Polish Historiography on Contemporary History Facing Challenges Old and New

Observations on the 17th Conference of Polish Historians in Kraków,  15-18 September 2004


Klaus-Peter Friedrich


Widely publicized scientific work on Polish-Jewish relations in the summer of 1941 began at the end of 2002 with the appearance of the bipartite volume Wokół Jedwabnego. At present, the unpromising prospect is that Polish historiography will, after the ‘shock of Jedwabne,’ once again turn aside from a topic which has touched and moved so many in Poland. And this, even though the need for more research is clear: inquiry geared to examining topics that would benefit from more theoretical underpinning and a supra-national comparative approach.

Given such challenges, what directions for the future were laid out at the 17th Polish historians’ conference held in mid-September 2004 in Kraków? Let it be noted here at the outset that the conference sought to avoid  topical contested questions in the fourth year after the beginning of the Jedwabne debate— this, in a country where the murder of the Jews of Jedwabne has been the by far most discussed historical topic of the last decade.

The conference section devoted to the phenomenon of force (przemoc) was unable to fill the gap. It posed the provocative question: is przemoc the principal driving force of history? Yet at the end of the day, it remained bogged down in the realm of generalities, despite a well-meaning interdisciplinary approach including educational theory, the philosophy of history, religion and history. Concrete temporary and spatial attributions were largely avoided, even though it would have seemed natural to pursue a close nexus with the National Socialist Judeocide, which after all took place for the most part in occupied Poland. Here there would have been a possibility to present current research projects at Polish universities and scientific institutes investigating more directly the regional and local course of the Nazi murder operations, or seeking to cast light on the concrete configuration of German-Polish-Jewish relations. And how do professional historians and students in fact deal with what Jacek Chrobaczyński  has termed the ‘Jedwabne syndrome’?

Nor did the unfortunate legacy of historiography in the Polish People’s Republic appear on the agenda for debate and discussion at the Kraków convention. There was no panel discussion on this, featuring historians who were established at the time and held posts of responsibility (of whom a good many were in attendance in Kraków), and there was no discussion on what might be worth preserving or in need of revision in that highly politicized and ideologized historiography. Consequently, problems in contemporary history regarded as ‘sensitive’ were duly circumvented.

 The topic of the politics of memory was likewise little in evidence in Kraków, although a bit further west it has been at the center of discussion for years. It seems in this area the historians in Poland have a lot of catching up to do in comparison with Central and Western Europe. Instructive in this connection was the section on ‘Historical Memory 15 Years After the Fall of Communism’ (Pamięć historyczna 15 lat po upadku komunizmu). According to surveys on the image of  Polish history, World War II has receded ever further into the background since the end of communism as one of the reasons to be proud of the Polish past. At the same time, the period 1939-1945 has been increasingly looked at from a more (self-)critical vantage. Thus, alongside the memory of the ‘heroes of the past,’ the consciousness has emerged that there were also Poles one ought to be ashamed of. According to Jerzy Eisler, one could call the present situation a mixture of ‘heroic history (historia heroiczna)’ and ‘shameful history (historia wstydliwa).’ In the view of Paweł Śpiewak, some 80 percent  of the Poles are ‘proud of their history.’ Yet this self-satisfaction has now been threatened, undermined by the debate over Jedwabne. It endangers the image that has been carefully constructed of the past, and especially the exclusive victim status of the Poles. World War II continues to be a ‘hot potato’ for this reason. In addition, antisemitic tendencies relied on the traditional image of World World War II. In any event, Poles tend to believe the historian less, and more contemporary eyewitnesses from their own families, who may tend to embroider events.

Andrzej Friszke agrees with this finding: in his view, historians have little influence on myths, mystifications and false conceptions of the past. In the meantime, ‘national history remains the most important component of identity for the average Pole.’ Friszke lamented that there was no probing scientific confrontation on the relations between Germans and Poles – especially since it has recently become clearer that German expellees were themselves victims.  In Friszke’s view, the heated emotions in connection with the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising spring precisely from this conflict over victimhood.

  In the bookshops, in the meanwhile, anything that has a picture of Hitler or Stalin on the book cover enjoys brisk sales. Mein Kampf in translation can be bought, among other places, at the train station, (an irony of history), right in Kraków itself. A rival right-wing nationalist concept of the Polish past (historia prawicowa) is tolerated as a parallel phenomenon to the main current at the universities. The book exhibits by certain Polish publishers that accompanied the conference offered provided source material on this, including Judeopolonia, now available in two volumes, or the tendentious Encyklopedia Białych Plam (Encyclopedia of the White Spots), authored by well-known nationalist conservative and rightwing scholars and scientists.

Andrzej Friszke spoke of an existing bifurcation in Polish society and the intelligentsia into a National Democratic conservative xenophobic current on the one hand, and an opposing, anti-National Democratic tradition on the other. It is possible that the very evident double attitude on memory in relation to the 20th century so common in Poland springs from this bifurcation.

