To break the mold is the historian's responsibility

An Interview with Professor Andrzej Nowak

“Reversing the schemes, sometimes adopted without reflection, I consider to be part of our historical duty. It consists in constantly rediscovering the past, not in establishing one canonical version in line with the political order of today”, says Professor Andrzej Nowak in the interview about the common European memory, and challenges it constitutes for the historians. 

polishhistory: The treaty ending the First World War, signed on 28 June 1919 in Versailles, is an important event of our collective European memory. Although this year we celebrate the centenary of the treaty, it seems that it still divides rather than unites us.

Andrzej Nowak: I believe that it rather divides us, but that’s fine. I would start to worry if we were to impose a common vision of history on Europe, especially since our continent is complex, with a plethora of events, symbols and historical figures. Recalling the Treaty of Versailles creates another problem in my opinion; the imposition of one memory, which could be referred to as a “Western” one on some Central European countries.  These are countries with a different memory of the Versailles Treaty than those who perceive it as a mistake and a treaty responsible for all further historical misfortunes. In my opinion, the latter narrative dominates now in academic circles and, more broadly, in the official memory of Western Europe.

Andrzej Nowak, Polish historian and public intellectual, professor of Jagiellonian University and in the Institute of History (Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw). He was visiting professor and lecturer at many universities (Columbia, Rice, Harvard and the University of Virginia, as well as Cambridge, University of Toronto, Simon Fraser University and others). Author of more than twenty books as well as co-author and editor of several others, mostly on Eastern European political and intellectual history. Several of them are available in English: Imperiological Studies. A Polish Perspective, Russia and Eastern Europe: applied “imperiology” (2011) Imperial Victims/Empires as Victims: 44 Views (2010), History and Geopolitics. A Contest for Eastern Europe (2008). (picture by PAP/L. Szymański)

Do you think that a simplistic association is being made between these two; the First and the Second World War, according to which the second naturally followed the first?

Indeed, this is the source of the belief that the Treaty of Versailles was wrong. There are two possible explanations for this. One, deeply imperialistic in nature, is unacceptable to the countries of our region, because it says that after the First World War, Germany was punished too harshly. This, it is claimed, caused a somewhat natural tendency that result in Adolf Hitler coming into power. Looking at it from this perspective, the emergence of Poland was the biggest problem – it was problematic for both Germany and Russia, two countries particularly important for the so-called realistic vision of geopolitical order. Following this trail of thinking, the emergence of Poland is responsible for further disasters; for the fact that these two powers, without whom it was impossible to build a European order, had not come to terms with its existence, and naturally wished vengeance. I meet with this kind of opinion at conferences or when reading historical books written by professional historians.

But not everyone in Western Europe shares this opinion.

Certainly, although the view that the rebirth of Poland after the First World War was a sin against European peace, remains extremely popular. I am talking about Poland not from the perspective of “Polonocentrism”, but from appreciation of its unique geopolitical position, which troubles both Germany and Russia. Meanwhile, the story of Poland is only part of a much broader phenomenon that also concerns Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Czechoslovakia. These are the countries which were “favored” by the events of the First World War. Should we only recognize that it was a misfortune for the rest of Europe? This is a perverse, dishonest perspective, and I think we should resist it. It was not only 1918 when the geopolitical view of Central Europe changed, but also 1920. In many Central European countries (though certainly not in Hungary), associations with those times are still quite positive. It is also not surprising that in such countries as Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia the positive memory of the interwar period was restored when these countries gained independence in 1991.

Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919 (candid photo) (L – R) Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Great Britian) Premier Vittorio Orlando, Italy, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, President Woodrow Wilson (public domain)

In the ointment – which may be considered the Treaty of Versailles – there was, however, a rather large fly. It was the Minority Treaty imposed on the countries of Central Europe.

Indeed, it was all interrelated. In exchange for acknowledging the western borders, which restored approximately 60,000 km2 of the Prussian partition to Poland, the Minority Treaty had to be accepted, too. It was the result of an influential Jewish lobby demanding special rights for their minority status in the nation-states emerging in Central Europe. This was even more important because, despite the promise of the head of the British Foreign Office, Lord Balfour, in autumn 1917, to restore the state of the Jewish people in Palestine, they still lacked their own state.

But what was the problem with the Minority Treaty? Respect for minority rights remains one of the foundations of modern European civilization.

