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Writing Counterhistory in Non-Germanic Central Europe

September 2003

Writing Counterhistory in Non-Germanic Central Europe

Defining oneself in opposition to something is a sure sign of cultural insecurity and a wish for cultural recognition. The syndrome of "being against" is also deadly, and one hears complaints that Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians proclaim Otherness too insistently, and by doing so work toward their own exclusion. They remain "Eastern Europeans," natives of a seventh continent inhabited by white people who have been colonized by other white people.

But is this situation avoidable? What is to be done when one's story is systematically edited out of history? What is to be done when history is painted in colors that one knows are false?

Americans of Polish background know that they are not represented in the historical narrative as taught in American schools. They are a minority made invisible, persons from "Eastern Europe," Catholics in a "Protestant country." Yet they are not eligible for minority scholarships set up by universities and colleges.

The Polish master narrative, and other Central and East European master narratives, run counter to the canonical history of Europe which is pitilessly blind toward those who did not succeed in Realpolitik but who nevertheless survived. This is both the glory and the burden of Polish history.

For Poles and for some of their neighbors, the nineteenth century was a century of insurrections and of economic, cultural, and demographic losses; a century of regress. For the rest of Europe it was a century of progress and successes. The praises of the 1815 Congress of Vienna reverberate in virtually every history textbook. Yet the Congress divided Europe between empires and strangulated entire nations, prolonging the cannibalization of the largest of them, Poland. It mapped out the road to future tragedies for Ukraine. It tossed over Warsaw from Prussia to Russia, and it divided Polish territory in ways that forever doomed to failure the multinational Polish experiment, the Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian Republic whose kings were elected and who respected the idea of tolerance of diversity.

There is little sympathy for non-Germanic (and largely Catholic) Central Europeans in America's Catholic establishment. The English-speaking Catholic conservatives bemoan the First World War as a disaster that destroyed the allegedly moral "old order" in Europe. But ever since the 1830s, Polish Catholics were praying, with Adam Mickiewicz, for a "war of nations" that would restore their liberty and nationhood. The Great War liberated Central Europe from strangulation by empires. It made Europe's most Catholic nation, Poland, whole again. (It failed to do the same for Ukraine.) But the sympathies of American Catholics seem to lie with Protestant Prussia and Eastern Orthodox Russia rather than with the Catholic Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, or Hungarians.

Catherine the Great is generally considered a positive "Enlightenment" figure in American historical narrative: see the essay on her in Mark Kishlansky et al., Societies and Cultures in World History, 2 vols., (New York: Harper Collins, 1995). Poles see her as a despicable tyrant who bribed her way into French "enlightened" circles while waging barbarous wars and suppressing dissent at home. In the part of Poland that Catherine conquered, the Greek Catholic (Uniate) churches were closed and thousands of recalcitrant Catholics who refused to convert to Russian Orthodoxy were killed. Catherine of Russia and Frederick of Prussia planned and executed the partitions of Poland. The Enlightenment historians rewarded them both with the epithet "the Great." In the February 1994 issue of First Things, a neoconservative Catholic monthly, Norman Ravitch stated in all seriousness that Catherine the Great invaded Poland "to put down anarchy and insure religious freedom" which Polish nobles suppressed--a bit like calling Ghenghis Khan a liberator of Christian Europe. The editor of the journal, Fr. John Neuhaus, did not consider it necessary to comment. Like most Catholic notables in the United States, he is simply not interested in Catholicism east of the Oder River.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles is another point of difference. It is often argued that the harsh terms of the treaty for the Germans resulted in the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany, which in turn led to the outbreak of the Second World War. The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years, edited by M. F. Boemke et al. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998) rehearses this well-known opinion. The tome concentrates on Western Europe as if the rest of Europe did not exist. Non-Germanic Central and Eastern Europe are squeezed into two articles (out of twenty-six). One of them is modestly titled "The Polish Question," and the other lambasts Poland for her mistreatment of minorities. No article is devoted to German or French minorities, or to the mistreatment of the Irish by the English. While German financial hardships are lamented, no words of explication are wasted on the incredibly more difficult financial situation of Poland, and no one comments on the economic factor in the Polish treatment of minorities.

