More than a century after Juliusz Slowacki predicted the election of a Slav Pope, Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. This Pope has made a distinctly Polish and Slavic imprint on contemporary Catholicism and Christianity. Together with members of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Poles, John Paul II made history by participating in the revolution that brought down communism and led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. One can only speculate what would be the current state of affairs in Central and Eastern Europe had there been no John Paul II, no Lech Walesa, no individual members of Solidarnosc, and no Poland.
Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) had predicted that the Slavs would lead humanity into a new age of world peace. Inspired by Herder, leaders of the nineteenth-century movement known as Panslavism (which began among the Slovaks, Czechs, Moravians and South Slavs before spreading to the Russians) showed no great optimism concerning Poland's future. Some regarded Poland as a nation of renegades cut off from their Slavic roots. For their part, Poles, suspicious of the movement's veiled Russophilism, showed little enthusiasm for Panslavism. Yet ironically it is the Poles, more than any other Slavic nation, who in the twentieth century have fulfilled many of the optimistic predictions of Herder and the Panslavs. The faith, courage, and optimism of the Poles have helped them survive tragedies that devastated their neighbors. Poland's deeply-rooted religious faith, the traditions of the Polish szlachta, and other characteristics of Polish culture somehow inoculated the Poles against many of the errors and follies to which their neighbors succumbed, allowing them to rebound from tragedies such as the Polish Holocaust, the Katyń slaughter, and the often malevolent designs of Soviet rulers.
Such a view of history is not of course universally held, particularly not by those ignorant of Polish history. Just as some diplomats have viewed Poland as a nation of peripheral significance in Europe and as a perennial source of political conflict, not all non-Poles hold the Polish nation in high esteem. Ethnic stereotypes associated with the Poles find fertile ground especially in the United States. It is precisely because there exist disparate views on Poland and the Poles that the Editor has compiled this volume: "Podstawowym celem tego wyboru mysli polskich i obcych jest proba konfrontacji roznych opinii - subiektywnych i pelnych dystansu, propolskich i skrajnie niechtnych Polsce - w imie szukania tym pelniejszej prawdy o Polsce i Polakach. [the principal goal of this collection of Polish and foreign reflections on Poland is an attempt to confront divergent opinions, some of them subjective and distanced, others pro-Polish or extremely anti-Polish, so that a more accurate interpretation of Poland and Poles emerges]."
What is the truth about Poland and the Poles? Jerzy Robert Nowak obviously believes that such a question can be asked, and that it cannot be answered by ignoring stereotypes and subjective evaluations. His introduction examines the historical development of generalizations, myths, and stereotypes associated with Poles. This is not an academic examination of the historical development of Polish ethnic consciousness, however. The bulk of the book consists of conflicting quotes from a variety of sources which, except for the Editor's bibliographical notes which provide a context for the authors' often conflicting perceptions and opinions, are allowed to speak for themselves. The majority of the material presented dates from the eighteenth century to the present. Of particular interest are the statements of non-Poles, which different readers may find eloquent, insightful, misinformed or slanderous. There are numerous thought-provoking comments, such as as those of historian Norman Davies who in 1989 described himself as "natione Britannicus, gente Anglicus, origine Gallicus, religione polonfilus. Slabo wierzacy, ale polonofilus."
As reflected in this volume, conflicts with Germans and Russians represent central themes of Polish history. The Editor devotes great attention to Polish-Jewish relations. The book includes an index of names; there is no bibliography. For anyone with an interest in Poland, this is not only a useful reference work, but it also makes for fascinating reading. Obviously the book is crying out for a translator.
Kevin Hannan is the author of Borders of Language and Identity in Teschen Silesia (forthcoming).