Poland up close and from afar. The First Congress of Foreign Scholars of Polish History

Kraków, June 28-30, 2007

Anna Jarmusiewicz



A congress of foreign scholars of Polish history could only take place (a fact hard to believe for the young generation not familiar with Polish Peoples’ Republic) in free Poland after 1989. It was organized on a global, not only European, scale, taking two years to prepare and it generated a lot of interest: there were 400 participants from 40 countries, as well as 300 from Poland. The invited scholars were not only historians but also sociologists, Polish philologists, archivists, journalists (including foreign correspondents), art historians, translators and archivists. The Congress has already produced and will bear more fruits: new contacts were established, interesting materials and various concepts of writing and evaluating history were presented.

The Kraków branch of the Polish Historical Association together with the Jagiellonian University vice president Professor Andrzej Chwalba and Dr. Krzysztof Zamorski organized the Congress very well with the help and participation of many young scholars and volunteers. Other bodies involved were the Museum of History of Poland in Warsaw, the International Center of Culture in Kraków, its municipal and district governments, with Wspólnota Polska and the media, such as the History Channel.

The idea of the Congress was born in 2004 during the Seventeenth General Conference of Polish Historians (Powszechny Zjazd Historyków Polskich). The fall of communism in East Central Europe brought fundamental geopolitical changes on a European and global scale and it allowed Poland and other, finally free, countries the possibility of normal, uncensored participation in the European and world community and in many institutions, including NATO from 1999 and the European Union from 2004. The new situation, however, has created new challenges and demands and it has also unearthed new internal and international problems. It has unexpectedly ‘warmed up’ animosities, national and international stereotypes and codes of hatred, including antisemitism. The well-known journalist, Leopold Unger, was right during his speech in Berlin, in October 2007, at the opening in a renovated synagogue of the exhibition ‘Where is Lvov?’, when he said that even though ‘we live in the times of widespread searching and commemorating of the places of collective memory’ which is a necessary element of building European identity, ‘the exhibition constitutes a part of a great dispute between the idea of a collective European memory and every nation’s memory as well as individual memories which depend only on our own attitude to the past.’

It was fortunate that the Congress took place almost twenty years after the fall of Berlin Wall; it allowed the development of a much needed perspective –something which was also necessary in Poland where we intensely participate in the memory debate. Today we know very well (vide the Balkans) that unreconciled memory is a sleeping detonator. It is can easily be ignited by aggressive and selfish nationalisms which escalate emotions derived from a sense of impending danger, revenge and exaggerated self worth, emotions which are fueled by national myths, stereotypes and prejudices.

I am writing about the Congress after the elections which took place at the end of October 2007 which saw a victorious battle for the continuation of open and pluralistic Poland. From this perspective, the quiet dialogue and moderation during the June debates, the impressive level of discussion--the only way of eradicating quarrels and weakening division—assumes an even greater value. In public life in Poland during the period of government led by the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) the discussion about the memory entered its fiercest phase and, for two years, in front of our eyes, the history in which we participated quite recently was amputated and reshaped. ‘Moral reform (sanacja)’, decreed from above and as such always prone to abuses was  transformed into an open practice of vehmgericht (vigilante justice) against real or imagined opponents and attempts to dismantle independent institutions of public life and undermine the freedom of the press. We saw clearly how fast evil spills out and how hatred and divisions that destroy a painfully rebuilt democracy and a sense of community can be rapidly ignited.

Professor Władyslaw Bartoszewski, who fortunately and not by accident was invited to open the Congress debates pointed out that there is no other way of approaching even the most painful and controversial topics than dialogue and discussion. The politics of history (polityka historyczna), one of the topics of the Congress, he asserted, had to be applied in certain cases (for example in the successfully concluded battle with UNESCO to use the official name of Auschwitz), but it is degenerates when imposed by a government with authoritarian tastes which opposed pluralism in historical writing and intimidates independent historians.

