The Polish Miracle: Natural Born Rebels

Disrupted, extinguished, and resurrected. For centuries, Poland was a multifaceted cultural jewel. Today, it is the most ethnically homogeneous country in Europe. Poland's leading historian, Adam Zamoyski, reflects on the glorious and tragic history of his homeland in the heart of Europe.

During the Middle Ages, while Europe languished, mired in disease and poverty, Poland was a cultural mecca. It welcomed intellectuals, artists, tradesmen, Jews, Muslims, and Christians of all denominations. It is said that the notoriously finicky French learned table etiquette from their neighbors to the east. An apocryphal tale, perhaps, but it springs from a seed of truth. Centuries later, however, Poland has become the most ethnically homogeneous country in Europe.

"It borders on a miracle that the state still exists today," marvels Adam Zamoyski, Poland's leading historian. A count by birth, the 72-year-old Polish-American descends from an illustrious Polish family. His father served as an emissary between Wladyslaw Sikorski, the prime minister of the Polish government in exile, and Great Britain's Winston Churchill. The Zamoyskis founded the city of Zamość, an early haven of modernity, tolerance, and sophistication.

We reach Zamoyski via Skype at his family's country estate at the easternmost edge of Poland on the Ukraine border. Poland is a "very damaged society," Zamoyski informs. The scars inflicted by foreign powers run deep. Yet, the Polish people, natural rebels in the historian's approving words, have never lost their national pride. "If you can do it once, you can do it again."

Weltwoche: Good afternoon, Count Zamoyski. Is this the appropriate way to address you?

Adam Zamoyski: Some people call me that. Most people don't. It really doesn't matter, particularly here in Southern Poland which was occupied for a hundred years by the Austrians. Everybody addresses you as a “doctor” or a “professor.” And I'm not a doctor. And I'm not a professor. So, as a last resort, people often call me "Count." [chuckles]

Weltwoche: Without doubt, you're an outstanding historian and a very successful author. Your “Poland, A History” is the only book on Poland that has ever made the best seller list.

Zamoyski: Yes, astonishingly. It stayed on there for quite a long time, and it keeps on selling. It's readable, I am told.

Weltwoche: You present a fascinating overview of Poland's history since its very beginning in the 10th century. Looking at Poland over the centuries, it looks like waves of rapidly descending low pressure zones. There is constant change and multiple divisions. For a long time, Poland even ceased to exist as an independent entity. How has Polish nationalism survived despite this turmoil?

Zamoyski: This is a remarkable thing. It's curious. The Poles are a very quarrelsome people. There is this joke about Jews that if there are two Jews, there are three parties. We are like that. Poles are not particularly cooperative. But they don't like to be pushed around. This residual national spirit is something Polish historians and Polish sociologists have often wondered about. Of course, religion has something to do with it but not that much. Remember, during the Reformation, Poland became the most multi-religious place in the world.

Weltwoche: For centuries, Poland was home to a great variety of religions.

Zamoyski: Indeed. My own family converted to Calvinism and then converted back to Roman Catholicism. One thing that does unify people is the hostility of the threat presented by neighbors. While Poland was still independent in the Middle Ages, it was threatened by Germany's eastward expansion. The Knights of the Teutonic Order were particularly menacing. Later, in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, there was the threat of the Turkish and the Tatar onslaughts, and that pulled people together. Then, in the 19th century, the three neighbors - Russia, Prussia, and Austria - posed a vital threat. In the 20th century, it was Russia and Germany. That has consolidated and given the sense of urgency.

Weltwoche: Poland is flat in every direction. It has no natural protection, except for the Carpathians in the south. It has very limited natural resources. The only access to sea is the Baltic Sea. From there, it is very hard to reach the Atlantic. And you are squeezed between big powers. For many reasons it is the worst place to establish a state in Europe. The fact you succeeded is almost a miracle.

Zamoyski: Yes. That is true. Poland is a great crossroads. Every army wanting to go anywhere passes through Poland. The other thing worth mentioning that held the nation together, particularly over the most difficult times of the 19th century, was that Poland developed a very rich literature - richer than that of most European countries. This helped to bind Poles together under different rulers.

A major problem, almost up to the Second World War, was that Poland remained a pretty feudal society with a very small, landed gentry and a huge mass of, more or less, wealthy but, nevertheless, not particularly culturally aware countryfolk.

