How I Rewrote Polish History

Poland used to be written off as a failed state. But it has survived Nazism and communism to become a model for Europe

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I have always felt uneasy when historians or politicians sound off about sea-changes in history, claiming that the emergence of Islamism, terrorism, globalisation, climate change or whatever has transformed the world. I could not repress a snort of derision when I heard that Francis Fukuyama had published The End of History. But lately, I have been obliged to accept that fundamental changes have taken place in the past two decades, mainly as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet imperium.

The catalyst for this reassessment came from an unlikely quarter: I was asked by my publisher to revise and update The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and their Culture, a history of Poland which first came out in 1987. When I began writing that book, more than a quarter of a century ago, the study and writing of history had changed little since my schooldays, despite the fashion for microhistory, gender studies and Marxist revision (Eric Hobsbawm was at the height of his reputation). The perspective was relentlessly British, and European history was hardly touched on. When it was, the only countries that figured were those that impinged, one way or another, on British interests: France, Russia, Prussia and, at various points in their history, Holland, Sweden, Spain and Portugal. I was made acutely aware of this since the country I was interested in, Poland, was not among them. One only has to look through the indexes of books on European history published at that time to appreciate this: Poland was usually only cited as an example of what we now call a failed state, a kind of historical joke.

My only comfort was that Italy was also treated as something of a joke and Italy was definitely worth studying, for its own reasons. So, I felt, was Poland. Having travelled widely in it, I knew it was no joke. Indeed, it seemed in many ways to be a more serious place than Britain. It was there and in Czechoslovakia that the vital issue of the day, the contest between human liberty and totalitarianism, was being fought. Sitting down to write its history in the early 1980s nevertheless represented a challenge, to put it mildly. The first step was, clearly, to try and understand how and why it had “failed”.

In contrast to most of the states deemed worth studying at the time, Poland, though a nation-based polity, had throughout the middle ages and early modern period shown a remarkably casual attitude to the possession of its historic lands and the harnessing of its resources, human or material. It had not built up institutions of central government, created organs of control, invested in infrastructure, armed itself or taxed its citizens to any significant degree. When describing the Polish state in the 18th century, foreign observers would use the word “anarchy”, in its original sense of absence of government.

The Poles themselves were proud of this state of affairs. Polska nierz dem stoi (Poland’s strength lies in the absence of government) was a rallying-cry of the political majority. From the early middle ages, the Poles had shown marked distaste for all authority, particularly if it was concentrated in few hands. And although there was a strong sense of a Polish world in existence (in contrast to the German and Bohemian ones), a lack of obvious natural frontiers which might define it and the fact that it was inhabited by various ethnic groups and welcomed newcomers such as Jews, Armenians and Tatars militated against successive kings’ efforts to consolidate it. By the end of the middle ages, the Polish gentry had established robust parliamentary institutions as a check on royal power and enjoyed greater personal liberty than any other group of people in Europe, as well as the lowest rate of taxation. They called their country “the Commonwealth” and regarded it as their common property.

Their suspicion of strong central government intensified by reaction to what was going on beyond their borders. To the east, the unfettered power of Ivan the Terrible provided chilling evidence of the human cost involved in the creation of a strong Muscovite state. To the north and west they could see the political class and the representative bodies of Sweden, Brandenburg and Prussia being gradually emasculated and abolished. And while the Poles agreed to differ on religious matters, in virtually every other part of Europe the absolute rule of monarchs transformed the Reformation and Counter-Reformation into a bloodbath.

The Poles’ conviction that strong central government was a threat to civil liberties went hand in hand with a real phobia on the subject of a standing army. They maintained that both were in any case largely unnecessary. Local assemblies were quite capable of electing magistrates and officers and raising the necessary funds. The absence of an army meant that Poland threatened no one, and therefore, they argued, did not invite attack, while the necessity of having to deal with a levée en masse discouraged it.

Too late, in the mid-18th century, Polish society woke up to the fact that having no effective central government and no army rendered it defenceless against its absolutist neighbours. It embarked on a hurried attempt to turn the Commonwealth into a modern state that could hold its own, but time ran out and it was set upon and divided up by its three neighbours, Russia, Prussia and Austria.

Victory against totalitarianism seemed a long way off, if at all likely, in the early 1980s. I was therefore writing the history of an enterprise that had foundered. While many a more successful state would have gone under if faced by the combined onslaught of three such powerful neighbours, and later of the unspeakable forces of German fascism and Russian communism, the whole of the country’s history nevertheless seemed deeply tainted by this ultimate failure. I dwelt at some length on the cultural aspects of that history, since it was virtually unknown in this country, and pointed to positive achievements, but at the time I had an uneasy feeling that in doing so I was somehow indulging in special pleading.

