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Historians on Historians: Dr. C on Polish historiography

Source: The Polish Review
Date: Vol. LI, no. 3-4 (2006)

According to Fernand Braudel, it was the most formidable modern Polish historian, Franciszek Bujak, who first conceptualized the study of social and economic history, which included the maverick creation of the sub-field in price history. Bujak's pioneering endeavor occurred over twenty years before the universally recognized efforts of the French Annales school. "Unfortunately, the significance of Bujak's contributions has been obscured in Europe as a whole by the fact that he worked in the Polish language, and in Poland it has suffered from the hostility of the post-war communist regime to his person, his work and his students, and thus to his legacy" (p. 282). These incisive comments by Anita Shelton apply virtually to all pioneering Polish historians. They simply fell victim to Poland's history. Consequently, they are non-persons in Western intellectual consciousness.

Therefore editors Peter Brock et al. have given English-speaking readers a true treat. Nation and History: Polish Historians from the Enlightenment to the Second World War contains biographies of 23 mostly eminent Polish historians by nineteen rather solid scholars from Canada, USA, and Poland. Some of the texts were ably translated from the Polish. Others were written originally in English. All in all it is a roughly representative sample of the Polish practitioners of Clio, modest editorial disclaimers about difficult choices, space limitations, and unreliable collaborators notwithstanding. This fair and balanced compilation includes historians of all main cultural, ideological, and political orientations Poland had to offer.

Fifteen of the 23 notable scholars began their careers on the left, either as revolutionaries or progressives. Of these, six stuck with their leftist preferences. Four were active on the radical left (Lelewel, Limanowski, Gąsiorowska-Grabowska, and Próchnik). Two (Kot and Handelsman) drifted to the center-left. Meanwhile, eight erstwhile progressives moved to the center (Naruszewicz, Wojciechowski, Askenazy, and Bujak), center-right (Kukiel), and the right, either conservative (Szujski) or nationalist (Korzon and Sobieski). Of the remaining nine scholars, four started out as centrists. Only Brückner remained in the center, however. Kutrzeba opted for the center-right. Balzer became a conservative. Smoleński turned into a nationalist.

Three scholars consistently adhered to conservatism (Bobrzyński, Smolka, Halecki), and one to nationalism (Konopczyński). Uniquely, one scholar shifted from the nationalist right to the center-right (Skałkowski); and another traveled from a progressive to a nationalist camp only to revert to the center (Tokarz).

Polish historians were not mere ivory tower eggheads. They were politically and socially involved scholars-practitioners. As John D. Stanley poignantly recognizes, this was because of the unique impact of Poland's horrible previous two and a half centuries upon its inhabitants. "As a result, few peoples are so conscious of their past as the Poles: the nation's history has for centuries been used to understand the present. Not surprisingly, historians in Poland have therefore assumed an important role, not only as curators of the past but also as its interpreters, explaining the significance of past events for the present-and future-generations" (p.4).

From the point of view of periodization, Nation and History covers the time between the end of the eighteenth century and 1939. However, the compilation focuses heavily on the first half of the twentieth century. This is determined by the fact that until the second half of the nineteenth century conditions conducive to the development of historical scholarship were largely absent in Poland. Professional and sustained exploration of the nation's past became only possible on a considerable scale following the conservative accommodation with one of the partitioning powers, Austria-Hungary, after 1865. And it took another 40 years to produce a sizable crop of scholars and to create enough of an intellectual ferment to provide sufficient material for Nation and History.

Thus, Polish historians operated within a hugely constraining cultural, political, social, and economic framework determined by the vicissitudes of Polish history. Nonetheless, they also worked in the context of, and in harmony with, major intellectual trends of the Western European historiography. Therefore the authors of the biographical entries, and the editors of the volume, endeavor, rather successfully, to introduce mostly unknown Polish historians to the English-speaking reader by stressing intellectual analogies between Polish and Western scholarship. Further, they apply Western standards and concepts both for the content and periodization of Polish historiography (Enlightenment, Romanticism, Positivism, etc.) to stress its compatibility with the West. Last but not least, the authors and editors of the bibliographical entries frequently refer to major schools and their Western founders when discussing particular Polish scholars.