In the 18th century, the elite began to grow because some commerce and industry got going, and an educated middle class began to form. That was, of course, the moment when Poland was taken over by her neighbors. Every time there was an uprising against Russian rule or Prussian rule in 1830, in 1848, in 1863, tens of thousands of the educated people were either imprisoned, or killed, or sent into exile, with the result that the elite was repeatedly cut away.

In spite of this, an educated, cultivated middle class did emerge in the second half of the 19th century. It flourished in the years between the first and second world wars when there was once more a Polish Republic which had one of the best educational systems in the world. This created a vibrant society excited at having got their country back.

Weltwoche: That came to a grinding halt with the Nazi assault on Poland in 1939 and the subsequent Second World War.

Zamoyski: Both the Nazis and the Soviets had one absolute priority. It wasn't so much the land. They wanted to decapitate Polish society. They simply murdered all of the educated people they could, or deported them, or worked them to death. As a result, very few survived. Some survived in in exile in England, in France, Switzerland, all over the world. But those who remained in Poland after 1945 were victimized and persecuted, and they had their property confiscated. The whole idea was to turn Poland into a colony of proletarians that Russia could control.

The Germans wanted to eradicate the social elites so that the whole area would contain only people whom they could treat as slaves. The Russians wanted to replicate their own political and social system. For that, they needed to control the elites. This was easy in towns because they could threaten them with the use of factory workers. In the country, they simply removed them. If you had a farm in Poland before the war, if it had more than fifty hectares, everything was confiscated, including your house, your clothes, your personal effects. My father's photograph albums are in a national archive. [chuckles]

You were not allowed to go within a radius of fifty kilometers of your old farm. The idea was to break up communities. They didn't want the people in the country to have any contact with educated people. The only people who lived in the country, apart from farm laborers and working peasants, were managers of state farms, priests, doctors, and veterinary surgeons.

Weltwoche: Can you still see consequences of this, today?

Zamoyski: In today’s Poland, most of the people may look like you and me, but most of their parents lived in thatched cottages with a wooden lavatory outside the house. Most of their grandparents wouldn't have been able to read. It's a very, very new society.

Around the churches there were groups, rosary groups and maybe choir groups, but there were none of the kind of associations which existed in normal countries, such as clubs of people who liked to play a particular game or collect stamps. People were kept isolated from each other except in official associations. As a result, Poland is still a very damaged society, although it has managed to survive unimaginable traumas during and after the war. The area where I live was the scene of terrible massacres.

Weltwoche: In which area are you living?

Zamoyski: I'm staying, now, in the countryside in eastern Poland, quite close to the Ukrainian frontier. During the war, there was a terrible action by the Germans in this area. They wanted to turn into a bastion of Germany. So, they removed all the Poles. The awful things kept going on until 1948 with the Soviet army and the new Polish Communist Army, people were being slaughtered. Yet, I'm surprised at how civilized and normal people are and what a happy place it is.

Weltwoche: In the 16th century, Poland was a Commonwealth and the largest state in Europe, extending over one million square kilometers. This Serenissima Respublica was the most remarkable republic in Europe at that time. Many different people of different ethnicities and religions coexisted: Roman Catholics, the Byzantine and Greek Orthodox, Protestants, Calvinists, Jews, and Muslims. Why did Poland attract that diversity of people?

Zamoyski: Because it was very tolerant. The Jews were very welcomed. Twenty kilometers from where I'm sitting is a city called "Zamość," founded by my ancestor in the 1580s.

Weltwoche: Jan Zamoyski, the eminent Polish nobleman and magnate who served as royal secretary, he was your relative?

Zamoyski: Yes. He actually invited a whole lot of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to come and settle. He also invited Armenians and made some exiled Scotsmen very welcome. What he wanted was, in his city, was to have people with skills. He wanted bankers. He wanted money lenders. He wanted craftsmen, watchmakers - people who knew how to do things and make things.

As Poland didn't have a middle class, the Poles, like my ancestor, not only tolerated foreigners but welcomed people like that. Indeed, the synagogue they built is very interesting because the decoration is very reminiscent of the Spanish synagogues. There were streets of Scotsmen; Poland had the largest community of Scots outside Scotland. These people came for a very good reason. There were plenty of job opportunities. They could practice whatever faith they wanted to, and they were pretty much left in peace.

Weltwoche: What is extraordinary is that they had royal elections. In the age of monarchy, it was unimaginable that a king was elected. But the creators of this Rzeczpospolita designed the role of the Polish king as a chief executive rather than an emperor. This seems totally ahead of its time.

Zamoyski: The idea of election emerged as the parliament didn't want the king to have absolute power. So, in 1490, they passed a law that did not allow anybody to succeed (in the royal sense), even if they were the natural heir, without the approval of the parliament.

