Fearful Symmetries

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03 September, 2013

There's Much More to Poland Than Pulaski, Pierogi, and Pączki

Having some Polish blood I thought it was time to learn about the history of the country from which some of my ancestors had emigrated. The modern story of Poland wasn't completely foreign to me as I grew up with the Solidarity movement often on the news and getting to know some folks here in Madison who hail from Poland led to hearing stories of life under the Soviet yoke. But the Poland of several hundred years ago was, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, a known unknown. General medieval European history books tend to ignore Eastern Europe as it wasn't a part of the Roman Empire and histories of Byzantium will incorporate the Balkans but not farther north.

And so I picked up A Concise History of Poland to help dispel my ignorance.

Presumably owing, at least in part, to a lack of written documentation from Poland's early years, the first chapter is a bit rough around the edges. The authors date the beginning of Poland to 966 A.D. as this is when the country became a Christian nation. Poland was ruled at this time by the Piast Dynasty, its namesake having come to power in the mid-9th century, although “Piast” was a title bestowed by later historians. These people were Slavs and the book discusses their linguistic unity as well as their identity in relation to the Germanic peoples to the west.

Piast Poland gave way to Jagiellonian Poland in 1386 when Jagaila of Lithuania married into Polish royalty and annexed his wife's country. This was the beginning of a centuries long relationship between the two peoples and in 1569 they became a commonwealth. But rather than going on about wars with Tuetonic Knights and who ascended the throne when, I will rather mention that I found it very interesting to learn about the proto-republican elements of Poland during the Middle Ages.

The book emphasizes the role of the szlachta, which was basically the landed nobility, as a check on royal power. There were also assemblies called sejmiki which started off as bitch sessions for the szlachta but eventually morphed into the Sejm, the Polish parliament. Unsurprisingly, taxation was often a bone of contention – something medieval Poland had in common with western European countries.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ended in 1795 when it was divided up amongst Austria, Prussia, and Russia. It's a sad period in the country's history and over the course of two chapters the reader learns about the struggles of ethnic Poles to retain their language, culture, and identity. There were a handful of uprisings but they failed for various reasons. One can really see the Poland of the 20th century reflected here with the Poles' ethnic pride and allegiance to Roman Catholicism being constant themes that run from the late 18th century up through the Battle of Warsaw and the Solidarity movement.

Poland became a country again after World War I but the joy over the return of statehood didn't last very long as the next world war ended with Soviet control of Poland. Again Poles found themselves in a battle to save their culture and identity. With the collapse of the Soviet Union Poland found freedom but, as the book ends in 2001, it is still in the throes of growing pains as it struggles to found a solid economy.

A Concise History of Poland is just that weighing in at under 300 pages. It is 99% political history which means that the reader is bombarded with the names of rulers and leaders of political movements one after another. It was a bit intimidating as I'd never heard of the vast majority of these people and couldn't pronounce most of their names. With history books concerned with Western Europe I have some background but most of this book was truly terra incognita. But once you realize that there isn't going to be a quiz on this, you can worry less about remembering names and keeping your eye on the big picture.

Despite the brevity, Lukowski and Zawadzki do a fine job of making sure the reader understands the historical contexts of major events and provides motivation for all parties involved. For instance, when talking about various revolts in the days after 1795 when Poland did not exist, the actions of those involved in the uprisings are discussed as well as the concerns of Poles in other areas whose lives had taken up orbit around the economic structures and concerns of the empire that ruled them.

Because of the demands of concision, the book feels uneven. There are nods to cultural figures of the times but throwing in the names of a couple poets and painters here and there just felt like half-hearted attempts at balance. I finished the book almost feeling more ignorant than before I began it. I suppose this means that I have a lot more reading to do. On the plus side, the book does include a goodly amount of photographs and illustrations and lots of maps. The gods be praised for the maps! I found them extremely helpful as my geographic knowledge of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states is lacking. It was also gratifying to re-learn that it was a Pole, John Sobieski that saved Europe in 1683 at the Siege of Vienna with his defeat of the Ottoman forces.

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|| Palmer, 9:40 PM


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