I usually never went eastwards.
That was Prussia's territory and I left him bickering and battling with the Eastern Europeans.
During my first years as a nation, when I didn’t even have an own country or a proper name, I learned that Prussia was a complex person. He was a caring big brother and yet a very violent man as well. Two sides of the same person, interwoven in a complex pattern. When I defied his ideal of a monarchy-loving nation – after talking to a revolutionary France and a very stubborn Poland – he had made it clear what he thought about democracy and the power of the people and especially the idea of me objecting to him openly. And while France was an eloquent person who could convince everyone with well-crafted arguments and a wink and while Austria offered good agreements with his conclusive political talk, Prussia had never been gifted with a witty tongue. His strength had always been his sword and battle tactics – his cruelty and violence had lead him to victory more than once, even against the other two with their witty tongues.
So there was no use in objecting – or God forbid – trying to control what he was doing in his own country or what he did or said towards the neighbors he had known since they could hold a sword in their small childrens’ hands. My intervention would not have changed anything. Prussia loved fighting and would always continue to do so, whether in peace or war. So when the Great War started, I headed westwards to fight my well-known enemy France, while my brother turned east.
But despite my assumptions that my battle with France would be easy and a quick victory, the battlefronts halted. The troops dug trenches and stayed there, covered in mud and blood under the relentless rain and screeching shells.
The ongoing war drained the life out of me, day after day blurred into each other. A meter forwards, another two back. Leap forward five, dig a new trench.
Falling rain and screeching shells.
Deafening gun volley blared and the air shattered, leaving the world eerily numb.
And sometimes silent gas, killing my men soundlessly, cruelly in their sleep.
Warfare in the twentieth century brought unknown terror to us all.
I was relieved when I was ordered home in 1916, to my heartlands, to reconsider strategies and consult with politicians instead. I was told by my emperor to supervise our successes and investigate what could be done to archive stronger forces and to mobilize the people against the incoming Entente. Therefore, I traveled to my country, visited my cities and inspected our gained territories. After two years in the trenches, I realized how much I had missed talking to people that were not constantly tired, dirty and haunted by the fear of war.
That was when I met my brother again, engaged on the eastern front.
Prussia’s troops had pushed Russia back and my brother was, to be honest, delighted to have his grip on Poland for sure. Delighted in the most cruel and bloodthirsty way. I never understood their connection at all. Prussia and Poland seemed constantly lusting for each others’ blood, gripping and conquering each others’ territories.
When asked, Prussia would always curse and claim the little blond dared to take away his ‘awesome’ land and did not know his place, while the Pole would only answer with spitting and colorful insults.
I stopped trying to understand their fights, for they had been fighting long before I came to be. But I observed them every now and then. As I did now, coming from the western front to look for solutions and help in this devastating war.
Prussia had locked the smaller nation into a cell, soundproofed and closed off from the world, making sure that the Polish partisans would not be able to find the personification of their nation. They were constantly looking for him, it was an unnecessary hindrance, according to my brother. Now, he was with the blond, beating him, as he often did. Blood dropped down on the floor, blond strands of hair was smeared across his face. But to my surprise the Pole was conscious, and although he didn't have the strength to defend himself properly from the attacks, his eyes sparkled with fire.
I watched them, the eagle and the phoenix, doing their never-ending dance of violence – the eagle strong and deadly, the phoenix near his ashes. Suddenly, I was stricken with an idea. With my men dying at the front, a phoenix rising from the ashes might be what could help to win the war. But I had to propose my idea to Prussia first.
Prussia snarled and dropped the blond, locking the door behind him, making sure that the other nation was hidden from the world. He walked over to a faucet and started to wash the blood off his hands.
“He is quite lively, considering the circumstances...” I started cautiously, nodding at Prussia's hands. He snorted, but otherwise kept silent. It felt strange to talk about Poland. We both knew he existed, of course – big parts of his land belonged to my brother as far as I can remember, but it was our silent agreement that I would not bring him up again. I had, while being a naive child, tried to vouch for him, tried to talk about his freedom once or twice. But now I was no naive child and Poland was Prussia’s business.
