Adam Zamoyski began Poland: A History as an update and revision to his 1987 book, The Polish Way. He found that history had gotten in the way, and that just revising the older work would not be enough.
In the early modern period, the Poles failed spectacularly to build an efficient centralised state structure and they paid the price, being swallowed up by their more successful neighbours. The history of Poland has therefore, up to now, been written as that of a failed state. Like some distorting lens or filter, that failure coloured and deformed the historian’s view of the whole of Polish history.
He is now no longer, as he was only a couple of decades ago, writing the history of an enslaved and to all intents and purposes non-existent country. There is a great difference between writing up a bankrupt business and writing up one that has been through hard times and turned the corner. He is no longer writing the history of a state that failed, but of a society that created a social and political civilisation of its own, one which was occluded by the success of a rival model (now utterly discredited) but whose ideals are close to those the world values today. p. xxi-xxii
Not that writing Polish history has ever been easy. Poland is, famously or notoriously, a “nation on wheels.” The title of the most comprehensive English-language history of Poland is God’s Playground. Zamoyski summarizes the difficulties, “How was the historian to approach a country whose territory had expanded and contracted, shifted and vanished so dramatically, which currently existed as an almost random compromise resulting from the Second World War, and which [in 1987] lay within the imperial frontiers of another power? How was he to treat a people which, from ethnic, cultural and religious diversity had been purged by genocide and ethnic cleansing into a homogeneous society? How to represent a culture which had been largely obliterated, whose remains survived only underground or in exile?” p. xvii
Zamoyski answers his questions with a history that is mostly political but more than just a story of who ruled when and where. He pays attention to the make-up of the political nation, how that changed over time, and what those changes meant for the entities known as Poland. He points out both commonalities with other European states and aspects where the Polish experience is unusual. He pays some attention to economics, as it underpins both state power and societal changes. He does all of this, taking in roughly 1500 years of events in the Polish lands, over the course of 400 pages by two expedients. First, he moves along as a brisk pace. Second, he has dispensed with any scholarly apparatus of citations or bibliography. “This is an essay rather than a textbook. It is based on well-known and undisputed facts, and is not in any sense meant to break new ground.” p. xxii Fair enough, although in the chapters on post-1989 Poland I would not completely agree with the “undisputed” part.
The question that underpins the chronological narrative is, “What is Poland?” Zamoyski never explicitly poses his question quite so explicitly, but the way he structures his narrative addresses other ways of phrasing the question. Is Poland a geographic area? Is it an ethnic or linguistic community? Who comprises the political nation of Poland? Is someone a member of that nation because they subscribe to an ethos?
The answers to these questions have naturally changed over time, as the political units that make up Poland have changed, and the European context has changed around them. At the beginning of the Polish state, with the baptism of Mieszko Duke of Polonia in 966, the unifying element was the Piast dynasty that reigned over mixed German and Slavic subjects. By the early 21st century, Poland had become perforce a homogeneous nation-state but also a member of the European Union, an experiment in pooled sovereignty that arose from the calamitous wars of the 20th century. Zamoyski tells of Poland’s transformations along that winding road: dynastic kingdom, competing duchies, major power in Central Europe, union with Lithuania, Commonwealth of Two Nations and noble republic, elective monarchy, plaything of nearby powers, erasure from the map of Europe, interwar republic, horrific battleground of World War II, communist satellite, parliamentary republic.
Zamoyski captures the interplay between the choices made by individual leaders and the larger contexts in which they lived and made those choices. The people and the personalities count for much, and do much to show how contingent history can be, but they also have to contend with impersonal developments, whether demographic changes brought about by the Black Death, or advances in technology that shaped markets and economic power. He also shows how global developments shaped this particular part of Europe, as when the import of precious metals from Spanish colonies in the New World made Poland’s agricultural products worth comparatively more, thus building the country’s wealth and financing Renaissance building and achievements in Poland.
He also delivers some pungent judgements. For example, Zamoyski has little time for the Lithuanians. “By the end of the fifteenth century Poland had become an integral part of late-medieval civilisation. Lithuania, on the other hand, was largely left out of the picture, contributing nothing and gaining little from its association with Christian Europe. Lithuania proper was inhabited my no more than half a million people still pagan in spirit…” (p. 54)
Two related distinctions that Zamoyski sketches between Poland and much of the rest of Europe account for both the strengths and weaknesses of the Polish polities through the centuries. First, there was never a widespread feudal system of vassalage, in which lords held power in homage to the crown.
