spring of 1919, he took over the leadership of the Department of Eastern European History at the University of Warsaw, and soon after attended the Paris Peace Conference as a member of the Experts’ Group of the Congress Works Office, associating Polish scientists to support the efforts of the Polish delegation at the conference.

Jagiellonian precursor of the League of Nations

Oskar Halecki, despite his young age, was predestined to take place among the scientists in the Experts’ Group because of his research interests. In 1919, he published the first volume of his work titled “The history of the Jagiellonian Union“, where he described the project of connecting many nations of Central and Eastern Europe in one country. The author’s deep conviction about the necessity of peaceful coexistence and cooperation between nations located in between Germany and Russia emanated from the work. A particular threat to their freedom flowed – according to Halecki – from the latter state. The historian was convinced that the only chance for the nations to maintain their independence is to join the federation, which, depending on the historical era, would take various forms. And so, while at the turn of the medieval and modern era, the sovereignty of the people inhabited in between Germany and Russia was guaranteed by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in then-modern times it could have been a union of countries formed after the First World War.

The need to create a federation was primarily determined by geography. The area inhabited by the Slavic and Baltic peoples was – from Halecki’s perspective – “a bridge between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. By creating a transition from Western and Central Europe to Eastern Europe and Asia, between two worlds that are the polar opposite, but not separated by any distinct borderline, the same area is free from the west and east of the outstanding natural boundaries that would close or at least hinder access to its interiors”.

The Federation proposed by Halecki would make it possible to transfer the Jagiellonian idea in the 20th century, understood – as historian Krzysztof Baczkowski described it – as “the principle of tolerance, compromise and the spirit of Western civilisation with the Christian roots of peaceful coexistence of peoples”.

This union of states would also prove to be the heir of the First Republic in another respect – taking the role of a defender of the West as Antemurale Christianitatis. This time, however, the threat will not be the Turkish expansion, but the imperialist aspirations of the Bolshevik Russia.

In the conception of federalism, Oskar Halecki saw a model for the arrangement of international relations in post-war Europe. In the preface to the History of the Jagiellonian Union he wrote that if the leaders of the victorious countries felt the need to create a supranational organization based on the principles of justice and goodwill, equality and freedom after the end of the war struggle, they should take as an example the peaceful coexistence of Poles, Lithuanians, and Ruthenians and other nations within the First Polish Republic.

In his affection to the idea of ​​federalism, there is also the reason for Halecki’s enthusiasm for forming – according to the program of President Thomas Woodrow Wilson – the League of Nations. In April 1919, the historian conducted a lecture for the Polish diaspora in Paris, in which he sketched the axiological foundations of the new organisation. He saw the genesis of Wilson’s ideas in Pax Romana and Augustinian Civitate Dei. However, previous projects, including the nineteenth-century Holy Alliance, have proved to be unreliable. However, this does not absolve statesmen from the obligation to seek a solution that would enable the content of inter-state relations to be fulfilled in peaceful cooperation. In this context, Halecki recalled the words of former British diplomacy chief, Sir Edward Gray, who warned that if such a solution were not found, Europe would soon be struck by a „new cataclysm, greater than any of the historical ones, which will doom the whole civilisation”.

In the Jagiellonian idea, Halecki saw a prototype of the League of Nations, and he recognised Poland as the former “centre of the small League of Nations in Eastern Europe.”

Only its resurrection can provide a lasting peace in this part of the continent – he was trying to convince not only Polish but also British audience, to whom in 1920 he referred his article titled Poland and the League of Nations. Low probability of establishing a federal union with Lithuania and the “revolt” of General Żeligowski, resulting in the annexation of the Vilnius region by Poland, constituted a painful disappointment for Halecki. The historian was aware that Pilsudski’s move would not only deteriorate Poland’s soft power in the West but would also prevent further dialogue with Lithuania. “(…) and unfortunately, we are far from the Jagiellonian idea,” he noted bitterly.

International scientific cooperation and Christian ideals in international relations

Oskar Halecki had no doubt that the League of Nations was a project of the Christian spirit. In allowing peaceful cooperation between numerous nations and preventing wars, he saw the implementation of the teachings of Christ on the ground of international relations. Therefore, he recognised the support of the organisation not only as an activity consistent with the Polish raison d’etat but also as his Christian duty.

The consequence of such beliefs was the inclusion of Halecki in the work of the League institutions. In 1921, the historian received a proposal to work at the General Secretariat of the League of Nations from Inazo Nitobe, an expert in the field of economics and legal sciences whom he met at the Paris Peace Conference. Halecki quickly became involved in the creation of projects for the development of international intellectual cooperation, admittedly unforeseen by the League of Nations Pact, but very important for tightening the ties between the League-forming nations. The memorial, which was developed by a Polish scholar, assumed the establishment of an inter-state scientific cooperation organisation that would deal with the elaboration of international conventions in matters of science, and would be a platform for exchanging ideas on general issues related to ‘knowledge and human creativity’. Besides, the organisation would publish its own periodicals, and the crowning of intellectual cooperation would be the establishment of an international university. France and Great Britain welcomed these projects, and Halecki became responsible for developing the principles of future collaboration.

