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Poland’s Eternal Return

God’s Playground: A History of Poland; Vol. I, The Origins to 1795; Vol. II, 1795 to the Present

by Norman Davies
Columbia University Press, Vol. II, 725 pp., $75.00 complete

A Republic of Nobles: Studies in Polish History to 1864

edited and translated by J.K. Fedorowicz
Cambridge University Press, 290 pp., $37.50

The American and European Revolutions, 1776-1848: Sociopolitical and Ideological Aspects

edited by Jaroslaw Pelenski
University of Iowa Press, 430 pp., $17.50

Philosophy and Romantic Nationalism: The Case of Poland

by Andrzej Walicki
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 426 pp., $34.50

Politics in Independent Poland, 1921-1939: The Crisis of Constitutional Government

by Anthony Polonsky
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 572 pp., $24.00

Courier From Warsaw

by Jan Nowak, foreward by Zbigniew Brzezinski
Wayne State University Press, 477 pp., $24.95

The Mind of John Paul II: Origins of His Thought and Action

by George H. Williams
Seabury Press, 432 pp., $26.95

Count-Down: The Polish Upheavals of 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980…

by Jakub Karpinski, translated by Olga Amsterdamska, by Gene M. Moore
Karz-Cohl, 214 pp., $29.95

Poland: Genesis of a Revolution

edited by Abraham Brumberg
Random House/Vintage, 324 pp., $20.00; $7.95 (paper)

Solidarity, The Analysis of a Social Movement: Poland 1980-1981

by Alain Touraine, by Jan Strzelecki et al., translated by David Denby
Cambridge University Press, 256 pp., $19.95

Poland Under Jaruzelski”

edited by Leopold Labedz
Survey magazine, $11.00 each number

It is not necessary to hope in order to undertake, nor to succeed in order to persevere.



Solidarity, the first free labor union in a communist country,” the Western press has begun most commentaries on Poland since the great strike of August 1980. True enough, but by no means the whole truth. During sixteen months in the open, and now twenty months underground, the union Solidarity appeared increasingly in two other guises as well: since its employer was not a mere capitalist but a communist monolith, it inevitably became a movement for the emancipation of all of society from the party-controlled state; and since this regimen was a foreign imposition, it edged toward being a movement of national liberation from Soviet Russia.

All this, of course, could not be declared openly, but it could still be tellingly conveyed through the rich language of Polish symbolism. It was first intimated during August itself in Solidarnosć’s famous emblem, whose jagged letters of red against a white background represented workers marching on strike and carrying the red and white flag of Poland. A more religious message of national death and rebirth was enunciated in the great crosses that the union insisted be erected in Poznan, Gdansk, and Gdynia for the fallen dead of “people’s” Poland between 1956 and 1970. Or as the cabaret ballad that became the anthem of the sixteen months of freedom rousingly proclaimed: “Let Poland be Poland.”

But what is this Poland so fervently invoked on all sides, even by General Jaruzelski, who called his martial law a regime of “national salvation”? Fortunately, a large number of recent books contribute to making “Polishness” accessible to outsiders. The historical perspective of this literature is especially apposite since it contravenes the conventional wisdom about Solidarity expressed in journalistic accounts, concentrating on events since 1980.

The conventional wisdom holds that Solidarity was simply what it said it was: an independent labor movement of the sort that any mature working class would desire. An elaboration of this thesis, which looks no farther back than the last decades, holds that Polish communism, though a debased form of socialism, had nonetheless industrialized a backward society and imbued its new proletariat with the idea that the regime is, or ought to be, a worker’s state. Solidarity was thus merely taking the regime at its word and attempting to realize, at last, its professed ideals.1 This thesis has the merits of simplicity and of attractiveness to foreigners, because workers’ democracy possesses a broad and progressive appeal, whereas it is much more difficult to peddle “Polishness” abroad, because this does, or can, suggest a retrograde and obscurantist parochialism.

The defect of the conventional thesis, however, is that communism brought industrialization everywhere in Eastern Europe, and first of all to Russia, yet nowhere else did there emerge such a widespread and enduring movement for democracy as Solidarity, not even in Hungary or Czechoslovakia—and least of all in Russia. The decisive variable in the Solidarity mix, therefore, must be not industrialization but the Polish tradition. And indeed, though in the first instance a union, Solidarity was also the eternal return, but in nonviolent form, of the classic Polish insurrectionary struggle for independence and democracy, or for the “self-governing republic” as the union’s program put it in a clear reference to the historic Polish Commonwealth.

Anyone acquainted with the Poles cannot fail to be struck by their awesome historical memory. That this memory often contains as much legend as fact is of secondary importance; the main point is that the Poles live out their contemporary destiny as part of history to a degree unparalleled elsewhere in Europe. There is indeed perhaps no more striking example of the primacy of national or cultural tradition over social or class consciousness than that of the Poles—unless it be that of their longtime codenizens in the erstwhile Commonwealth, the Jews.

For Poland is not a country, such as England or even vulnerable Czech Bohemia, that has been in exactly the same place throughout its history. It has been all over the map of Eastern Europe, from the Baltic to the Black Sea and back, and from the Oder to beyond the Dnieper and then again back; major cities long Polish, such as Wilno and Lwów, are now Soviet, and cities recently German, such as Gdansk and Wroclaw, are now Polish. Poland is thus less a place than a moral community, an idea or an act of faith, lived almost compulsively by a people oriented less toward the here and now than toward an idealized past, in order to redeem an intolerable present and to bring forth a more glorious future—a people again a bit like the Jews.

