Thursday, September 24, 2009

Davies' "A History of Poland"

I’ve begun Norman Davies, God’s Playground, A History of Poland, Vol 1, “The Origins to 1795. Years ago I was interested in early American Civilizations and recall being outraged over the destruction of early records by Catholic Priests and Monks. What the Communist oppression did in Poland reminded me of that. The Catholics could argue that the history of the Aztecs was demonic, the work of the devil, and needed to be destroyed. In regard to Poland, nothing was produced from 1944 through the collapse of the USSR that did not correspond to the Communist Party Line. The Communists assumed, as did the Catholics before them, that everything that did not support their cause was irrelevant if not counterproductive.

In Davies chapter 1, he discusses the various histories of Poland prior to his. There was a slight easing after 1960. Davies writes that “The Stalinist nightmare had passed. The air of gloom and shame which Stalinism had injected into everything connected with Poland’s independent past, was being dispelled.” But Communistic thinking still had a stranglehold on the writing of Polish History. On page 18 Davies writes, “. . . the respectable face of history-writing in the People’s Republic was irreparably scarred by the detailed revelations of an official censor who defected to the West in 1977 and who took a complete set of the Censorship Office’s directives with him. . . Publishers were required to submit an annual publishing plan for approval in advance. They were then required to submit every approved title for scrutiny and to incorporate all the censor’s textual changes before printing. No undesirable author or subject could find a way into print, and no approved text could ever contain unapproved material. . . the Black Book of Polish Censorship showed beyond question that the controls were far more extensive than anyone outside the Party elite could have suspected. For the directives were not merely concerned with negative methods of suppressing or limiting information. First and foremost, they constituted a huge body of pre-emptive instructions which laid down what facts were to be known, what interpretations were to be preferred, what aspects were to be emphasized, and which people were to be praised. In the large historical section, for example, much space was allotted to the American Bi-Centennial of 1976. Here, the Polish censors gave instructions to the effect that ‘the American Revolution’ was to be presented in a positive light; that Americans were to be congratulated on their achievement; and that the overthrow of British imperialism by the colonists was to be lauded. The progressive role of Poles, such as Kosciuszko and Pulaski, was to be stressed, as was the reactionary role of German (Hanoverian) redcoats. At the same time great care was to be taken to keep history apart from current affairs. Polish readers were not to be told that workers in the USA belonged to free trade unions, drove cars, ate steaks, and generally enjoyed a standard of living unimaginable in the Soviet Block.”

On page 19 Davies writes, “Once the regimes of the Soviet Bloc had collapsed, a whole academic industry of dubious sovietological studies, which had fed off these regimes, collapsed with them.” However Communist repression had been stultifying. “. . . no native star had been hiding its light under a bushel only to blaze forth as soon as the political restrictions were lifted.”

Davies praises the work inspired by Polish professor Jerzy Kloczowski, but it may be that even today, the best history of Poland remains the work of the British historian Norma Davies.

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