Echoes of the Past
British historian and author, Adam Zamoyski, provides insights into his life as a descendant of the ancient Polish noble Zamoyski family and sheds a light on Poland’s history, politics and society.
Although Adam Zamoyski was born in New York, he was only there fleetingly, arriving in London two weeks later, and England’s capital has been his home ever since. His parents, Count Stefan Zamoyski and Princess Elżbieta Czartoryska, had left Poland in 1939. His father played an active role during World War II, fighting on several fronts and serving as aide-de-camp to Polish Prime Minister-in-exile Władysław Sikorski, and he felt the betrayal of the post-war settlement keenly, says Zamoyski. “But he always stuck up for Churchill because he realised that he had been outmanoeuvred by Stalin and Roosevelt, and was powerless to support the Poles, not least because of the massive anti-Polish propaganda in the British press, fed by ‘our glorious ally’ the Soviet Union, which swayed public opinion against them. It’s absurd,” Zamoyski reflects, “that there should be a statue in Warsaw of De Gaulle, who was the first leader to send a delegation to the Soviet puppet regime in Lublin, and not of Churchill, who had done his best for Poland and remained sympathetic to the Poles in exile. Yet throughout the period of communist rule the Polish official line was to portray Churchill rather than Roosevelt as the one who betrayed Poland in 1945, and like all bad history, this view, persists.”
It was when Adam was a student at Oxford University that he visited Poland for the first time, during the summer vacation in 1967. “I had always felt Polish. At school and university I was known as ‘The Pole’, and I felt I had to see the country for myself,” he says. “The journey by train was terrifying, travelling through Berlin and the Iron Curtain. The East German border guards looked like Nazis out of a bad war film with their automatic weapons, huge peaked caps and snarling Alsatian dogs.”
‘What struck me about Poles at that time was that they really knew how to have fun, a hallmark of societies living within restricted means’
Behind the Wall
The contrast could not have been greater when he reached Poland. “It was extraordinary. I met lots of cousins, friends of my parents and their children – it was as though I had found a new family, living in almost wartime conditions. Their lives were bedevilled by restrictions and hardship of every sort, yet they thought nothing of them and were extremely welcoming.” After this first visit, Zamoyski went every year for about a month each time. “There was no difficulty in getting a visa; the only bore was that you had to pay five dollars for every day of your stay and receive in return worthless ‘coupons’ to spend in Poland. What struck me about Poles at that time was that they really knew how to have fun, a hallmark of societies living within restricted means, and I fell in with a merry artistic and literary crowd. At the same time, as a historian I was fascinated by the conditions.” Zamoyski travelled widely using cheap local buses or hitch-hiking. “I was thus able to see Soviet totalitarianism in action, and I couldn’t believe how well George Orwell had nailed the details in 1984. People talked to me freely, as they could see by my clothes that I was from ‘abroad’. Later I would come by car, which gave me the freedom to travel wherever I wanted, and to bring stacks of prized luxuries such as coffee and razor-blades. Whenever I came across police or officialdom, they were human and easy – of course my experience was not typical as I didn’t live there. They always recognised my name and would ask: “Are you from that family?” On one New Year’s morning late in the 70s I caused an unfortunate accident with a militia van. The colonel arrived, very grumpy, but when he heard I was a Zamoyski, he was all smiles and we had a chat about Poland’s history. His parting words to me were: “Well, Pan Adam, be sure to marry a nice Polish girl.” In the 80s, visits to Poland were more tricky. “Inevitably I got involved with people in active opposition, and I used to carry documents between Poland and England, which made border crossings tense.”
What maddened him was the attitude of his peers back in England. “Throughout the 60s and 70s, it was conventional in intellectual, academic and artistic circles to be left-wing, vote Labour and entertain a rosy image of the Soviet Union, which inevitably entailed a negative view of Poland as a caricature of Catholic bigotry. There was no sympathy for the fate of Poland, which was commonly labelled a “fascist” state. I found such attitudes immensely irritating, and when I challenged them I would be referred to as ‘The Polish White Guard’. In society at large, though, Poles were popular – there was a lot of residual affection from shared wartime experiences and the crucial role played by Polish airmen in 1940. But there was almost a Pavlovian reluctance by editors to commission any material on Poland and there could be no question of me placing a history of the country with a publisher; the best I could do was to publish biographies of Chopin and Paderewski. This did not begin to change until the election of John Paul II and the advent of Solidarity.”
The Zamoyski family historic seat is Zamość, a model Renaissance city in south-eastern Poland founded by Adam’s ancestor Jan Zamoyski, the pre-eminent statesman of the late 1500s, the period when Poland’s fortunes were high and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was established. Jan Zamoyski was a proponent of constitutional monarchy with republican institutions. “Historically, the Poles have been naturally suspicious of central power,” says Zamoyski. “There has always been a centrifugal tendency and strong regional attachments – which you can still feel today. Poles have an instinct for subversion against any power that seeks to encroach. This hindered the creation of strong institutions, and as a result the Polish parliamentary system, which was a very fine achievement, never solidified and succumbed to manipulation on technicalities. This was exacerbated by the interference of foreign powers which found a weak Poland convenient. The Partitions and captivity developed the Poles’ contrarian tendency, since any act of subversion could be dressed up as an expression of patriotism. This has made it incredibly difficult to build respect for state institutions and the rule of law – and one can see the consequences today.”
