Ïàðàôÿíîâè÷, Õàëèíà The American Myth in Poland and Central Europe After the First World War / Õàëèíà Ïàðàôÿíîâè÷ // Ðîññèéñêèå è ñëàâÿíñêèå èññëåäîâàíèÿ: Ñá. íàó÷. ñòàòåé. Âûï. 1 / Ðåäêîë.: Î. À. ßíîâñêèé (îòâ. ðåä.) è äð. — Ìí.: ÁÃÓ, 2004. — Ñ. 191–200.
Ïàðàôÿíîâè÷ Õàëèíà, ïðîôåññîð Óíèâåðñèòåòà â Áåëîñòîêå (Ïîëüøà) THE AMERICAN MYTH IN POLAND AND CENTRAL EUROPE AFTER THE FIRST WORLD WAR From its beginnings America had offered freedom, democracy and an opportunity for many persecuted people. For the centuries it was also a land for people eager to discover «the New World», for many travellers, and those who were earning for the adventure and the excessive desire for getting rich in such a mysterious and promising land. At the turn of the XIXth century books about America written by the Polish visitors, namely by educating people, artists, writers, politicians etc., spread some knowledge about the country, but, above all, excited eagerness and fascination about the magic, rich and promising country so far away across the ocean. (These «etters» were written for the readers of «Gazeta Polska», which paid for writer’s visit to American in 1876—1878. The «letters» were published in «Gazeta Polska» in 1876—1878 and later in the book version with a several editions) [13, 16, 24].
With plenty of natural resources and land America was also a dreamland for millions of foreigners who sought for economic opportunity, especially during the industrialisation period in the second half of the nineteenth century. This includes also the economic emigration from Poland, often called «for bread» (za chlebem). The mass Polish emigration to the United States reached its peak in the last decade of the nineteenth century and then it continued, despite some restrictions, until the First World War. The immigrants were predominantly peasants from poor rural parts of partitioned Poland such as Rzeszowszczyzna, Galicja and Kurpie. They hoped to earn some money and to return to Poland to improve their standard of living.
First of all, they were thrilled by the exciting stories about the rich country, which offered such a great opportunity to everybody . These stories were persuasive enough for all potential immigrants, the more so that many of their cousins and relatives managed to earn some money quickly. They were influenced by such stories and, as for many Poles at that time, it became an exciting dream to go to the «promised land, flowing with milk and honey, the land of opportunity» [17, p. 430, 440].
The majority of emigrants knew very little about America, the everyday life and labour conditions there.
And what they did know was based mostly on letters and money-transfers, which came from the United States, as well as on stories told by the returning emigrants and limited information in the newspapers.
Uncritical yet promising opinions about America and conditions of life and work there only strengthened the convictions of potential emigrants. The image of America was usually very positive and contained, above all, the elements which were missing in the home country, such as guaranteed work, adequate wages, availability of farmland, great possibilities, adventure and freedom. America became a legendary country and a dreamland for many Poles, as well as for millions of other foreigners who expected to find there, above all, the work, wealth, and freedom.
America was imagined as a country «flowing with milk and honey», a sort of paradise, which was very tempting, especially for young and energetic, yet poor, people who were determined to experience the New Land and money there. Certainly, such an idealised image was created mostly by the emotional expectations and imagination of potential emigrants, fed by positive experiences of others. In fact, it involved very little factual objective information. This was neither needed nor sought by those already determined to go to America. What’s more, even if there was information and critical stories available about difficulties and dangerous situations awaiting immigrants in America, nobody believed it. Stories of misfortune were considered to be isolated incidents suffered by lazy or ineffectual newcomers.
Psychologically this attitude is quite clear.
