What do the Polish Teenagers Study?

A Survey of History and Literature Textbooks

Sally R. Boss

Two years after the outbreak of freedom in east central Europe, one might expect substantial changes in the humanities textbooks used in Polish high schools. The textbooks which had been used in Soviet-occupied Poland should be gone, and new interpretations should be in evidence. I have examined the nearly complete sets of textbooks used in history and literature classes in "high schools" (szkoly srednie) in Poland today. As is the case in the United States, Polish middle schools have four grades and their graduates are entitled to compete for admission to colleges and universities.

The following paperback textbooks have been examined in this article:


The first thing that strikes one about the history textbooks is the difference between the first two volumes, dealing with Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and the three volumes dealing with modern and contemporary history. While the first two are models of their kind and could be profitably translated to serve American high school students, others still contain, to a greater or lesser extent, the Soviet-imposed communist pablum which the "amendations and corrections" mentioned on some title pages have failed to eliminate. This is true especially of the volume authored by Tadeusz Siergiejczyk. The illustrations in his volume are mostly pictures of party members whose thoughtless and dull faces resemble illustrations in the Soviet encyclopedias. In the future, an entirely new interpretation of post-World War 2 Polish history should be composed for high school consumption on the basis of Polish emigre writings and western histories of the period. Otherwise, the Soviet-imposed emphasis on the dubious legality of the Lublin Committee, the Polish Workers' Party and other such red herrings covering up the realities of the Soviet occupation will continue to litter the hearts and minds of Polish teenagers and thus obscure the real problems which the legacy of foreign occupation left in their country.

Volume One surveys the Middle East and the Far East, Greece and Rome, Byzantium and the Arab countries. The emphasis is on Greece. While this text compares favorably with what American high schools teach about ancient history, it is not without blemishes. The section on ancient Israel has only four pages, and much of it deals with the conquest of Palestine by the ancient Hebrews. Surely it is more important to emphasize the Bible, name a few prophets, and say something about the resilience of Hebrew culture throughout the ages. In the section on Greece, Aristotle is de-emphasized to the point of disappearance. Again, it is crucial to emphasize Aristotle's contribution to logocentrism which has been the pillar of western civilization.

The Middle Ages volume gives a survey of European history that is superior to anything I have seen in American high school textbooks. Polish writers have traditionally been comfortable writing about the Middle Ages when Poland had not yet acquired the touchiness and sad sensitivity that comes as a result of numerous defeats. In the Middle Ages, the Polish state was young, vigorous, and headed for its Golden Age during the Renaissance. How did the financial and military dealings of that happy and carefree state slip away from those who were supposed to be in charge of them?

Some texts on ancient and medieval history compare favorably with what American high schools teach about these periods.

The volume underemphasizes somewhat the building of the western European states, the arousal in their citizens of the desire to know, to travel, to take on the unknown. How were these trends reflected in Poland? The Poles did not participate in the crusades in significant numbers; nor did they play a role in the development of technology which was inching forward in the West. Why this happened should have been detailed in this volume. Perfunctory dismissals of momentous historical events in the west as "Wstrzasy polityczne na Zachodzie" [Political upheavals in the west] do not serve Polish children well. Jagellonian University and its cultivation of Thomism and other philosophies of the period should have received more attention.

In the volume on mid-19th century history, the faults outlined above become more pronounced. The first part of the 19th century was a period of consolidation of power of the European empires, and consolidation of a world view which excluded Poland from being a significant player on the European scene. The development of British democracy, the fights over the Poor Laws, the energy and resourcefulness (also the ruthlessness and brutality) which allowed the British to conquer half the world; all this is missing. Implied in the textbook is a vision of a rational and reasonable Europe which knew no passionate competition among states and individuals and no regional winners or losers. Polish teenagers learn a simplified version of European history; the only type of cut-throat competition that is emphasized is that supplied by Marxist analysis. Thus, a chapter entitled "The workers' movement" still lingers as a remnant of a Soviet-enforced interpretation of European history. The actions and arguments of conservative writers, groups and governments are passed over in silence.

However, some sections partially compensate for these shortcomings. "Swiat na przelomie XIX i XX wieku" [The world at the turn of the 19th century] deals with "energy sources, inventions in industry, transportation and communications, new technologies in agriculture."

The two huge Polish uprisings against the Russians, in 1831 and 1863, are appropriately emphasized. But the way they are placed in the text distorts the picture of European history and unintentionally suggests that other European nations paid great attention to Poland's uprisings. While arguably the uprisings altered the course of Russian and European history, Russian diplomats and writers made sure that the knowledge of them sank as shallowly as possible into western memory. As cynics say, history is written by the winners. It would be useful to incorporate sections on the uprisings into the American history textbooks, especially that the Civil War was fought to some extent over the principles involved in the Polish uprisings, and that, apart from the issue of slavery, the defense of the South and the principle of constitutional government was not unlike the Polish attempt to overthrow the despotic Russian government.