As mentioned, virtually all historians introduced in Nation and History were also political activists. Ideological preferences of the scholars are relevant because they reflect their attitude toward the concepts of "nation" and "history." Unfortunately, the editors and the authors did not emphasize this crucial point sufficiently. For example, in the Introduction, John D. Stanley merely charts a useful outline of Polish history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it is devoid of an in-depth discussion of the crucial concept of the "nation" and "people". True, in separate biographical sketches, Stanley mentions these terms as they were understood by Adam Naruszewicz and Joachim Lelewel (p.26-27, 58-59). These highly satisfactory entries thus contain specifics of the "nation" and the "people" as conceptualized by a particular historian. They pop up likewise particularized in other entries by other authors. Hence, general definitions at the outset would have been very useful. A suggestion follows.

Initially, the concept of a "nation" was limited to the political estate. In the Polish case it was the multi-ethnic, multi-denominational nobility of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, the leftists argued that all social estates belonged to the nation. Thus, they forged nationalism into a universal weapon of mass mobilization in the struggle to overthrow traditional monarchies. By the end of the nineteenth century, nationalism moved to the right. Only the conservatives clung fast to the elite notion of the nation, distrusting both the radicals on the left and right. Both professed adherence to egalitarianism. The revolutionary left preached fratricidal class struggle and international solidarity of "the toiling masses." The radical right advanced the idea of social harmony and nationalist hostility to outsiders. The left vowed to make "the people" (lud) the ruling class in Poland. The right vowed to Polonize the people and, thus, make it nationally conscious so it could join with the rest of the nation (naród), the nobility, intelligentsia, and entrepreneurs, in the struggle for Poland's independence. Among the nationalists, competing definitions of the "nation" existed. On the one extreme, there was the inclusive vision of declarative nationalism, i.e., Polishness was a matter of choice open to anyone willing to embrace it actively. On the other extreme, there was the integral nationalist model, limiting the "nation" to "Poles and Catholics" (Polak-katolik). However, even the integral nationalist model in the Polish case was much more open than most of its European counterparts for it was moderated by its universalist religious component.

In addition to dealing with the ever-waxing force of nationalism, one had to reckon with the fact that the Commonwealth was partitioned and destroyed at the end of the eighteenth century. The greatest nationalist duty was the restoration of Poland's independence. Those who opposed independence were not considered to be "true Poles" by the patriots.

Initially, both the left and right promised to bring about Poland's liberation. Thus, nationalism informed most of the nation's political spectrum. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, much of the left abandoned the dream of national independence in favor of internationalist utopia. On the other hand, much of the right elected to work within the system in the short run, to bring about independence in the long run. After Poland regained its independence in 1918, the left and right continued to endeavor to implement their ideologies in life, with all their consequences.

The above framework is simply indispensable to appreciate Nation and History. It also challenges some of its assumptions. Take periodization, for example. The dominant intellectual paradigm in the West touts "the Enlightenment" as a triumphant watershed when "superstition" was defeated by "reason." Hence, true historical scholarship begins at the end of the eighteenth century. Yet, one recognizes how deeply flawed the Enlightenment's a priori "methodology" is (p.41n48). It is simply ideological prejudice masquerading as historical science. Why start with the Enlightenment then? Why pick Naruszewicz? Is it because the scholar simply aped trends which he had picked up during his studies in the West? Placing Naruszewicz first imposed an artificial lens to understand Polish historiography by squaring it with the liberal preferences for the Enlightenment. It also logically necessitated positing the discourse on Polish historiography in rather uninspiring Hegelian terms as a conflict between the "state" and the "nation". Was the state synonymous with the nation? Or the other way around? This Hegelian approach largely misses the larger point about Poland. Namely, the debate about the nature of the Polish nation in the nineteenth and twentieth century concerned mostly the necessity to regain freedom. And the road to independence necessitated dealing with the painful legacy of the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to learn about the causes of its demise and to preserve at least some of its elements in a modern, collectivist (socialist and nationalist) setting of a nation. These endeavors were obvious during both the struggle for independence and the organization of the resurrected Polish state after 1918.

Further, initiating the discourse with "the Enlightenment" (as represented by Naruszewicz) disrupted the notion of the interplay of national and European intellectual continuities in Poland's past. As a result, some continuous, sui generis Polish intellectual historical inspirations were thus downplayed in favor of some other, Western conceptual interventions.

Would it not have been more judicious to start Nation and History with a discussion of Szymon Majchrowicz, an unabashed defender of the traditional, elitist concept of the nation as the domain of nobility, and a staunch champion of the triumphalist conception of Poland's past (p.42n55)? Majchrowicz also had his Western counterparts, albeit none of them progressive. True, he would have made a hard sell given the prevalent liberal and leftist intellectual climate in the West but it would have been also rather interesting and, certainly, daring.