This year Poland celebrates the 100th anniversary of the recovery of independence in 1918, and Zamoyski sees echoes in today’s politics of the struggle between opposing visions for Poland that played out then. “In 1918 there were, roughly speaking, two visions: one was a kind of updated version of the old Polish Commonwealth – multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and inclusive; the other of a tighter, more ethnically-based, stronger state. Both had their merits. The first made sense, as Poland contained huge minorities (German, Jewish, Lithuanian, Belarusian and Ukrainian), but proponents of the second argued that Poland had gone down the plughole precisely because of too much freedom and multiculturalism, and what was needed was firm central government and uniformity. In essence, the same argument is going on today. One strand of political opinion is relaxed about shared sovereignty within the EU and has an open outlook towards the outside world. The other, more defensive, is for a more authoritarian, ethnically and ideologically homogeneous state.”
‘The western liberal capitalist model of democracy is in crisis everywhere, with concurrent voter deficit and a revolt by those who feel they have been excluded or just left behind’
“The western liberal capitalist model of democracy is in crisis everywhere, with concurrent voter deficit and a revolt by those who feel they have been excluded or just left behind” Zamoyski continues. “Disenchantment with the financial, social and political system has spawned contradictory desires – for a retreat into a supposedly happier past on the one hand, and for a grand new vision on the other. This is to some extent the consequence of the generally low calibre of the political class everywhere, both in terms of education and personal qualities, itself largely the product of lazy, silly journalism and media – particularly social media – which have made the job intolerable for most halfway normal people. Poland is no exception; the same gut reactions which produced votes for Trump, Brexit, Le Pen or Berlusconi brought PiS to power. What makes the case of Poland different, and more alarming, is the context. In an established body politic such Britain or America, a new government may have radically different programmes from its predecessor, but doesn’t on the whole attempt to alter the existing regime. But when a nation recovers independence, as happened here in 1918 and, to an extent, in 1989, it creates new state structures, and each new government believes it has a right to re-shape them. One of the reasons those now in power are making such a thing about commemorating 1918 is a desire to reduce the importance of 1989 – by claiming that it changed nothing – and to suggest that it is only now, a hundred years after 1918, that they are heroically winning real independence for Poland. The present government has sought not so much to implement a different programme, economic or social, but to establish a new order and bring in a new constitution, essentially to refashion the state. So, there’s a fundamental difference between other so-called populist movements around the world and what is happening in Poland, despite the common link of the mass of the disaffected who voted for the present government.”
Dark modern history
When trying to understand Poland there are a couple of distinctive elements people need to keep in mind, claims Zamoyski. “Over the last two centuries, the people inhabiting these lands were subjected to, at best, political passivity and a sense of subjugation, and at worst to atrocities – atrocities which most parts of the world have never experienced. The worst periods, the Nazi and Soviet occupations, methodically dismantled every facet of the state, every single institution, right down to schools, theatres and libraries, and even non-governmental organisations such as charities. They decapitated society by eliminating its elites and abolished the very notion of citizenship. During the six years of war – and effectively right up to 1989 – the concept of human rights, let alone property rights, was entirely academic. These were dark days, and people retreated into themselves and found solace above all in faith – mainly in Catholicism. Inevitably, a spiritual and religious element crept into the longings for independence and the expectations of how the new post-1989 Poland should look. Just as inevitably, many were disappointed. The more so as, ironically, these subliminal feelings were subtly reinforced by 45 years of communist rule; communism was also about the great new dawn. These ironies are detectable in the fact that people are currently talking about the far-right government in Poland when there is absolutely nothing right wing about it. The term has anyway become meaningless: since the 1950s people have got into the habit of labelling nice things as left wing and anything nasty as right wing, having completely forgotten about what these terms were supposed to designate. Ironically, patriotism was one of the principal catch-words of the faction which sat on the left side in the French Convention (of 1792, when the monarchy was abolished), which is when and where the term originated. In Poland there are no proper political parties defined by a set of principles: there is no truly capitalist party and there is no truly socialist party. Any attempt to create an avowedly socialist movement is bedevilled by association with the discredited Soviet communist regime. Any attempt to establish a capitalist system is vitiated by a bizarre conflation of a kind of pseudo-Christian virtue of poverty with the Marxist mantras of the communist era: many people in this country – and pretty much the entire political class – are uncomfortable with personal wealth and indeed even with the notion of property.