“He could be fighting for us,” I said, dismissing the unspoken agreement. After all, my people were dying in the trenches, I had to consider all possible solutions, even if my brother might disapprove of them.
Prussia lowered the towel he had just used and stared at me disbelievingly. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah, you know, he is good at surviving,” I started, but Prussia cut me off, bristling with anger.
“Fighting and surviving are two different things, West. This Polish scum is only good at the latter. Surviving, disobeying, and being sassy, to be precise.”
I shook my head, my mind set. “That might be true, but my men are dying, brother. Surviving is more than most of them do! If Polen can do this, we need his spirit badly.” After all, I was the one crowned as an empire roughly forty years ago. At the moment, my people were fighting and it was my responsibility to get any possible help for them.
Prussia looked at me for quite a long time, then took out a pack of cigarettes, lighting one.
“What makes you think he would fight for us? That pony-loving faggot is very stubborn in opposing me.” Despite those words, his tone was softer this time while he dragged on his cigarette.
I gathered my thoughts. Convincing my brother was not an easy task and definitely none that I frequently practiced. Cold smoke burned in my throat.
“Well, he fought for France after Napoleon made him a country again. They lost the battle in Leipzig, but they were fighting against you, Austria, Sweden and Russia and being haunted by General Winter, too – loosing after that is an acceptable outcome,” I explained. This had been my first battle as a child, yet, it clearly rung in my mind.
Prussia rolled his eyes.
“What?” I asked, faltering in my decision.
“Nothing,” my brother muttered, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly. “But since you asked: Imitating France and asking Poland to fight are two equally stupid ideas in my opinion. But fine, do as you please. Maybe it’ll ease the situation for our soldiers.”
I waited for him to continue, to give me strict boundaries that should not be trespassed. ‘Do as you please’ could only be a trick, a game to test my loyalty.
Prussia stubbed out the cigarette, then rearranged his sleeves and uniform.
“That’s it?” I finally asked. I had to ask for permission, not because of some legal obligations, but because it was him, my big brother, who I was opposing.
“That’s it,” he repeated simply, closing the last buttons of his uniform. Nothing out of order, a neat soldier as always, except for a few blood sprinkles on the dark material, glittering ostentatious.
“I’ll get him to fight for us, but I will make sure not to take him away from you,” I promised.
Red eyes snapped up to meet my gaze.
“I expect that much,” he said shortly. One could almost miss the hidden threat behind the emotionless voice. But he had raised me, I knew an order when presented with one.
With that he marched out of the room. The thumps of his boots echoed from the cold walls.
Maybe my brother was right about Poland and France. But it was worth a try.
I picked up another clean towel and a lamp and entered Poland's small and dark room. He sat on the floor, still on his knees as Prussia had left him. He jerked his head up, prepared to defy Prussia when he heard the dull sound of the heavy door. Blond, disheveled hair was hanging in front of his face, sticky with blood, glistening in the dim light of the lamp. Recognizing me, his green eyes widened with surprise.
I remembered those light green eyes well, they hadn't changed at all, even though we both had grown. The forties were long over, almost a century had passed since then. I had been a child back then, a newborn nation. Now, I fought alongside Austria and Prussia to control Europe.
As I stepped closer towards the kneeling man, Poland’s eyes darkened.
“What an honor!” he drawled, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “The Empire himself. Welcome!”
I was startled by his spiteful tone but got hold of myself very fast. I had not expected a warm greeting anyway.
“Hello Polen,” I said softly, lowering myself in front of him on eye level. The floor was wet, and liquid seeped through my uniform where my knee touched the concrete.
He prepared to reply, but broke into a wet cough. He bend over, blood dripping onto the cell floor. After the coughing settled, I offered him the towel in silence. I was only granted with a contemptuous glance. Poland wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then straightened up, and fixated me with a judging gaze.
“Look, Polen –”
“You don't have to call me like that. No one calls me by my name,” he spat. Maybe he was trying to find a way to oppose me.
“I do,” I answered calmly.