A conciliatory spirit of dialogue was much in evidence in the deliberations of the Congress, perhaps because many of its participants had found themselves in open opposition to reigning ideologies and both totalitarian systems of the last and the current centuries (for example from Belarus). Thus, a descendant of the Poles deported to Siberia was one of these who worked closely Russian organization Memorial. Professor Bartoszewski, both a victim and an opponent of the two totalitarianisms, promoted dialogue with the Germans and became an icon of ‘righteousness’ and a symbol of fruitful Polish-Jewish dialogue. Professor Antony Polonsky, who has also greatly contributed to the Polish-Jewish dialogue, talked about Polish-Jewish relations in contemporary Jewish historical thought. He stressed an important role played in this dialogue by Polish Jews. Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, edited and published by Professor Polonsky for twenty years in Great Britain featuring authors from many different countries, played an important role in developing this dialogue. This publication is considered the most serious and balanced voice in discussions about difficult Polish-Jewish relations and it also publishes materials about our common heritage. Professor Polonsky strongly stressed the value of this heritage and its fundamental importance for the dialogue about memory. Absolutely crucial here is the process of learning about other nationalities, the contexts of various events, the mentality of others and the circumstances of their lives. This can make possible the shaking off stereotypical opinions and prejudices which we inherit through families and culture and sometimes through now fortunately outdated theologies.

Dialogue and the growing knowledge about history and other people, results in the evolution of opinions and attitudes. This process is different in every country. This topic was discussed during many interesting sessions such as History of Poland in European Historiography or Contemporary History: Pride and Prejudice? and Media and History (the Image of Poland in the Media). The biggest obstacle and at the same time the most important asset of contemporary discussions about memory is including in them the ethical factor unavoidable after the atrocities of the twentieth century. That is why the reckoning with the past comes often late and the moral evaluation of national behaviours, actions and choices gained from this knowledge is so difficult. The clearly positive side of such debates (visible during the sessions) is that discussions about the past and about memory are reaching the public not only through books and conferences but also through media, the educational and cultural institutions, also in political life, which helps in shaping the casual historical consciousness. Rich archives made available after the fall of communism are an important source of our knowledge about past. Much was said about them during the sessions about recently available archives in Lviv and Vilnius, and the Habsburg Galician archive. The Congress also provided information about church libraries available in Poland and abroad and about various institutions and foundations augmenting the research and its delivery. This dialogue and widening of knowledge, intensified since the 1990s, has brought many very positive results and moderated the perception of the past even in the countries where after the fall of communism nationalistic resentments which previously could not be expressed because of censorship were especially strong. Scholars specializing in Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine with great satisfaction reported the abandoning of aggressive, nationalistic ways of writing history, which was the result not only of generational change and the end of necessary compliance to the Marxist vision of history but of the now open debate possible.

In the West, too, some versions of Marxist history and interpretations of historical events still have some acceptance and are sometimes even present in educational guidelines for secondary schools. Alexandra Viateau, a Professor of Sorbonne, spoke about this phenomenon in France where a Marxist line was advanced after World War II by supporters of Soviet Russia and later USSR, the so-called poputchiks or more familiarly compagnons de route. This is for example a reason why almost no one in France knows about Warsaw Uprising in 1944. According to another French scholar, even the most prestigious French newspapers had problems in classifying strikes in Poland in the beginning of August 1980. They were not seen as anti-communist events; on the contrary, they were perceived as an attempt to restore true communism…

General interest in Russia among historians can be stimulated by national traditions of respect for the omnipotent state. This was mentioned by a scholar from Japan who was intrigued by the history of Poland precisely because of popularity of opposite tradition--the idea and practice of civil society and the desire for freedom.

The Congress’s goal was to show that many serious scholars are interested in Polish history, contrary to common perception about the world not understanding the Poles. The Congress awarded one of them, Professor Norman Davies who is well-known in Poland, with a special award for the body of his scholarly work, which probably most effectively popularizes our history. Professor Timothy Snyder from Yale University was the recipient of the main Congress award Pro Historia Polonorum. Professor Snyder mentioned that difficulties in researching the history of multi-national Poland or other Central-Western European countries are caused by the necessity of learning the history and a language of neighbours. The region is a place where many peoples, nations, religions, cultures, and customs are coming together. There are also various models of running a state, many, changing identities and changing political circumstances.

