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A History of Poland

Curtis G. Murphy

By Anita J. Pražmowska. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. xii + 242 pages. Maps, index. ISBN 0-333-97253-8 (hardcover), ISBN 0-333-97254-6 (paper).

Anita Pražmowska’s History of Poland is the most recent English-language synthesis of Polish history. Numbering only 215 pages of text, her book joins the short list of concise histories on the subject. The complexity of the material presents numerous challenges for such a short work. As Pražmowska herself notes in the preface (vii), viewing the history of Poland from the perspective of the present creates the possibility of leaving out or undervaluing people and events important at the time but largely forgotten today. Although such a claim could be made for every history book it is especially prescient in this case, given the peculiar twists and turns of fate in East Central Europe. For example, during much of its history “Poland” was a kingdom stretching from Gdańsk to Kyiv, united with the Duchy of “Lithuania” that then included Minsk, Grodno and, for a time, Smolensk. No political being called “Poland” existed for 123 years, yet Polish continued to be spoken in Vilnius, Lviv, and Minsk, which today are centers of Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian national cultures. The shift of Poland’s borders to the west in 1945 made the country—quite anomalously for its history —appear in size and geographic space as it last did in the thirteenth century. A survey of Poland, therefore, must make the noncontinuous continuous and follow paths that today lead to Lithuania or Belarus. Pražmowska’s coherently and concisely written survey does an admirable job of navigating this winding road. Her book provides a good introduction to the basic outline of events, and the book is especially strong with regard to Polish foreign relations and international affairs in all historical periods. This survey is intended for a popular audience, and readers with no prior knowledge of the subject will rarely find themselves lost or confused.

The successes and failures of Poland as a multiethnic state should be emphasized in any survey of Polish history, because of its relevance to the problems of contemporary European states.

Unfortunately, despite her beneficent warning, Pražmowska does not diverge from the regrettable tendency of many historians of Poland to view their subject solely through the lens of the ethnic Polish nationality, a fact that obscures the contributions of numerous peoples and religious groups to the development of the country. Although today Poland is overwhelmingly Polish and Catholic, both the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the interwar Polish state were multinational entities. Poland-Lithuania housed the largest Jewish population in the world, with Jews making up over 50 percent of the urban population in the eighteenth century. In addition, Lithuanians, Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Armenians, Muslim Tatars, and Scots constituted a significant portion of the population, a fact which only began to change during the Second World War. Poland’s past multi-ethnic and religiously diverse nature constitute one of the most important and unique features of its history, and Pražmowska’s survey does not sufficiently underscore this fact. For example, although the author mentions the tolerant charters granted to Jewish communities under the Jagiellonian kings (77–78), she does not fully discuss the development of Jewish self-government at the local (kahal) and national (Va’ad) level, a completely indigenous phenomenon that lasted until the mid-eighteenth century. Historians such as Moshe Rosman, Gerson Hundert, and Jacob Goldberg have extensively documented Jewish influence on both the economy and culture of the Commonwealth, as well as the uniquely broad autonomy and self-government granted to Jewish communities in Poland. The story of such communities should play a more prominent role in a survey of Poland’s history.
In a similar vein, other ethnic and religious groups that inhabited the former Commonwealth receive only slight treatment. The author discusses the Union of Brest (104), but at the same time she inexplicably writes that “the Reformation in Poland was a brief religious flowering,” the impact of which “was nearly entirely confined to cultural developments”(87). I find this statement perplexing, given that the Union was a major element of the Catholic-Counter Reformations strategy, which resulted in the rise of an entirely new religious community, predominately within the Ruthenian speaking areas of Ukraine. Perusing the names of significant Ukrainian-Belarusian figures found in this book, we find Konstanty Ostrogski (105) and Bohdan Khmelnyts’kyi (106), but no mention of Melety Smotryts’kyi, Mikołaj Sieniecki, Adam Kysil, or Stanisław Orzechowski. The successes and failures of Poland as a multiethnic state should be emphasized in any survey of Polish history, largely because of its relevance to the problems of contemporary European states.

Another of my reservations about Pražmowska’s survey concerns her wholesale adoption of the standard interpretation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. If one views history as the inevitable march toward the nation-state (against which Pražmowska cautions), then one can make the claim (as the author does) that the Sarmatian culture of Poland-Lithuania in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was self-interested (110), intolerant (111), and xenophobic (113). If, on the other hand, one considers first-hand accounts and writings from the period from authors such as Jan Pasek, Łukasz Opaliński, Alexander Maximillian Fredro, and Stanisław Dunin Karwicki, then a completely different picture emerges. From their perspective, all of Europe—including England—had fallen under the specter of absolutium dominum. For them, Poland-Lithuania was the only free country remaining, an interpretation appreciated by such foreign observers as Leibnitz, Bernard Conner, and Rousseau. This understanding of the world has found its way into the works of Emanuel Rostworowski and Robert Frost, and goes a long way to explaining the behavior of citizens of Poland-Lithuania.

From their perspective, all of Europe—including England—had fallen under the specter of absolutium dominum. For them, Poland-Lithuania was the only free country remaining.

In the late eighteenth century a cohort of people, such as Stanisław Konarski, Hugo Kołłątaj, and the Czartoryski family, sought to strengthen the power of the central government at the expense of individual rights. Those holding this viewpoint seized power with Russian backing, and propagated the Constitution of the Third of May. Their version of history has remained with us to today, largely because historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, such as Joachim Lelewel, Stanisław Kutrzeba, and Władysław Konopczyński, adopted it wholeheartedly. While I do not fault Pražmowska for not sympathizing with Sarmatian culture, I was disappointed that she essentially repeated, unaltered, the vision of Polish history already presented for English-speaking readers by historians such as Alexander Gieysztor, Oscar Halecki, and Jerzy Łukowski.

Despite my reservations, I would recommend this book to anyone wishing to become quickly acquainted with the basic outline of Polish history. The author includes the essential facts, and her discussion of Poland within the context of European dynastic politics provides a welcome reminder that the history of Poland is inseparable from the history of Europe as a whole. On the other hand, I eagerly await an interpretation that veers a little further from the standard.

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