To the outside observer, the question arises whether the distortions and lies of communist historiography about the Polish right are not simply being supplanted now by new legends and myths. What importance does this phenomenon have for the self-presentation (samoobrazowanie) of the Poles? What significance does it have for the image of history present among large segments of the population? A conference of historians would be a welcome occasion to explore the intellectual, political and social wellsprings of such a parallel design for history, the underlying causes. And not simply in the crude way in which Professor Janusz Rulka attacked  Paweł Śpiewak in the discussion in the section mentioned. And the manner in which he explained the rise of antisemitism in Poland by the fact that only the Poles had apologized to the Jews, while the Jews for their part had stubbornly refused to apologize for the role they had played in Stalin’s security police. A murmur arose in the conference audience in the auditorium of the Akademia Pedagogiczna, where most in attendance apparently rejected this, but some, with a sense of relief, agreed: ‘Finally someone has spoken the whole truth!’

By contrast, another panel to which the journal Konspekt had invited three Kraków history professors (Jacek Chrobaczyński, Andrzej Chwalba, Krzysztof Zamorski) and a professor of ethnology (Czesław Robotycki) led to some clear results. The topic was the methodological backwardness in Polish historiography, entitled ‘We’re the Slaves of Our Culture of History and Our Politics’ (Jesteśmy niewolnikami naszej kultury historycznej i polityki) [see http://www.wsp.krakow.pl/konspekt/14/rozmowa14.html– last seen June 14, 2007]. The participants agreed on a list of the main deficiencies:

The guild of Polish historians had, in the course of the Jedwabne debate, ‘let the chance for a broad discussion on history slip past, failing to make use of it’ (Chrobaczyński), because in Poland ‘there is no tradition of an intellectual or philosophical discourse as can be found in other countries’ (Chwalba). Moreover, unlike in France, for example, historians in Poland are seldom consulted when commentary is sought on current political affairs (Robotycki).

-         The predominant historical conceptions are marked by ‘images, clichés and heroic-martyrological stereotypes’ (Chrobaczyński), something likewise manifested in statements by Polish parliamentarians as well (Zamorski).

-         ‘Polish historiography is busy healing Polish souls instead of coming to grips with the basic questions of European historiography.’ This springs from the fact that we are ‘the slaves of our culture of history and our politics’ (Chwalba).

-         Historical patterns of interpretation that generally spread and were in currency around the end of the 19th century are still largely the shaping templates for Polish historiography. This is bound up with a predominance of political history and a meager presence in inquiry of the history of everyday life. To counter this, what is needed is a new concept of ‘history as a phenomenon on the scale of the human experience of the past’ (Zamorski).

-         Polish historiography is distinguished by a lack of mobility, openness, and readiness to innovate (Chwalba).

-         The field of international comparative studies has been left to sociologists and political scientists (Chwalba).

-         History is made to serve far too much the task of affirming the present, and used to satisfy the needs of society (Robotycki und Zamorski). Chwalba stated that it was lamentable that ‘our studies are in keeping with traditional expectations,’ and noted that it is difficult to overcome social resistance against new approaches to national history.


Certainly it would be exceptionally important, specifically in Poland, to investigate more precisely the matrix  where national identity is derived from pride in national history, and a line is drawn all too easily, transcribing an arc to a ‘heroic history’ or a moral history of success. 

The need for this is satisfied very well by the works of the foreign historian most popular in Poland, the British scholar Norman Davies, who appropriately gave the opening address of the conference. His books are translated into Polish immediately after publication and are more or less adopted as Poland’s own, as the high print runs suggest.

By contrast, people are still reluctant to debate the content of critical observations on history. The discourse with those who have another view differing from that generally created in Poland is still in a state of underdevelopment, even after the end of communism. No foundation, not even the Institute for National Memory (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN), one of the most important institutions of research on Polish contemporary history, feels today competent to seek to make a broader public familiar with work that has been written outside Poland, and to spark fruitful interest in this. Even the very name for the facility responsible for the ‘national memory’ would seem to awaken associations that are Orwellian, and it is at least anachronistic that it appears to be oriented to the idea that there can and must be an orientation of the nation as a collective to a binding conception of history, as was common under communist rule. The IPN evolved from the Main Commission for Investigation of the German (after 1949: Hitlerian) Crimes in Poland. The new name of the institute was re-introduced in 1984, after it had been used initially in the second half of the 1940s (see the self-description on the Internet web page http://www.ipn.gov.pl/portal/pl/3/2299/ – last seen June 14, 2007, whose statements still reflect in part the ideological specifications prevailing at the time of the Polish People’s Republic. It becomes evident here just how much the IPN needs some critical self-reflection and self-inquiry centered on its own activity and the political circumstances accompanying it). An archive there deals with papers of communist agencies and offices and makes them available, something like the ‘Gauck Office’ in the Federal Republic for dealing with the papers of the State Security Police of the old GDR. Its original role as an organ of investigation into past transgressions is continued within the IPN today by the Commission for Prosecution of Crimes Against the Polish People (Komisja Ścigania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu). As the name already indicates, crimes against those residents of Poland that are not bona fide members of the Polish people are not an object of interest for these commissions.

