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 laid to rest until the government permits an open confrontation with the past along with openness in every other sphere of public life.

The partitions of the eighteenth century illustrate the tendency to telescope the past and present. They belong to current events in Poland, because the Poles see their history as a constant struggle against partition, partition from the East as well as the West, right up to the present.

A weak state with no natural boundaries, Poland was carved up by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1772, 1793, and 1795. It survived only as a culture in the nineteenth century, thanks to its poets and its church. After being re-created as a national state by the Treaty of Versailles, Poland barely escaped destruction in the war defending itself against the forces of Bolshevik Russia in 1920. In 1939, a secret protocol of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, so the Poles were partitioned once again soon after World War II exploded from the post office of Gdansk. They still feel divided today, because their culture and religion attach them to the West, while the Soviet empire binds them to the East. They inhabit the most explosive point in a partitioned Europe.

But they seem determined not to take history lying down. The most common joke now going around Warsaw could have been told at almost any point during the last two hundred years. “Question: If the Russians attack from the east and the Germans attack from the west, who do we fight first? Answer: the Germans. Business before pleasure.” The most common question asked of an American is: “Why did you sell us at Yalta?” To the Poles, Yalta represents the culmination of a whole history of partitions.

History obsesses the Poles not merely because it seems to repeat itself but because it, too, is divided. Officially, history conforms to the Party line. Unofficially, it clings to the taboo. A film shown every day in the Warsaw Historical Museum shows German troops leveling the city after the uprising of 1944. Finally the Soviet troops liberate the rubble, having been detained on the east bank of the Vistula, as official history would have it, by overextended lines of communication. According to the accounts that circulate by word of mouth, the “liberators” let the Germans do their dirty work for them, in order to encounter no opposition when they extended their empire to the west. That version is generally accepted in the West, but nothing could be more heretical in Communist Poland—except perhaps talk of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which often accompanies it in the historical discussions that have sprung up everywhere since the Gdansk strike.


The heresies accumulate as the talk turns toward the present. A few blocks away from the Historical Museum, the Solidarity branch of the photographers’ union mounted an exhibition entitled simply “1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980.” It showed shots of the riots that have punctuated postwar Polish history, marking shifts in power from Gomulka to Gierek to Kania. To American eyes, accustomed to seeing street violence on television, the photographs looked mild. Blurred figures threw stones and ran from the police in vaguely urban settings. The Poles drank it in. They crammed into the exhibit and stared and stared. Having come face-to-face with the blank spaces of their history, they could not get enough.

Someone had written “Bandits” under a photograph of Gierek and other members of the Politburo. A visitors’ book contained a host of similar comments. One read, “Next time Katyn.” For the regime, the massacre of 10,000 or more Polish troops, mainly officers, in the forest of Katyn is the greatest taboo subject in Poland today. According to official history, the Germans killed the troops after capturing them in 1941. According to discussions held in hushed tones with glances over the shoulder, the Russians did the killing while grabbing their share of the Hitler-Stalin partition in 1940.

Which version to believe? The Poles debate the evidence. How many of the names on the list of victims published by the Nazis can be verified? How sound is the American monograph Death in the Forest by J.K. Zawodny, which circulates underground? Is it not significant that the families of the prisoners stopped receiving mail in 1940, not 1941? Most Poles seem to have drawn their own conclusions. An official guide showing an American around a church pointed to a series of memorial plaques on the wall. “Katyn,” he said. The visitor did not get it. “The date, the date,” he repeated and then lapsed into a prudent silence. The plaques read “Katyn 1940.”

The emotive power of a date may be hard to understand for someone who has not experienced the disparity between official and underground history. May 3 can bring moisture to the eyes, 1940 can produce a firm set in the jaw, because those dates are not supposed to exist historically. The regime has also tried to keep its repression of the Gdansk strike in 1970 a nonevent. But the strikers of 1980 forced it to let them build a huge monument to the dead of 1970 at the main entrance to the shipyards. It towers over the workplace, a pillar of steel twisted into three crosses at the top, its base covered every day with fresh bouquets of flowers.