Now, mind you, I am not nit picking here about this or other historian that did or did not make it into this useful compilation. Instead, I'm suggesting that Nation and History could have been conceptualized differently. That would have required conservative boldness and inventiveness challenging the stale liberal platitudes of the North American academia. Instead, the editors subjugate Poland's historiography to the Enlightenment dichotomy of Reason vs. Feeling. In congruence with this intellectual paradigm, rightist and leftist historians battle it out forever through a series of dialectical struggles, pitting constantly this or that thesis against one anti-thesis or another. They either realistically criticize Poland's past or romantically whitewash it in a variety of right and left combinations. This should have been conceptualized differently.

In Western historiography in general, and Polish in particular, there exists a small group of scholars who, while critical about their national past, tend to cherish their most important traditions, institutions, and glories. These scholars consider Christianity, Polish culture, and national independence as worth defending. On the other hand, in every generation, since the Enlightenment at least, there are thinkers who would like to jettison the lot. They endeavor to destroy tradition, faith, and ancient freedom and replace them with a variety of utopian constructs grounded in the secular model introduced by the Enlightenment. Naturally, there are plenty of historians who fall in-between. Naruszewicz was one of them, even if he did tilt heavily toward the Enlightenment project. The project was artificially brought to Poland from abroad and applied to the Polish condition abruptly from the above. Thus, it denoted serious discontinuity with the national past.

Had Nation and History started with Majchrowicz (or, better yet, Jan Długosz), we would have seen a centuries-long intellectual continuity between him, his predecessors, and modern Polish historians. This applies not only to conservative scholars, like Michał Bobrzyński, who, as Philip Pajakowski amply demonstrates, continued to adhere to the traditionalist model of the nation (nobility). It also concerns leftist historians, like Lelewel, who merely took Majchrowicz's "traditional, even xenophobic, approach glorifying the Polish past" (p. 42n55) and gave it a Romantic spin.

As John D. Stanley ably shows us, Lelewel likewise glorified Poland's history and asserted her moral superiority as a savior of other nations, but stripped his discourse of any xenophobia. Further, Lelewel suavely projected the idea of the szlachta nation onto all of Poland's inhabitants. This is not as revolutionary as it sounds. The historian simply took a logical step of universalizing the noble condition. The nobility, its culture and patriotism, served as his paradigm. Stanley stresses that "Lelewel's concept of the Polish nation went beyond the limits of a particular ethnicity" (p.67). However, this should not be at all surprising since the concept of the Polish nation in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lacked any ethnic overtones. Discounting the Sarmatian myth, the Polish nation, until the Enlightenment, simply meant Polish noblemen of Polish, Ruthenian, Lithuanian, Tartar, Scottish, French, Italian, German, Jewish, and other origin and a variety of confessions, including Catholicism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Islam. Thus, Lelewel's great contribution was to conceptualize a modern Polish nation on the basis of the noble nation of the destroyed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This was not a sui generis phenomenon inherent in Romanticism and progressive Western ways. Instead, Lelewel's approach was predicated upon the continuity of the Polish tradition.

A similar tug of war, between native Polish tradition and Western intellectual tackle is also palpable in Józef Szujski's initial scholarship. According to Andrzej Wierzbicki, "the coexistence of both critical judgments and Romantic apologetics in his approach to Polish national history was one of the most striking features of Szujski's early works" (p.94). Later, Szujski was able to reconcile both elements of the "East" and "West" by synthesizing them, instead of negating one or the other, which would have been condemnable.

Likewise, most other scholarship introduced in Nation and History reflects the synthesis of native and Western influences. It stands out, for example, in Bolesław Limanowski's conviction "that Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Lithuanians could exist harmoniously in a future federal socialist state" (p.103). Similarly, but on a different level, the magnificent Oskar Halecki synthesized the Commonwealth's multi-ethnic experience with the civilizing message of Western Christianity (p.434, 438). And that squares well with the idea of continuity of the Polish tradition.

Overemphasizing the role of the Western element and skewing the historiographical presentation toward the liberal position are the most serious flaws of Nation and History. However, a few other critical remarks are warranted.