The unanimous decision of the Second Assembly of the League of Nations, taken on September 21, 1921, established the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (CICI), which task was primarily to initiate and develop international cooperation between universities. Additionally, it was decided that the Committee should include women. This, in turn, prompted Halecki – appointed secretary of the body – to encourage Maria Skłodowska-Curie to get involved in the activities of the newly established institution. The Nobel laureate became actively engaged in the work of the Committee and was entrusted, among other tasks, with developing a report on the state and needs of intellectual life in Poland.

Meanwhile Halecki, regardless of his enormous workload, found time to prepare a report called The League of Nations in the light of history and teaching of historical sciences, which he presented in Geneva in the summer of 1922. The historian argued that international relations between states can only achieve stabilisation if they are based on morality. Ethics and politics must be inseparably linked, for without this we cannot build peace, progress or the “true League of Nations”.

According to Halecki, the idea of „international morality” is – along with the idea of universality and “well understood” national idea – one of the foundations of the League’s functioning.

The author of The history of the Jagiellonian Union was the secretary of CICI for two years and eight months. Halecki’s fluent use of English, German and French greatly facilitated his efficient communication with members of the body and other foreign scholars, which, combined with his diligence and organisational talent, gained international respect. One of Halecki’s priorities was to quickly involve scholars from young countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which he devoted much attention to. Inazo Nitobe wrote: „(…) I can only express the greatest admiration for his extraordinary dedication, enthusiasm and accuracy. If a defect had to be mentioned, it would be an excess of devotion for the tasks entrusted to him”.

Halecki’s departure from the position of the secretary of the Committee didn’t mean his break up with this institution since in the spring of 1924 he was already an appointed CICI expert. He continued to work on the organisation of support for scientific activities in countries in between Germany and the USSR, including through the project of establishing international scholarship programs and a credit union, which could be used by universities in need of financial support. In the second half of the 1920s, Halecki focused on organising international scientific conferences in Warsaw, such as, for example, the 1928 Congress of the Catholic Union of International Research, which aimed to involve Catholic intellectuals in cooperation within the League of Nations. The historian continually emphasised the necessity of getting rid of their distrust towards the organisation.

A spokesman for moral disarmament

At the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, Oskar Halecki got involved in another critical political project, which this time had its roots in Warsaw. In 1931 Polish diplomacy, led by August Zaleski, presented a plan of moral disarmament that would precede material disarmament, initiated in 1925 at a conference in Geneva.

According to the Polish project, before the reduction of arms, states would have to renounce the use of aggressive propaganda (soon after in the Makarewicz Code of 1932, Poland recognized calling for an offensive war as a crime) and review the content of history textbooks so that they would allow school education in the spirit of peace. Halecki eagerly started propagating the idea of ​​moral disarmament, devoting it to both his public appearances and articles. He defended his thesis that the reduction of arms will be impossible, and even dangerous if it is not preceded by moral disarmament. In this context, he was often reminded of the figure of Bishop Mikołaj Lasocki, a Polish delegate at the Congress in Arras in 1435, who, appealing to reconcile France with England and Burgundy, called for the dispersal of the “spirit of war” and “disarmament of hearts”. The idea of ​​moral disarmament, however, has not been implemented. The progressive decline in the importance of the League of Nations, the aggression of Japan in Manchuria in 1931 and the withdrawal of the Third Reich from the organisation promised a gradual aggravation of the international situation. Under such conditions, all arms reduction projects had to be stopped.

In the 1930s, Halecki also climbed the ranks of his scientific career. He was the dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Warsaw and lectured in international relations at the Warsaw School of Political Sciences. In 1938, he was invited by the Kosciuszko Foundation for lectures at prestigious American universities. Within ten weeks, Halecki visited over 20 universities, winning the recognition of the American press. The series of lectures also resulted in the establishment of acquaintance with Stefan Mierzwa, the executive director of the Kosciuszko Foundation, which will prove particularly valuable when Halecki for the second time – this time in entirely different circumstances – will come to the USA.

Federalist in exile

The outbreak of the war surprised the Haleckiand, his family in Switzerland. After the defeat of the Polish army in 1939, they went to France, where Halecki became involved in the creation of the Polish Foreign University, which was to become a “nationwide academic community, replacing, in time of exceptional military situation, immobilised and started exterminating universities in the country.” The university was formed of two faculties: Humanities and Law and Economics, Halecki became its rector. The first semester, begun in January 1940 but was discontinued because of the imminent defeat of France in May 1940.

