Summer Readings: Polish disputes about statehood

An inquiry into how much of the past we can find in present Polish state.

Aleksander Kaczorowski
13 sierpnia 2015

In the late eighteenth century, we Poles, of the first historical European nation, experienced the loss of our own state. Conservatives deemed this event contrary to the traditional order. Advocates of progress perceived the downfall of the former republic as the dawn of a new era. Everybody agreed that it was a turning point. In treading on the corpses of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (and the French royal couple), modern Europe entered an era in which all that was solid would dissolve into air.

Seen from this point of view, perennial Polish disputes about who should take the blame for the breakup – the partitioning powers or ourselves – may seem misplaced. The Polish state was formed in the tenth century on the peripheries of the Christian West and was consolidated to the extent it was able to follow the trajectory of the cultural, political, and economic development of post-Roman Western Europe. We succeeded in this enterprise – to varying degree – until the end of the fifteenth century. When Christopher Columbus traveled west and discovered – as he thought – a way to India, and his rival Vasco De Gama really did get there by circumnavigating Africa, it set Western Europe on a course that would, in three centuries, lead to its global domination.

In contrast, Southern and Eastern Europe was stuck in no man’s land, both involved in a quasi-colonial dependency on the Atlantic powers and vulnerable to the expansionist policy of empires with capitals in the former New Jerusalem (Constantinople-Istanbul) and the Third Rome (Moscow).

Does this mean that the First Republic was doomed? Was judgment passed by history itself, by the logic of capitalism and imperialism? Perhaps.

Contemporary Poles can be identified (and identify themselves) only to a limited extent with the political nation of the First Republic. Most are descendants of peasants who, in as late as the 1860s (in the epoch of the Industrial Revolution and the birth of modern bureaucracy, laissez-faire and class conflicts, as well as more aggressive forms of nationalism) were generally deprived of a national identity, did not have any political rights, did not participate in the life of the gentry and, most importantly, were not regarded as Poles by most noblemen. The process of acquiring a national identity by the peasant masses took several decades, accelerated under the Second Republic (1918-1939), but for all intents and purposes lasting until the Second World War.

The percentage of the rural population in Polish society, very high even before the war (approximately 70%) just as in the majority of Eastern European countries, increased as a result of the Holocaust, post-war changes in borders, and transfers of the German (across the Oder) and Polish (from the Borderlands across the Bug) populations. As a result of the Nazi and Stalinist extermination policies, the traditional intelligentsia, was literally decimated: in 1945 Poland had just 100,000 people with higher and secondary education (!). The resulting mass migrations of the rural population to cities was a formative process of profound, long-term, social, cultural, and political consequences that affect public life in Poland even today. Descendants of peasants populated city centers previously inhabited by Germans (in the so-called Recovered Territories) and Jews (in central Poland). They joined the ranks of the industrial working class which, in three decades, had become the dominant element of the social landscape not only of Silesia, but also of Gdańsk, Łódź, Nowa Huta (the working class district of Kraków), and many other cities across the country due to intense industrialization. Their growing material and cultural aspirations of social and cultural advancement, the beneficiaries of which were themselves and their children, collided with the limitations of the communist economy and in the 1980s led to the emergence of a mass social movement. “Solidarity” was both the child of Communist Poland and its gravedigger.

For the last twenty-five years, Poles have lived in a new state, the Third Republic. The perspective afforded by a quarter of a century invites comparisons – how do the achievements of this state compare to the background of its predecessors? Does it have more in common with interwar Poland or with Communist Poland? Or perhaps even with the republic of the gentry – a country of wealthy, self-satisfied landowners, who closed their eyes to the fact that their political model (a weak, inefficient government), economic model (manorial), and their position in the international division of labor (similar to large estates in Latin America and slave plantations in the U.S.), although beneficial for them, threatened their own future prosperity and led to the self-destruction of the state, of which they regarded themselves as sole owners? Many of us believed that integration with the “West” would spare us the burden of caring for the well-being of our own state, and that the remedy for its weakness would be reliance on European institutions. The crisis of the European project hit us right when the Polish state existed only in theory, as a former interior minister put it in private conversation, which was illegally recorded and published by the media.