Indeed, but it is one-sided. Other European countries – even defeated Germany, were not obliged to sign a similar treaty on the observance of minority rights, only the countries of Central Europe. This arouses a justifiable feeling of inequality. In this type of scenario, Western Europe became an older brother, or a teacher to Central Europe, looking down on it and categorizing it as lesser. The notion that statesmen from Western Europe should treat the countries of Central Europe as a group of unruly students has been evolving since the 18th Century, and it is erroneous. This type of dynamic results in what can only be described as a type of colonial narrative, which is quite fashionable today in historiography.

Arthur James Balfour (public domain)

It sounds odd and subversive.

Well, the colonial point of view to a large extent may be noticed in the opinions, mentality, and political activities of Western European statesmen, journalists, and people of culture when they speak of Central Europe. They often describe it as some kind of troublemaker, a wayward student, sometimes even a savage patient who resists the necessary therapy that a Western therapist prescribes. Of course, at other times it may be granted recognition for being a good student. Czechoslovakia for almost the entire interwar period was treated as a good student, because for a long time it did not disturb the interests of the power countries. Poland, on the other hand, made them uncomfortable; large and incompatible with its role as the power which was meant to subdue the old order of Western Europe.

Does this mean that the perspective of Central Europe has no chance to be understood anywhere else? How can we reach a global audience of academics to help them better understand the Central European perspective?

Well, first of all, it’s worth taking into account the plurality of perspectives. There is no single “Polish perspective” – ​ and cannot be, there are many different ones, which I am deeply glad about. First of all, when one is talking to historians, and also to the broadly understood audience of historical research and studies in countries outside Poland, one must remember that our country had already had its own political existence for over 800 years. Poland had been an independent state, with its own national culture, as well as a specific political culture. Poland has a long and extremely rich tradition, one that is not a burden nor something to distance oneself from, of political culture based on citizenship, republicanism, and the development of local governments. The unusual tradition of the Old Polish regional council may serve as an example and it is worth remembering that for hundreds of years some of our ancestors – between 5 and 10 percent of the Polish population that belonged to the nobility – were not slaves but free people. This tradition shaped contemporary Polish political culture – after all, the noble minority clearly dominated the peasant legacy in modern Polish culture during the partitions. It is therefore a tradition of citizenship which gradually developed in Poland over 800 years.

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

This is, in fact, the entire period of the Polish and then the Polish-Lithuanian state.

Indeed, we should constantly emphasize how long-lasting the tradition of Polish statehood is. In my opinion, this should be constantly brought up. Yes, before its fall at the end of the 18th Century, Poland existed as a country, had had over thirty rulers and was an important part of the European community. This cannot be simply removed or deleted, it is the tradition that Poles referred to throughout the 20th Century; it constitutes their cultural memory. Claiming that after the First World War, Poland was a new born political community, mainly thanks to the grateful Western powers, is a brutal historical forgery. Even if Poland did not have any influence on events that brought its independence about, it is impressive how Poles fought, but also how they adopted the systems introduced in emerging states in the 19th Century. This is an important part of European history. Poles contributed to strongly to the political consensus that formed in Europe in the early 20th Century, that nations had the right to their own political existence.

However, positive patterns are not everything. Nowadays, Polish history is very often seen through the prism of the Holocaust.

It is true, that many university departments on Polish history, for example in the USA or Canada, perceive Poland only through the prism of the Holocaust. About this point of view I will say clearly, that I would prefer that there were no such departments at all. It is not that they bring great damage to the Polish good name, but rather that it is a real detriment to the science of history. Reducing several hundred years of Polish-Jewish relations to only one chapter – of course, the Holocaust is the most important and the most terrible, but it is also one of many chapters – is a falsification of  history. To find out about this long history, all one has to do is visit the POLIN Museum in Warsaw, which presents an unbiased narrative. I encourage you to visit it, as it is an excellent museum. About the accusations, more and more widely present in historiography today, that the history of Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War is the history of Polish responsibility for the Holocaust, I regard such claims as villainous.

Young survivors at the camp, liberated in January 1945 (USHMM/Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography, public domain)

These are strong words.

I use them consciously – it is villainous. True, there were thousands of Poles taking part in the hunt for Jews, but one should not sum up the lives of the twenty-several million Polish citizens who were living under the German and Soviet occupation in this way. Therefore it is important to remember that the history of Poland is more than the experience of the genocide of Jews on Polish land which was organized by the German occupiers. There are also millions of non-Jewish victims of the same German occupation and Soviet imperial rule, both before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and after this terrible date.

It is much easier today, a decade after the publication of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands.