The idea of the election wasn't that strange. It created what was, essentially, a constitutional monarchy. It was doomed to failure because, just as the Poles were loosening the ties of authority and strengthening regional autonomy, the rest of Europe was centralizing like mad. In England, you have the Tudors who came in and imposed absolute power. In France, the Bourbons were working to reduce the power of the nobility and to centralize further.

All over Europe, rulers were closing down local diets and legislative assemblies and imposing central control. Whereas, Poland was going the other way. Also, the Poles hated having an army because, first of all, it cost the taxpayers. Secondly, it could be used by the king against the people. They liked a king who didn't have direct power and could only exercise it through the parliament. It was a utopian idea but quite a nice one, really.

Weltwoche: Fast forward to 1939. From this remarkable Commonwealth, Poland turned into the most ethnically homogenous country in Europe. The Jewish population was killed during the war. The Eastern Front was changed. The Ukrainians and Belarusians were excluded. The Germans in western Poland were expelled. Poland ended up with a people that is, I would say, rather atypical for Polish history.

Zamoyski: Yes, it is very atypical. While the Communists were in power and Poland was a colony of Soviet Russia until 1989, books about Polish history and great Polish historical figures were extremely popular. I think that was partly in order to hold on to something that was glorious and that had nothing to do with communist realities.

After 1989, new generations wanted to be more European, more modern, and drifted away from that pride in the old Commonwealth and Rzeczpospolita.

Many of the architects the revolution of 1989, the intelligentsia who were behind it, had either lived with communism and accommodated to it, or they were the sons of old Communists. It is like the French Revolution. It wasn't made by the people. It was made by the minor nobles and the people who wanted to be nobles but couldn't rise high enough.

These people had grown up in a bubble. When they came into government in 1989, they wanted to create a Western social democracy, but they had no idea what the rest of Poland was thinking. They were detached from the countryside. They came across as arrogant.

The other 90% of Poland wanted a moment of taking stock. They had been suffering since 1939, for fifty years. They had all lost of their friends, family, parents, grandparents as a result of Nazi and Soviet crimes, and a great many had lived on, since 1945, in appalling conditions.

Weltwoche: Crucial for contemporary Poland are the brothers Lech and Jaroslav Kaczynski. How did they rise to this important role?

Zamoyski: The Kaczynski brothers were very clever operators. They understood this discontent and set themselves up as the champions of these down-trodden people, all those who had suffered under communism and, indeed, of Polish tradition, of Polish identity, and of historical truth. The trouble is that they are not very well educated. They were brought up in the Polish-Soviet system which had created a very curious narrative of Polish history and tradition. Everybody says Poland has a right-wing government. Yet, the mindset of these people is entirely Communist. It is profoundly influenced by the post-1945, Soviet-controlled Polish political and historical culture.

Weltwoche: You are talking about Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS)?

Zamoyski: Yes.

Weltwoche: What exactly about PiS reminds you of a communist mindset?

Zamoyski: Well, first of all, they don’t really believe in the autonomy of the individual. They don't like diversity. They seem to think that everyone should conform to the same image of the good Polish citizen. Like the Communists, they believe it is the government’s business to "form" society and its moral outlook. They have, for instance, a curiously outdated vision of how the Polish countryside should look, dominated by "family farms" which, of course, don’t actually exist. They believe it is the government’s role to decide who should have what. They don't like the idea of economic inequalities. They tap into a kind of nostalgia for the old days; under Communism, the great thing was that everybody was having a lousy time, together. Nobody could afford a car. Nobody could have a foreign holiday. Everybody was in the same boat. People got a grim satisfaction from the fact that while they might be having a rotten time so was everybody else.

Weltwoche: The PiS has gained more voters in almost each election since 2005. It won 43% of all votes in 2019. Why would they be so popular if they had an outdated, nostalgic, almost Soviet mindset?

Zamoyski: First of all, you have to remember the turnout has been very low, certainly in the last elections. They didn't really “win.” The opposition that lost because people, particularly the young, were fed up and just didn't vote. PiS doesn’t have huge support, but they are consistently popular with a significant proportion of the electorate because they press the right buttons.

To the people who are complainer or the poor who haven't got good jobs, they appeal by demonizing "arrogant liberals" and the European Union as undermining Poland’s culture, family values, religion, and its very soul. They managed to get the church on their side by showering them with money and pretending to be deeply concerned about the Catholic faith. They claim to stand up for Polish values. It is a very populist message. But there are a lot of primitive people in every country.