Most of the future emigrants had dreams about a better life «a heavenly place somewhere» where they could escape. The idealised image of America suited such hopes and dreams perfectly. They left the villages to seek treasure, wealth and their fortune in America. Certainly, their dreams of having houses with beautiful furniture, carpets and pictures on the walls would come true there, «in rich America». That was true. In Poland most of them had lived in very basic and poor conditions and had never even witnessed such wealth with their own eyes. Of course they could imagine that a country gentleman or a factory owner might afford such things and riches. But not common people or peasants! The following remark reflects their sincere surprise caused by the realisation that material comfort was possible for the working class: «When I went to church in America the first time I was amazed. Women were dressed up in silk and hats and men were also carefully dressed. (...) I couldn’t believe they are our Wojteks and Kasias from Polish villages» [17, p. 143].
The Polish immigrants hoped to share with other nations the benefits of American wealth, democracy, and freedom. For many those who saw their expectations bear fruit and who improved their economic status, the U.S. became the real «promised land». Many of them later on worked not only in meat packing plants and steelworks, but also became owners of restaurants, shops, service stations etc. Most of them were quite satisfied with their way of life and, above all, with the standard of living in America. They bought cars, houses with gardens, refrigerators, and radios and they were very proud of the fruit of their hard work [17, pp. 191—192, 305, 452]. They came to believe in the superiority of everything American and became the strongest supporters of the American way of life and the system itself.
In Poland only very few rich people could afford a car at that time. In America, thanks to hard work, good luck, and American prosperity in the 1920s it was even possible for a worker, previously a poor Polish peasant. I think such an example is very significant and explains a very basic part of the modern American myth. Many Poles had dreams about such a rich and promising America for everybody, with «a dollar instead of the leaves on the trees», as one angry visitor complied. In the United States they enjoyed the comfort of modern technology, such as electricity, cooking facilities, heating. They wrote about it with great satisfaction to their countrymen and they did impress them enormously. This is the main key for understanding the American legend, so strong in inter-war Poland.
American Poles praised also the American system, democracy and freedom, especially in comparison to the situation in Poland. Anyway, the more they compared America with Poland, the more they admired the first. Most of those who returned home missed America and couldn’t live in Poland any more. They wanted to return to the United States and many of them did. They preferred to live in «rich, abundant, democratic and free» America. In spite of their American experience for millions of other Poles America became only a dreamland, great, fantastic, promising, yet unreal.
The image of such a rich and prosperous America was created in Poland mostly by the Polish immigrants (later Polish-Americans), the return emigrants and visitors from the United States. In their letters, memoirs and during their visits to the old country they disseminated a lot of stories about not a fictional but real «promised land» and their own careers «from rags to riches». For their countrymen who knew them as poor and sometimes illiterate peasants this was a proof that in America a real career and success were possible. Certainly such a visible success (sometimes «proved» only by stories or pictures) was fascinating and persuasive enough for destitute people dreaming about money and wealth. What is worth mentioning is the fact that about 80—90 thousands Poles came back to Poland after the First World War, but shortly after most of them came back again to the US, because they could not accommodate themselves in the Polish circumstances.
Some emigrants who came back to their homelands in Poland, Bohemia, Hungary or Slovakia became even more successful in the eyes of their neighbours and did spread enormously the American dream.
They could buy more land and afford some other needs. In a very visible way they did improve the standard of living and did implement some innovations, modernisation etc. As one chief administrator reported about such emigrants: «People demolish their wretched little houses one after the other, they build headlong attractive stone and brick houses with thatched roofs — now also covered with title — large windows that can be opened, which is important to community health because it is possible to keep them clean and also to air out the houses. They pay more attention to their clothing and nourishment, carrying the first to luxury, the second to extravagance. Generally, prosperity and contentment have risen» [25, p. 57]. Those successful emigrants became so often nicknamed «Americans» in their native villages and they did Americanise somehow the neighbourhood.
The packages, food and medical supplies sent after the First World War and, above all, the magic dollars sent to the Polish Families and relatives strengthened the extremely positive image of the abundant and rich United States where everybody could live comfortably. Such one-sided picture of America became again a sort of dreamland for millions Europeans struggling for life in Europe devastated by the war and famine.