This divergence form European norms is significant. Unlike Bohemia, which had faced similar challenges and choices, Poland had not been fully absorbed into the framework of European states. One consequence of this was that it remained more backward. But it maintained a greater degree of independence. And while it was divided into duchies it remained more uniform and cohesive as a society than many other, because it was not subjected to the mixed overlordships that placed large tracts of geographical France under the sovereignty of the king of England, areas of Germany under that of the French dynasty, or Italy at the mercy of a succession of Norman, French and German warlords. It was probably this that ensured the survival of Poland as a political unit. p. 18
The second difference is the noble estate, the szlachta:
One cannot substitute the terms ‘nobility’ or ‘gentry’ for szlachta because it had little in common with those classes in other European countries either in origin, composition or outlook. Its origins remain obscure. … The attitude of the szlachta begs analogies with the Rajputs of India or the Samurai of Japan. Like both of these, and unlike any other gentry in Europe, the szlachta was not limited by nor did it depend for its status on either wealth, or land, or royal writ. It was defined by its function, that of a warrior caste, and characterised by mutual solidarity and contempt for others.
‘The Polish gentry,’ writes the [14th century] historia Dlugosz, ‘are eager for glory, keen on the spoils of war, contemptuous of danger and death, inconstant in their promises, hard on their subject and people of the lower orders, careless in speech, used to living beyond their means, faithful to their monarch, devoted to farming and cattle-breeding, courteous to foreigners and guests, lavish in hospitality, in which they exceed other nations.’ p. 47
For many centuries, the szlachta were the political nation of Poland, and the interplay of these traits — along with a highly developed notion of personal and political freedom — with the tides of European history shaped the fate of Poland.
It’s a fascinating set of tales, not least because it confounds many of the received notions about European history. For example, not only was the Polish crown elective (although as long as the Jagiellonian dynasty lasted, it went to one of them) but the share of the Polish population that could vote to elect the king was larger than the share of the British population that could vote for members of Parliament. Polish kings also received their right to rule from the consent of the governed, and they showed it by not only swearing at their coronation to uphold the traditional rights of the subjects (in the Henrician Articles) but to a particular covenant (Pacta Conventa) spelled out for each ruler. Along another axis, Poland today is one of Europe’s most staunchly Catholic countries, but the commitment of szlachta to personal liberty meant first that the Reformation attracted many nobles to Protestantism and then later that the ebbing of the tide of the Reformation took place with very little bloodshed. This stands in contrast to the wars of religion that devastated so many other parts of Europe.
In many countries the Reformation had social and political overtones. In Poland it was above all a constitutional issue. As the Papal Nuncio’s secretary noted after witnessing the debates of a Mazovian Sejmik [local assembly], the assembly seemed staunchly Catholic when the discussion turned on the faith, the sacraments and the sacred rites, but when the talk was of the privileges of the clergy, a number of ‘Protestant’ voices could be heard, and when it came to the subject of the Church’s immunity from taxation, the entire assembly appeared to have become fanatically Calvinist. p. 67
As in religious toleration, the Polish political nation was also open ethnically.
By the mid-sixteenth century the szlachta included Lithuanian nobles and Ruthene boyars, Prussian and Baltic gentry of German origin, as well as Tatars and smaller numbers of Moldavians, Armenians, Italians, Magyars and Bohemians, and was diluted by intermarriage with wealthy merchants and peasants. The szlachta made up around 7 per cent of the population. Since they extended from the top to the bottom of the economic scale, and right across the board in religion and culture, they represented a wider cross-section as well as a grater percentage of the population than any enfranchised class in any European country. p. 78
The golden liberties enjoyed by this class also contained the seeds of the noble republic’s eventual downfall. The constitutional setup included many veto points that could be used to block policy innovations. Eventually, a single noble could block all the actions of a session of the parliament, and once this action had been taken, interested parties both domestic and foreign made more common use of it, preventing the state from addressing even urgent issues. Similarly, Polish traditions allowed for rebellion within a constitutional framework. Such “confederations” also became more common with time, and were likewise subject to foreign manipulation. And while some praised the anarchy that confederations and nullification led to, in practice more cohesive states took advantage to first manipulate Polish affairs and then to annex large swathes of Poland completely.