Minister Sienkiewicz (great-grandson of the author of Trilogy) borrowed his bon mot from one of the four books most vividly discussed at Polish universities in recent years. They share the common theme of the condition of the Polish nation in recent decades, and even centuries.
The first of these, Fantomowe ciało króla (“The King’s Phantom body,” Universitas, 2011), by Kraków philosopher Jan Sowa (1976), is a radical critique of the gentry tradition. According to the author, the Polish state did not cease to exist in the late eighteenth century, but two centuries earlier, when the Jagiellonian dynasty ended. Aristocracy and gentry, together accounting for no more than 10% of the population, maintained the illusion of Polish statehood, at the same time making it impossible to carry out any systemic reforms that would threaten their privileged economic and political position (it is easy to find analogies with the practices of contemporary financial oligarchs along the former borderlands of the Polish Republic).


Prześniona rewolucja (“Revolution Spent in a Slumber,” Krytyka Polityczna, 2014), by the Warsaw philosopher Andrzej Leder (1960), may be seen as a continuation of the vision outlined by Sowa. According to the author, the actual material and cultural advancement of the Polish people and their social and mental metamorphosis (peasant turned townsman) took place in communist times and was made possible by the mass murder of the Jews, who had fulfilled the role ascribed to the middle-class (banking, trade, crafts, professions) in Poland for centuries. The new Polish middle-class therefore owes a great deal to Hitler and Stalin.


Skok w nowoczesność. Polityka wzrostu w krajach peryferyjnych 1943-1980 (“A Leap into Modernity. Growth Policy in Peripheral Countries 1943-1980,” Krytyka Polityczna, 2013) by Warsaw historian Adam Leszczyński (1975), presents the post-war economic history of Eastern Europe as an unsuccessful attempt at overcoming the de facto colonial model of functioning in the capitalist world, established in the sixteenth century. In this light, the fact that the industrialization of Poland was decreed by Moscow is revealed not as a paradox, but as an exemplification of a pattern; the nineteenth-century industrial complexes of Łódź, Zagłębie Dąbrowskie (Coalfield of Dąbrowa), Warsaw, and Białystok also came into being thanks to the policy of the tsars, which favored the industrial development of the Kingdom of Poland. But this policy went against the interests of native landowners, at that time still the dominant political class in the Polish lands.


Equally bold claims are put forward by the Warsaw sociologist Michał Łuczewski (1979). In his book Odwieczny naród. Polak I katolik in Żmiąca (“The Eternal Nation. The Pole and the Catholic in Żmiąca,” Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Mikołaja Kopernika, 2012), the author shows how peasants acquired their Polish national identity in the course of several generations. This is accomplished using the example of a village near Kraków, in which ethnographic research has been regularly carried out for a century; it is reportedly the longest-studied village in the world! The author calls it a miracle, for in the middle of the nineteenth century, during the bloody peasant revolts of 1846, villagers from Galicia, loyal to the emperor, burned hundreds of manors and killed nearly 3,000 Polish landowners, officials, and priests. Subsequent efforts by the clergy and gentry to raise the patriotic awareness of peasants and incorporate them into the national community would therefore appear as a successful defense of the status quo by the privileged classes.

Each of the four books deserve to be published in English (some are already in translation). Knowledge of these works is fundamental; without it, ongoing Polish debates and disputes about the balance of the post-1989 transition, models of modernization, the condition of the state, or geopolitical choices can be understood only to a limited degree.


The author is editor-in-chief of “Aspen Review Central Europe,” a quarterly journal published by Aspen Institute Prague. He is the author of a biography of Václav Havel: “Havel. The Revenge of the Powerless” 2014).