Conrad and the International Politics of the Polish Question, 1914-1918: Diplomacy, under Western Eyes, or Almost the Secret Agent

Article excerpt

He left Krakow whilst still young, not long after his father, a prominent patriot, had died. His wealthy guardian gave him both the understanding and the funds to allow him to pursue a precocious path of self-discovery including leaving his native land. He first went to France where he had many adventures, including obscure involvement with Royalist politics. He retained a deep interest in French culture, especially literature, and spoke the language with native fluency. Youthful indiscretions, however, led to despondency, even an attempt at suicide. Soon, however, he settled in England where he spent the remainder of his life. On the eve of the Great War he returned to Poland, immersed himself briefly but passionately in Polish politics, and was nearly detained in the Austrian Empire by the war's outbreak. During the War he tried, fitfully and ineffectually, to raise British interest in the cause of Polish independence. His political activities disclosed profound distrust and visceral dislike for Russia, an only slightly less hostile disposition towards the Germans, and a rather sentimental toleration for Habsburg Austria. Although he had no real connections with organized Polish emigre politics, he admired the charismatic Jozef Pilsudski enormously and regarded him as perhaps best suited to lead the effort for Poland's resurrection. He saw Poland's salvation as part of a larger vision of European reconstruction; a view which reflected his cosmopolitanism. Raised a devout Catholic, he seems to have abandoned his faith in adulthood, retaining only a vague "cultural Catholicism." His political connections were rather left of center, though he maintained a fascination for legitimist and Catholic internationalist politics. His wartime political activities were complicated by a problematical marriage, depression, ill-health, hypochondria, and a possible love affair with the American journalist Jane Anderson, as well as frequent financial problems. He was suspected of being both Jewish and anti-semitic, but was neithe r. His Polish patriotism was then and later a subject of much speculation. His long residence abroad and failure to return to Poland after 1918 were regarded by many as proof that the had abandoned his ancestry. In reality, he was intensely patriotic; though profoundly skeptical about the possibilities of his homeland's resurrection. (1)

This is not an outline of the life of Joseph Conrad, though it certainly could be. It is, in fact, the biography of Jozef Retinger, the man who was Conrad's political alter ego during the First World War. (2) Retinger became the agency through which Conrad vicariously expiated his guilt for not being a better Pole, (3) or at least a Pole more active in his country's cause, during World War I. (4) For Retinger, Pole and cosmopolitan, one of the patriarchs of the European Union movement, Conrad was the embodiment of something he had previously only imagined: a man both a true Pole and yet "the most representative European." (5)

During the war, Retinger together with Conrad concocted a vision of Poland's geopolitical salvation. But, when the Poland of their imaginings did not eventuate by 1918, each re-immersed himself into the withdrawal of exile. However, by the early 1920s, both showed clear signs of wishing to return to Poland, (6) or at least to Polish affairs. Conrad died first, in 1924, never returning. Retinger lived much longer and had other chances to resurrect his youthful plans, originally shared with Conrad, to reconstruct a Europe including a free Poland.


Retinger--whom Katherine Anne Porter described kindly as "narrow" and "green-faced" with "liver-colored eyes" and "bilious" (7)--met Conrad in 1912 and the two rapidly became intimate friends. (8) The younger man, unlike the reclusive and pessimistic Conrad, (9) had political ambitions and was perpetually at work to further what he regarded as Poland's good. Conrad, by contrast, had long since lost faith in the possibility of Poland's resurrection. …