Posts Tagged ‘Poland’

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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Witold Gombrowicz: Diary

March 25, 2015

51d6XzdUABL._AA160_I recently read his Memories of Poland, which dealt with his early life and the pre-war years in Poland; this massive tome (800 pages) deals with his later life and is apparently regarded as his most important work; he sailed to Argentina a couple of weeks before the outbreak of the second World War and didn’t return to Europe for twenty-four years; he never went back to Poland.

So he’s in a world I’m familiar with from the writings of several other Polish authors, Gustaw Herling and Czeslaw Milosz the first two that spring to mind, an involuntary exile. The Poland that they left behind disappeared; the Poland that re-appeared under Stalin’s thumb in 1945 was not their home; in many cases their home soil was no longer in Poland…

Gombrowicz is still focused on the relationship between Poland and the West, its inferiority complex and its immaturity, its need to boast, to prove itself a peer of other, really European nations; in places it almost seems an obsession, and, whilst it’s pretty clear what he is criticising, what he would replace it with is much less so. There is a yearning for Poland and Poles to be authentically themselves and original rather than be imitative of, or worhipful of Europe. Despite the lack of clarity I experienced, there is true challenge and originality, questioning and analysis in Gombrowicz’ work. He is very interesting on Milosz’ important work The Captive Mind, a study of intellectuals under communism.

The Diary feels like a blog from the 1950s, before the invention of the concept; it’s certainly not a diary in the ways many of us would understand it; occasionally there are bizarre, even hallucinatory passages; sometimes he writes about himself in the third person. Some aspects of his own story and his past are clarified. There are some real nuggets buried in places, such as his enthralment with Beethoven’s late string quartets, which he writes much about.

He develops a detailed and very interesting – I can’t judge how accurate – analysis of why the inter-war Polish Republic was ultimately a failure, and why Polish art and literature failed: his focus is on the real difficulty of a new nation emerging after 120 years of non-existence, and yet still clinging to the baggage of the distant past. And yet I found myself thinking of the emigre and his relationship to his country, from a distance of 8000 miles and two decades or more; as time passed, he seemed to become more tormented or perplexed by his relationship with Poland, with other emigres and Polish emigre journalism; he seems out of sympathy with many of his peers. When he finally returns to Europe for the last five years of his life, he seems rather lost and out of place. The diary confirms for me the awfulness, and the loneliness of exile and separation from home, even in such a perverse character as Gombrowicz.

Usual moan: for a book from Yale University Press, I’d have expected a much higher standard of proof-reading.

Witold Gombrowicz: Polish Memories

January 26, 2015

41Yk6jXlnFL._AA160_Not an easy book, although not in terms of its content or readability: much more in terms of its challenges to my previous ideas about and understanding of Poland in the inter-war years. Gombrowicz was part of a new wave of Polish writers as the country was re-established after more than a century of non-existence; he set out to shock in his writing and in his behaviour and attitudes; he seems to have been very ‘up himself’ (as one might say today) and was probably not a very pleasant person to be with. I’ve had his novel Ferdydurke on my shelves for nigh on forty years, waiting to be read, and perhaps its time has come…

I’ve read a lot of memoirs and criticism by other writers from the same time and place, most notably perhaps Czeslaw Milosz; their experience is of a period of relative freedom and creativity brutally ended by Nazi and Soviet invasion and occupation, followed either by exile or the stifling experience of Stalinism. Gombrowicz was travelling by sea to Argentina when Hitler invaded Poland, so he escaped it all, meaning that his perspective on events is radically different from others of his peers. Another new wave writer of the time, Witkiewicz, shot himself in despair the day the Soviets invaded…

What interested me, and challenged me, was Gombrowicz’ perspective on the new republic and its citizens. There were the aristocrats, nobility, bourgeoisie and landowners, all stuck in a romantic past in their behaviour and attitudes. There was an incredible gulf between them and the working classes and peasants. They, and many of the intellectuals, whom Gombrowicz openly despises, seem to him to be living on myths of the past greatness of the nation and its heroes; there is no real sense of a new country with a meaningful identity; it’s very much an Eastern rather than a European place, rudderless, surrounded by a gradually renascent Germany and the unpredictable Soviet Union nursing the grudge of the lost war of 1920. Poland is completely out of its depth, and Gombrowicz seems to yearn for it to move into the twentieth century and re-create itself, create a new and European identity. He is struck by the huge gulf between his homeland and other European nations as he travels…

I’ve always had the image of Poles as incurable romantics, and Gombrowicz almost convinces me that this is a defect rather than something to admire. Over time I have collected a long list of questions I would have liked to ask my father about, and that list is now rather longer…

Siegfried Lenz

October 13, 2014

I learnt from a casual visit to the New York Times yesterday of the death of the writer Siegfried Lenz; nothing seems to have appeared in the British press so far.

