The Clash of Moral Nations: Cultural Politics in Piłsudski's Poland, 1926-1935
By Eva Plach. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006. xiv+262 pages. Notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 13-978-0-8214-1695-2. Hardcover.
The fascinating history of interwar Poland has not yet received the scholarly attention it deserves. Besides the fact that many archival documents were destroyed during the Second World War, often through acts of deliberate vandalism by the German occupation forces, the political situation of the People’s Republic did not allow for an unbiased assessment of the Second Republic. From the perspective of official postwar historiography, interwar Poland was presented as a failed state against the backdrop of which the star of communist Poland could shine all the brighter. This black and white picture tends to be turned upside down after the fall of communism: Communist Poland is blamed for everything that went wrong in twentieth-century century Polish history, whereas the Second Republic and her political heroes, Józef Piłsudski above all, serve as the idols of postsocialist Poland.
Studies of the history of interwar Poland are therefore of tremendous importance in creating a clearer picture of these formative years of Polish history. Eva Plach’s book deals with Polish reactions to Piłsudski’s coup d’etat of May 1926 and the ensuing so-called Sanacja regime up to the early 1930s, when the Sanacja discredited itself by imprisoning her political opponents. Plach is not so much interested in the political history of the Sanacja as in the debates triggered by Piłsudski’s claim to lead the Polish nation back onto a healthy political path. Against this backdrop, Plach understands Sanacja as “[a] forum through which different actors of the young state could talk about moral disintegration and moral renewal, about nation and identity, about gender and politics” (16). In order to analyze these discourses and the mood following the events of May 1926, Plach examined an impressive corpus of primary and secondary literature in Polish and English.
Chapter 1 focuses on the debate within the Polish press on moral reform and spiritual rebirth that immediately followed the coup. Chapter 2 deals with the letters ordinary people wrote to Piłsudski, usually expressing their support for Sanacja and often making suggestions on how to reform the country. Chapter 3 studies the ideas of the Society of Moral Rebirth, a small political organization of leftist and liberal intellectuals in favor of the Sanacja. Chapter 4 examines two pro-Sanacja women’s organizations, both of which promoted the idea that the Polish woman, as in the time of the partitions, has to fulfill a special mission to heal society. Chapter 5 deals with right-wing attacks on the well-known writer and gynecologist Tadeusz Boy Želeński, who fought against clericalism and nationalism and was an influential advocate of family planning, civil marriage, “free love,” and eugenics.
It is important to note that Plach is passionate about the political role of women in interwar Poland and the importance of gender issues in the debates after 1926. This topic could have been a scholarly gold mine, since we know little about this theme with respect to interwar Poland, and Plach apparently has a lot to tell. Unfortunately, however, she did not make this the book’s principal question but decided instead to deal with the political debates about Poland in general. This leaves us with a book that focuses predominantly on gender issues, yet not designed and labeled as such. The book’s subtitle “Cultural Politics in Piłsudski’s Poland,” on the other hand, is slightly misleading, since we do not read much about cultural politics. Plach views the debates following the May coup as less about political programs and more about symbols and definitions of Polishness and the purpose of the Polish state. Plach argues convincingly that these debates revealed a deep split within Polish society, a “clash of moral nations” deriving from two different “cultural orientations.”
It would have been helpful, though, if she had made a greater effort to clearly define each side instead of simply indicating that the split was between left and right, between the left-liberal supporters of Piłsudski’s Sanacja and the right-nationalist opponents centered around Roman Dmowski’s National Democrats. Also, the structure of the book does not make it easy to understand the cultural clash. Anyone who writes about a clash between two camps has to devote an even share of attention to each side. However, Plach deals predominantly with the supporters of Piłsudski’s Sanacja and their ideas, whereas the views of their opponents remain in the background. When Plach mentions their attacks on Sanacja she tends to present them as the illegitimate voice of political reaction against the progressive trends of Sanacja, reflecting more the perception of Sanacja itself than the judgment of a neutral analyst. In the end the author seems to be as surprised as Piłsudski’s left-liberal supporters that it was Piłsudski-not his right-wing, chauvinist opponents-who after 1930 established a dictatorship willing to throw its political adversaries into prison. In this context, it is worth mentioning that Adolf Hitler was among Piłsudski’s greatest admirers, and that Sanacja’s language with its focus on “moral rebirth,” the virtues of the officer, and the fight against parliamentarism had as much in common with the rising fascism of its time as did the anti-Semitism and chauvinism of Sanacja’s right-wing opposition.
Plach’s book points out the deep-seated cultural conflicts in the society of interwar Poland, the conflicts that kept haunting the Polish nation long after the end of the Second Republic in 1939. However, the book’s discourse analysis often remains too descriptive. Plach shows how the political debates of the late ’20s and early ’30s focused on vague concepts such as “moral crisis” and “moral rebirth.” She could have taken this as a vantage point to explore, against the backdrop of the history of interwar Poland and a European-wide perception of a cultural crisis after the Great War, what people in Poland actually meant when they talked about this crisis and the need to “heal” the country. The reader, however, is too often left with hazy formulas taken from the Polish press and from diaries and letters of the time without getting a clear idea of what was actually at stake in interwar Poland, and where exactly the supporters and opponents of Sanacja differed. The author should have delved deeper instead of remaining so much on the surface of the debates. Plach admits that her book consists merely of “selected examples” concerning the discourses of interwar Poland, examples that are neither “the only ones” nor “even the most important.” Each chapter “could easily serve as the basis for a more focused study of the period” (163). Modesty is a virtue, but these limitations seem a bit too modest for a book.
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