There is an old saying in Poland, that the country represents the walls of Christianity. Certainly Jan Sobieski III met this standard in 1683, defeating the Turkish armies outside the gates of Vienna. Since then, history has imbued Poland and its people with a host of symbolic meanings, including that of a bastion against Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism. This symbolism was readily apparent when President Donald Trump spoke in Warsaw on his way to the G-20 summit last week. Trump could have flown directly to Hamburg, or stopped in any other European city on the way, but he chose to speak in Poland before going to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the president’s words were important, in many ways the symbolism he conveyed through his schedule and the location he chose was even more consequential.
By stopping in Warsaw, the president reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO’s expanded membership and carried forth remembrances of the Solidarity era in a new period of Central and Eastern European contention. (It is no coincidence the Polish government announced a deal with Raytheon for Patriot missiles at almost the same time.) By speaking at Krasinski Square in front of the monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Trump placed himself right in the middle of one of the most contentious issues of contemporary Russian, Polish, and German history, putting these matters, quite literally, front and center.
Germany and Russia have, to say the least, a difficult relationship. The Northern European plain links them geographically, yet the distances between Moscow and Berlin are more than the 1100 miles of road — as the BMW drives — between their two capitals. Catherine the Great was actually German and built on the legacy of Peter the Great to lead one of the most expansive periods of Russian history. The accomplishments of Romanov Russia in various ways matched those of Germany, leading to multiple diplomatic clashes from the Napoleonic Wars to the world wars of the 20th century. For as many issues as there are where Germany and Russia may agree, there are at least an equal number on which they disagree, and there are millions of war dead to underscore these divergences.
By traveling to Warsaw and speaking in front of the monument to the uprising, Trump purposely inserted the United States into the narrative and these complex dynamics, delivering a not-so-subtle message to both Berlin and Moscow that the United States is not rescinding its leadership role.
In 1944, as Soviet armies continued their relentless advances, rolling back Nazi forces, the Polish underground Home Army saw a narrow window of opportunity to reassert control over a post-Nazi Poland before the Soviets could install their own puppet “government in exile” in Warsaw. The Poles attacked the Nazis, who counter-attacked in a vicious urban battle that destroyed more than 80 percent of the city and left roughly 200,000 Poles dead. The Soviets declared an operational pause, and merrily watched the Germans and Poles kill each other, calculating that this would make it easier to defeat German forces and place a puppet government atop the ruins of the city, the country, and — most importantly — the resistance. Stalin once quipped that trying to put Communism in Poland is like trying to saddle a cow, but brute force has a compelling logic all its own.
The Warsaw Uprising remains a hotly debated issue in Poland even today. I have friends and extended family members who fought both the Nazis and Soviets, and many a dinner has been spent engaged in a lively discourse over the costs and merits of this episode. Once suppressed, the Polish Home Army was left unable to offer a strong resistance, paving an easy path for the nascent Polish Communist Party — which quite easily assumed control between 1945 and 1948. The human cost, coming at the end of five years that saw both Germany and the Soviet Union invade Poland (twice in the case of the latter), was staggering. Norman Davies may refer to Poland as “God’s playground,” but the years from 1939 to 1945 were certainly far more devilish than angelic. As my wife’s aunt said when asked who was worse, the Nazis or the Soviets, “Well, at least the Nazis left after six years.” Despite these very real costs, though, the uprising gave Poles the moral high ground in asserting they would never be compliant with foreign rule, and would always fight, by whatever means available, the occupation and oppression of Poland by any external force. As a popular Polish rap song put it in 2006, “We, the Poles, the people who like to fight.”
Trump, then, channeled three important historical messages. First, 99 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson defined his famous Fourteen Points, the penultimate of which was an “independent Polish state…[with] free and secure access to the sea…guaranteed by international covenant.” Trump’s words echoed Wilson’s by calling for a “Poland that is safe, strong and free.” The president’s call for Poland to obtain “alternate sources of energy” so that it could not be held hostage by Russia was a modern-day reiteration of Wilson’s idea. Indeed, both presidents made and reinforced a broader point about national identity and democracy over imperial rule. Second, Trump reasserted the U.S. commitment to NATO and the maintenance of peace, however rough and tumultuous that may be, by standing in front of a larger-than-life monument to the Warsaw Uprising that resisted, in practice and principle, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Poland’s history, and its eventual admission to NATO and its enthusiastic contributions to the alliance, are symbolic of the post-World War II international order the alliance was essential in creating. Lastly, Trump voiced concern over Russia, calling on Moscow to “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere” – activities that have been a cause of great concern for Poles reasonably fearing they might be next. Trump reminded his audience of Poland’s defeat of the Soviets in 1920 outside Warsaw, a battle witnessed by a young leader, Joseph Stalin. I am certain the message was not lost on observers in Warsaw, Berlin, and Moscow, or across all of Europe.
To Poles, Trump reaffirmed America’s “commitment to your security and your place in a safe, strong and democratic Europe.” He notably supported the Three Seas Initiative, an energy infrastructure project that seeks to connect the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas. When he mentioned the “courage and will to defend our civilization,” he was speaking directly to that Polish concept of defensive walls, from the Middle Ages to the battle along Jerusalem Avenue during the uprising. Most importantly, he seized the diplomatic initiative before traveling to Hamburg to meet with Merkel and Putin. He laid down a marker, and while pundits may debate if it was the right declaration, there is no debating that it was a declaration, and it sent a message heard in Germany, Russia, Poland, and the rest of Europe. It is hard to send a message that recalls history, reassures partners and allies, and cautions rivals, but in less than an hour in front of a monument on Krasinski Square, Trump did just that.
Don Thieme was one of the first Olmsted Scholars sent to Poland in 1995 and earned his MA in Central and East European History from Uniwersytet Jagiellonski in Kraków. He later served as the U.S. Naval & Marine Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, and retired after serving as a Military Professor in National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not represent those of any part of the U.S. government.
Image: Jerzy Tomaszewski