As a consequence, there are to date no translations of basic works that deal critically with silenced aspects of national history. For the 1970s and 80s, there is for example the dissertation of Jan Gross on the Generalgouvernement (1979), the habilitation thesis by Frank Golczewski (1982) or the study by the journalist Marc Hillel on the anti-Jewish violence in the early years of the communist regime (1985); more recently, Viktoria Pollmann’s study on the anti-Semitism of the Roman Catholic Church in the interwar period (2001) come to mind.

A section for presentations by scholars from Germany, Russia, the U.S., France, Lithuania and the Ukraine, entitled ‘About Us – Without Us. Polish History as Seen by Foreign Historians’ (O nas bez nas – historia Polski w opinii historyków obcojęzycznych), was not a main topic of the conference, but did provide several well-informed foreign scholars a space for presentation. Michael G. Müller summarized the research of recent German historiography (i.e. after Gotthold Rhode) on the early modern period and the 19th century. But in his overview, he did not deal with new research on Polish contemporary history. Speaking from the American perspective, John Kulczycki lamented the lack of presence of Polish history in historical textbooks. In regard to contemporary history, he could on this occasion have mentioned a few important studies by American researchers (such as John Connelly, Padraic Kenney, Alexander Rossino or Jonathan Huener), scholars who for their part are scarcely known in Poland. Why? Because research not in Polish and not translated is hardly perceived in Poland within historical discourse.

There was no representative from Israel, which has made a substantial contribution to research on Polish history. (Inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations were thematized for earlier periods, but their further development in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and in the 19th and 20th century was not illuminated.)

It is surprising that at the beginning of the 21st century, phenomena that were in part of huge importance for the intellectual, political and social development of Poland in the 19th and 20th century still await monographic and interdisciplinary study. Among such topics are the messianism that arose in the 19th century, the concept of Poland as Christ sacrificed among the nations, the extremely powerful construction and allegation of ‘Jewish’ Bolshevism (żydokomuna) and the xenophobic charge of ‘anti-Polonism,’ likewise generally hurled against Jews. There is no history to date of anti-Semitism  in Poland. Another topic little explored by scholarship are those many-layered anxieties of being ‘encircled’ by adversaries: this was the matrix for the notion that Poland was an outpost of a profoundly Latin and Catholic culture, surrounded only by enemies external (Russians, Prussians/Germans) and internal (Jews).

Thematic areas of very central importance for the interpretation of Polish contemporary history continue to be a taboo topic. This is evidently due to a fear that the findings might cast a bad light on the national image. Yet without a self-critical component, the observer will, somewhat ineluctably, continue to have the impression that there is a certain lack of sincerity in the (selective) treatment of Polish national history. And will justifiably wonder why in the Polish case historical self-presentation and the foreign image from the outside deviate so much one from the other.

  So the question of what historiography is needed is closely bound up with another: what kind of conferences of historians do the Poles really need? Ideally, they should seek to overcome the seclusion vis-à-vis approaches and findings in research from abroad (a seclusion in part a legacy of the communist period), and should integrate these into a pluralistic discourse on history, in this way helping to renew and revitalize that discourse. And they should also promote a readiness to break with popular myths, and further a more unbiased and critical look at the terrain of national history, thus contributing to a process of social maturation manifest in a transformed consciousness of history.

However, even after the so-called Jedwabne debate and the publication of Wokół Jedwabnego, it must initially remain an open question as to whether this discourse set in motion a lasting change in the Polish collective conception of history. The conference in Kraków was, it would appear, geared too much to needs for harmony to make a substantial contribution to that desideratum.


Translated from the German by Bill Templer


PS: A few supplementary remarks on this text written in October 2004: In the meantime, IPN has published another volume of awesome dimensions—an honorable follow-up to Wokół Jedwabnego: Polacy i Żydzi pod okupacją niemiecką 1939-1945. Studia i materiały [Poles and Jews under German occupation 1939-1945. Studies and documents], Warsaw (Monografie, 24). This omnibus volume with contributions by editor Andrzej Żbikowski, Dariusz Libionka, Marcin Urynowicz and others explores the topic in a broad context, mostly with much knowledge and critical sensitivity. Polacy i Żydzi is undoubtedly one step further in the quest for a new vision of the relationship between ethnic Poles and Jews in this crucial period. On the other hand, Jan Żaryn, head of IPN’s Biuro Edukacji Publicznej, draws a line under these enquiries—and announces that in the future the institute will limit its efforts to the former Soviet occupation, except for those instances were Poles acted as helpers of Jews (p. 6).

Currently, it is Roman Giertych, an adherent and reviver of  National Democratic ideology, who heads the ministry of National Education (Edukacji Narodowej). As can easily be understood, the political prospects for a more thorough enlightenment of a broader public look bleak in times of a government headed by right-wing and nationalist politicians.