Norman Davies: God’s Playground – A History of Poland (vol1)

April 9, 2022

     It’s well over thirty years since I first came across and read this monumental work by Norman Davies, who is the current expert par excellence on Polish history, so much so that all of his works have been translated into Polish and seem to rank alongside native-born historians’ work…

He begins by making it clear that it’s not merely the physical/ geographical location of Poland in the Central European plain sandwiched between Germany and Russia that creates many of that nation’s difficulties, but also Poland’s rule, and lack of it, too. He manages dexterously to pick his way through the minefield of the borderlands, national allegiances and historical changes in a way only recently paralleled by Timothy Snyder; he also demolishes a good number of nationalist myths and sacred cows along the way. It’s worth reminding ourselves that this history was written in the days of the People’s Republic, too.

There was much intermingling of races and peoples back in the days before the earliest origins of the Polish state in the tenth century, along with mobility of all frontiers: here is an aspect of the region’s history that the British, safe on our little island, repeatedly prove unable to understand. Reading for personal reasons, I’m still trying to unpick the history and geography of the region of my ancestors, on the verges of Poland/Lithuania and Belarus.

The maps are mostly excellent: one really can attempt to understand the complexities of the past millennium with their help, although the chaotic politics and regional warfare over centuries do still go over my head.

There are still surprises to this experienced reader of Polish history: from the stridency and bigotry of the 21st century Polish church, you would never deduce the spirit of toleration during the Reformation era, the lively debates that took place, and the strength of Calvinism at the time. Davies shows us how the nation eventually developed into a bulwark of Catholicism, and this was obviously reinforced by the resistance to Soviet rule, and the election of a Polish pope, some time after Davies was writing this book.

Poland’s economic and political problems seem to have stemmed from its being a decentralised state for much of its existence, as well as a complex, multi-ethnic mix, with its borders in pretty constant flux; the country was seriously anarchic during the crucial 17th and 18th centuries when most nation-states were consolidating themselves, with an over-emphasis on individual liberties for nobles and magnates which impeded the development of a strong centre which might have more successfully resisted Russian and Prussian encroachment; the nobility waged many of their own private wars, and paralysed the state through their use of parliamentary veto; magnates could also be bought up, and were, by the nation’s enemies…

We can clearly see the origins and development of Poland’s deep-seated mistrust of Russia, its rulers and their methods; recent events justify this wariness. Equally, we can see the origins of anti-Jewish sentiments which developed over the years, and about which the current regime is in denial.

Davies tries very hard to enable his readers to make sense of centuries of chaos, but at times, even to this seasoned reader, it became dull, overloaded with (probably) necessary detail. Nonetheless, the necessary broad outlines are there. This volume ends with the disappearance of Poland from the map in 1795; I shall take up the second volume when I can find it (it’s in a box somewhere…).

2 Responses to “Norman Davies: God’s Playground – A History of Poland (vol1)”

  1. penwithlit Says:

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    I always confuse Norman Davies with the ebullient Norman Stone- another expert on Eastern Europe with splendid linguistic skills. I would also recommend Adam Zamoyski’s book Warsaw 1920 which was quite fascinating. Davies book on Wroclow (Breslau) is in my mind currently because of the situation in Lviv (Ukraine).

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  2. […]   This second volume of Norman Davies’ history begins with a nation that has vanished from the map of Europe; the idea […]

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