The editors claim to have assembled "pioneer modern historians from the mainstream of Polish historiography" (p. vii). The claim is correct for the most part. However, in light of the avowed aim to discuss "nation" and "history" it was a curious choice to include Natalia Gąsiorowska-Grabowska and Adam Próchnik. Their extreme leftist, Marxist ideology led them to reject the very concept of the nation and reduce Polish history to crude determinism. True, Gąsiorowska-Grabowska can be considered a pioneer of sorts in a very narrow filed of industrial history, particularly metallurgical industry, even if her primary source base was largely limited to "administrative materials while ignoring the archives accumulated by the industrial enterprises themselves" (p.343). For the most of her career, however, she was but a Stalinist party hack. Próchnik was a secondary-source popularizer at best and a revolutionary propagandist at worst. What does that have to do with historiography? One wishes that, instead of having resurrected the memories of the undeserving, the editors had elected to publish biographical essays about such eminent scholars as, say, Karolina Lanckorońska, Feliks Koneczny, or Janusz Iwaszkiewicz-Rudoszański.

Most of the material in Nation and History is new. The notable exception is the entry on cultural historian Aleksander Brückner by the late Wiktor Weintraub. This was a very judicious choice for no one can match Weintraub's masterful interpretation of Polish cultural history for the English-speaking world. Anita Shelton's incisive biography of Franciszek Bujak is based on her 1989 monograph and shows no references to either original research or scholarship afterwards. Wacław Uruszczuk's rather pedestrian entry on Stanisław Kutrzeba was adapted from an earlier Polish-language work.

Curiously, Peter Brock and Zdzisław Pietrzyk elected to write quite a serviceable biography of Stanisław Kot, who is also the topic of Tadeusz Paweł Rutkowski's doctoral dissertation. Brock and Pietrzyk referred to it as "invaluable" (p.422n3). Why did they not ask the author of the "invaluable" study to write on the topic of his expertise then? Instead, inexplicably, Rutkowski was commissioned to write a diligent entry on Gąsiorowska-Grabowska, an unpalatable figure he clearly lacks a heart for. Nonetheless, the historian stoically kept an appropriate scholarly attitude toward the task and executed it well.

This is not the case with M. B. Biskupski, who penned a virtual hagiography of Marceli Handelsman. How could "a stalwart defender of democratic values" condone the crushing of democracy by Marshal Józef Piłsudski in 1926 and after (p.353)? His liberal sensitivities notwithstanding, Handelsman was the ultimate court historian and a political appointee, who owed much of his academic career to his subservience to the Sanacja dictatorship, particularly by eulogizing Piłsudski. He showed himself to be the consummate schemer, including against the gentlemanly Szymon Askenazy, who was thus denied a well-deserved professorship. Yet, admittedly, Handelsman was a good institutional organizer and a suave political player. But a great historian? Doubtful. Simply, in Communist Poland his students occupied positions of academic power and made sure that their master was properly eulogized. In a free Poland most of Handelsman's students would not have been able to hold a candle to the intellectual progeny of such historical giants as Franciszek Bujak, Oskar Halecki, Władysław Konopczyński, Wacław Tokarz, or Marian Kukiel. Alas, those of their students who had not been killed by the Nazis and Soviets either emigrated or were terrorized in Communist-occupied Poland after 1945. But somehow Professor Biskupski fails to grasp that. It is also surprising that in a work devoted to historiography and methodology Professor Biskupski would follow the exasperatingly incestuous practice of repeating opinions of other scholars, none of whom ever researched anything about the National Armed Forces and their alleged culpability for the death of Handelsman and his comrades (p.357-58). In fact, Home Army counter-intelligence was the culprit.

Such sloppiness can be at least partly ascribed to liberal prejudice that is also evident in the output of some of the other authors. What are we to make of the following dichotomy set up by Anita Shelton: "egalitarianism/universalism (especially in its various manifestations of socialism) and elitism/exclusivisim (particularly virulent in its nationalist expression)" (p. 282)? Wow. First, has Professor Shelton not heard about this particularly virulent expression of elitism called the vanguard of the proletariat? What about the virulent exclusivism of the class struggle? How is socialism universalist when its adherents try either to terrorize or kill anyone who disagrees with them? Isn't nationalism predicated on egalitarianism?After all, the nationalists hold that all members of the nation are equal. What about national socialism? It suavely combined both ideologies, perhaps because, Professor Shelton allows, they are "powerful and conflicting, but not mutually exclusive." The truth is that the collectivistic ideologies of socialism and nationalism synthesized a contradictory message of egalitarianism/universalism and elitism/exclusivism. Their relative virulence depended on the messenger and the circumstances. The national socialists of Piłsudski were a far cry from the Nazis of Hitler. International socialism of Malinowski was a benign version of the creed exercised bloodily by Stalin. Ideologically, however, they all grew from the same poisonous Enlightenment root.