Flowers mark the scars left by history everywhere in Poland. Six million Poles died in World War II, almost 20 percent of the population. Hardly a family escaped untouched, and many of the survivors know where and how their loved ones died. They leave flowers on the spot. They hang red and white ribbons on plaques to the Resistance. They burn candles in streets and churches, where memories are sharpest. How could the Poles forget the past? They walk around in it every day.

Official history has an explanation for the devastation. The war and its aftermath are to be attributed to oppression and revanchism from Germany. But there are limits to the hatred of Germans, even in Poland. The Poles know that Willy Brandt sank to his knees on the site of the Warsaw ghetto, weeping, and that they cannot talk openly about Katyn.

The contradictions between official and repressed history can be played out in gestures. Flowers commemorate the Poles who fought partition as well as the dead from World War II. They lie by the plaque to Kosciuszko and the statue to Adam Mickiewicz, the nationalist poet, in the market square of Cracow. They are thickest at the crypt of Josef Pilsudski, in Cracow’s Wawel cathedral. The crypt is lit by candles from the faithful and adorned with school badges deposited by children. Yet Pilsudski remains something of a nonperson in official history. After taking command of the newly reborn Poland in 1919, he led the war against Russia in 1920.


The most sacred site in Warsaw is probably the tomb of the unknown soldier. It is where Solidarity demonstrations usually end and where visits from foreign dignitaries usually begin. But the laying of a wreath on the tomb does not express sympathy for the USSR, because the soldier was killed while fighting the Bolsheviks under Pilsudski; so the Poles take special pleasure in watching Soviet ambassadors execute that gesture.

They also enjoy the ironies and ambiguities that make their history deviate from the Party line. The official version has militants rising in Warsaw to support the Russian revolution of 1905. But students in the university will tell you that their predecessors rose against Russification, because lectures could not be given in Polish during the occupation of the nineteenth century. When the members of Solidarity march through the streets, they change the words of a traditional hymn from “God keep Poland free” to “God make Poland free.” They do not need to tamper with the national anthem, because its refrain, “March Dabrowski,” is a call for liberation which echoes from 1797, when Polish patriots hoped that the Polish legion under General Henryk Dabrowski would leave Napoleon’s forces in Italy in order to free them from the partitioning powers.

The regime seems to be giving some ground to the advance of figures such as Kosciuszko, Dabrowski, and Pilsudski in the popular vision of history. It has permitted an impressive, walrus-mustached Pilsudski to play a major part in a new film, Polona Restitua, which celebrates the regaining of independence after World War I. It also has made concessions to the cult of Wladyslaw Sikorski, the anticommunist leader of the Resistance in World War II, whose remains are to be transferred to the Wawel cathedral from England.

This preoccupation with songs, banners, and tombs might indicate that a new nationalism is welling up against the Soviet empire just as Polish nationalists tried to overthrow the rule of tsarist, Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian empires in the nineteenth century. The obsession with history certainly suggests the reawakening of a national consciousness, which finds expression in the current popular slogan, “Let Poland be Poland.” But Solidarity’s orators do not thunder in the manner of the nineteenth-century poets and generals. Instead of ranting against the government, Lech Walesa jokes about how he will make Gierek work a full forty-hour week and stand in line for bread at the end of each shift. The Poles seem fed up with the grand abstractions of official history. They want to trim away the rhetoric to get the story straight. They prefer irony to oratory. “We gave America two generals for its revolution, Kosciuszko and Pulaski,” runs a current quip. “Now America should give us two: General Motors and General Electric.”

Where does this popular history, a history expressed by joke and gesture, leave the professionals? Poland certainly has an adequate supply of excellent historians, even though it now lacks the paper to print their work, and it would be wrong to dismiss what they wrote before last August as propaganda. An elderly historian in Cracow said that his generation looked more to Paris than to Moscow, but they used ruses and double entendre where their successors now speak openly. For example, articles in the dictionary of national biography on officers killed at Katyn cannot give the date of death as 1940 without offending the Soviets or as 1941 without offending the truth. So they read, “Died after 1939,” and everyone catches their meaning.