Lenz was another German writer – rather less known over here than the likes of Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll – who wrote about the Nazi period in Germany, the issues of resistance, and what was lost with the war. The German Lesson tells of an artist out of favour with the regime who is sent to live in a remote village near the Danish border, and his relationship with the country policeman who is deputed to keep a vigilant eye on him. It’s a long time since I read the novel, but I do recall vivid descriptions of the area and its remoteness, and of the understanding that develops between the two characters.

The Heritage shares rather more with Grass, I think. Both came from the same region: Grass from the former Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk in Poland) and Lenz from rather further east, the town of Lyck in East Prussia, now Ełk in Poland. It’s from this convoluted geography that springs the tragedies they both recall in different ways, for before the Second World War, the region was inhabited by Germans, Poles and other, smaller, minority groups who had lived side by side for centuries. The Versailles settlement of 1919 began the process of separating peoples via plebiscites in various parts of the region, with the choice of belonging to Germany or Poland; the special status of Danzig/Gdańsk became one of the focal points in the lead-up to the Second World War.

It seems to me that extremism – nationalism – furthers division between people, and after the horrors of the war, nothing could remain the same. Ethnic cleansing came to this corner of Europe: the Germans were removed from Gdańsk, which became a purely Polish city, and so many of Grass’ novels and writings paint a picture of a vanished world, and the sadness that it was lost; similarly, East Prussia could no longer exist: the population fled in before the advancing Soviet armies. Lenz depicts this trauma in The Heritage; centuries of a shared past vanish in a few months. Those who didn’t flee were expelled by the new Soviet and Polish administrations. And you can’t say that they could or should have done anything else, when you read of what the Nazis did and encouraged Germans to do to non-Germans in those areas.

All of this is, of course, fading into history with the passing of those who knew it and could write so well about it; it exists in old maps and place-names, and in the ideal of different peoples being able to live together. Of course, this was an ideal; the history of the borderlands tells a grimmer story, and yet something has surely been lost for ever with the coming of national homogeneity.

Hanna Kochanski: The Eagle Unbowed

June 21, 2013

The history of Poland is very complicated, particularly in the twentieth century, and this book is about Poland and the Second World War. I’m not a historian, but am half-Polish. I’ve read quite a lot about the place and the period, and also about the formation of the Polish community in Britain. So I was eager to read this book, and not disappointed: Hanna Kochanski picks her way through the minefield very deftly. Nothing is overlooked, it seemed to me: the difficulties of rebuilding Poland after the Great War, the complexities of relationships between all the races and nationalities in the country, including the Jews, the diplomacy, the invasions by Germany and the Soviet Union, the horrors of occupation and resistance, the betrayals by the Western Allies as the war came to an end…

I have a lot of sympathy with the old idea of the Polish Commonwealth and its attempts to incorporate a large area and many peoples, because my family is from the territories lost at the end of the war; equally, it seems like an idea from a bygone age, which was never going to work in the twentieth century for so many reasons. But the tragedy of what happened at the end of the war is never really going to be understood by people who have no connection with Poland – the huge loss of territory and two large cities, centres of culture and education. Nor, I suspect, is it easy to understand the deliberate attempts by two invading nations to eradicate a country and exterminate its cultural elite.

So Poland is now a much smaller country, and almost exclusively Polish in nationality, and many of the places Kochanski writes about are vanished, totally obliterated by war, or renamed, a part of history now, populated by completely different nationalities.

Is it worth dwelling on the past? It is, for the truth to be told, no matter how awkward. The Poles do not come out shining from all this: their diplomats were arrogant and often unrealistic both before and during the war; some Poles were anti-semitic; some Poles betrayed their country. Poles fought bravely on many fronts during the war, enduring great hardships; the story of how so many came eventually to be released from Soviet captivity and make their many different ways to Britain to join the allies is still being told. I learned that Poland was one of the pioneering nations in parachuting before the war, and I finally realised how chaotic the landings at Arnhem in 1944 were.

Britain does not come out of this smelling of roses either: often racist, hostile, negative towards its ally and her troops, unable or unwilling to understand Poland or its people, often belittling its contribution to the war effort. And yet, after the war, Britain allowed Polish troops to remain rather than sending them back to further captivity… and that’s why I’m British.

Kochanski’s book is wide-ranging; she acknowledges how complex the issues are; she show how small nations get ground up unmercifully in the wheels of big power politics.  Her evaluations are lucid and fair. It’s a valuable and important book, and alongside the current books of Timothy Snyder and Norman Davies, goes a long way towards giving the complete picture of the times.

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