A way has to be found to teach Polish youth about the 19th-century Polish uprisings without at the same time belittling their perception of 19th-century European history.

While the Poles were preoccupied with their uprisings, western countries pressed forward with industrial development and the building of financial networks and city infrastructure. While western engineers were erecting myriads of buildings and installing modern storm sewers, Warsaw was still languishing under antique water supply and garbage disposal systems, and the best brains in Poland were engaged in figuring out ways to hide arms caches in apartments and country manors. These things should have been stressed. The American textbooks would profit by including in them explanations of the uneven development of Europe being largely the result of one nation suppressing another militarily. Americans would profit from a realization that some nations of the world did not develop not because they were unfit but because they had to expend energy and time on outwitting their conquest-minded neighbors.

A way must be found to teach Polish youth about the uprisings without at the same time belittling and skewing their vision of 19th-century European history. Especially the history of the English-speaking nations should be given more prominence, as these nations seems to have been the most successful in installing democratic ways in social life and in promoting entrepreneurship among their citizens. The "can-do" attitude has to be learned from examples.

Apart from the issue of slavery, the South in the Civil War was not unlike Poland defending itself against Russian despotism.

The closer to contemporary times, the greater the differences between American and Polish textbooks. The History of World War 2 [Volume 4] gives its due to the Nazi-Polish war in September and October 1939, to the Warsaw Uprising in August-October 1944 with its countless victims and heroism that still waits for a historian to put into words. These sections should be incorporated into the American textbooks. In contrast, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising is barely mentioned (it is featured relatively prominently in American textbooks). While its military significance was minuscule, its symbolic meaning was huge, and it should have been stressed. Likewise, following the Soviet-imposed pattern of silence about the extermination of Jews on Polish soil (the Soviet occupiers knew that the more ignorance Poles display in that matter, the worse for them), Auschwitz is mentioned with scant reference to the Jews. While it is true that this camp was built for Poles and that during the years of the Soviet-Nazi pact there were hardly any Jews there, internationally it is a symbol of the Holocaust and this should have been made clear. The de-emphasizing of the Holocaust is a remnant of a Soviet-imposed version of history, especially as it is accompanied by a fawning attitude to the Red Army and its leaders. The red conquerors of Poland, such as Marshal Georgy Zhukov, are sympathetically presented. At the same time, the confusion between fascism and Nazism is introduced, so that General Franco and Adolf Hitler seem to be made of the same cloth.

A much better option would be the assignment of Andrzej Pankowicz's volume to students rather than that of Siergiejczyk. It covers essentially the same period, but in Pankowicz's textbook, World War 2 is presented in a much more lucid way, and its international aspects are better emphasized. Also, it has a section on the Holocaust, and another one on Polish help to the Jews. In view of the decisiveness with which this help has been dismissed in many American histories of World War 2 (often by people whose ancestors did much less), it would have been useful to alert Polish youth to the perceptions, however erroneous, of the alleged Polish complicity in the Holocaust. Otherwise, when adult Poles are faced with accusations in that regard, they are often unable to conduct a measured and rational dialogue with their accusers. Likewise, a section detailing the strongly negative perceptions and feelings of Jews concerning Poles should have been included. The total silence concerning these matters only works against the healing of wounds of the past.

The same could be said, with less emphasis, about the problems of the Ukrainian and German deportations engineered by the Russians after World War 2. These nationalities were deported from what presently is Polish territory, and their feelings should have been highlighted. Last but not least, the Soviet deportations of Poles should have received more prominence, as sources are now abundant about the martyrdom of 1.5 million Polish men, women and children who were taken to perish in the depths of Russia during the years of the Soviet-Nazi Pact (see "Letters from the Gulag," SR, Vol. IX/1).

The authors of Polish textbooks would profit from consulting western histories of the periods they are writing about, and vice versa. While western historians stand guilty of ignoring the history of eastern Europe and minimizing east central Europe's role in the continent's development, eastern European historians too often perpetuate the Soviet-imposed, crude version of western history. Throughout these textbooks, I noticed that the countries which traditionally looked east for inspiration, such as Serbia, were given sympathetic and detailed treatment (e.g., implying that Bosnia and Hercegovina are really Serbian), while the pro-western Slavic countries, such as Croatia, are passed over in silence. Conspicuous in these textbooks is also the absence of Czech history - and, I am told, the absence of Polish history in Czech and Slovak textbooks. Divide et impera, to be sure, but also a lack of resourcefulness among the textbook writers.

It also is puzzling to see the adjective "radziecki" (councillar) instead of "sowiecki" (Soviet) still employed throughout. The word "sowiecki" was used in pre-World War 2 Polish and it was forcibly replaced by "radziecki" by the Soviet occupiers. Funny as it might seem to Americans, people went to prison for using the word "sowiecki" in

Former emigre scholars should get involved in co-authoring future textbooks. New interpretation of post-World War 2 history is needed.

