Soldiers parade past the Westerplatte monument during a ceremony as part of the commemorations marking 80 years since the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 2019 in Gdansk, Poland. (Photo credit: SIMON KRAWCZYK/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The Polish perspective

Why has the history of Poland, what was a large country, an important economy and an interesting polity, been marginalised by historians?

The simplification of history is part of its abuse by contemporaries and posterity. Taking an abstraction and reducing complexity accordingly to a single perception and narrative, or at most to a Hegelian dichotomy, is a besetting condition of such work. Instead of admitting to the essential character of variety and humanity’s distance from uniformity, we have the latter both in the foreground and as the structure, or, at most, a simple contrast, as with north or south, bourgeois or working-class, secular or religious, and so on.

This flawed approach to Poland’s past is one that has implications for the present

At the geographical level, the complex dynamics of regions are shelved so that authors can write on countries. And so on with continents. If you look at major series, such as the Penguin one, there is a tendency (see for example the Blanning and Evans volumes) to leave out much of Europe by subordinating it to an analysis set by those states defined as supposedly central. Eastern Europe (itself an abstraction) tends to suffer particularly hard from this approach, although it is far from alone. Thus, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands tend to drop out in 1815-1930. And so on.

First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 by Roger Moorhouse

Well does it matter? Yes, you have a far more accurate and alert history if you can focus on variety in the past, and the differing developments that were possible. So also for the present. Indeed, one of the issues for the EU should be a lack of sympathy on the part of the “project” for those governments that represent different values. In a modern fashion of their past depiction as unenlightened, they are typecast as primitive and/or authoritarian. Moreover, they are treated as less consequential than those governments that help define the “project”, notably France and Germany.

Poland provides a particularly clear-cut instance of this process. And its history suffers accordingly. Indeed, the Polish test provides a good way to assess texts on European history. What was a large country, an important economy, a significant culture, and an interesting polity, tends to be treated, in terms of both space and approach, as of limited consequence. This is a flawed approach to the past and also one that has implications for the present.

The history of Poland from 1772 to 1989 was of its borders being set and its politics dictated by outside powers

As a political historian, I necessarily emphasise that element, and here I fear that many simply do not appreciate the concerns Poles fear about their vulnerability to manipulative and interventionist neighbours. The history of Poland from 1772 to 1989 was of its borders being set and its politics dictated by outside powers, and opposition brutally suppressed accordingly. This, moreover, was scarcely a process in the consequences which many Poles were able to co-operate and often profit, as with the Irish and Indians in British imperialism. Instead, the process was one of great brutality. German-Russian co-operation was the major theme not only with key episodes from 1772 to 1939, but also in the role during Ostpolitik in the 1970s and 1980s of German finance in supporting oppressive communist regimes in Eastern Europe. So with current anxiety about German links with Putin and, through that, with Russian support for oppression in Belarus, is understandable.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795, by Richard Butterwick

Two brilliant history books throw major light on this process. Richard Butterwick, Professor of Polish-Lithuanian History at University College, London, has produced an excellent account of the three partitions of 1772-95 in his The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795: Light and Flame (Yale University Press, 2020). Against the background of much historically illiterate work on the British Empire by writers who do not know archives or understand source-criticism, this is an archivally-rich book that successfully captures the developing destruction of a still-vibrant policy. An important work indeed not only for those interested in Polish history but also in the Enlightenment as practice.

For a later period, First the Fight: The Polish War 1939 (Bodley Head, 2019) by Roger Moorhouse follows his excellent The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-41 (2014), and again draws on important archival work. The fighting determination and quality of the Poles emerges clearly, as does Soviet connivance in the German advance, not least the stomach-churning joint victory parade at Brest and the Germans killing Polish troops that had surrendered including using flamethrowers to burn prisoners alive. Such is the weight of history.

Jeremy Black’s books include Eighteenth-Century Europe and Rethinking World War Two.

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