One of the few weak points in the book, to my mind, is the relatively sudden appearance of Russia in Polish affairs in the early 1700s. In 1715, a confederation was formed against Augustus II, who had proposed reforms to strengthen the state. “Peter I [of Muscovy] offered to mediate. With some reluctance, the offer was accepted, and a Russian envoy arrived in Warsaw — accompanied by 18,000 troops who were to keep order. The ensuing Sejm of 1717 was known as the Dumb Sejm. It sat in a chamber surrounded by Russian soldiers, the deputies were forbidden to speak, and the Russian mediator forced his solution on it.” (p. 179)
This action sets the stage toward the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, and it would have been nice to have had a bit more about how Russia came to be in a position to force its ruler’s will on Poland. Earlier in the book, Zamoyski is particularly good about giving the European context for developments in Poland, so a few paragraphs on this key development would not have been unusual in his overall narrative.
The rest of the 18th century is a race between efforts to strengthen the noble republic, and the efforts of its neighbors and their Polish allies to keep change at bay, paving the way toward eventual partition among Russia, Prussia and Austria. On May 3, 1791, Poland produced Europe’s first written constitution, a model of limited monarchy and republicanism hailed by people as divergent as Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. It was also an implicit threat to the absolute monarchies on the countries borders, and they wasted no time in ensuring that it was not effectively put into practice. By 1794, Poland was eliminated as a European state.
That event sets up another running theme of the next two hundred years: political life in opposition to existing structures. Polish political culture continued to emphasize liberty, and after partition the challenge was to find ways to express that desire under three different imperial regimes. Political Poles also became practiced in the arts of conspiracy and insurrection. Further, they became famous as fighters for liberty all across Europe. While there were risings in Poland several times in the 19th century, Poles fought in many other places, generally against autocratic governments. In 1848 alone, during the “springtime of nations,” as Zamoyski notes,
Poles had been among the first on the barricades of Vienna and Berlin; they fought in the Dresden rising; a Polish legion formed by the poet Adam Mickiewicz in Lombardy fought at Rome, Genoa, Milan and Florence; Mieroslawski commanded the anti-Bourbon forces in Sicily and then the German revolutionaries in Baden; General Chrzanowski commanded the Piedmontese forces as Novara. Wherever there were Russians, Prussians, Austrians or their allies to be fought, there were Poles in the ranks. Their greatest contribution was to the Hungarian cause. p. 239
But conspiracy and rebellion are often poor preparation for victory and governance. Zamoyski sketches missteps during 19th century uprisings that may well have prevented Poland from regaining independence at that time. Likewise, when a Polish state returns in the aftermath of World War I, the habits of underground organizing — and the differences that arose from organizing against three different outside powers — made for divisive governing in the difficult interwar period. When Polish democracy again emerged from outside domination after 1989, the skills learned in subverting a communist state were not the ones needed to build an effective ruling coalition to usher in a new era. These modern problems echo the long theme of Polish history of freedom being both strength and weakness of Polish politics.
The book’s final chapter, on post-communist Poland, is another one where I wish Zamoyski had taken a little more time and added more pan-European context. He ably describes the heady sense of triumph and possibility that the revolutions of 1989 seemed to open, as well as the crucial role that Poland played as the first country to usher in free elections in the then-Soviet bloc. When he later criticizes the role that extremely small parties played in the first parliaments, or the extravagant promises made by an eccentric former emigre presidential candidate, he misses a chance to point out that similar things happened in a large number of post-communist countries. Placing Poland more clearly in a wider European context (and cleaning up small errors, such as calling Jozef Antall president of Hungary or locating the meeting that started the Visegrad Group in Prague rather than Visegrad, Hungary) would have made Zamoyski’s foray into the history of post-communist Poland stronger.
But for every minor misstep there are dozens and dozens of fascinating insights and well-argued points. This review, as long as it is, has not even addressed many major themes of Polish history that Zamoyski describes clearly and interestingly: interplay between great landholders and the crown, higher education and the transmission of culture, the country’s openness to Jewish people and their role in the commonwealth, the Swedish invasions, the great rebellion of the 1650s, the enormous suffering during World War II, and many, many more. There is also the theme of the Zamoyskis themselves, for the author’s family bears one of the great names of Polish history. He tells all of this in just over 400 pages, a thorough and exemplary achievement.