Full Circle

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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“Very flat country, Poland.”

So said long-time NR contributor and new Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski, as we whizzed at 90 miles an hour on the two-lane highway west from Warsaw. He’s right of course, even though at the time I was more interested in the deadly game of zip and pass he was playing with the slow-moving tractors and trucks that shared the road. It was the last week of August, and my wife & I and other friends from Washington were visiting Radek and his wife Anne Applebaum at the astonishing country house they have laboriously and lovingly reassembled after almost three-quarters’ of a century of ruin and neglect.

The story of that house is superbly told by Radek in a book published in the US in 1997 as Full Circle and in the UK under the better title, The Polish House. I have always loved this paragraph from the book’s opening:

Most sane people would say that Chobielin was a hopeless case: bulldoze it down before it collapses by itself and buries some innocent prowler. … In moments of doubt, I thought of it as my folly – my way of tilting at windmills. Other times I hoped it would be my contribution to rebuilding Poland, and a last battle against the Communists. Just as previously I had fought them with a telephoto lens, a word processor, and one or two bursts from an assault rifle, now I would fight their legacy with bricks, mortar, and furniture polish. I wanted to purify a few acres of Poland from the filth, actual and metaphorical, of their rule. Instead of being forced to build their glorious future, I wanted to rescue something of Poland’s past. My greatest reward, I told myself, would be if, in a few years’ time, my guests would come, look around, think that Communism had somehow spared this remote spot.

Two decades after Radek bought the house, 10 years after those words were written, I can attest – that is exactly what the guests at Dwor Chobielin would think as they drive over the stream and pond, through the brick gates, past the stone steps in the rolled lawn, to the restored 18th century manor house.

I returned from that visit to a Polish reading binge.

Most of my own family traces its origins to Poland, though not to any manor houses. My mother’s father’s family migrated to Canada from Kielce before the First World War. My father’s parents left Lomza in 1930. None of my relatives ever evinced any nostalgia whatsoever for the old country. They retained memories only of poverty, discrimination, and humiliations, and those memories they passed to their descendents.

Those stories substituted for any real knowledge or understanding of the land in which my ancestors had lived for who knows how many hundreds of years. I knew the usual rough outline of Polish history – medieval grandeur, 17th century calamities, 18th century partitions, rebellions, economic decline, war, restored independence, more war, conquest, genocide, communism.

Of details I knew little, despite a lengthy visit to Poland in 1990 and intermittent attention to the challenges of Polish market liberalization and NATO accession.

On this second trip, however, one thought began to burden me. Family memory has a brutal bias: It favors those who survive over those who perish. My grandparents escaped Europe before it was too late – and so their folktales are remembered. But those of my relatives who did not leave in time – my father’s uncles and aunts, his paternal grandfather and grandmother – were murdered. They left no descendents and so no stories. Yet for them, pre-1939 Poland must have been a paradise compared to what came later.

And after all, old Poland must have had something to recommend it. How else had it acquired all those Jews and other religious minorities in the first place? I came back from my short August visit determined to educate myself about Poland to a greater depth.

I turned first to the work of the acknowledged leading English-language historian of Poland, Norman Davies, starting with volume 1 of his two-volume history of Poland, God’s Playground. If any further proof were needed that Poland is not a lucky country, God’s Playground is it. Lord, is Davies a godawful writer! Not only dense, repetitive, and devoid of wit or style, but (worse) chaotically poorly organized. The chapters follow no logical plan. Characters wander into and out of the book to be formally introduced 50 or 100 pages later (or else never at all). No question, Davies is a profoundly knowledgeable scholar. But the only people who I think will ever work their way through his book with anything like satisfaction are other scholars – and they of course do not need it.

With spurts and bursts of grim application over the past two months, I have struggled to squeeze something of value from Davies’ book. The best I could do is better summed up by the pithy remark of Radek’s with which I opened this bookpost.

Poland is flat – and that simple observation has proven to be the fundamental organizing fact of Polish history. You could ride a horse or drive a tank from west of Berlin to east of Smolensk without encountering any obstacle more daunting than a few big rivers and the occasional swamp. And rivers do not divide. Across Europe, you traditionally found different languages spoken on opposite slopes of even the puniest range of hills – but almost always the same language is spoken on both banks of a river.

So Germany, Poland, Russia have flowed into one another, and the lines between them have always been arbitrary and drawn by military power. To survive as independent entities on these flat, conquerable plains, Prussia and Russia built powerful and aggressive states. Poland, in between, failed to build an effective state and was eventually squeezed into subjugation by her more organized neighbors.

Why? Why did Prussia and Russia take one path, the path toward absolutist rule and military power, while Poland took another – in many ways a more laudable path, one that allowed at least her upper classes more liberty and her minorities more tolerance, but a path that inexorably led to the suppression of her independent sovereign existence for the 120-plus years from 1795 until 1919?

This is a question to which Davies is loath to give an answer. Davies loves Poland. This love inspired him to learn her language and study her history. But it also makes him very reluctant to say anything that might be construed as a criticism – and to rebut critical remarks by anybody else. He throws himself so passionately into the work of denying that the old Polish Commonwealth had to fail that he never quite gets around to explaining why it did fail. As Davies tells it, it is just the bad luck of this battle lost here, that bribe slipped there – it all could just as easily have gone the other way.

I find that interpretation difficult to accept, and so Davies’ work left me keenly dissatisfied. The Polish state as it existed from 1569 to 1795 had many attractive qualities, but it flunked the first test of evolutionary competition: survival. And though some Ronski Paulskis might contend that the centralization of power and the mobilization of armies was too high a price to pay for survival – and though too, looking at the history of Prussia, one might even concede that in the Polish case at least, the Paulskis might even have a point – still, one wants the answer: Why did the Polish Commonwealth fail to develop the institutions necessary to defend itself? For that information – and for a reading experience more pleasurable than the sawdust repast served up by Davies – one must turn elswhere. Too bad I’ve already paid the hefty second-hand price for Volume 2 ….

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