The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History Of The Poles And Their Culture, by Adam Zamoyski
In many ways this book is a fascinating one. As someone who is not appreciably Polish in any way, but who finds the history of Eastern Europe interesting and revealing and somewhat important for contemporary historical concerns as well as a general understanding of Christendom, I tend to be amused at the focus that writers on Polish history tend to have. And while this book does its best not to romanticize the Polish experience or to claim that Poland was blameless in its historical troubles, in many ways this book demonstrates some of the facets of Polish identity that tend to be wrapped up in books about Poland that are written by Polish historians, even those who attempt to appeal to non-Polish anglophone audiences. This book is written with an intense Catholic perspective, and moreover a perspective that allows the reader to understand how it has been that Poland has served in an uncomfortable relationship between those on either side of it, whether we are looking at German imperial ambitions or Russian ones, whether we are looking at Catholicism or heathen faiths, whether we are looking at Crusaders or invading Ottomans, and so on and so forth. This understanding of Poland and its struggle to form and maintain a coherent identity in the face of nearly continual border changes throughout its history is a compelling one.
This book is about 400 pages long and is divided into 22 chapters in a generally chronological approach. The author begins with a preface and a note on Polish pronunciations (so that the reader understands that Sejm is pronounced as something like “same”). After that there is a discussion of Poland’s isolation from the practical concern of Western nations during its crisis periods (1) as well as the establishment of the Polish crown (2) and the struggle against Germans and Tartars in early Polish history (3). After that comes a look at the rule of the Jagiellon dynasty (4) as well as the relationship between church and state (5) and the status of Poland as a royal republic (6). The author discusses anarchy in the Polish experience (7), the crisis involved in this during the 17th and 18th centuries (8), and the importance of the Hussars (9). The author discusses the problems of the Deluge (10), the anatomy of Polish decay (11), the baroque aspects of its culture and architecture (12), as well as the increasing anarchy (13) that culminated in the end of the Polish monarchy (14). After that the author discusses the gentle revolution that took place after Poland’s disappearance (15), the heroic efforts of Poles to bring attention to their national cause (16), the Polish question as it appeared to other empires (17), and the experience of Poles in colonial captivity (18). The author then ends with a look at the making of modern Poland (19), the experience of the interwar Polish republic (20), the ordeal of World War II (21), and the people and plans that became important thereafter (22) before ending in suggestions for further reading and an index.
The fact that this is a very good book in terms of its text does not mean that everything about it is as enjoyable. For one, this book is somewhat tedious when it comes to a look at Roman Catholic religious art, as this book is full of an interest in such matters that I must admit I do not find all that worthwhile. The sight of ornate Roman Catholic cathedrals or altars or religious iconography or religious art is not a personally very appealing one, but given the importance of Roman Catholicism to the Polish identity and to the nation’s history it is not surprising that the author would wish to focus on this aspect in his history of Poland. It was especially interesting to note the particular Polish interest in freedom and in the confusion this focus on freedom and on the reality of constitutional forms as it related to the Polish experience under Russian misrule. The book is also somewhat melancholy in the way that it discusses how Poland finally came to be a coherent and unified nation state through the loss of non-Polish territories in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine as well as the forced expulsion of Germans after World War II and the near-destruction of its prewar Jewish population. Sometimes unity comes at a terrible price.