A civic history by Tomasz Merta

10th anniversary of the Smolensk air disaster

by Robert Kostro

Today, the concept of historical policy has become trivial, but twenty years ago, it could easily provoke fierce dispute in newspapers. A call to “leave history to the historians!” was constantly present in the ongoing intellectual debates. When Poland regained its independence, and a new ruling elite, it was acknowledged for quite a long time that Clio was to be exclusively at the service of historians. The muse was expected to modestly wait outside the door and appear only when summoned by either the Academy or the authorities to assist in some rituals of power. Between 2005-2010, Clio was mostly busy answering the calls of Tomasz Merta, Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage, who died tragically in the Smolensk air disaster. Merta was the author of several excellent essays, an editor and collaborator for several intellectual magazines, including “Res Publica Nowa”, “Arcana”, and “Kwartalnik Konserwatywny”. He was also a man of praxis: serving as Director of the Institute of National Heritage, and Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage. He was a highly regarded figure as one of the creators of the Museum of Polish History as well as benevolent presence in the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

Tomasz Merta (picture by Lestat; CC BY-SA 2.5)

 Historical policy and critical history

Tomasz Merta was not a historian. A graduate of Polish philology, a journalist and an intellectual, he was known as an author of essays on the history of ideas and in-depth analysis on events in the public sphere. One might call him a historical amateur but he was certainly not an ignorant one. Merta had a great knowledge of both historical literature and many other topics, especially regarding the first Polish Republic. There is a type of intellectual – someone without a formal professional certifications – who, nevertheless, due to their comprehensive knowledge and brilliance, are often able to understand a subject more deeply than a specialist. This was the case with Merta. He understood the essence of matters better than academics who had spent so many years in the archives, that they had forgotten that history can be used for something more than simply writing yet another book. From this unique perspective, Merta saw that history was not only a discipline of knowledge, it was a tool for building and refining national memory.

The term ‘critical history’ appears several times in Tomasz Merta’s texts. It is a term borrowed from philosophers and, for myself, as a member of the historical guild, it almost seemed inappropriate. Admittedly, historical criticism, understood as a criticism of sources, has been part of our profession at least since the Renaissance. Thus, in this sense, there is no other path than criticism, unless we go back to the Middle Ages, and treat history as a literary genre, mixing facts and legends.

But of course this wasn’t Merta. He respected the right and duty of learning to explore all aspects of the past, including those that spoil our sense of complacency. ‘Critical history’ in Merta’s lexicon was the view that purely positive national myths are harmful and should be dispelled and demythologized. He saw it, however, as the liberal-leftist belief that the historian’s vocation is to confront the collective imagination and reject the good opinion of the community, because good opinions about the nation lead to darker habits, including chauvinism and intolerance.

Marshal’s mace granted to Józef Piłsudski. Celebration on 11 November 1920 in Warsaw (public domain)

According to Tomasz Merta “the task of a politician is not to construct a ‘holy untruth’, but rather to ensure that truth passed through the filter that a community stores in their conscious feelings [about their identity] – the symbolic shared truth by which members of a community recognize and understand each other.” History, in so far as it is a public history, i.e. pursuing certain social and political goals, has the need and duty to formulate positive reference points. In essence, to promote historical icons and to commemorate important events that constitute a certain set of positive educational references for the community. Thus, we resurrect the characters of national heroes such as Tadeusz Kościuszko, Józef Piłsudski or Jan Karski, in the national consciousness not because they were whiter than white or that all Poles behaved as they did. Instead, we present them as heroes because they set the standard for patriotic behavior in times of trial. We document heroic history not because we are a heroic nation, but because these heroes offer us a universal standard to measure ourselves against, they are exemplars. This is the idea and sense of historical policy.

