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Poland’s Past

To the Editors:

…It is not true that, before World War II, “political parties, unions, and free expression were not curtailed….” Articles in the press were often pulled by county (powiat) or province (województwo) censors. The editor of the Wilno Slowo (“Word”), Stanislaw Mackiewicz, was arrested and confined in the Bereza Kartuska concentration camp for political prisoners. The editor of the Dziennik Wilenski (“Wilno Daily”), Jan Obst, was beaten up with impunity by military officers for having called Pilsudski a buffoon. A standing joke with Polish readers, accustomed to finding blank areas in their newspapers, was: “Q. When is an article pulled by the censors? A. When it lies too much, or when it tells too much truth!” …

Jozef Kasparek

Polish University in Exile

London, England

Martin Malia replies:

Professor Labrousse is quite correct to point out that the phrase “It is not necessary to hope in order to undertake, nor to succeed in order to persevere” is not by Pascal. It is, however, far from certain that it is by William the Silent. Les citations françaises (Paris, 1952) and the Encyclopédie des citations (Paris, 1959) both state that, though this aphorism is generally attributed to him, it is to be found neither in his printed works nor in biographies by contemporaries. In any event the exact wording in the original French, William’s principal language, is: “Point n’est besoin d’espérer pour entreprendre, ni de réussir pour persévérer.” But whoever first said it, it is an excellent rendering of what one heard constantly in Poland during the sixteen months of Solidarity: “What we are doing is impossible and at the same time necessary.”

Professor Kurczaba, also, is correct to say that there was “persecution” in Counter-Reformation Poland to the extent that the “Arian” (i.e., Unitarian) Polish Brethren were expelled from the country in 1660. Indeed, I was quite aware of this fact when writing, as well as familiar with George Williams’s splendid two volumes of annotated documents on the Brethren. If I did not mention their expulsion, it is because the incident was not significant enough in general Polish history for inclusion in an article that, despite its relative length, was still a highly synoptic account, directed moreover to explaining how Poland got to be what it is today. Thus a sentence describing the dissidents’ elimination from political life after 1660 was reduced to an adjective saying that this occurred “without notable persecution,” a qualification I then imprudently deleted. (Similarly, the far more numerous, historically more important, and—from Nicholas I to Stalin—more devastatingly persecuted Uniates were relegated to a mere footnote.) More basically, however, I cannot agree with Professor Kurczaba’s assessment of the historical significance of Polish Protestantism.

One can say of the Polish Reformation, again synoptically, that it was the most wide-ranging and diverse in Europe; that its “left” or anti-Trinitarian wing was the most radical anywhere, advocating as it did total separation of church and state, communistic social leveling, integral pacifism, and a rationalistic proto-deism; and that, as of the 1570s, it appeared that the Reformation would win, endowing Poland with a national Calvinist church. Nonetheless, after a generation or two, the movement withered away leaving few traces behind it (except for the German Lutheran cities of the north); and this occurred, not because the movement was persecuted out of existence, but because its principal sponsors, the independent-minded szlachta, abandoned it for a revived, populistic Catholicism as a result of the crisis of national survival produced by the mid-seventeenth-century Swedish invasion, the “Deluge.”

Furthermore, the expulsion of the Polish Brethren must be seen in historical perspective. Until late in the eighteenth century everywhere in Europe, church and society were viewed as a single whole, and religious nonconformity was held to be tantamount to sedition, at least potentially. Anti-Trinitarians, moreover, were considered to be particularly abhorrent, veritable “blasphemers” who had wholly abandoned Christianity. When they were discovered they were usually burned—the wellknown fate of Servetus in Calvin’s Geneva—while Puritan-Parliamentary England and even the cosmopolitan Dutch Republic decreed, if they did not often enforce, the death penalty for Arian proselytizing. In Massachusetts Quakers were still hanged in the 1660s.

Indeed, almost everywhere the issue of the Reformation was determined by state power, on the basis of cuius regio, eius religio. Only in Poland (and in Hungarian Transylvania) did the will of society and individual conscience play a decisive role in the outcome of the Reform; and it is beyond dispute that nowhere else did there exist a statute of toleration as liberal as the “Warsaw Confederation” of 1573, which justifiably earned for Poland the title Paradisus hereticorum, the refuge of such dissident luminaries as Commenius from Hapsburg Bohemia and of Faustus Socinus from Tridentine Italy.