Oskar Halecki together with his family got through to Portugal and then, thanks to the help of Stefan Mierzwa, crossed the Atlantic, and in August 1940 they set foot on the American soil. There, Halecki took a job at Vassar College, and also, he became the director of the Polish Institute of Science, an organisation which was organising work of Polish scientists in the US and preparing the intellectual background for the future rebuilding of the war-damaged country. Unfortunately, the Institute was not able to fulfil this second function. After the war, when Poland found itself in the Soviet sphere of influence, Halecki refused to return to his homeland. He also ruled out the possibility of subordinating the Institute to the Polish Academy of Science which was being created in Warsaw, remaining scientifically active at the Institute in the US. Halecki also broke all of his contact with historians who remained in the country. He never returned to Poland.

Abroad, Halecki did not abandon his ideas of federalism. In 1943, he published an article entitled “Post-war Poland“, in which he described his vision of post-war reality. Halecki had no doubt that the experience of the German occupation would strengthen ties between liberated nations more than ever. He imagined post-war order as based on the existence of a worldwide organisation within which regional federations would function. The latter would have nothing to do with the zones of influence but would connect societies with related cultures and a similar way of life. He also pointed out that the plan of the federation cannot become a “union” plan, where a dominant force could arise, containing bilateral treaties with weaker partners. A federation project will only succeed if it is based on the principle of real equality. Writing about the place of Poland in these projects, he argued: “Our plan of a federation in between Germany and Russia – a constructive plan for the post-war order – cannot be interpreted as a sanitar”y cordon against Russia. (…) We don’t want to create something against someone or something. We have a positive goal – to serve the common interest of countries that want to be free and independent, but they are aware of the dangers of political isolation and economic nationalism. ”

Halecki’s faith in the concept of the federation was not disturbed by the fate of the Central and Eastern European states, absorbed by the Soviet sphere of influence. In an article published in 1948, Federalism as an answer he expresses his conviction that in the future federalism may develop under the auspices of the United Nations.

Nobody wants complete uniformisation of the entire world – he argued. “What we want is unity in diversity, and this can only be guaranteed by federalism.” However, the pattern for this federalism should be the system of Switzerland and the US, and not the USSR, which is a de facto empire, in which the centre dominates the periphery. Halecki hopefully observed the uneasiness caused by the brutal communist upheaval in the West in 1948, and he hoped that under the influence of the UN there would be some change in the situation of states subordinated to Soviet Russia. However, in this respect, the historian’s hopes have proved futile. The Czechoslovak rebellion gave an impulse to the creation of NATO but did not initiate the revision of the Yalta decisions.

Halecki’s vision of Europe

Perhaps the critical work that Halecki published in exile was the study entitled The Limits and Divisions of European History, which appeared in 1950. In the paper, he has divided Europe into four regions: Western, West Central, East Central and Eastern Europe. Its justification was to be the different impact of liberal Western thought in particular parts of the continent.

Western Europe included the Apennine and Iberian Peninsulas, historical Gaul, most of Britain and the Germanic territories once occupied by the Romans. Its expansion was due to the spread of Christianity to the rest of Britain and Ireland. In turn, the original outposts of the West in the geographical East Halecki saw in the baptised kingdoms of Hungary and Poland, which at the same time rejected German supremacy. In the Danube countries and Poland, the historian recognised states separating the West Central European Germany from Eurasian Russia.

According to Halecki’s vision, the Western liberal thought “met with an enthusiastic reception in distant countries of East Central Europe, while specific German nationalism, in the idealistic and materialistic version, deeply influenced similar trends in modern Russia.” The relations between Poland and the Danubian nations with the West were always very similar. In the Russian state, he saw the country shaped in no small extent by Mongolian influences that undercut the nascent Russian culture. Reforms made by Peter the Great, intended to lead to the Europeanization of Russia, Halecki regarded as strengthening autocracy of the tsars rather than bringing their system closer to the Western standards. For these reasons, he refused to include Russia among countries with the European tradition.

Halecki’s notion of “East Central Europe” had a particularly strong influence on German academia. Universities of Giessen and Berlin opened departments of the history of East Central Europe, drawing on Halecki’s intellectual tradition.

Oskar Halecki died in 1973 in White Plans. He spent the last nine years of his life, after the death of his wife, in loneliness, having given up public activity. “It was as if there were two Haleckis – the brilliant former one and the latter, from the last lonely days of his life” – as a historian Piotr Wandycz put it. Posthumously the last work by Halecki was published – a biography of Jadwiga of Poland, in which he saw the symbolic patron of the ideas of the federation, which he was developing throughout his life.

As Abp. prof. Grzegorz Ryś wrote, the key to the interpretation of Oskar Halecki’s political thought is Christianity. It was the source of his conviction about the influence of the individual on the fate of history, as well as his attachment to the idea of freedom. It was also Christianity where the historian derived his deep conviction of the necessity of linking ethics and politics. It was finally one of the sources of inspiration for his federalist vision. These projects have not been politically fulfilled, but the ideals that lie behind them are undoubtedly still vivid and inspiring.

Translation from Polish: Jędrzej Pyzik


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.