“Your brother doesn't. He usually uses fancy insults.” Now he was definitely fishing for a reaction. Did he expect sympathy or scorn? I realized I didn’t know him well enough to discern his emotions, his motives even less so. That could be a problem.
I took a deep breath and started a new approach.
“Others could call you by your name again. I could make you a country,” I proposed. The words felt strange leaving my tongue.
The Pole looked at me with wide eyes. He swallowed, then the haunted expression returned to his face.
“What’s the catch?” he asked, suspicious.
“There is none. I make you a country again, a kingdom. You can't be completely independent, though. You'll have some sovereignty but you'll be a part of my empire,” I looked at him, trying to make my eyes softer, pleading him to understand. “You know I can't let you go. Not now, not with Prussia and the others. Yet you'll be a country, I promise.”
He looked at me and shook his head softly as if in thought. His sticky blond hair shifted slowly.
“Why now?” he finally asked grimly, obviously rejecting my proposition, discarding the power I could offer.
Anger flared through me. Why wasn’t he happy? He should be grateful for this opportunity, instead his gaze was full of refusal and hate.
“Why now?” he hissed again, more forcefully this time. “You could have made me a country, like, years ago. You know, I've been here the whole time. I've been here, with your brother,” his voice increased, cheeks reddened with anger. “So tell me why you only think of this now!” He breathed heavily, his hair quivered at his breath.
The Anger was smashed with a cold wave of guilt that somehow started in the back of my mind, unnoticed at first, only drops, but then united in a deadly stream of water. Like the waters in the trenches after strong showers when the dark muddy stream coldly rose until it reached the knees and stayed like this, wet and deadly for days.
I’ve seen Prussia and Austria and Britain and all the other empires cutting the world into pieces, presenting themselves as saviors and being angels of death at the same time. I remembered a time when I thought they were hypocrites, and France had said so, too. I had been a child back then, I had thought I would become a better adult. For me, the world had been way simpler back then. It did not include cowering in trenches.
I arose to my feet, walking in circles in front of him, followed by green eyes. I felt watched, judged. Crouching was impossible when the cold depths filled the trenches, so I felt safer standing up right now. I knew it was purely my imagination, but I had learned that imagination was a strong force.
Poland kept silent again, only watching me with his eyes, so I forced my feet to a halt, not facing him.
Poland’s imagination kept him alive – I could not think of another thing that did, he did not had anything left, no government, no land. If the war continued like this, I would not have anything left, either.
“My men are dying,” I finally said hoarsely. Stating this so obviously to someone else than my brother frightened me more than the trenches. “If you are a country again, you would have to join my army. You could save my men, you could...” my voice trailed off. He could save my people, our war, me. A newborn phoenix would be able to burn my enemies.
There was silence for a couple of seconds, then Poland burst out laughing. It was a hollow and mocking laugh with no sign of happiness in it. Then the laughter broke into wet coughs, leaving him gasping for breath and coughing up blood once more.
I felt a sharp twist in my stomach and everything within me protested at being laughed at. My men were dying, Poland was dying, what was there to laugh at?
“You totally want me to fight for you?” he asked, still breathless, his lips glittering with blood. “To march with your brave little soldiers? Cheer with them? Hell, no! I rather be beaten to death here. Send your brother right back in. I dunno who is actually more insane, like, you or him."
Hate flared through me. The other, older nations never took me seriously, always looked down on me, laughing at me. Even Poland, beaten and down on his knees had enough guts to laugh at me even though I offered him a way – his only way – to become a country again.
I was furious. I rounded on him, my hands clenched to fists, trembling with rage.
“You cheered for his soldiers, didn't you?” I screamed at him. “You actually bowed to Russia. What did he offer you? Why him? You sing hymns for him in your beloved churches, but refuse to even ring your bells for my fallen soldiers. Why for this bastard?”
Poland looked at me, shocked. He crawled back, his green eyes filled with fear.
Fear of me.
I had seen this expression directed towards Prussia but would never have imagined it could be directed towards me.
It felt like a punch in the gut.