Nor was the blow against the Polish Brethren very harsh when it came: they were expelled for treason more than for heresy, since they had in fact collaborated with the Swedes more obdurately during the Deluge than the average of the szlachta; they were given three years to turn their belongings into movable form; and the related though more moderate Czech Brethren of Commenius were soon allowed to return—a treatment anodyne in comparison to the vast number of expulsions and deprivations of property carried out almost contemporaneously by Louis XIV against the Huguenots or by Cromwell against Irish papists.

As for the Polish Counter-Reformation, although the militant Vasa monarchy and the Jesuits would not have been adverse to using the coercive power of the state, neither the traditions of the szlachta nor those of the Roman Catholic episcopacy, hostile in principle to forced conversion because of its earlier experience with the Teutonic Knights, would allow this. The result was that the return to Rome, even in the case of the Union of Brzesć (Brest-Litovsk) in 1596 with most of the Orthodox, was accomplished by persuasion, through revivalistic preaching, pilgrimages to popular shrines, and above all by promoting Marian devotion. It is the voluntary nature of this reconversion that for the first time made Poland a Catholic nation, with potent consequences down to the present day—which was the main point I wished to make.

For it was largely by employing the affecting Baroque theater associated with the ancient shrine of Czestochowa, and by adapting this style of piety to such contemporary churches as that of Mary Queen of Poland in the steel center of Nowa Huta, that Cardinal Wyszynski and John Paul II achieved the national-libertarian “mobilization” that contributed so much to Solidarity. In contrast, in Czechoslovakia and Hungary Catholicism was restored in the seventeenth century in significant measure by foreign, Hapsburg force; thus, though the majority religion, it is not felt as distinctively national. In Bohemia, therefore, the national liberation myth still derives from Hussitism and in Hungary from Calvinism, a dispersal of moral energies that is certainly one factor in those nations’ weaker resistance to Sovietism.

Further, Professor Kurczaba’s comparison of the “diaspora” of the Polish Brethren with the Great Emigration is a considerable exaggeration. In 1660 few Poles regretted the small and intellectually distinguished sect of the Brethren, whereas the emigration of 1831 was experienced as a national catastrophe. The nineteenth-century exiles, moreover, produced the great corpus of Romantic literature which is still the staple of Polish culture. True, the Arian exiles had underground cultural significance for England and Holland and, ultimately, Massachusetts (as well as, through the Czech Brethren of Poland, for launching German Pietism); but they left almost no legacy in the Commonwealth itself.

Indeed, the Arians had to be rediscovered in Poland in the twentieth century, first of all through the researches of the historian Stanislaw Kot in the 1920s (summarized in English in his Socinianism in Poland, Boston, 1957); the subject has been greatly developed since 1960 by Jan Tazbir, some of whose work is also available in English, notably A State Without Stakes (New York: Kosciuszko, 1973). Since this rediscovery, the Arians have furnished a kind of retrospective utopia for a certain secular and positivistic Polish left; for by no means all Poles have been happy with the heavy weight of the mainline Catholic and Romantic traditions. For such intellectuals the Arians are seen, rather arbitrarily, as precursors of the Enlightenment “Camp of Reform” that produced the revolutionary Constitution of May 3, 1791, as well as, just possibly, of a radical democratic or even humanely socialist Poland. But this view, however estimable, offers a moral not a historical genealogy, a vision of Poland as it might have been, not as it in fact developed.

Profesor Kasparek, finally, is quite correct in his enumeration of arbitrary practices under the Colonels between 1936 and 1939. Indeed, the list could be lengthened; and I would have been better advised to have stuck to my original draft: “parties, unions, and free expression were not significantly curtailed.” For I do stick to my main point: namely, that in interwar Poland, despite very real abuses—and, among some of the colonels, an affinity for fascist ideas—it was always possible for the various oppositions to speak out and to organize on behalf of their views. And after 1933 this was always true nowhere else in Europe east of the Rhine except in Czechoslovakia. Thus a coalition of the Morges Front (Paderewski, Sikorski, et al.), the Socialist party, the Peasant party, and the liberal elements of the National party was quite ready and waiting to take over from the defunct Colonels in 1939.

To conclude this list of revisions, in retrospect I should have said more about Abraham Brumberg’s Poland: Genesis of a Revolution, which is clearly the most comprehensive and provoking examination of the background of Solidarity. I should also have indicated more prominently (not just in a footnote) that the periodic volumes of Poland Watch (Washington, DC) provide the best chronicle and analysis of developments since the coup of December 13, 1981. For the Poles, though absent from the front pages of the West since Walesa’s Nobel Peace Prize in December, 1983, have by no means given up on their eternally unavoidable pursuit of the impossible.

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