By William Urban


       Recently the Polish publisher of Bayonets for Hire: Mercenaries at War 1550-1789 (Greenhill Press in London, August 2007) asked me for a foreword for the translation. This made me reflect on what I could say that would interest a Polish reader.

       Every writer has (or should have) a mental image of the potential reader. For Bayonets for Hire this meant a fairly well-read English-speaking audience with an interest in military history. It was not for academic specialists, though some might find it profitable reading. After all, the foreword was written by William McNeill, one of the better-known American scholars of the past half-century and a master of world history. But my imagined reader wants a good story, not masses of footnotes.

       My main problem was that each nation knows its own history better than it knows any otherŐs. So what is necessary background for one audience is boring repetition for another; and what seems settled facts to an outsider can be a hotly-contested debate among natives. Then, who can read all the relevant materials in every language? What is out there in Polish that I would have read if my imagined audience had been different? Much of the action takes place in Poland, but Poland was more victim than participant; therefore, after Jan Sobieski led the Polish-Lithuanian army to the rescue of besieged Vienna in 1683, I changed the focus of the book to Sweden and Russia in the east, France, Austria and Great Britain in the West. Life is short, and the demand for more books and articles increases with the number of publications.

       At length an idea came to me. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (or Republic, though neither word quite translates Rzechpospolita) was a very large state that avoided the authoritarian and despotic practices of its neighbors; it provided some toleration to religious minorities and some voice to ethnic minorities — not perfect, but again better than most surrounding states. Its culture was brilliant, attracting admiration and emulation. Of course, ninety percent of the population was ignored except for paying taxes and being drafted, and many of the nobles, who were proud of their ability to drink and fight, looked down on those who were educated or who worked for a living, and they defended their privileges against every effort at reform. Those nobles made it impossible for the kings to defend the frontiers, while the kings (and the examples of Russia, Prussia, Austria and the Ottoman Empire) made it impossible for the nobles to trust them.

       Still, it was a state that came closer to the ideals of freedom and fairness than most contemporaries except the infant United States, which was born just as the Commonwealth was in its death throes. Americans wanted states rights, minimum taxation and no king, but the compromise necessary to achieve political union was accepting slavery. The United States survived because of the Atlantic Ocean. Poland was easily invaded, and the invaders often came in ŇdefenseÓ of the Polish constitution.

       One could easily draw some comparisons between the Commonwealth and the present European Union (as one conceivably can between any two political organizations), but this one seemed especially pertinent: can any political body provide representation for multiple publics, have limited taxation powers, have a figurehead president (or king) and still meet a military challenge or reform the constitution? ThatŐs a good question, I think. The European Union (and the United Nations as well) would not have members if it meddled too much in their internal affairs (the EU does require members to be democracies). But neither is able to develop much of a foreign policy. Maybe that is for the best, but maybe not.

       Vladimir Putin is currently pressing Poland not to allow the United States to establish a missile defense system on its soil. The system could probably shoot down one or two Iranian missiles, but is totally incapable of neutralizing the still massive Russian missile array. Putin is behaving exactly like his tsarist predecessors, intent on intimidating Poland, and he knows that NATO and the European Union will find it difficult to resist him. For those who read Bayonets for Hire will find this a familiar story.

       I donŐt have an answer to this, but at least I had a question for my Polish audience to think about.


William Urban is a Professor of History at Monmouth College