Republican history

Each historical narrative has its own dynamic and contains some leeway for ups and downs. We usually place the golden age somewhere in the past, which is a measure of the success or failure of a community. According to Tomasz Merta, the golden age in Polish history was the era of the nobility and the Polish Republic. He knew the political ideas of that time very well, and his unfinished doctorate would have been devoted to republican freedom. For him, or maybe for the entire generation entering adult life in the 1980s, the right to participate in public life was particularly important. Some reached for the then-fashionable liberal concept of an open society, and others looked for inspiration in history. Tomasz Merta was inspired by the civic experience of the First Polish Republic. He was not only fascinated by it, but was also aware that, as a community, Poland needed founding myths. He was looking for such a myth in the past simply because the Third Polish Republic lacked it.

The history of the Polish Republic during the reign of the nobility was a story of freedom demonstrated in various ways – the republican right to elect deputies and free election, assemblies implementing civic principles at the local level, and religious freedom. References to the republicanism of multiethnic nobility is also a way of combining conservatism with egalitarianism. “This attachment to equality was reflected in previous centuries in the Sejm constitutions, prohibiting claims for aristocratic titles or applying for them at other courts,” wrote Merta in an essay on the Confederation of Bar.

Kazimierz Pułaski at Bar, paiting by Korneli Szlegel (image taken by Mathiasrex; CC BY-SA 3.0)

The critical view of the first Polish Republic, which dominates Polish historiography, was largely shared by historians of the so-called Krakow school in the second half of the 19th century. However, their critical approach was not selfless. Blaming the collapse of the early Polish Commonwealth on a strong, monarchical state and criticizing its republican traditions was, after all, nothing more than a line of reasoning adopted by Krakow conservatives to justify their loyalty to the Habsburgs. The dispute over the first Polish Republic was parallel to the dispute about Solidarity that was so important for Merta’s generation. The historical vision of the Krakow school was repeatedly used during communism as an excuse for choosing loyalty to Moscow and using repression against the opposition. According to communist propaganda, Solidarity was guilty of a “lawlessness” inherited from the nobility’s republic.

Heritage or continuity

In the essay “‘November’ or the Polish dispute about modernization”, Merta recalls the conflicting attitudes of two 18th-century protagonists in the novel by Henryk Rzewuski; a traditionalist-Sarmatian and an enlightened reformer. Two brothers stand on both sides of a dispute over the good of the Polish Republic. One sees the need to defend the tradition in which the church, the saber, the kontusz (a noble’s garment), and the principles of republicanism are honored. The other is in favor of modernizing Poland according to the spirit of the European Enlightenment. Merta, following Rzewuski’s logic, reconstructs the dilemmas of these two positions in the 18th century. He leans towards the confederates, but does not reject the supporters of reform. Following in the footsteps of his favorite guide to modern history, the eminent researcher Władysław Konopczyński, he sees in the work of the Great Sejm a form of synthesis, that could yield a new and rational traditionalism.

This idea is connected with another aspect of Tomasz Merta’s thinking – a broad view of national heritage. His conservatism was not about narrowing his mission to defend a particular, ideological point of view. On the contrary, he treated the national heritage as a singular idea. He undoubtedly favored the work of outstanding 19th-century writers such as Henryk Rzewuski, Zygmunt Krasiński, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, and the 20th-century poet Zbigniew Herbert, but at the same time he was fully aware of  how important leftist writers and thinkers, such as Stanisław Brzozowski, Stefan Żeromski or the intellectual anarchist Witold Gombrowicz, were for Poland. Polish culture was for him a continuum, a garden in which many plants should be allowed to grow and be cherished as part of a unique ecosystem. Understanding heritage as continuity does not exclude dispute, of course, and sometimes continuity is expressed in the tensions and confrontation of attitudes that are repeated in subsequent generations.

The Republic at Zenith of Power. Golden Liberty. Election A.D. 1573. (painting by Jan Matejko; public domain)

This broad approach to culture reveals Merta’s talent for dialogue. He was an outstanding mediator, and was able to express traditional values in modern language, however, he was also able to absorb the valuable thoughts of artists who had no place in conservative enclaves. This skill was useful in 2005, when he became the Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage and the head of the General Heritage Conservation. He undoubtedly deserved to be called one of the greatest officials of the 30th anniversary of the Independent Republic, but that is a completely different story…

Author: Robert Kostro
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin