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I have always felt uneasy when historians or politicians sound off about sea-changes in history, claiming that the emergence of Islamism, terrorism, globalisation, climate change or whatever has transformed the world. I could not repress a snort of derision when I heard that Francis Fukuyama had published The End of History. But lately, I have been obliged to accept that fundamental changes have taken place in the past two decades, mainly as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet imperium.

The catalyst for this reassessment came from an unlikely quarter: I was asked by my publisher to revise and update The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and their Culture, a history of Poland which first came out in 1987. When I began writing that book, more than a quarter of a century ago, the study and writing of history had changed little since my schooldays, despite the fashion for microhistory, gender studies and Marxist revision (Eric Hobsbawm was at the height of his reputation). The perspective was relentlessly British, and European history was hardly touched on. When it was, the only countries that figured were those that impinged, one way or another, on British interests: France, Russia, Prussia and, at various points in their history, Holland, Sweden, Spain and Portugal. I was made acutely aware of this since the country I was interested in, Poland, was not among them. One only has to look through the indexes of books on European history published at that time to appreciate this: Poland was usually only cited as an example of what we now call a failed state, a kind of historical joke.

My only comfort was that Italy was also treated as something of a joke and Italy was definitely worth studying, for its own reasons. So, I felt, was Poland. Having travelled widely in it, I knew it was no joke. Indeed, it seemed in many ways to be a more serious place than Britain. It was there and in Czechoslovakia that the vital issue of the day, the contest between human liberty and totalitarianism, was being fought. Sitting down to write its history in the early 1980s nevertheless represented a challenge, to put it mildly. The first step was, clearly, to try and understand how and why it had "failed".

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October 18th, 2009
12:10 PM
It is heartening to see the West taking notice of a part of the world that, as Zamoyski illustrates, it can learn a great deal from today. However, I must disagree with his concluding remarks about the reasons for Polish resilience throughout her history: By claiming that it was the “European Christian humanist civilization, with its fruits of democracy, civil liberty and all the rest” Zamoyski seems to impute a post-modern universalist attitude that simply did not (and could not) exist among the agents of Polish nationalist resistance and struggle, whether it was during the years of Partition under the Central European empires, or Nazi and later Soviet occupation. Many of the factions that provided the institutional framework for resistance were hardly democratic or concerned with civil liberty the way we would understand it today (e.g. the “Endeks”). Of course it is true that the average Pole loved his freedom, and in this respect, he shared much in common with the American Revolutionaries of the 18th century; however, the love of the liberal institutions that moderns associate with liberty were always set in the context of Polish national survival, and accordingly, indigenous nationalist sentiment. This sentiment translated in times of oppression as an indomitable stubbornness on part of a defeated but unforgiving populace. Therefore, it is somewhat misleading to hold that “what preserved the Poles in the face of immeasurably superior odds and unspeakably ghastly ordeals were those very values” of “humanist civilization ... and all the rest”. What follows is the grave error in presuming that these values are indeed a “very powerful weapon”. On the contrary: the term “Finlandisation” has recently become synonymous with the status of a country seemingly sovereign, but almost completely dominated by a neighbour and forced into the delusion of “soft power” as an effective vehicle for international engagement. Contrary to Zamoyski’s thesis, the Poles themselves have not fallen for this delusion: this is one of the many reasons why they too remain partly married to the old model by their involvement of the (now cancelled) Missile Shield. The history of Central Europe is highly complex. Zamoyski does a great service to both Poland and the West by addressing it and presenting it to a Western audience. But he must resist the common mistake of contemporary historians to take a reductionist view of cause and effect. Many have made this error and it would be a pity if Zamoyski were to follow them.

August 29th, 2009
7:08 PM
Zamoyski's history of Poland is a fantastic achievement. As a student of Central and Eastern European Studies I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to understand the region. The facts are clear and the opinions balanced. The Rzeczpospolita has many lessons for our modern democracy.

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