Poland Rewrites History

Lech Walesa
Lech Walesa; drawing by David Levine

When the strikers in Gdansk met to assess their victory over the government last August, they discussed not only practical questions about how to organize their new union but also the need for a “new history.” “They wanted to know how Poland got to be the way it is. They wanted hard facts, the whole truth,” explained Bronislaw Geremek, a medievalist, who has been a key adviser to Solidarity from the time it came into being in the shipyard of Gdansk.

The hunger for history, “true history” as opposed to the official version, stands out as clearly as the bread lines in Poland today. The Party newspaper in Cracow, which took up muckraking after the Gdansk strike, is now running a series, “Blank Spaces in the History of Poland.” Everywhere streets are being renamed “May Third” in honor of the constitution of 1791. The official celebration of May 1 paled into insignificance beside the festivities on May 3, Poland’s prewar national holiday, which was revived this year and produced an outpouring of speeches about constitutions, democracy, and national sovereignty. As a Russian invasion put an end to the constitution and precipitated the second of the three eighteenth-century partitions of Poland, the speeches seemed to concern the present as much as the past.

“No more Targowicas,” read a banner carried in Warsaw on the new May Day. Targowica, a common pejorative in Poland, derives from the name of a group of renegade noblemen who invited in the Russians in 1792. A banner in a recent demonstration for rural Solidarity celebrated Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish hero of the American Revolution, who led an uprising against the partition in 1794. The peasant carrying the banner seemed to have a firm grip on eighteenth-century history. When asked about the events of 1794, he said that a few weeks ago the men of his village had gone to a demonstration with their scythes fixed as bayonets, exactly as their ancestors had done when they rallied to Kosciuszko.

The eighteenth century also seemed to hover over the strike last August. At the height of the crisis, a Party official warned the country on television to step back from “the brink of a catastrophe that recalls the events of the eighteenth century,” while Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski stood before the Black Madonna in the holy shrine of Jasna Gora and instructed the faithful to “remember with what difficulty it was that we regained our freedom after 125 years.”

Such remarks carry a great deal of weight in a country that seemed, during a two-week visit in May, to be as obsessed with its past as it is worried about its present. The Poles cannot separate the past from the present and consign it to history books, because the regime has ruled so much of it out of bounds. It returns to haunt them, nonetheless, and it will not be…

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