The area of ​​the Bloodlands almost corresponds with the area of Poland from before the partitions. As Snyder describes it – these were areas where between the 1930s and the beginning of the 1950s the most serious crimes in the history of humanity were committed. Jews make up a significant number of the victims, there are 5 million Jewish victims in this area. Let us also remember that several million non-Jews were also brutally murdered in the same area at that time. What about these several million non-Jewish victims of the genocidal actions of Stalin and Adolf Hitler, who were murdered at the same time, between 1931 when the action of reducing the economic power of the kulaks began in the USSR and the beginning of the 1950s? This is a question that must be posed to anyone who tries to reduce the history of this area, including Poland, only to the suffering of Jews. Their suffering was tragic and unquestionable, but others suffered too.

First page of one of the copies of the Order No. 00485 (public domain)

Stalinist repression of the 1930s was targeted against entire nations.

Indeed, Poles in the Soviet Union constituted the largest affected community. Who ordered the murder of the largest amount of people in human history, and is this order preserved today? We do not know whether the document with Hitler’s order has been preserved, as the Germans took great care to destroy all the documents. However the order by the head of NKVD No. 00485 from 11 August 1937 was preserved, and discovered by Russian historians from the “Memorial” association. On its basis, 111,091 people were shot. One cannot be indifferent to it. The same applies to the dozen million other victims of Stalin and Hitler: Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Belarusian or Russian. The memory of the victims of dozens of minor crimes is still alive and has largely shaped the private memory of many inhabitants of this part of Europe.

However, the history of the area of ​​”bloodlands” is not limited to suffering only.

That’s it exactly! The same must be said of European history in general. It is not merely the history of the Holocaust, colonialism, mass displacement and exploitation – to which today the history of our continent is sometimes reduced. The history of Europe is a great historical adventure of culture and civilization. Why do tens of millions of people come to our continent from outside Europe? They do not come to worship the victims of colonialism, or to threaten Europe with stones for the crimes of its past. On the contrary, they are here to enjoy the amazing heritage of European history.

Sukiennice and Main Market Square as seen from St. Mary’s Basilica, Krakow, Poland (photo by Jorge Lascar; CC BY 2.0)

How do you see the role of Poland in this broader, pan-European context?

The history of Poland is a history of constant interaction with various parts of Europe. Welcome to my city, Krakow – it suffices to come to the main square and see how everything is interconnected, one can witness the best of the European history and European culture. Those who arrived here from Germany or Italy became members of the Polish middle class over time, developing Polish and European culture. The story of the families of Montelupi, Boner, Turzon and many others created the richness of a Polish culture which is the opposite of ethnic and nationalist history. This is how I would like to show the history of Poland – as a history of exchange in which Poland is not only a victim or a torturer. Of course, it was also the case that people from Poland were victims, but it also happened that some of the Polish elite acted as torturers.

This begs for a colonial perspective.

I have nothing against it. In this way, you can talk to, for example, Ukrainian or Belarussian historians about the history of Rus in the 17th Century, while remembering not to reduce the entire history of Poland to this – because it would simply not be true. And it is worth discussing whether the Lithuanian Radziwiłł or the Ruthenian Wiśniowiecki were then subordinated to some “Polish” colonialism or were they themselves the largest “colonizers”? And was the position of “Polish” peasants, that is, around Nowy Targ or Poznań, essentially different from the position of the peasants by the Dnieper or Nemunas rivers on the lands that belonged to the “Eastern princes” mentioned above? When asking such questions, one should simply be aware of transferring nationalist clichés (in their new, colonial disguise) to living conditions in such a specific system as established by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The most important thing, however, is the constant and consistent rebellion against the attempt to impose one dominant, politically correct vision, no matter what its meaning. Today, I feel agitated when I encounter such a perspective – strongly present at conferences in Western Europe – that the entire region of Central Europe should feel complicit in the crime of European colonialism. Meanwhile, the experience of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary or Lithuania has nothing to do with the experience of the nine countries of the Western part of the European Union, which had overseas colonial empires in their time. In the traditions of Central European countries, colonial experience is strongly present, it’s true. However, it is not connected with Africa or East Asia – but with the memory of being colonized by Russia (actually: the Romanov Empire), Austria (Habsburgs), Hohenzollern Prussia or Turkey (the Ottoman Empire). Somehow, this historical memory of Europe referred to in political debates, is generally forgotten.

Political situation after the Congress of Vienna in June 1815 (by Alexander Altenhof; CC BY-SA 4.0)

Do you see in the common European tradition a place for such a historical experience?

This place must be found. Reversing the schemes, sometimes adopted without reflection, I consider to be part of our historical duty. It consists in constantly rediscovering the past, not in establishing one canonical version in line with the political order of today. I encourage everyone to be rebellious. If we are afraid of it, it will turn out that we are nothing more than mere servants of subsequent fashions.

Interviewer: Michał Przeperski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin