Henry Kissinger used to complain that no one could give him a number on which to ring Europe. Nowadays, the high representative for foreign affairs in Brussels does have a number. If you ring it, they say, an automated voice advises: “Press one for Germany, two for France, three for Britain.” And so on for twenty-seven EU members.
Historians have similar problems. Europe’s fragmentation puts the wider historical picture beyond reach. Until recently, European history was written as if nothing east of the Elbe mattered.
Poland is one of the largest pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to be routinely overlooked. Yet Polish history itself is too big and complicated to receive a proper airing. Its faded glories have been in the thick of European affairs for a thousand years; and its blood-soaked fate in the twentieth century provides an indispensible guide to decisive conflicts. But it’s not in the mainstream.
The latest three titles can illuminate only a few small corners of Polish history. Two of these three authors are Poles; two are women. All address World War II and its continuing aftermath. Happy will be the day when reviewers are asked to comment on something else.
One of the authors, Halik Kochanski, prefaces her text with a note on the different meanings of the word “Pole,” explaining that “ethnic Poles” are not necessarily the same as “Polish citizens.” The latter, she says, are people who possessed a commonality based on living in the same country but who may ethnically be classed as Poles, Jews, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, or whatever. She then proceeds to her opening sentence: “Poland had once been a great country and the largest state in Europe.” “Poland” itself is another term crying out for definition. The state that once was Europe’s largest, though often called “Poland” for convenience, was actually a dual commonwealth made up of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It grew from a personal union of medieval rulers, reached its height after the constitutional union of 1569, and was completely destroyed by force and fraud in the three partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795.
Those partitions saw the entire state swallowed up by its neighbors—Austria, Prussia, and Russia; they engulfed all the lands that on today’s map lie within Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine; and by a strange coincidence, if coincidence it is, those same lands were the scene of all the main acts of mass murder and genocide of World War II. Timothy Snyder has brilliantly labeled them the Bloodlands.
The destruction of the ancient Polish-Lithuanian state in the era of American independence has had far-reaching consequences. The Polish community, for example, the traditional base of the ruling elite, attracted the rooted hostility of …