The older generation lived too close to Stalinism to take chances. They learned to censor themselves before submitting their texts to the official censorship and to watch what they said in lectures. Although virtually all of them, like everyone else in the universities, have joined Solidarity, they sometimes feel that they represent official history in the eyes of the public. They were glad to be able to lecture on liberty and constitutionalism on May 3rd.

The younger historians seem more outspoken. But they, too, worry that the walls have ears, and they will request an interviewer not to use their names. A young professor in Torun turned on the radio to scramble the sound before talking shop. After dishing out generous portions of spring vegetables, about the only food available on the market today, he began dinner with an old joke, “We Poles are like radishes, red on the outside, white within.” Then he ripped through the Party-line version of the past as if it were a tissue of lies, and he explained how his students experienced the contradictions between official and popular history.

As children they hear one thing at school and another at home. They often discount their parents’ version. But sooner or later it is confirmed by something that reaches them from the underground press. They may take courses in the quasi-underground “flying university.” And now they can read through whole shelves of uncensored books in libraries set up by Solidarity. Thus their historical education goes through three stages: exposure to oral tradition, absorption of the printed word through clandestine mimeographing and photocopying, and formal study. In the end, they develop a Rankean rage to know history “as it actually happened.”

Meanwhile, several of their professors are participating in history by advising Solidarity. When Walesa made his fateful decision to call off the general strike last April, he consulted a medievalist, Bronislaw Geremek, on the right wing of the movement, and another medievalist, Karol Modzelewski, on the left. Although the union’s governing council resisted, Walesa forced it to adopt the more moderate strategy. Solidarity retreated for the first time, and Modzelewski went back to his students in Wroclaw. They questioned him for hours about democracy and decision making in political institutions. When he left the lecture hall, he noticed that someone had printed the opening words of the American Declaration of Independence on a sign in the back of the room.

Although a large number of historians serve as advisers to Solidarity, they do not consider themselves tutors to the movement. It took them by surprise. They were astonished at the force of the discontent that welled up from the working classes; and like everyone else, they were swept off their feet by it. They also were surprised to learn that the workers had absorbed a great deal of history through the popular tradition. When one professor was explaining the secret protocol of the Hitler-Stalin Pact to a Solidarity discussion group, he was upbraided by a worker, who insisted that it be called by its right name, since it was formed by Ribbentrop and Molotov. The Poles want to get history right this time, to know how it “actually happened.”

If you ask Polish historians to explain what has happened in Poland since last August, they will confess that it caught them professionally unprepared. Many describe it as a revolution. “It was bloodless, a glorious revolution, our 1688,” said one professor. “It was greater than Kosciuszko,” said another. “His was just an uprising. This is a revolution, a movement from the depths of the people against the whole regime.”

If the movement qualifies as a revolution, it does not fit any common model. Marxism has no room for an uprising of the working class against an allegedly proletarian regime. And American-style political sociology seems too sophisticated to account for the anti-government passions of the Poles. One cannot find the “J” curve in the current economic crisis, even though it followed a factitious boom under Gierek. The same goes for the other formulas: relative deprivation, blocked mobility, status crystallization, rising expectations, failed reform, even class struggle. Some Poles argue that the apparatchiks constitute a class, which has monopolized the means of production, but they do so with a twinkle in their eye, for the sheer pleasure of turning a Marxist cliché against itself. They see some force in another cliché, the alienation of the intellectuals. But they all agree that the movement began with ordinary workers and that the intelligentsia had to run fast to catch up with it.

According to most accounts, the movement has passed through three phases. From the shipyard in Gdansk it spread to the entire industrial working class; then it swept through the peasantry, which comprises 30 percent of the population and tills 80 percent of the land in small, independent farms. Now it is rising through the lower ranks of the Communist Party, which is electing its leaders by secret ballot and relatively open nominations—an astonishing break with Communist Party practice. The third phase could be the most dangerous of all, especially if it leads to a revolt against the leadership at the Party congress in July. If the Party structure crumbles while the economy collapses, the Soviets may intervene, and the events from August to July will have been a prerevolution or a prelude to a bloody war.

