In "[t]he last 20 years, [Adam] Zamoyski argues [in Poland: A History (2009)], perspectives on Polish history have utterly changed.  Before, it was justifiably written as the story of 'a failed state.'  Today, it is the tale of a 'society that created a social and political civilization of its own,'" Stefan Wagstyl noted in a brief review in Monday's Financial Times of London.[1]  --  Zamoyski's book is a rewritten version of a 1987 book entitled The Polish Way, and the author has wished not only to recount the history of Poland but also to demonstrate how "interpretations of history change in response to events." ...


By Stefan Wagstyl

Financial Times (London)
May 11, 2009

[Review of Poland: a History by Adam Zamoyski (Harper Press, March 2009). £14.99, 448 pages. £14.99.]

The young Alfred Tennyson was so taken with Polish history that he wrote what he called “a beautiful poem on Poland, hundreds of lines long.” Sadly, he never got a chance to publish it because a housemaid used the paper to light a fire.

The poem’s fiery end is one of the many disasters suffered by Poland in its efforts to maintain its place in the world. As Adam Zamoyski relates in *Poland: a History*, one of the largest states in 17th-century Europe disappeared from the map altogether in 1795 and did not return until 1918. A brief flurry of independence ended in the Second World War, Nazi terror, and Soviet domination. Only since 1989 has Poland truly recovered the freedom it lost in 1939.

The last 20 years, Zamoyski argues, perspectives on Polish history have utterly changed. Before, it was justifiably written as the story of “a failed state.” Today, it is the tale of a “society that created a social and political civilization of its own.” He says in his preface: “There is a great difference between writing up a bankrupt business and writing up one that has been through hard times and turned the corner.”

Zamoyski’s immediate aim is to explain why he has rewritten a book he published in 1987 as *The Polish Way*. But he has a greater purpose too, highlighting how interpretations of history change in response to events. In 1630, for example, Krzysztof Opalinski, the Palatine of Poznan, surveyed the wars consuming Poland’s neighbors, and wrote: “Poland is a spectator who stands safely on the seashore, calmly looking on at the tempest raging before him.” Within a few decades, the neighbors had started invading and the proud Polish Commonwealth had begun its long slide to extinction.

Swept along by his lively prose, Zamoyski covers more than 1,000 years. Anecdotes abound, not least his loving account of his 16th-century ancestor Jan Zamoyski, who rose from the gentry to serve as both chancellor and hetman (military commander).

Despite Zamoyski’s claims to an up-to-the-minute interpretation, his work is a traditional national history, in which the main theme is Poland’s survival in the face of incredible odds. The views of the country’s many enemies get short shrift. There is also a close focus on the deeds of the great, with perhaps too little emphasis on the fate of the lowly, who often suffered miserably, whoever was in charge.

There is a good account of the Second World War and its aftermath that brings out the appalling destruction in which 6m people died. The sensitive issue of wartime Polish-Jewish relations is carefully handled, with equal weight rightly given to the anti-Semitic tendencies of some Poles and the huge risks faced by those who bravely tried to save Jews.

Zamoyski relates how both Hitler and Stalin exploited tensions between the ethnic and religious communities, including Germans, Ukrainians, and Belorussians, as well as Jews and Catholic Poles. The occupiers finally destroyed the multi-ethnic state that had existed for centuries, leaving an almost mono-ethnic Polish entity to emerge from the ruins.

The book concludes with an effective summary of the fall of communism and its aftermath, highlighting the key role of the Solidarity movement, which began in 1979, well before mass protests in other Communist countries. While it praises the achievements of post-Communist Poland, he does not spare its faults.

There are some curious omissions. A strong account of Polish culture in the 19th century is not matched by anything similar on the 20th. While Zamoyski mentions the composer Andrzej Panufnik, there is no space for the greater lights of Karol Szymanowski or Witold Lutoslawski.

There is also the odd mistake. Habsburg Pressburg is wrongly given as modern-day Brno, in the Czech Republic, when it is Bratislava, the Slovak capital.

But these are minor quibbles. This is an excellent book for those new to Polish history, including perhaps those planning a trip to Poland.