Since the First World War spreading American culture and values came under greater US governmental direction. The Committee on Public Information (CPI), created in 1917, constituted the first official effort to convert the world to «the Gospel of Americanism». «We did not call it propaganda», wrote its director, George Creel. «Our effort was educational and informative throughout». But the real goal was popularisation of America, its ideals, generosity, superiority etc. Creel introduced on a large scale, as the author calls it «spreading the American dream» .
During the First World War American soldiers in Europe with their equipment, fancy gadgets, cane food and cigarettes became the most effective, intentionally or not, propagators of American wealth and abundance. They also became the visible symbols of American ideals, democracy and freedom with its great leader, President Woodrow Wilson who was a moralist in politics and a man of vision. Deeply drawn into international affairs, he continued to seek inspirations and motivations for American policy. In his messages he very often declared that even small nations and states have a right to equal treatment and have a right to enjoy the same respect for their sovereignty. He declared for a just, permanent, open peace, and stressed the desirability of consulting the wishes of the minority groups and oppressed nations. The president’s fascinating phrases proved to be a mighty instrument of propaganda in the world (George Creel, the head of the American Committee on Public Information, played an active role in it. A huge amount of pamphlets, booklets, leaflets and posters, etc. introduced Wilsonism and the „Gospel of Americanism» to the world).
President Wilson condemned the cruelty of the First World War and appealed to all fighting countries to «end all war» and «establish justice». He became the champion of many oppressed nations, above all, in Central Europe. The principle of national self-determination was for him a natural right, as well as freedom and democracy. America and Wilson became for a time the chief exponents of democratic ideology and moral principle in politics, especially in the eyes of small European nations. In his «Peace Without Victory» address, delivered before the Senate on January 22, 1917 Wilson declared again his principles, which was received with a great enthusiasm and hope by Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and many other small European nations. The American president became not only their «national hero» but also a sort of «super-arbiter» in international affairs. The grateful Poles organised manifestations to honour America, and Polish leaders sent many telegrams of thanks to the president. At this time Wilson became the most popular man in Poland [6, p. 336]. In poster-portraits and sketches he was presented as a «new Messiah» for the oppressed nations. The entrance of the United States into the war with Germany in April of 1917 had a great impact on subsequent events and enhanced Wilson’s moral leadership. It also cast a new light on relations with the national movements of East-Central Europe. The war activities of the United States were not only a struggle against the subjection of small nations and states. America became an active participant in the war, as well as the creator, in the name of Wilsonian ideals, of a new international order. This was a «war to end all wars» and a war to make the world «safe for democracy».
Wilson’s message of January 8, 1918 and especially 13th point about the independence of Poland made him a hero in Polish eyes and encouraged his later legend. The American president was pictured as the champion of Poland and its independence . In spite of a later more critical approach, mainly presented by historians, Wilson’s message had a great moral and diplomatic value for the Poles convinced of, or rather wishing for, more effective American support for Polish independence.
United States participation in the war efforts and its political involvement in the region in the decisive years, 1917—1918, influenced the growth of expectations for American support of the national movements in Central Europe. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Roman Dmowski, Thomas G. Masaryk and other leaders undertook many more efforts to gain American assistance for their plans.
The revolution in Russia and the military destruction of the Central Powers, to which the Polish and Czechoslovak movements also contributed, made their independence possible. The victory of the Allies, and French and British policy stimulated and contributed to the independence movements in East-Central Europe much more than U.S. policy. But Wilsonian America also played a role, especially at the end of war- an active part, which became a quite useful object for overwhelming propaganda and the legend of Wilson as «liberator» and «saviour» of the oppressed nations in Central Europe.
Such an emotional, positive and idealistic image became even stronger during the Peace Conference.
In Paris Wilson was spontaneously greeted by a crowd of admires as the «American saviour», who had helped to destroy militaristic Germany and who seemed to promise international justice and peace. In England and Italy, where he journeyed, he was warmly greeted as well. During the Peace Conference, the American president was considered by the majority of Europeans and especially by the oppressed nations as a «crusader for liberty» and a «moral leader in a corrupted world». Many national delegations from around the world asked for the president’s audience, seeking for his understanding of their goals and «objective judgements of his justice» .