There are historical precedents for this; during the Polish Commonwealth (1569 – 1795) the poorer sections of the political nation resented the vast landholdings of the magnates and often called for a levelling, while fiercely defending their own, in an attitude described as: “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is ours.” It derived in part from envy, but also from a sense of joint ownership of the country which persists today in the desire to arrange things according to one’s own ‘grand vision’. In that sense, the Commonwealth was inspired by a fundamentally ‘socialist’ ideal, and it is not difficult to detect traces of it in Polish politics today. In sum, to represent what is going on as a right-wing crypto-fascist takeover, as the world media are so fond of doing, is misleading to say the least; there is plenty of xenophobia about and populist slogans are enthusiastically bandied, but it’s certainly not right-wing and lacks the ideology, let alone the discipline, of fascism.
So how would he describe the current Polish government? “That is not an easy thing to do, since, as I said earlier, Polish politics does not conform to ideological models. All the parties formed since 1989 have sprung from groups of like-minded people without a specific programme, more a vague notion of how they would like things to be and, like all political parties everywhere, strongly propped up by political convenience. To classify the present government by its policies is impossible, since it lacks any political coherence. It is not defined by the Prime Minister or by the cabinet, which does not operate as a team with collective responsibility; individual ministers have a tendency to act independently. Then there is the eternal ‘kolesiostwo‘ – promotion of buddies regardless of political acumen or competence. The bane of all new systems and poorer countries is that, as there isn’t a well-to-do pool of people who can afford to dedicate themselves to public service, the political class has to provide for itself, which of course involves nepotism and corruption. The driving urge seems to seize as much power as possible and to hang on to it. The man who really runs the government, the party chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, seems more interested in that than anything else. If there is a vision behind the present government, it is a confused amalgam of Soviet nostalgia, blinkered devotional Catholicism, and a boy-scout patriotism ignorant of Poland’s history, all wrapped up in a tangle of insecurities and complexes which recoil from the unknown and particularly from the bogey of the alien.”
Shift in society
Isn’t being anti-immigration a right-wing trait? “It is often seen as a right-wing trait, but I don’t see why. America, while being the centre of capitalism, has traditionally encouraged immigration. On this issue, I think the Polish government has been guided not by ideology but by pragmatism: large sections of Polish society feel defensive, as indeed do other societies around the world, and the figure of the immigrant and of the outside world as a whole represents a lowering threat. Under communism people lived in a bubble of immutable certainties and full – if largely unproductive and unremunerative – employment. Everyone knew where they stood. When times were hard, they were hard for all – nobody could see the nomenklatura gorging. A lot of societies have recoiled when faced with choice and openness, and in Poland these challenge the conflation of communism and Catholicism I mentioned before. The Soviet state was fantastically petty-bourgeois and conservative, chastising ‘hooliganism’ and plastering the whole country with slogans on the theme of ‘socialist morality’. Suddenly, that morality was declared to be humbug and people were told to accept abortion, gay sex and every other kind of ‘abomination’ they had been told for centuries to abhor, all of which are seen as radiating from a corrupt abroad. Remember what attitudes to gays or black men were like in England in the 60s and 70s.”
In his book Poland. A History Zamoyski depicts the period following 1989 as chaotic. Reading this, one is amazed that the whole country didn’t collapse. Does he think it’s a miracle that Poland is where it is now? “The fall of communist rule in 1989 was only gradual, and there followed a period of coexistence which did indeed appear chaotic: at one point there were over 100 political parties taking part in elections. Yet, gradually, the situation did stabilise, and eventually Poland joined NATO and then the EU, which anchored it. Despite the political turmoil, the usual institutions of the modern state had been successfully put in place, and the organs of local government functioned remarkably well. Civil society, which foreign occupation and communist rule sought to destroy, reasserted itself. The Catholic Church, the only institution that had survived throughout the communist period and helped to bring it down, remained central to the nation’s life. Whatever one may think of the behaviour of its hierarchy, this did help prevent a slide into moral anarchy. And while someone brought up in other societies might find the open displays of patriotic feeling and religious observance a little jarring, particularly when – as at present – it is being shamelessly manipulated for political ends, the underlying sentiments are constructive; if people are not prepared to do things for their country it isn’t going to get very far, and a shared set of moral compass-points are socially vital in times of crisis. Things are not always what they seem, and there is much more to Poland than meets the eye; one shouldn’t always judge a country by its government or aspects of its folklore. The reality is always much more complex and difficult to convey – try to explain the UK to an American who’s never been there, let alone to a Chinese.
Adam Zamoyski is a British historian of Polish origin. He is a best-selling author of acclaimed works on key figures and aspects of European history which have been translated into Russian, Chinese and Japanese as well as most European languages. Zamoyski has also contributed to all the major British papers and periodicals, as well as lecturing widely in England, Europe and the United States.
Adam Zamoyski’s books:
– Chopin. A Biography
– The Polish Way
– Last King of Poland
– The Forgotten Few. The Polish Air Force in World War 2
– Holy Madness. Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries 1776-1871
– 1812: Napoleon’s fatal march on Moscow
– Rites of Peace. The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna
– Poland. A History
– Chopin, Prince of the Romantics
– Warsaw 1920
– Phantom Terror. The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Freedom 1789-1848