I retreated, stumbling backwards, averting my gaze.
The cell was choked with a thick silence, I standing, he on the floor, both not moving at all. Only our breaths echoed from the cold walls, our shadows danced in the flickering light.
Eventually I let out a soft sigh.
“You could have at least thought about it,” I said helplessly. “It was a sincere offer. I –” I swallowed, “I would have given you your county back. It is the best chance you will get.”
Without making eye contact, I moved towards the door and it opened with a clunk. But I stopped at the threshold, hesitating. I wished I could do something for my people and for him. I wished that this war would be over. But then I realized that for Poland, it made no difference. Regardless of whether I or Russia won for him it was just another form of oppression.
“I'm sorry,” I whispered, and closed the door without looking back. Too late I realized that I had forgotten the lamp.
I found Prussia waiting outside, his arms crossed, eyes narrowed. He had changed into a new uniform, spotlessly clean and with neatly tucked sleeves. I did not need him to scold me, to tell me how naive I had been, so I passed him without a word and he didn't ask. He knew me better than anyone – he always knew when I had failed long before I would even know myself.
The next morning I prepared to leave my eastern territories. I still had to find a way to strengthen our front. I heard Prussia approach from behind, but I didn't turn because I didn't want to talk about my failures right now.
“What did you say to him?” he asked. I winced in expectation of being scolded. When I didn't answer, he continued, “Poland just told me he agrees to your offer.” There was a barely audible hint of awe in his voice.
I looked up, surprised.
“He's downstairs. Come,” Prussia said shortly and swiveled on one heel, I followed him, still dumbfounded.
We found Poland in one of the larger rooms of the mansion, standing behind a table, looking grim. Prussia had the decency to bring him new clean clothes and the Pole had been allowed to wash himself as well, since his blond hair was slightly damp and no trace of blood was visible. His lip was still swollen and dark purple bruises colored his cheekbones, but his posture was upright and he stood freely in the room, without locks or chains. Escaping was no option anyway, yet I was glad that he was willing to cooperate.
“Let's agree upon the particular sections of your offer,” the Pole said grimly, making a show of ignoring Prussia in favor of locking eyes with me.
I nodded slowly and presented my terms.
Of course Poland didn't completely comply with our agreement. Prussia sneered and hissed an 'I-told-you-so,' but I ignored him. Poland refused to order his people to join my army and refrained from ringing his church bells. No celebration on behalf of Prussia or me. No hymns. But otherwise, he stuck to his part of the arrangement and I made him a kingdom again. I named him Królestwo Regencyjne, the Regency Kingdom of Poland, and he quietly took the name, not even flinching when Prussia sneered at him or when Austria – who had specifically come to witness this important historic event – raised a critical eyebrow.
It was a provisional and rugged cooperation. Russia's defeat and America's demands to fulfill his Fourteen Points didn't help at all. Point number thirteen was that Poland should be an independent nation, all territories inhabited by Poles inclusive and endowed with a connection to the Baltic Sea. Obviously, my offer was not the best one he could get. Of course, the Pole cheered not even secretly when he heard the terms and Prussia on the other hand cursed equally ambitious.
In November 1918, things turned even worse for me. The Kingdom of Poland delightfully looked towards a time of complete independence, free from any rules and agreements that chained him to me or Prussia.
“Finally free, after 123 years,” he chanted on November 11th, his green eyes full of glee.
“Tell Prussia to fuck himself – wait, I tell him when I see him on his knees when he pleads me to let him Poznań or Śląsk,” he laughed, then left me encircled by the Entente, not looking back at my beaten form.
“You promised to help me,” I whispered.
Poland stopped abruptly and then, after a moment of hesitation, turned.
“No, I didn’t,” he said quietly. “We made a deal. My cooperation in exchange for my freedom. You gave me some twisted freedom and I gave you a rough cooperation in return. I totally don’t owe you anything.”
“No but.” His voice was sharp, his green eyes narrowed. “You freed me because it benefited you. But you don’t benefit me anymore. Two can play that game.”
With that, the phoenix left at last, leaving me and my empire in ashes.