A Traveller’s History Of Poland, by John Radzilowski
This book is what you would get if you wanted to see a book about the course of Polish history if it was written by a general friend of the country. The author clearly has a perspective in mind that he wishes to get across, and as someone who neither has particularly strong feelings either for or against Poland, this book was notable to me in the way that it sought to tone down some of the less flattering or complementary aspects of Polish history for the presumably intellectual Western reader. Some readers will likely take offense to these elements, such as when the author includes a prophecy from early modern Polish history that claims a Slav would become pope and help lead to the freedom of the Polish people, something that came true in the papacy of John Paul II, but the reader who is tolerant about such matters will find this book to be a generally enjoyable if brief discussion of Polish history that like many such histories tends to focus more on the present day and less on the ancient and medieval aspects of history that may be more enjoyable but are also more remote.
This book is a bit more than 250 pages long and it is divided into ten chapters. The book begins with a preface and acknowledgements and introduction. After that the author discusses early Poland from its prehistoric origins to 1138 (1). After that the author discusses the fragmentation of the Piast state and then its rebirth as a unified nation from 1138-1333 (2). This leads to a discussion of the shift in construction from wood to stone in the period from 1333 to 1466 (3) as well as the Golden Age of Polish greatness and influence from 1466 to 1576 (4). After that the author looks at the Silver Age of Polish decline from 1576 to the end of the Polish Commonwealth in 1795 (5). The author discusses the period of Polish rule by Russians, Prussians, and Austrians from 1795 to 1914 (6) and then the rebirth of Poland as an independent nation in the interwar period (7). The author then discusses the Second World War, Occupation, and the Holocaust (8), presenting the Poles as victims on the same level as Jews (8) while also discussing the period of Poland under Soviet domination from 1946 to 1978 (9). The book then ends with a discussion of Poland in the age of John Paul II from 1978-2005 (10), as well as a chronology of major events and a list of Polish rulers including the leaders of the Polish government in exile during and after World War II, sources of information on Polish history in English, a historical gazeteer, and an index.
As someone who reads a lot of histories, I can say that this book has the same general difficulty that many histories of peoples do who were under the rule of others for long stretches of time, and that is the way that the discussion of a culture that is being ruled and dominated by others can clearly become an exercise in advocacy for subaltern groups and thus biased by the author’s desire to support a historical cause and not primarily a desire to be fair-minded and just in one’s approach. This book clearly crosses the line from narrative history to advocacy for the Poles as a historically oppressed people in the period between 1790 and 1914 as well as between 1939 and 1989. In many ways, the author fails to do justice to the fact that the Poles themselves did not always do right by the Jews and other ethnic minorities when Poland was itself a powerful imperial nation, and the injustice of Germans being removed from their homes so that Poland could claim Gdansk and Silesia for itself are not even discussed at all. But if you know that this book is being written by a friend of the country who only wants to speak what is good and noble about Poland, you can understand why the book is silent about certain things and why it is very loud about others.
This is what a good reviewer does, he makes not of the strengths and weaknesses of a book and gives a fair reason of the writer’s perspective (which explains why the book is written the way it is.) I have a bone to pick about the glossing over of the treatment of Jews in Poland when Germany began to rise in power in the early 1930’s. Antisemitism, which had always been simmering beneath the surface, quickly boiled over once given the opportunity. There were more concentration camps in Poland than in any other country–including Germany. This could not have happened without the tacit approval and/or lack of resistance from the populace. Very few, if any, locals hid or helped the Jews in any way. The catholic church was especially compliant with the Nazi forces in this country. I was their position that assistance would only be rendered upon conversion to the “faith”. This is not the story with other countries, where you will find acts of heroism and even stalwart rebellion against the German forces in their nation.
Poland was an odd country that is for sure, and at least a few of the books I have read on Polish history did acknowledge the immense problems of anti-Semitism within the country’s history.