Polish. Why? Because Poles knew what the westerners strove to ignore: that the Soviet regime was no less deadly than that of the Nazi, and it engaged in wholesale murder of its own population. That is why the word "Soviet" had to be eliminated from Polish memory and replaced by a new word which would be purged of connotations. One hopes that the Polish Secretary of Education will make a special effort to remove "radziecki" from usage in the written documents that come from his office, thus helping its legitimate Polish equivalent return to the spoken and written Polish.

One also dreams of a foundation that would sponsor a symposium attended by textbook writers from the various regions of Europe and the United States, complete with ad hoc translators and some funds to follow up on the presumed recommendations. Barring that, one wishes that Polish textbook writers were invited by an American textbook publisher for a joint conference with their American counterparts. Not only is Polish history underrepresented in American textbooks; the history of the entire region is slighted beyond recognition, as Germany and Russia continue to be overrepresented in accounts of what was and is going on in east central Europe.


The first volume, authored by a team of three persons, is the best by far. It contains selections from ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Roman literatures; selections from European medieval literature, including Polish; ditto the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (the latter represented by Polish works to the detriment of students, for the Enlightenment was but poorly understood in Poland). An original and most welcome feature of this textbook is the inclusion in each section of the contemporary Polish poets writing on topics taken from Antiquity or the Middle Ages. Thus Stanislaw Grochowiak's "St. Simon Stylites" tells the story of the famous saint of late Antiquity, while Zbigniew Herbert's "Nike Hesitating" makes this ancient goddess come alive. Medieval and ancient literatures are represented in this textbook better than in a vast majority of the American high school classrooms.

It is puzzling to see instead of "sowiecki" (Soviet), the adjective "radziecki" (councillar) used throughout the textbooks. "Radziecki" was forcibly introduced after World War 2. Isn't it time to return to the Polish usage?

The shortcomings stem largely from the influence of Marxist thought and from following some silly traditions. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas is absent, while St. Augustine (the first Christian neurotic and an easy target for those who would like to debunk Christianity) is prominently featured. Following a longtime tradition of literary criticism, Aristotle is represented by his Poetics, probably the least significant of his works, while neither Nicomachean Ethics nor Metaphysics are mentioned. But by and large, this volume stands out not only because of the selections but also because of the imaginative and inspiring way of presenting ancient texts.

The volume on Romanticism has some praiseworthy features while failing significantly in other ways. Let us start with praise.

A most welcome feature is a selection from non-Polish writers: a generous section on the Germans and, in defiance of the Soviet divide et impera principle, sections on Ukrainian, Czech, Lithuanian, Belarusan and Hungarian literatures. The value of these sections cannot be overestimated, for respect and curiosity toward Poland's neighbors have to be acquired during the teenage years; otherwise, suspicion and contempt might take over.

On the minus side, the textbook overemphasizes the writings of Mickiewicz and Slowacki, and underemphasizes those of the more conservative poets, Cyprian Kamil Norwid and Zygmut Krasinski. Krasinski's The Undivine Comedy is summarized rather than excerpted, and too many other works are likewise commented upon rather than excerpted and then commented upon. There is heavy emphasis on socialist thought in the writings of the Romantics, while conservative thought receives not a paragraph. Thus the silly Trybuna Ludow and Maurycy Mochnacki's unbalanced outbursts are excerpted and praised, while works such as Krasinski's "Poland and the Storm of 1848" are not even mentioned. It will take years to bring Krasinski's opus to the attention of Polish youth, since there is no edition of his complete works at present. What a task for the Polish literary scholars to undertake.

Over half of the volume on Positivism reads like Cliff Notes. Given the fact that the second half of the 19th century was heavy on the novel, this is probably unavoidable. The selections from John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer are welcome, but where is Adam Smith? And why include excerpts from the long discredited Life of Jesus by Renan? Taine likewise evokes a yawn. Instead of these two very anti-Catholic Frenchmen, some introduction to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the period (the Oxford Movement? Carlyle?) would be more timely.

To our taste, in this and the preceding volume there is an overemphasis on laments over the loss of statehood and defeats in the uprisings. This pablum is not appropriate for teenage consumption. Surely a more optimistic selection would have better served the purpose of acquainting students with everyday life and thoughts of Poles in the 19th century. Catholicism makes Poles optimistic, and this has not been reflected in the admittedly canonical selections in these volumes. But selections from historians Stanislaw Tarnowski and Stanislaw Kozmian are good, and the superb writings of Boleslaw Prus are generously represented.

Matuszewski's volume is definitely of the Cliff Notes variety. There are few originals and many summaries of movements, poems, tendencies and ideas. The author has a long record of having been a communist-approved writer of textbooks (see his Portraits of Contemporary Polish Writers, Polonia Publishing House, 1959). One wonders whether the Polish emigre scholars should not get involved in co-authoring future textbooks dealing with the last two centuries of Polish history and literature.

Sally R. Boss is a longtime supporter of The Sarmatian Review.

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