Specifically, the Polish drama lies in an unprecedented descent from national grandeur to national annihilation. At its height in the sixteenth century, Poland came near to establishing itself permanently as one of the great powers of Europe, and perhaps the freest among them, only to lose everything in the partitions of the eighteenth century and to plunge into an abyss which threatened the nation with irrevocable servitude, indeed extinction. Ever since, the aspiration of the Poles has been to refute the apparently final verdict of history and restore their national greatness. This quest, moreover, produced a cultural tradition that is a somewhat bizarre and uniquely Polish amalgam of libertarian democracy, Baroque Catholicism, and Romantic patriotism. But to explain all this one must outline the Polish story, taking as the main guide Professor Davies’s magisterial God’s Playground: A History of Poland.

This two-volume work is a tour de force in every way. It is critical of Polish patriotic myths, yet sympathetic toward their deeper meaning, as its title, an old proverb, implies; for “God’s playground” means that Poland has been the plaything of the gods or of a mischievous fate, as well as, just possibly, the stage for an authentic divine comedy. The work is encyclopedic in scope, alternating topical with chronological sections to produce an undogmatic and cohesive analysis, appropriately addressed to the preconceptions of readers who live “in islands or on half-continents of their own.” Superbly written, moreover, it will be the definitive English-language history of Poland for many years to come. In the present it need only be supplemented by Professor Fedorowicz’s admirably presented collection of articles by leading Polish historians, such as Bronislaw Geremek, Henryk Samsonowicz, and Jòzef Gierowski, all active in the “renewal” of 1980-1981.


The story these books have to tell began modestly a millennium ago, with the first Poland, that of the Piast dynasty. In the tenth century, the Slavic people of the fields, the Polanie, in order to resist eastward German expansion, formed a loose polity between the Oder and the Vistula. The main innovation of this new realm was to receive legitimizing Christian baptism, in 966, under the direct jurisdiction of Rome rather than through the Germans of the Holy Roman Empire. An independent royal crown soon followed, thus making Poland wholly autonomous, in contrast to kindred Slavic Bohemia, which developed as part of the Empire.

After the usual vicissitudes of collapse and renewal characteristic of barbarian domains, involving notably the loss of Silesia and Pomerania to the Empire, by the fourteenth century the Piast kingdom had come to cut a respectable figure on the European scene. Its lands were populous and prosperous; towns had appeared, fed largely by German and, later, Jewish immigration; the realm even had its own university, at Kraków. By the time of the last Piast, Casimir the Great, Poland had become a kind of outer Bohemia, a mature state of middling size beyond the Empire and the easternmost outpost of Latin Christendom, or the antemurale Christianitatis as it came to be called. An honorable record, no doubt, but not a particularly original one.

The ultimate historical fate of this first, western Poland, however, was to serve as the nucleus of a second, much vaster nation, extending far into the east as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This eastward orientation was the beginning of Poland’s true originality and European greatness, and the source of a collective consciousness that endures to this day.

This new direction came about in 1386 with the marriage of the Piasts’ heiress to Jagiello, grand duke of the Lithuanians, the last pagan people in Europe. An alliance was thereby forged against the crusading Teutonic Order, which had been established in the previous century to subdue the pagan Prussians along the Baltic coast between Danzig (Gdansk) and Königsberg. Since the Order now threatened the Lithuanians, the latter accepted baptism peacefully from the Poles, and the two nations together, at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg) in 1410, broke the power of the Teutonic Knights and made Prussia a vassal of Poland; thus Poland was made secure in the west.

The union of Poland and Lithuania had even more important consequences in the east. For the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was enormous, three times the size of Poland, and included not only ethnic Lithuania but what is now Bielorussia and the Ukraine. It was in effect a “Russian” state, to use an anachronistic term, and, except for Lithuania proper, Orthodox in religion. Lithuania had grown so large because its grand dukes proved a better shield for their Orthodox subjects against Tartars and Muslim Turks than the other Russian state, Muscovy.

The union of Poland with Lithuania had three momentous consequences: the new unit became the largest state in Europe at the time; Poland was transformed into a multinational and multiconfessional community; and it was set on an inevitable collision course with Muscovy over the grand duchy’s Orthodox lands. But until the balance tipped toward Moscow in the mid-seventeenth century, this expanded Poland had its golden age.

At first the bond between the two nations was only a personal one under the Jagiellonian dynasty. In time, however, the Lithuanian grand duchy’s nobility became Polonized in speech and culture and, usually, Catholic, even in the Orthodox provinces. Ultimately the weaker party, Lithuania, under pressure from Ivan the Terrible, was driven to accept permanent and organic association with Poland at the Union of Lublin in 1569.2 The historic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was at last fully formed. Or, as Professor Davies insists, the proper term is “republic,” not only because the Rzeczpospolita, as it was called, means literally res publica, but even more because its institutions were in fact more republican than monarchical. For the most remarkable thing about the new state was less its international weight than its extraordinary internal constitution—still little understood in the West.

That constitution rested on the hegemony of a single estate, the szlachta, or nobility. This group, to be sure, must be subdivided according to wealth, power, and prestige into a small group of great “magnates” and an enormous group of “gentry,” in part landed and in part almost as impoverished as the peasantry. Yet important though these distinctions are, they should not obscure the fact that legally and politically the szlachta constituted a single estate, all of whose members enjoyed identical rights. A genuine egalitarianism thus prevailed within the group as whole, which made it the “noble nation.” This body was huge for the period, eventually comprising almost 10 percent of the population—the largest nobility in Europe.

  1. 1

    See Daniel Singer, The Road to Gdansk (Monthly Review, 1981 and 1982) and in much more sophisticated fashion Neal Ascherson, The Polish August (Viking, 1982).

  2. 2

    This political union was supplemented by a less successful religious union at Brest in 1596, between Catholics and Orthodox, which in fact split the duchy between a majority of Eastern-rite Uniates under Rome and a minority of Orthodox, thus weakening it vis-à-vis Moscow.

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