Professor’s Snyder new book, which has already appeared in English as Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine (New Haven CT, 2005) and which will be published by Znak during theCongress, is more than a political biography of Henryk Józewski, a politician, a collaborator and a friend of Józef Piłsudski from the time of the underground POW. Józewski’s life also reminds the reader how difficult were Polish-Ukrainians relations and the history of Poland and its citizens, during the German and Soviet occupations and in Poland after 1945. The territory of Poland decreased after World War II by one third and its multi-national population was decimated by deportations, persecutions, and the Holocaust. We talk about two ‘Polish centuries of migration’, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (DPs, the emigrants after 1945 were also mentioned during the Congress). However, both totalitarianisms and their crimes were part of the twentieth century. After Polish Peoples’ Republic was created, the desperate existence of illegal, anti-communist military and political formations ended with defeat; during Stalinist trials and in Stalinist prisons numerous members of the Home Army and other organizations perished, including Józewski. The discussion about the twentieth century is heartrending because even now proofs of new casualties are being found; family members still find traces of graves of their loved ones; the truth about the criminal past of both totalitarianisms is still being discovered (it is estimated they killed tens of millions of people).

Professor Snyder’s book was awarded a prize in recognition of one more asset - it overcomes the opinion, popular in the West, that Poles feared Russia without any reason. Snyder thoroughly documents the less popular thesis that since the revolution of 1917 Poland was one of the main political targets of the Bolsheviks – the proverbial country of notorious rebels and noblemen, placing obstacles in front of victorious march of the Bolshevik revolution, symbolizing the evil of western civilization with its traditions of democracy, freedom and pluralism. His book also emphasizes that knowledge of the history of interwar Poland is crucial for the research of Polish history. Snyder stated that without this knowledge one cannot understand Poland after 1945, Polish-Jewish relations and the emergence of state of Israel in 1948 as well as the problems of identity and memory which are characteristic of independent Lithuania and Ukraine after the fall of communism. Using the examples of the two countries we can see the great advantages brought by open dialogue about the past, by the work of mixed textbook committees and by the publishing of new historical books that include the neighbours’ point of view and the wider spectrum of the European history. In Ukraine and Lithuania the importance of the common past with Poland during the First and the Second Republics is already appreciated. Many agree today that common history and culture helped in forming separate, national identities and created an important bridge, which made possible the reception of western civilization.

It is worth mentioning here that during the Congress, Kraków was celebrating the seven hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of Magdeburg law, which established the rules of organizing and functioning of the city. Natalia Jakovenko, a well-known professor from Kiev who until recently was lecturing at Harvard, told the Congress that in Russia and to some extent in Ukraine, among Slavophils, this method of organizing cities has been considered an example of the destructive influence of Western models. The decline of the old Rus’ cities in fourteenth century is blamed on the acceptance the Magdeburg law.

Even though the twentieth century is the most popular among the scholars of Polish history, the nineteenth century also has its adherents. Their works were discussed during the session History of the Nineteenth Century: Poland and Poles in Nineteenth Century Europe. Poland was not the only nation at that time without a state but under the partitions it was able to some degree to strengthen and transform its national identity and culture. Galicia, in the 1860s granted autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is considered a training ground for many Polish national and political institutions including the parliamentary ones (with participation of national minorities). Poles were present in the military, self-government and educational institutions often high up in the hierarchies. According to the research of Austrian scholars, every fourth minister in Emperor Franz Joseph’s government was a Pole and Polish youth of noble background was eager to join in large numbers the elite Schwarzenberg Legions and Maria Theresa Academy. Similarly, Poles under the Russian partition joined local political and social institutions. The research on that topic is undertaken in today Russia only to a limited degree. There was no lustration back then - went the joke during the Congress.

The collective memory of events and places lasts sometimes for a long time. According to a Hungarian scholar, the anti-Soviet Hungarian October 1956 began in Budapest at a rally organized beside the statues of General Józef Bem, the hero of the Springtime of Nations in 1848, a hero to both Poles and Hungarians. Europe, despite its participation in the barbarities of the twentieth century, remains until today a symbol of continuity and constant renewal of its highest values. The collective memory of anti-communist risings and opposition is an important political and intellectual heritage in post-communist countries. The continuity of this idea was illustrated by debates about the creation of a federation of Central European nations which took place in London among émigrés during the first years of World War II.