Few Poles I met expect such a tragedy to take place. To them, talk of intervention is a form of hysteria that arrives in reports from Washington, and it is a bad thing. It can be used to force moderation on Solidarity, or it might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. A writer in Warsaw said it made her break out in what she has diagnosed as a “Weinberger rash.” But there have been no outbreaks of panic. Despite the history of their relations with Russia, or perhaps because of it, the Poles go about their business without searching the sky for MIGs.

If asked to name the most dramatic event during the last few months, most Poles would cite the attempted assassination of the pope. John Paul II towers over every public figure in Poland. After the shooting, the entire country seemed to flood into the churches. At the one o’clock mass on May 14 in the Cathedral of St. John in Warsaw, the crowd covered every inch of floor space. It spilled out on the street and extended, shoulder to shoulder, for a block in either direction, beyond the range of the public-address system broadcasting the service outdoors. At the elevation of the host, the crowd in the cathedral knelt, and the kneeling passed in waves down the nave and into the street, as far as the eye could see. The death of Cardinal Wyszynski produced an equal outpouring of devotion—more than a quarter of a million mourners attended a religious mass for him in Victory Square, Warsaw, on May 31.

The fervor of Catholicism in Poland serves as a rebuke to the regime. As during the nineteenth century, when the Church represented almost all that remained of the national culture, Polish Catholicism expresses a partition mentality, a shift of loyalties from state to church. This internal migration of the spirit burst into the open during the pope’s visit of 1979, which Poles often describe as the starting point of their “revolution.” Now it has become institutionalized in Solidarity.

Solidarity is inseparable from the Church. Its banners were unfurled at the masses for the pope, just as crosses have been carried in all of the rallies for the union. When rural Solidarity was declared legal by the courts, the first act of its leaders was to drop to their knees and kiss a cross. When the Gdansk strikers defied the government, priests took confession and said mass in the shipyard. The Church, led by Wyszynski, generally counseled moderation, but it legitimated the movement at the very moment when the government had lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Solidarity and the Church now seem to be the only institutions that command the loyalties of the entire nation. Ninety-five percent of Poland’s 35 million people are practicing Catholics. Ten million of them had joined Solidarity at last count, when rural Solidarity was just beginning to get organized. By the end of the summer, when it will hold its first general congress, the union will include virtually the entire work force of the country, including many members of the Communist Party.

This wholesale withdrawal of allegiance from the state and its reinvestment in a movement that began illegally is what the Poles have in mind when they refer to the “revolution.” But they do not have a clear concept of Solidarity itself. Despite the influence of KOR and other dissident groups, it has no coherent ideology, no clear vision of an alternative social order, not even a general program for reform. The only thing holding it together is a deep, pervasive hatred of the regime. No one can predict how long it can continue in such a fashion. At the moment, however, it represents an extraordinary situation: the complete alienation of society from the state.

Perhaps that is why history matters so much to the movement. Omaciej Szamowski, editor of the Gazeta Krakowska, said that his journal was running its series on “Blank Spaces in the History of Poland” for “the good of national cohesion.” “We are saving history from political manipulation,” he explained. The Poles need to repossess their past in order for Poland to be Poland. So they want to throw out official history and discover what “actually happened.”

The Rankean formula seems apt and urgent in Poland today. It sounds archaic in Western Europe, where avantgarde historians abandoned it long ago in order to study the play of “structure” and “conjuncture” over the longue durée. These formulas come from the Annales school, which has pronounced “event history,” histoire événementielle, dead—“a corpse that we must still kill,” in the words of Jacques Le Goff, a former president of the Vle Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris.

Try telling a Pole that events don’t matter, that diplomacy and politics are epiphenomena, that one can neglect dates in order to study structures. He will reply that the difference between 1940 and 1941 is a matter of life and death; that nothing could be more important than the secret provisions of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact; that the whole meaning of Poland can be strung out on dates: 1772, 1793, 1795, 1830, 1863, 1919-1920, 1939, 1944-1945, 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1980. The events of August transformed the world for him. For the rest of us they suggest that history can play tricks on itself, and that it can go back to work at its old task, teaching lessons and shaping a national consciousness. In Poland that consciousness will determine the future as well as the past.

June 10

This Issue

July 16, 1981