Posts Tagged ‘Lithuania’

Richard M Watt: Bitter Glory

November 11, 2021

     Although I bought this book some twenty years ago, I’ve only just finished it, and the timing is perfect, as today is Polish Independence Day

It’s an account of the life of the Second Republic, from start to finish – only 20 years – and I finally have a clear and detailed understanding of the country my father grew up in. The opposition between Pilsudski’s (perhaps romantic) vision of a Poland of many peoples, and Dmowski’s homeland for ethnic Poles only is there right from the outset. Josef Pilsudski’s vision was tried in the Second Republic; Roman Dmowski’s was artificially imposed and created by the Soviet Union and its puppets after the Second World War. And so we have the situation that so many of us in the Polish diaspora find ourselves.

We could have done with more maps, and better copy editing and checking of the book, but I’ll let those pass.

The task was truly Herculean: resurrect a country which had been abolished for 120 years, from three disparate parts run under three very different administrations, with a resentful Germany to the West and an unpredictable Soviet Union to the East. The Versailles conference fixed the Western borders: the East was to be a DIY affair, settled briefly and very resentfully after the 1920 war with the Soviets. So for its entire existence, the republic was hemmed in by unfinished business. The Western Allies, savaged by the Great War, didn’t really care that much.

The book is very broad in scope and detail. In particular, the ethnic and national conflicts on the Eastern borders – the Kresy – are explained and contextualised with great care, and the various approaches to the issues, crystallising in the personalities of Pilsudski and Dmowski, are also clarified. The permanently scarred relations with the former ally Lithuania are also explained. It really does become evident that for so many reasons, and not just the fault of Poles – the new Poland was not really a viable state in the long term. Perhaps that should not surprise us?

Economically, the situation was horrendous: too many peasants on too many small farms. Little industry. No coherent communications. And all was made worse by the fact that no Poles had any experience of ruling or governing. The 1920s were totally chaotic politically, through incompetence and corruption. The roots of the awkwardness of the church date from this time, in a flawed concordat with the Vatican, and of course, antisemitism was always lurking in the background, to come to the fore in the 1930s.

Which was the more dangerous potential enemy, Germany or the Soviet Union? And where were reliable allies to be found? Increasing chaos led to the virtual end of attempts at democracy by 1930 and the country was thereafter rules by authoritarian governments who exploited anti-Jewish feeling when it suited their interests, disgracefully supported and encouraged by the church. For most of the life of the republic, the military were heavily involved in government. There was scandalous trickery used to pass a new constitution in 1930, and a new rigged electoral system.

Things clearly were unravelling all over Europe as the 1930s progressed and Poland was no exception; under an authoritarian rule, swaggering at times as if it were a great power, it waited its turn to be picked off by Hitler…

It’s an exhaustive and authoritative book, with thought-provoking evaluation and conclusions. And though Watt’s picture is very dark, we must acknowledge what was achieved: Poland was brought back into existence effectively enough to survive independently for two decades, and was not to be erased from the map permanently again by the Second World War, though the epoch of the People’s Republic drew out the agony for another four decades and more. The beginnings of a modern nation-state, with national self-awareness took shape. And today’s Poland still has plenty of crocodiles to wrestle with…

Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz

December 4, 2020

     Today marks a real achievement for me, and one that’s taken years to make myself accomplish: I’ve finally read the Polish national epic poem, Pan Tadeusz. This may not sound a big deal to many of you, but imagine if an educated Englishman (like myself!) confessed that it was only at age 65 he had first read any Shakespeare…

I still have my dad’s small, leatherbound copy, in Polish of course, so I couldn’t read it, given to him on our first visit there half a century ago. I recently came across a reference to the translation pictured above, which was highly praised, and bought it. After I’d begun reading it, I found an old, second-hand copy of a much poorer translation on an out-of-the-way bookshelf; I’d obviously been feeling guilty over 30 years ago when I’d bought it!