One specific, important, common memory is that of the heritage of multi-cultural cities like Wrocław, Lviv, Kraków, Katowice, Kiev, Grodno and the cities of Transylvania. An interesting session organized by Professor Jacek Purchla and the International Center of Culture (Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury) was dedicated to these cities during the Congress. Fine papers were delivered by the art historian Professor Ewa Chojecka from Bielsko Biała, the former ambassador of Austria in Poland, Emil Brix, Professor Norman Davies, Professor Svetlana Kul-Sialvestrova from Grodno and Aron Petneki and Csaba G. Kiss from Budapest. In all these cities there existed cooperation and conflict, different cultural influences collided, traditions influence each other and rival interests competed. Thus in Kraków the first Hungarian books were printed while in the cities of Transylvania there persisted a conflict between three founding myths derived from three competing nations: Hungarian, Romanian and German. The memory of these cities is so intense that is lasts even today despite changed historical and political realities and a fact that often different groups inhabit them, for example in Wrocław the descendants of the Poles from Eastern Borderlands settled there after repatriation from the USSR.

Professor Antony Polonsky stressed that collective memory is very important because it emphasizes co-existence and co-creation and not only the victims. However, the evolution of opinions and attitudes that form historical consciousness is a complex issue. It was discussed persisting stereotypes in different countries derived from a nationalistic and ideological heritage of hatred, ignorance and resentment, from politics of history and from the still existing trauma of the victims, murderers and their helpers, as well as the ‘idle onlookers’ (Professor Zygmunt Baumann’s phrase). It is also very intense even for us who are only the descendants of the participants. In Germany, for example, uncovering the truth about contemporary history and understanding the responsibility and feeling guilt for Nazism appeared on a larger scale only in the 1960s. Even today the knowledge about realities of German occupation in Europe including Poland is not sufficient. The topic of expulsions often conceals the topic of victims – that is why the question of what should be memorialized and in what way is another important and difficult part of the discussion about the past and memory.

In Israel, according to the journalist Igal Avidan, the Holocaust became an important topic only in the 1960s, after Eichmann’s trial. After establishing the state of Israel,  enthusiasm for rebuilding one’s own state and a cult of physical fitness were initially emphasized and pushed the subject of Holocaust to the background. Today, however, Holocaust Day emphasizes the fact that Holocaust is a key event in Jewish history and identity. Young Israeli scholars presented during the Congress the film Stop Holocaust, illustrating conflict on this question. This was a very strong voice protesting against the domination of martyrology in national discussion and goes, in my opinion, beyond what would be acceptable on this topic in Poland.

The emphasis on Jewish topics in discussions about European memory is a very important element making us aware of the contribution of European citizens of Jewish background. This was brought home in Kraków in the moving exhibition of photographs, rescued from the war:  A World before the Catastrophe. Kraków Jews in Interwar Poland. There was also a well-attended session on Jewish Heritage and New Political Reality in the 1990s.

This is one of many examples showing that the new sensitivity has been born as a result of cultivating knowledge about former neighbours. A new feeling of responsibility for keeping the memory of no longer existing communities has appeared among those born after World War II. A personalized approach to history – reading it through the prism of individual life in context of tradition and historical events is helpful here. The individual is the most important and we need to remember that his or her decisions, not an impersonal Historyor the Spirit of the State, often influence the fate of millions.

A beautiful tradition, celebrated in Israel during the Holocaust Day, the name-reading ceremony, a moving symbol remembering those who perished in the Holocaust, was imitated recently in Warsaw. Here it took the form of reading of the roll of those citizens of the Second Republic who were murdered by Bolsheviks in Katyn, Kharkov and Miednoye.

This is an important sign since memory should also be a warning and should motivate us constantly to take care of fragile dialogues and interpersonal relations. We need to work on these issues constantly because in the long run, in the words of another great witness of the last century, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, ‘we were not able [then] to create a world of solidarity’.