Success at Last

  • Poland: A History
    by Adam Zamoyski
    Harper Press, 2009, 426pp.

A couple of years ago, Adam Zamoyski — who is, yes, a friend — told me that he was revising The Polish Way, a history of Poland he had published back in 1987. At first he had thought merely to shorten a few over-long paragraphs and check facts. But as he re-read his work, he decided it needed more dramatic changes. In 1987, Poland had not been a sovereign country: Polish domestic and foreign politics were still directly controlled by the Soviet Union, which itself was still very much in existence. That meant, he explained, that he was writing the history of a country which had failed. His task, as a historian, had been to explain that failure.

Twenty years later, Poland is not only a sovereign country, but one which is growing, economically and politically, with astonishing speed — so much so that one Polish acquaintance describes the last decade as ‘the most successful in three centuries.’ Mistakes have been made since 1989, when Poland held its first democratic elections since the second world war. But the country is a functioning democracy, where power changes hands peacefully, and has a functioning capitalist economy, with some of the highest growth rates in Europe — even now. This success requires some explanations. In Poland: A History, Zamoyski has tried to provide them, rethinking assumptions that he and others made in the past, and along the way retelling the whole story of Poland, from the Slavic tribes of the early Middle Ages, up to the most recent elections in 2007.

Not everything looks different. But, for example, the 19th century does. Back when Poland was still in mourning for its independence, the years between Poland’s partition by Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1795 and its regaining of statehood in 1918 were invariably described as a series of rebellions against the occupying powers. And it is true that there were two major rebellions, in 1830 and 1863, as well as many minor ones, not to mention a whole series of anti-Russian and anti-German plots and conspiracies.

But the 19th century was also the birth of a political quasi-philosophy called ‘positivism,’ whose adherents in effect instructed Poles to make the most of a bad situation, to build what national institutions and enterprises they could, and to compete, economically, with the partitioning powers. Later nationalists sometimes looked askance at their efforts, since to do anything positive during a foreign occupation required some degree of collaboration with the occupiers, and some of the great achievers of the period were considered semi-traitors. Yet the achievements of the 19th century were impressive. By the 1870s, Polish merchants and industrialists successfully dominated the economy of the Prussian partition, having pushed the Germans to the sidelines, while in Galicia, the Austrian partition, they created self-governing institutions and ruled themselves.

All of this turned out to matter, after 1918, since it helps to explain both why Poland was able to reconstitute itself after the first world war — and even why it is relatively successful now. The fact is that despite the years of occupation, disastrous rebellions, the disenfranchisement of the Polish aristocracy and the deportation of Polish leaders to Siberia, a reservoir of expertise and pragmatism remained. As Zamoyski demonstrates, this is easier to see now, in 2009, than it was in 1987, when the story of Poland still appeared to have ended badly

And there are other changes. Now that they too are independent nations, it is also possible to write about Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarussians, Poland’s neighbours to the East, with greater clarity. Zamoyski grapples head-on with the question of ‘who is a Pole,’ not an easy one to answer throughout much of the country’s history, when ‘Poles’ might just as well have spoken Ukrainian and worshipped in an Orthodox church. It is easy to forget that the identification of Poland with Catholicism is relatively recent: indeed it is only possible because Hitler and Stalin together robbed the country, once a multi-ethnic, multi- lingual, multi-national polity, of its eastern territories and, of course, of its Jews.

Parts of this book remain the same — the Middle Ages, for example — but Poland: A History is nevertheless a different animal to its predecessor. It is some 30 per cent shorter, jumps crisply from one era to the next without lingering, and, Zamoyski brags, ‘is not in any sense meant to break new ground.’ The point of this re-writing exercise was, after all, not to do more research, but to re-think the known facts, now that some of the complexes and resentments accrued during long years of Soviet occupation have been shaken off.

The result is fresh, different, and brilliantly readable, a book which feels something like an extensive, chatty letter from an old friend. It is the perfect introduction for those who know nothing about the country, yet will also provide some positive food for thought to those who imagined they knew it all too well.