Why Poland matters
A review of God’s Playground: A History of Poland (Volumes I and II) by Norman Davies
Originally, I wrote this piece for a book review competition, but decided it was unsuitable for the scope of the competition. I hope you enjoy it; Polish history and culture are passions of mine 😊
God’s Playground is a landmark work. Published in two volumes in 1979, it became a classic, making Davies a household name in Poland. Over 1,000 pages, Davies chronicles the forces which have shaped the country. In the forty years since its publication, no study of Polish history has surpassed it; a review is well worth our time.
We may commend Davies’ panoramic approach whilst questioning his theoretical framework. In the preface, Davies concedes that he does not have a theory. This is problematic – without theory, analysis can become naïve and unstructured – yet remains too common among historians.
Therefore, we might approach God’s Playground through an alternative lens. Social scientists who study history search for exogenous explanations of change. This enables identification of the foundations of stability and change and analysis of causal influences, sometimes with quasi-experimental methods. God’s Playground lends itself to this. As the title indicates, the turbulent and unforeseeable have shaped Polish history to an unusual degree, reflecting the country’s geographic position. In the centre of Europe, flanked by great powers and occupying the landbridge between Russia and Western Europe, it could not have been anything else.
Skilfully, Davies charts these shocks. Initially, these are associated with dynastic wars. Following the baptism of Mieszko I in 966, a Polish Kingdom tentatively enters European politics.
Soon, we encounter a recurring enemy. Henry II of Germany wars with Bolesław the Brave before the Teutonic Knights, a German chivalric order, install themselves in Prussia in the 13th century. Pursuing the ostensible goal of converting pagans, the order is more interested in plunder and, after overwhelming local heathen, turn their attention to Poland. Polish-Lithuanian forces win a decisive victory at the 1410 Battle of Grunwald, yet the order is a consistently destabilizing force.
Other enemies stir. From the 16th century, the Muscovites become menacing, regularly annexing Polish towns and taking captives. The Poles win their own victories, occupying Moscow from 1610-12, but Russian power grows.
When stability is attained, the results can be splendid. Following the 1569 foundation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a proto-democratic system emerges, known as the Golden Liberty (Złota Wolność). The nobility (szlachta) is the backbone of this system. Among the class, a spirit of equality prevails, meaning that the King is elected, has limited power and must hold a parliament (sejm) every two years. Fatefully, the liberum veto enables individual land envoys to oppose the decisions of the majority, its exercise nullifying all legislation passed at that parliamentary session. In the long term, hostile powers exploit it.
Religious freedom is equally advanced. Though Catholicism is always prominent and Poland acts as a bulwark against the Ottomans, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is almost as tolerant as contemporary liberal democracies. There are occasional incidents, yet people are free to practice any religion, the nobility protecting minorities from persecution.
Such tolerance reflects and produces a highly diverse population. Modern Poland is associated with ethnic homogeneity, yet the early modern population contained Uniates, Jews, Orthodox and Muslims, Roman Catholics not constituting more than half the population. To this day, Poland has an indigenous Muslim population: the Lipka Tatars. Famously, Poland had a large Jewish community and Davies tells us about its long contribution and tragic demise.
In Western countries, early cultures of tolerance tend to develop into liberal modern cultures, England and the Netherlands being two prime examples. Alas, the curse of Polish history is that these achievements are snuffed out by the shocks which Davies chronicles.
The late 18th century sees a nadir. After decades of decline, Poland is subject to three partitions which incorporate the country into the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires and, for well over a century, remove it from the European map. The 1791 constitution, still celebrated on May 3 as Europe’s first liberal-democratic constitution, is the last gasp of the old order.
Though an independent Poland emerges after the First World War, the Second Republic is cursed from birth. In September 1939, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia deliver a brutal coup de grace, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact partitioning the country. Following the Second World War, Poland becomes a Soviet satellite.
Such shocks plunge Poland into disruption. Borders are regularly and dramatically redrawn – the Yalta settlement is particularly radical - meaning that Polishness has a weak link with specific lands. To this day, regional accents are limited; for these to develop, populations must have long-term connections with territories.
Elites are routed. Every generation, upper classes lead uprisings against foreign rule; most fail, leaders being executed or exiled. Infamously, Stalinist Russia identifies nearly 22,000 of the most prominent Poles and executes them in the Katyn Forest. Such loss of elites has few parallels in the West and Davies tells us about it in moving terms. There is a memorable passage on the execution of Romuald Traugutt, leader of the January Uprising.
The attack on Polishness is more insidious. Partitioning powers think little of Polish language and culture – Bismarck detests it - undertaking programmes which aim to eradicate the language. Yet assaults tend to be counterproductive, Poles becoming more attached to their language and national identity strengthening in the 19th century. During this time, the rousing national anthem is written (its first line: ‘Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła kiedy my żyjemy’/‘Poland will not die, for as long as we live’). Many die, but enough live.
Though neglecting the statistical methods which enable estimation of the contemporary effects of historic shocks, Davies does explore the implications of these difficult conditions. Aside from disruption associated with the loss of property and personnel, institutions develop in clandestine conditions, entailing high degrees of secrecy and authoritarianism. The contrast with the UK and US is illuminating. Historically, these countries have been spared invasion and occupation, encouraging the development of open institutions which enjoy high trust.
Poland is radically different, with low trust underpinning many problems. As the sociologist Jacek Kochanowicz notes, Poles have ‘a relatively high level of trust in the family and in persons with whom one has close, face-to-face relations… [but] a relatively low level of trust in large, formal, and abstract institutions, including the state’. To this day, Poles have comparatively little faith in institutions such as courts, police and parliaments.
Davies concludes his book in the late 1970s. This had been a quiet decade, the Communist Party making certain concessions and maintaining comparative peace. The 1980s could not have been more different. Soon after the completion of God’s Playground, Lech Wałęsa, a Gdańsk electrician, led the Solidarność revolt against the Communist government. Though unsuccessful in the medium term, Solidarność helped bring about the end of Communism, free elections being held on June 4, 1989.
Since then, an odd thing has happened; Poland has been mistress of her own destiny. The transition to democracy had its challenges, yet economic growth was strong, democracy was consolidated and Poland acceded to the European Union (EU) in 2004. Recently, liberal democracy has been strained, the PiS government attacking the independence of the judiciary and media, yet Poland remains an affluent, liberal-democratic EU member state. Some predict that, by 2030, GDP per capita will be higher than the UK.
Will these conditions last? One can make a good case that they will. Beyond arguments for the permanent victory of liberal democracy - and Fukuyama’s thesis has been more successful than many admit - external threats to Poland are modest. For generations, Germany has been a model of pacificism and internationalism. Russia has been more menacing, the invasion of Ukraine stirring old anxieties. But Poland is a member of NATO and the EU, unlike Ukraine. And given Russia’s problems in Ukraine, the threat seems distant.
Yet reading God’s Playground, one suspects that these conditions will not last forever. Many Poles feel this. Every 1st August, thousands gather in Warsaw to commemorate the 1944 uprising, scouts and guides prominent among them. Observing these adolescents, one perceives that they are not merely paying tribute to a past generation, but mobilizing in defence of their country. Should Russian troops enter Poland, who could doubt that they would immediately resist?
Poland will not die, for as long as they live.
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