Rereading the book prior to revising and updating it was a curious experience, and I soon realised that the whole thing would have to be rewritten from scratch. Poland was up and running once more. It could not compare, in terms of institutional and structural solidity or economic power with other European states of a similar size, but it rated highly in terms of social cohesion and showed every sign of being able to narrow the gap. What was more, this former Russian satrapy was now indisputably a player on the international stage, and by no means an insignificant one.

This raised a fundamental question: if a state can revive in this manner, did it ever actually fail? The key question with regard to the past 300 years of Poland’s history is therefore: why was it not a viable state in 1708 (or indeed in 1988) if it could be a viable one in 2008? The answer was that it was not so much Poland as the international environment and therefore the conditions governing the life of states which had altered, and altered fundamentally.

When I was writing my book in the 1980s, the states deemed successful were those, such as Russia and Prussia, that had shown themselves capable of mobilising their resources into building up a developed and powerful state and playing a significant role on the international scene. Yet, as anyone who has read Christopher Clark’s brilliant book Iron Kingdom will agree, the story of Prussia is that of an ambitious dynasty caught in a 300-year-long struggle for survival through dominion that came to grief in 1918, leaving a toxic legacy that would poison the world for much of the 20th century. Russia’s history is hardly less unhappy – it is a story of largely pointless expansion unattended by any contingent benefit, which fell apart in the most humiliating manner in 1989. Both ventures inflicted human suffering on an unprecedented scale, on their own people as well as on their neighbours. It is now clear that in the long term those countries, such as Italy and Poland, traditionally dismissed as
basket-cases, have been far more successful than either.

This only really became apparent after 1989. Over the past 300 years, modern Europe’s emerging states were caught in a self-perpetuating Darwinian struggle for survival through armed competition and expansion, culminating in the First World War. Although the horrors of that and of the Second World War convinced most Western societies to seek another means of coexistence, Russia remained married to the old model. That meant the rest of the world had to remain on its guard. The end of the Cold War has removed that necessity. And that has changed everything.

Until the end of the 18th century, war was an extremely effective vehicle for the conduct of policy, and victory brought enormous gains, politically and economically-one only has to consider the rise of Prussia under Frederick the Great or Great Britain’s country’s fabulous harvest in terms of wealth and dominion from the Seven Years’ War. That became less and less true as the 19th century progressed, and looking back over the past 100 years it is not easy to point to many wars that have brought the victor much in terms of economic or political benefit. Recently, even successful military operations have produced profoundly negative effects, such as a huge political deficit at home and condemnation abroad, not to mention an increased exposure to terrorism, as both the US and Israel have learnt to their cost. Conventional war is also becoming increasingly difficult to wage, since every state in the world is economically connected at some level, and even the most dictatorial absolutist regimes find it more and more difficult to inspire or force their people to fight. Russia’s invasion of Georgia last year cost her tens of billions in terms of foreign investment, even if it did bring Putin and Medvedev a political bonus at home. Her attempt to use gas as an economic weapon is also ultimately doomed to failure, since treating customers as enemies will inevitably drive them away. Also, invading Eastern Europe would only enslave a large number of her customers, thereby making them unable to pay, which would be counter-productive. However impractical and therefore unlikely conventional war might be, this does not mean we should disarm and repeat the mistake made by the Poles in the 16th and 17th centuries. There are still plenty of states out there bent on aggression – one only has to think of Russia, China and Iran. The real question facing us now is to find the weapons with which to defend ourselves.

History throws up more questions than answers. But one lesson to be learnt from the past couple of centuries is surely that European Christian humanist civilisation, with its fruits of democracy, civil liberty and all the rest, is in itself a very powerful weapon. Whether one agrees with the late Samuel Huntington’s vision of a clash of civilisations or not, it cannot be denied that what preserved the Poles in the face of immeasurably superior odds and unspeakably ghastly ordeals were those very values. And sometimes it is necessary to lose a battle or two in order to win a war.

Although I had to take the best part of a year rewriting a book I had hoped to buff up in a matter of weeks, I found the work curiously comforting, as it confirmed me in my conviction that soft values triumph and that faith in human dignity does win out in the end. In our search for security we must never forget this. As President Obama said on his first day in office, the choice between safety and ideals is a false one.