Sep 17, 2006

Book Review: God's Playground - A History of Poland

God's Playground Davies, Norman

New York: Columbia University Press, 1327 pages in two volumes

Norman Davies is a Polish historian of Welsh descent who was a student of controversial British historian A.J.P. Taylor. He received his doctorate at the Jagellonian University in Kraków, and his books were among the first significant Western studies of Polish history. Some historians have accused Davies of a "Polonophile" perspective in his treatment of particular historical conflicts involving Poland; most notably Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz decried what she believed to be a minimization on the part of Davies in Polish complicity during the Holocaust, as well as post-WWII pogroms against Jews by Polish nationalists.

The fallout from the charges by Dawidowicz and other activist historians included a denial of tenure for Davies by Stanford University. He lost a related lawsuit against Stanford in 1991 when the California Court of Appeals ruled against his case. Perhaps anticipating the criticisms of Holocaust historians, Davies included the following passage in his discussion of the history of Poland in the Second World War:
Jewish investigators tend to count Jewish victims. Polish investigators tend to count Polish victims. Neither side wishes to stress the fact that the largest single category of victims was both Polish and Jewish. Not everyone, it seems, is content to count human beings.
God’s Playground follows a chronological approach in its treatment of Polish history, with major divisions following the history of the chief political events. Within these chronological groupings, however, Davies examined a wide variety of thematic topics in separate chapters. While a synthesis, the book is heavily footnoted, and is useful for both students and researchers. Both volumes contain many maps, charts, and illustrations for greater comprehension of the assembled material.

Davies disagreed with the traditional historiographical explanation for Poland’s failure to thrive as a nation-state, which is based on the idea that the location of the Poles on the Northern European Plain between perennial rivals Germany and Russia somehow doomed Poland to near-constant invasion. The author noted that Germany, for example, is sandwiched between France and Poland; if geographic location in northern Europe had such a deterministic quality, argued Davies, Poland and Germany could then be expected to share similar, rather than dissimilar histories.

Instead, Davies maintained that a number of unique geographical anomalies prevented the growth of Poland as a major European power. The Plain narrows from a width of 800 miles on the Bug River to a mere 200 miles on the Odra, while glacial depressions (pradoliny) “provide natural passage ways parallel to the mountain and coastal barriers.” Finally, the existence of extensive marsh areas and morainic lakes in the north prevented easy access to the Baltic for Polish mercantile and military needs.

Polish-Lithuanian Union Left: Map of Polish-Lithuanian Union at its height

Davies traced the Polish tradition of political liberalism and a weak central government to the reign of Louis of Anjou (1370-86). This Angevin monarch failed to father a male heir, and he was forced to strike a deal with Polish nobility on his successor. Davies argued that the generous privileges he granted “put the political initiative into the hands of the nobility at a moment when the cement of social and constitutional structures was starting to set.” In addition, this Polish trend toward political decentralization occurred at a time when many European political units were gradually increasing central authority. Davies also dismissed the iconic reign of King Stefan Bathory as “largely personal,” arguing that the Republic “was floundering once more in the same quagmire of chaos” that Bathory inherited.

Another reason cited by Davies for the inability of the Poles to develop a strong centralized government was the sheer size of the Polish noble class. At the time of the 1569 Poland-Lithuania union there were over 500,000 nobles, which represented 6.6 percent of the total population of 7.5 million. By the eighteenth century this figure jumped to approximately 10 percent; by comparison, French nobles comprised about one percent of the population, English nobles about two percent, and Spanish nobles about five percent. The bloated Polish nobility and its lock on political power, argued Davies, made the eighteenth-century Partitions an inevitability; this “emasculation of the Republic” left Poland ill-prepared to defend itself against the imperial aims of such European powers as Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

Polish Partitions Left: Map of Polish Partitions

The large numbers of Jews who immigrated to Poland created a fifth social class in early modern Poland, joining the clergy, the nobility, burghers, and peasantry as components of Polish society. Social mobility in Jagiellonian Poland was limited, argued Davies, although Jewish merchants found ways to evade laws that were favorable to Catholic burghers. The position of Jews as economic competitors in Poland, like in much of Europe, was a factor in Polish anti-Semitism, but the fact that Jews constituted about 10 percent of the population in Poland made the likelihood of conflict even greater.