I had been dreading (mildly) reading the poem, regarding it as a duty more than anything. Not that I don’t like poetry, obviously, but lengthy poems can be a slog. (Still only a third of the way through Dante, begun over ten years ago). And poetry from the Romantic era I’ve always had a problem with. But this was a delight… not what I’d anticipated at all. Partly, this feeling is a tribute to the hard work and sensitivity of the translator Bill Johnston, who is totally in sympathy with the work and the country, and thought carefully about metre, rhythm and the differences between the languages. So the translation feels contemporary, the verse is carefully but not obsessively rhymed, and Johnston has used the iambic pentameter throughout, except in the epilogue, which works well in English and is not tiring to read. I was more than a little surprised when, quite early on, I found myself reminded, both in terms of the rhythm and subject-matter, of Wordsworth’s Prelude.

The poem was written in exile in 1830; it’s in twelve books, and is set some twenty years earlier, at the time of the beginning of Napoleon’s invasion of tsarist Russia, which brought hopes of freedom and independence to Poland, which had been erased from the map in 1795. It’s set in the remote forests of the borderlands between Poland and Lithuania, which had formed a single Commonwealth for several centuries, and is the region of my Polish ancestors. The focus is largely on the gentry and its traditions, the setting is rural, and the plot focuses on rivalries and disagreements over land and property, a mysterious killing some twenty years previously, and various marriage plots.

What works most effectively is the marvellous creation of place and atmosphere of a lost past, one that is sliding into history as the story unfolds. I understood rather more about the nature of the old Polish nobility and its relation to other social groups, place and country, and am clearer about how our family comes to be in the book of the nobility despite being impoverished peasants…

The story works its way through various local rivalries up to a serious skirmish between Poles and Lithuanians united against local Russian troops, in which the former carry the day (obviously); the battle descriptions are marvellously done and you really feel in the middle of things. Then comes the reckoning, the revelations, the weddings and the feasting. And none of it is too deadly serious, if you see what I mean. There is a real sense of the Polish nation united, a happiness or contentedness with the old – and vanishing – ways beneath the surface, a gentle nostalgia…

Now that I finally have a handle on the entire story, I shall go back to it soon and read more closely and deeply, and enjoy more fully.

Peter Unwin: Baltic Approaches

November 26, 2016

61tgouatogl-_ac_us160_This was an excellent find in a secondhand bookshop. The author was an experienced British diplomat, and this shows through in the care of his writing, which succeeds in portraying the broad sweep of two thousand years of European history from the specifically Baltic perspective. I hadn’t fully comprehended the vastness of the region, which Unwin likens to a northern Mediterranean, a perspective that had never occurred to me, but which makes eminent good sense, particularly when you take a good map and rotate it a little… it will never be the same in my mind and imagination from now on.

The book was written just over twenty years ago, and it’s quit astonishing how much things have changed dramatically in such a short period of time: he’s writing shortly after German reunification, before the accession of Eastern European nations to the EU, and he’s not able to imagine their joining NATO, which of course has happened. He follows the coastline as it limits Germany, Denmark, Poland, the Kaliningrad exclave, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and back to Germany again.

He’s particularly thoughtful and sensitive about East Prussia, analysing its contribution both to Germany and to Europe, and expressing sadness at its disappearance, inevitable and understandable though this was. My one gripe with him would be his attitude to Poland and Lithuania which I felt lacked subtlety, especially in his glossing over the significance to Poland of Wilno, and not just in the inter-war years. Overall it is hard to fault his careful, detailed, balanced and sensitive exploration of the complexities of the ethnic minorities questions which have bedevilled the Eastern Baltic region and to some extent still do today. He’s good on national traits and characteristics, insofar as this is possible when one is inevitably generalising. His prognostications about the future, outlined in his concluding chapter, are, unsurprisingly, overoptimistic, dated, and about as far as it’s possible to be from where we have got to today…

But, a good little book that does the subject justice and which has some nice outline maps which help when you turn to the atlas for more detail.

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