The Great War and the Versailles Treaty brought liberation to Central and East Europeans. It gave them breathing space and a chance to rebuild their nations. It enabled them to claim their identity. But the teachers of history in America routinely tell their students that the Treaty was a disaster because it left Germany angry and saddled with war reparations. Polish counter-history says that the Treaty allowed the sun of freedom to shine east of the German border. Ditto Czech, Slovak, and other counterhistories. The editing out of these peoples' histories became routine in the nineteenth century when the vast belt of nations between Germany and Russia did not appear on the map. But the persistence of this editing out is remarkable, given the fact that several European nations situated east of Germany rebuilt themselves in the twentieth century.

Or take Napoleon. In the English-speaking world, he is a villain: a Catholic (of sorts) and a rival of England, the conqueror of Prussia and Austria, and a wicked invader of Russia. For Poles, he symbolized hope. Poles fought for him not only in the Russian campaign, but virtually everywhere--the sort of desperate anti-Realpolitik action of those who had no choice.

Concerning the Second World War, American historians do not spend a New York minute pondering the fact that Poles fought against Nazi Germany and against Soviet Russia in the war. The vision of the war in American historical narrative is disarmingly simplistic: you were either on the side of the Allies, or you were siding with Hitler. The standard American understanding posits that there were two alliances, Nazi and anti-Nazi. You either aligned with Hitler (as did the governments of Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia), or you were on the side of the Allies, as was France, England, America, and Russia. This is history. Counterhistory says: wrong. Poland fought against Nazi Germany and against Soviet Russia. Poland fought against two totalitarian powers. An anti-Realpolitic gesture but a necessary one, in Polish circumstances.

One reason why one does not see Polish names in prominent places in either right wing or left wing politics in this country is that inserting such persons' names (assuming they retain their vestigial Central European identity) in mainstream politics is like squaring the circle. To be in mainstream politics, one has to identify with mainstream history, including European history, whereas hardly any intellectual or politician who has Polish interests in mind can accept the version of history that laments the Great War as an unmitigated disaster and praises Soviet Russia for being a wonderful ally in the Second World War. If one yields to canonical attitudes in this regard, one ceases to represent Polish interests; if one tries to illuminate the Polish vision of history, one sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the conventionally-minded scholars and politicians. Zbigniew Herbert put it succinctly in his Letter to the Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev published in the April 1995 issue of Sarmatian Review:

We Poles experienced many defeats and humiliations. For decades and totally alone, we too struggled to win back elementary freedoms, the right to live in dignity, justice, and political security.

Like you, we fought in the deafening silence of the world that surrounded us. The governments of the rich, democratic and powerful states accused us of destroying the order of things, told us that we were bandits, that we were anarchists who tried to destroy the balance of power in the world. We know all too well that the indifferent and well-fed people tend to see victims as criminals, and that they commiserate with the criminals, considering them victims.

Given the editing out of non-Germanic Central Europe from the American vision of history, it is easy to falsify historical details in countless small ways. Consider Jenny Diski's review of Herman Kruk's The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps 1939-44 in the 22 May 2003 issue of the London Review of Books. In discussing the life of Menachem Begin, Diski edited out a crucial period of Begin's life, the period that involved Polish generosity, Soviet duplicity, and a lack of recognition of either by mainstream historians. Like other Zionists, Begin was accepted into the Polish Army (formed by the surviving Polish political prisoners of the Gulag) despite pressure from Russian authorities not to accept Jews. The vicissitudes of war took the Polish Army to Palestine where Zionist Jews defected and formed their own Jewish units to fight against the British and, eventually, against Arabs. Instead of pressing charges (defection in wartime brought court-martial and the death penalty), the Polish command generously allowed the Zionists to pursue their own objectives. Menachem Begin never recognized Polish generosity; indeed, he badmouthed his Polish colleagues whenever an opportunity arose, despite the fact that he twice owed them his life. He is a good illustration of the saying that no good deed goes unpunished. And of course, Ms. Diski blithely follows official history in editing out the Polish Army component from Begin's life.

Can one learn Polish counterhistory in the United States? Last time we checked, Norman Davies'God's Playground: A History of Poland, vol. 2 was priced at $134 on, while Lawrence Goodwyn's Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland was out of print, used copies selling in the $100-$215 range. Both books were published by university presses that do not usually price volumes of comparable length and popularity in so high a dollar range.

Yet Polish counterhistory provides a healthy corrective to standard history textbooks. The postmodern world needs reminders that counterhistories continue to be written, and history's dialectic assures us that they will be absorbed into the master narrative. Telling stories situated within unconventional parameters can be a source of deep satisfaction, and listening to them can provide a salutary antidote to the deadening influence of stereotypes.

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Last updated 10/12/03