Interwar Poland and the Intermarium Idea

Excerpt from: Marlene Laruelle and Ellen Rivera, “Imagined Geographies of Central and Eastern Europe. The Concept of Intermarium,” IERES Occasional Papers, no. 1 (March), 2019.

The idea of the creation of a third power bloc between Western Europe—particularly Germany—and Russia that came to be known as Intermarium emerged from the dismembering of the Austro‑Hungarian Empire and end of the First World War. In 1919, Sir Halford Mackinder, discussing the opposition between the “Heartland” (continental powers) and the “sea powers” (the UK, at that time), already mentioned the need for a “Middle Tier of East Europe” from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic to federate in order to resist Germany and Russia. He noted, “Perhaps the Smaller Powers (…) will set about federating among themselves. A Scandinavian group, a group of the Middle Tier of East Europe (Poland to Jugo-Slavia), and a Spanish South American group (if not also including Brazil) may all, perhaps, be attainable.”¹

The most well-known proponent of the Intermarium concept in its first iteration was by Polish leader, Józef Piłsudski (1867–1935), who at the beginning of the twentieth century had attempted to create paramilitary units (the Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party) to free Poland from the yoke of the three encroaching empires: Germany; Austria-Hungary; and tsarist Russia. His return to Poland after the defeat of the Central Powers gave rise to the proclamation of the independent Second Polish Republic (1918–1939), of which he became head of state from 1918 to 1922—a period that largely coincided with the Polish-Soviet war (1919–1921).

As Poland became independent in 1918 after 123 years of foreign control, Piłsudski envisioned a federation of Eastern European states that would be sufficiently strong to fend off potentially belligerent neighbours. This included a downsized Germany offended by the loss of Eastern Prussia and a rising Soviet Union. These early and unsuccessful plans for an “Eastern European Federation”—a Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth accompanied by a currency and customs union with Belarus, Latvia, and Estonia—roughly paralleled the Jagiellonian commonwealth of the Rzeczpospolita, which existed from the sixteenth century until Poland’s third dismemberment in 1795.²

While still in Versailles, August Zaleski, who would later become the Polish foreign minister, led talks with representatives of Lithuania and Ukraine about forming a federation.³ Shortly thereafter in 1919–1920, Piłsudski reconceptualized the federation as a broader “Eastern European League of Nations.” Poland and Lithuania would again form a federal state in the East, with Belarus being granted special autonomy. Ukraine and Romania would enter into a military and political confederacy with Poland. Finland and the Baltic states were to form a “Baltic Bloc,” while Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia would comprise a “Federal State of Caucausia.” These early plans for an Eastern European federation did not come to fruition: no new state wanted to find itself under Polish leadership. Instead, Belarus and Ukraine (re)integrated into the Soviet Union, while Lithuania became an independent country. The never-ratified Warsaw Contract of March 1922 was, according to the German historian Hubert Leschnik, “the last serious effort by Polish diplomacy to establish an Intermarium, and during the term of foreign minister Aleksander Skrzyński (1924–1926) the MSZ [Polish Foreign Ministry] ultimately bowed out of all ‘Intermarium conceptions.’”

During his second time as de facto state leader (1926–1935), Piłsudski’s focus was on ensuring that the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles were upheld. Nevertheless, this period also saw the establishment of the Promethean League (Prometejska Liga), a semi-clandestine network that envisioned cooperation between a group of nations fighting against the Soviet Union. The Promethean League had its ideological roots in Piłsudski’s long-time geopolitical strategy, “Prometheanism,” i.e., the idea that any great power would collapse if its ethnic minorities were empowered, just as the Greek Titan Prometheus helped mankind emerge from the shadow of the gods when he gave the fire to humans.

According to British scholar and journalist Stephen Dorril, the Promethean League served as an anti-communist umbrella organization for anti-Soviet exiles displaced after the Ukrainian government of Simon Petlura (1879–1926) surrendered to the Soviets in 1922. The Promethean League was established by the Ukrainian émigré Roman Smal-Stocky and was based in Warsaw, but as Dorril affirms, “the real leadership and latent power within the Promethean League emanated from the Petlura‑dominated Ukrainian Democratic Republic in exile and its Polish sponsors. The Poles benefited directly from this arrangement, as Promethean military assets were absorbed into the Polish army, with Ukrainian, Georgian, and Armenian contract officers not uncommon in the ranks.” The alliance between Piłsudski and Petlura became heavily unpopular among many Western Ukrainians, as it resulted in the Polish domination of their lands. This opposition joined the insurgent Ukrainian Military Organization (Ukrainska viiskova orhanizatsiia, UVO—founded 1920), which later transformed into the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (Orhanizatsiia ukrainskikh natsionalistiv, OUN).

Piłsudski’s early Intermarium plans and, later, the Promethean project were clandestinely supported by French and British intelligence.¹⁰ These links dated back to the First World War, when France supported Piłsudski’s troops in the hope of defeating the Soviets. In February 1921, Piłsudski travelled to Paris, where during negotiations with French President Alexandre Millerand, the foundations for the Franco-Polish Military Alliance were laid.

The most exhaustive study of support for the Intermarium project by French and British intelligence was explored by Jonathan Levy. Levy’s study was partially based on three interviews with former American intelligence agent William Gowen, the son of senior State Department Officer Franklin Gowen, who had been an assistant to Myron Taylor, Roosevelt’s personal representative to the Holy See under Pope Pius XII. Gowen described the Intermarium “as a prewar British-French sponsored association that would be useful in countering both Soviet and German ambitions in Eastern Central Europe. The original members were anti‑German, anti-Habsburg elites who also opposed socialism and communism…” Gowen named three prominent prewar Intermarium leaders: Vlatko Macek (Croatian Peasant Party leader and Yugoslav Vice Premier), Miha Krek (Catholic Slovene Peoples Party leader and also Yugoslav Vice Premier), and Gregorij Gafencu (Romanian Foreign Minister 1938–1941).¹¹ All three would become Western intelligence assets after the Second World War.¹²

Józef Piłsudski (1867–1935)
Aleksander Skrzyński
The Head of Ukrainian Military Organization
[1] Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality. A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (London: Constable and Co, 1919), 269
[2] Janko Bekić and Marina Funduk, ‘The Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative as the Revival of ‘Intermarium,’” Institute for Development and International Relations Brief, February 2016,; Hubert Leschnik, Die Außenpolitik der Zweiten polnischen Republik: “Intermarium” und “Drittes Europa” also Konzepte der polnischen Außenpolitik unter Außenminister Józef Beck von 1932 bis 1939 (Saarbrücken: Verlag Dr. Müller, 2010), p. 21; Jonathan Levy, The Intermarium: Wilson, Madison, & East Central European Federalism, Dissertation, University of Cincinatti (2006), 165.
[3] Leschnik, Die Außenpolitik der Zweiten polnischen Republik, 29.
[4] Ibid., 32.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Levy, The Intermarium, 165.
[7] Ibid., 168-169.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 170.
[10] Ibid., 184.
[11] Ibid., 180.
[12] Central Intelligence Agency, ‘Paper Mills and Fabrications,’ February 1952, p. 39 and p. 42,; declassified files pertaining to Miha Krek,; declassified files pertaining to Grigore Gafencu,
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