The profitable rise of what Davies referred to as the Grain Trade – using the Vistula River as its corridor and terminating in the Baltic port of Danzig (Gdansk) – proved to be a mixed blessing for the future of Poland. The great magnates profited from the surplus grain marketed by Danzig and Amsterdam merchants, but spent much of their wealth on foreign manufactured products. The Polish monarchy derived some income from tolls on the Vistula and port dues in Danzig, but ignored the possibilities available in taxing the profits of landholders. Davies argued that the “really big money sped abroad in the profits of Dutch entrepreneurs, or stayed in Danzig in the coffers of financiers, manufacturers, and merchants.” This inability of the Poles to keep wealth in the country ultimately inhibited the growth of domestic industries, while gradually manifesting itself in the form of Polish nobles that became the debtors of Danzig patricians.

The Polish nobles, so desirous of protecting their traditional rights under the Republic, were also one of the groups most likely to suffer after the Partitions. Davies noted that nearly 80 percent of the Polish nobility had been eliminated by 1864, and petty nobles were among the hardest hit by the changes in Polish society. The average serf, argued Davies, fared better than many of the zaścianki, and many sank into the ranks of the peasantry. The author wryly commented that, in modern Poland, “nowadays, everyone, and no one, is a nobleman.”

Bohdan Khmelnytsky or Bohdan Zenobi Chmielnicki Left: Bohdan Zenobi Chmielnicki

Davies considered the Chmielnicki Uprising to be a pivotal event in the history of Poland, arguing that it “provoked an orgy of destruction of life and property commensurate to that of the Thirty Years War in Germany.” The author took a conservative estimate of the number of Jews killed in the violence, noting a figure of 56,000. Davies viewed Chmielnicki not as a Marxist “champion of social conscience and protest,” but rather more simply as an insurrectionary with deep personal grievances against magnate and military commander Jaremi Wiśniowiecki.

Davies, above all, demonstrated formidable literary talent in this synthesis, and the text is rife with memorable passages that display the author’s skills as a writer. In discussing the possibility that Poland – after over a century of post-Partition domination by foreign powers – might never be able to reconstitute itself as a sovereign nation, Davies succinctly and viscerally summed up the prognosis:
In the nineteenth century, the Poles had been faced with a life of deprivation. In the twentieth century, they were faced with extinction. If, somewhat fancifully, Poland had once been compared to Calvary, it now became, in reality, Golgotha.
Written before the fall of the Soviet Union, God’s Playground is thus in need of an update, and the text includes little information about the role of labor groups such as Solidarność and their important roles in weakening the Communist government of Poland; only one chapter was devoted to the history of post-WWII Poland. While Davies made extensive use of Polish archival material, documents in Soviet archives likely possess considerable value to historians of Poland. Still, Davies produced an excellent English history of Poland that provided an alternative to the state-influenced, doctrinnaire Marxist texts that Polish historians have generated since the 1950s, and the text should be considered an essential component of any Polish historical collection.


microdot said...

I want this book! I find Poland incredibly interseting in a historical context and what it is today.
One of my best friends is an American Jew of Polish descent who moved to Krakow during the Liberation Movement and now has become a successful entrepreneur. Through him, I met a lot of Poles and am going to Krakow next next spring.
I correspond with my friend via email and his tales of living in a small village outside of Krakow, married with 2 kids who he is raising in the Jewish faith are pretty incredible. The society has become incredibly anti-semitic, plus the nature of Polish society dealing with the success of an outsider who knows how capitalism works, it is amazing that he has been so successful and retains his incredible sense of humor.

historymike said...

Yes, this is an excellent summary of Polish history, Microdot.

Too bad to hear that anti-Semitism continues to fester in Poland. It has a long history, and there were some vicious pogroms carried out against Jews by Poles immediately after WWII.

Hooda Thunkit said...

Thanks for this piece Mike. Now, I too must find a copy ;-)

Too bad you didn't supply a referral link from some place like; you too, could have profited from such referrals.

Anonymous said...

historymike - could you post some details on those vicious post-war pogroms - a concise list - including the number of victims - this would cast some light on the issue