There is also a number of other snags. For example, Piotr Wróbel, in his uninspiring biography of Marian Kukiel, is oblivious to the explosive controversy, which gripped Poland in the first half of 1939, after a brilliant graduate student leveled serious methodological charges against the eminent historian and assaulted his character. This created quite a storm in the Polish press and scholarly circles.

More seriously, Professor Wróbel seems to be whitewashing the totalitarian Communist regime occupying Poland after 1944. Namely, in his "Chronology of Polish history" (p. 455) the scholar inexplicably refers to the "Referendum" falsified by the Communists as "a form of election rehearsal" and then fails to inform the reader that "first post-war parliamentary elections" were likewise a sham. The "Stalinist period" starts for Professor Wróbel only in 1948. True, earlier, he mentions that in 1945 there was a "Soviet-controlled government in Warsaw." However, by banding about such words as "Referendum" and "elections" without the necessary qualifiers (fake, sham, or falsified would have done nicely), Professor Wróbel seems to imply that democracy existed in Poland at the time. In fact, it was a Soviet occupation by a Polish Communist proxy with a sham "coalition" government and sham elections. It is also baffling to me, but consistent with his prejudices, that Professor Wróbel writes about a crucial period of modern Polish history from the point of view of the oppressors: "1944-1947: Soviet army and Polish communist authorities suppress armed resistance in Poland." Thus, the anti-Communist Rising, which was a continuation of the anti-Nazi Rising, is reduced merely to "armed resistance". Imagine if one wrote: "the Russian army and its Polish collaborators suppress armed resistance in Poland in 1794, 1830-31, and 1863." Thankfully, no political correctness applies there and one uniformly refers to these events as the Kościuszko Insurrection, the November Rising, and the January Rising, respectively. It is high time for a scholarly consensus regarding the last great Polish insurrection: the anti-Communist Rising of 1944-47.

Mercifully, Professor Wróbel fails to outdo Wacław Uruszczak, who refers to the Soviet offensive into Poland in 1944 as "liberation" (p.302). Plainly, this was not a liberation but enslavement. Did the Soviets liberate Poland and make her free and democratic? Whom did the Soviets liberate? The Home Army fighters and others sent to the Gulag? Tens of thousands who were killed in the anti-Communist Rising? Hundreds of thousands who were thrown in jails and forced labor camps of the Communists? Jews who were stripped of their property and forced to flee to the West? Expropriated landed nobility, entrepreneurs, industrialists, merchants, artisans, and real estate owners? Millions of destitute Poles from the Eastern Borderlands who were expelled from their homes? Millions of peasants who rejected the so-called "land reform" and resisted the collectivization of agriculture? Hundreds of thousands of workers who periodically went on strike to oppose the Communist regime? Hundreds of thousands who were forced to remain abroad? Millions who opposed the atheistic assault against the Catholic Church? Intellectuals who were denied freedom of speech and academia? This was the second Soviet occupation which lasted until 1990 at least (or 1993 when the last Red Army unit was withdrawn from Poland).

Perhaps the lesson for some of the contributors is to do more research and re-consider their stale models that were created during the Cold War and the golden era of the Communist-liberal consensus, if not convergence.

To conclude, I appreciate the predicament of the editors in conceptualizing this project. Given the intellectual climate, for a work to be noticed it has to be grounded in deconstruction, new historicism, and ethnic, gender, and queer studies. Nations and History, mercifully, does not cater to that. Yet, its topic is terribly obscure, the Slavic names of most of the historians are painfully daunting, and the vicissitudes of Poland's history are forbiddingly confusing to most English-speakers. It was easier to sell Nation and History by emphasizing Western influence and by downplaying, or even sometimes hiding, the continuities in Polish historiography. Well, if this compromise results in spreading the knowledge and appreciation of Polish scholars in Western academia, Peter Brock et al. should be saluted.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Professor of History and Academic Dean
The Institute of World Politics: A Graduate School of Statecraft and National Security Affairs
Washington, DC
June 9, 2006