What is more surprising is that they also manage to appeal to some educated people and younger people who believe that "Polishness" is under threat from evil foreign influences. I think these are the consequences of complexes inherited from years of captivity. The Poles have a superiority complex and an inferiority complex at the same time. In every Pole, there is a battle being waged at every moment between these two complexes. On the one hand, the Poles will stare admiringly at Paris culture. On the other hand, they will say, "No, we're much better. We taught the French how to use forks." Famously, there is this anecdote that King Henry III of France came back from Poland with a fork, and he stopped eating with his fingers.

Weltwoche: There is, indeed, debate among historians about the origins of the table fork. There is the version you mentioned that Henry was introduced to it in Poland. Others are convinced that the king became acquainted with this new tool on a stop over in Venice.

Zamoyski: It's a very purist thing. We are a very damaged nation with a lot of complexes.

Weltwoche: What is in the Polish DNA to prevail through all of this historical tumult?

Zamoyski: There is, of course, religion, by which I mean, on the one hand, a spiritual sense of Christian civilization and, on the other, a whole set of rituals many of which are not strictly religious. This has very deep roots in the Polish nation. There are also a number of cultural factors, partly literary, partly visual. Then, there's another thing which is an extraordinary attachment to the land. This is remarkable. The Polish are not very good at husbanding. Unfortunately, the people around here just love chopping down trees, and they love throwing rubbish around. But they are madly attached to the land and to their country. They don't want to go and buy land in England, or America, or France, or Hawaii. They want a piece of their own land even if they're not going to do anything with it.

Weltwoche: One can’t help but be fascinated by the Polish spirit of survival and resistance. A few years ago, I had an interview with Lech Wałęsa, the former leader of the Solidarnosc movement. He said: “The Holy Father was with us in our hearts. Without Pope Wojtyla, the Poles would never have made it." How important was Pope John Paul II for the new Poland which is now a Catholic powerhouse in Europe?

Zamoyski: Well, there are two different things. The point about the Pope has not so much to do with religion. When John Paul was elected Pontifex, for most Poles, it was like winning the World Cup at football. Then he came to Poland and began to hold open air masses. People who did not hold demonstrations unless they wanted to be beaten up by the Citizen’s Militia looked around, and they suddenly saw a million other fellow Poles. They saw the militia standing around looking nervous. For the first time, they realized their strength. And, of course, there were the Pope's words. He said, "Look, stand up for your dignity." He told them to straighten their necks. That was one very important factor.

The other immensely important thing was that both Lech Wałęsa and the Pope were very genuine people. In the case of Wałęsa, you can say all sorts of things about his intellect or his manner, but he is what he is. He's not a phony. And with Pope John Paul, everybody -- whether they were Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus -- could see that this man was a good, spiritual person, and they took note. This gave the Polish cause enormous strength. The double act of those two meant that public opinion throughout the world was on the side of Poland. That's what really undermined the whole credibility of the Soviet system.

Weltwoche: With the rise of Solidarnosc, the Soviet Empire started trembling. Of course, there were other factors. But this movement was important for the fall of the Soviet Union. Was it a coincidence that it happened, of all places, in Poland?

Zamoyski: No, I didn't think it was coincidence. In the Polish DNA, there is the idea that they do things rather than just sit around on the sidelines and wait for things to happen. The Poles are natural rebels. Over a century of captivity, they developed a talent for conspiratorial activity and resistance. It was obvious that Poland was going to be the weakest link in the Soviet empire because Poland simply isn't suited to be a colony. I don't wish to say that any country is suited to be a colony, but Poland was one of the major nations of Europe. The sense of a glorious past was there. They felt that if you've done it once, you can do it again.

Weltwoche: I guess it was not a coincidence that former United States President Donald Trump chose Warsaw for his first European speech. How important is the strategic role of Poland in today’s Europe?

Zamoyski: I think it's absolutely essential. One of the tragedies of the 18th century was that Poland was wiped off the map. It was partly Poland's fault because we became so weak. A weak country invites invaders. If at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 a larger Poland had been recreated, the First World War might not have happened. Certainly, if there had been a strong Poland in 1939, Germany couldn't have done what it did.

I think it's absolutely essential to the security of Europe to have a strong country in its center that can act as a barrier and a balance and as a cultural stepping stone. At the moment, this is not possible because of the regime in Russia. But under a slightly more reasonable leadership in Moscow, it may be easier. Poles have ways of talking to different people. I think in the future Poland could be a very important place.


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