Sunday, 4 January 2015

Jakie piękne samobójstwo - book review

Barely stepped into the new year and right away I cannot be ranked among majority of Poles who will have claimed not to have read a single book in 2015. Hope the reading statistics in Poland improve this year. A shame 60% of Poles declare not to read books at all…

Before setting up the blog I read two other books by Rafał Aleksander Ziemkiewicz (hereinafter: RAZ); Polactwo and Michnikowszczyzna, zapis choroby. A few years passed by since my reading, therefore my memory of those books is a bit blurred, yet I remember well I was not impressed by RAZ’s style and his bias was at times sickening. On Thursday I grabbed his latest book, literally “What a beautiful suicide”, in which he (again) examines and slates some shortcomings of Polishness that preclude our nation from rising into well-deserved potency.

The book draws on the hackneyed concept of Poland being a peculiar country (Polska to ciekawy kraj). Not a mould-breaking discovery to discern Poles are distinct from almost all other nations in terms of building their national identity on martyrdom, glorifying defeats and extolling heroic bloodshed, regardless of its outcomes. RAZ cites January Uprising and defence against German invasion in September 1939 as best examples of thoughtless, spontaneous spurts resulting in full-blown military debacle. The former, instigated by wet-behind-ears lads in their twenties ended up with nothing but repercussions against Poles imposed in the wake of the rising and not lifted for half of century. The latter found Poles insufficiently prepared for stand up against Germany and with totally otherworldly hopes that Poland would be capable of fending off the German assault for months and that France and Great Britain would rush to aid Poland. RAZ also dedicates a few paragraphs to the Warsaw Uprising which (kind of startlingly) he sees as another example of irresponsibility of army commanders and their absolute lack of foresight, however in this case his criticism seems muted. Nevertheless, as RAZ underlines, all those national tragedies are glorified (note ‘glorify’ is dissimilar to ‘commemorate’ which appears some appropriate bearing in mind aftermaths of those events) and their fatalities fighting for Poland’s independence are hailed as heroes… Quite unexpectedly, by dissenting the official policy line, RAZ undercuts historical policies pursued mostly by right-wing governments in Poland since 1989 and… broadly falls into line with what my parents were taught at schools in 1960s and speaks one voice with today’s down-to-earth leftist journalists.

RAZ contrasts Poland to other nations in two dimensions. Firstly, other nations much more adroitly run their historical policies. They intently erase shameful events (author cites the example of Belgian genocide in Congo), while highlight episodes from their history they should be proud of. After decades, in terms of perception by other nations, they are better off. Poland in turn not only glorifies failures, but also overly apologises (vide example of murder of Jews in Jedwabne) and fails to claim historical truth when it is due (see how the issue of genocide committed by Ukrainian Nationalists on Poles in 1943-1994 was swept under the carpet just not to shatter Poland’s relations with Ukraine). Secondly, other countries are more practical in their policies. France barely resisted the Nazi invasion during WW2 and the country and its elites survived the war almost intact. Czech Republic (Czech part of Czechoslovakia) was incorporated into the Nazi Germany without a single battle, a fine example of line-toeing submission. Then the Czechs once tried to rise up against communist regime in 1968, but once their mutiny was brutally put down, they obediently conformed to the role of being a part of Soviet bloc until 1989. In the meantime economically they fared better than Poland and generally have prospered better after 1989. As RAZ argues, when faced with threat of war, other countries performed a cost-benefit analysis to work out whether it would pay off to fight in the long term. Poles, in turn, would blindly fight for the very idea of fighting, without clear vision what then and without taking heed of all aspects of costs. Thus both defence war in September 1939 and the Warsaw Uprising resulting not only in material destruction (what is level with the ground might be rebuilt), but also in thousands of lives lost, in particular with Poland’s elite being effectively liquidated (an irreparable loss). Oddly enough the same mechanism was visible in 2014 when Poland spoke the loudest on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, while other European countries were rather restraint and preferred not to stick their necks out, with a view to foster their own interest, i.e. not to spoil economic relations with Russia.

RAZ then asks whether it was worth to make all those sacrifices. He challenges the idea of fighting losing battles just to die in honour and go down in history as a valiant warrior. Was saving several human lives not a preferable alternative? Today this question is hard to answer, when course of history cannot be reversed. It easy to claim both that preventing the outbreak of Warsaw Uprising would save much part of the city and save lives of almost two hundred thousand civilians, as well as easy to claim the resistance put up by inhabitants of the capital stemmed the advance of Soviet army into the Western Europe. Maybe if so many representatives of the Polish elite had not died in WW2, many of them would have helped rebuild post-war Poland? But had it not been for our fortitude and rough ride given by Polish militants, Poland would have become the seventeenth Soviet republic, rather than a satellite, yet separate country?

This is the cynical question, whether it makes sense to fight under any circumstances and RAZ tentatively attempts to give the answer: it makes sense to fight when the fight makes sense…

RAZ’s books tend to arouse controversy. This one is no different. RAZ gripes about bias in Polish historical policy towards martyrdom, cult of sacrifices and heroism at all cost, the bias making it untrue, but a few pages later he calls on such shape of historical policy that also departs from the truth, yet in a different direction. Thus, he does not advocate history as a source of true and fair knowledge of a nation’s past, but urges on using it to shape a nation’s mindset and the only fault he notices is the choice of historical events, but not the very method of pursuing the historical policy.

RAZ several times points out it was not unreasonable to enter into an alliance with the Nazi Germany before WW2, before Poland’s relationships with the Western neighbours were tattered as in the summer of 1939. In his line of reasoning he stresses communism was superior in terms of cruelty to fascism (at least measured by number of fatalities of each totalitarianism, Stalin beats Hitler) and if Poles joined Hitler, Polish army could fight with the Germany military forces against the Soviets… A polite Englishman would call it “a quaint theory”. The other story is because the Soviet Union was a vital part of alliance against fascism, the United States and Great Britain instrumentally had to turn a blind eye on the atrocity of communism and had to make concessions in order to keep Stalin on their side. One of such concessions was pushing Poland into the Soviet sphere of influences.

I should have written it earlier, but three-fourth of the book does not deal with issues I discussed above. The book essentially is a bitterly critical assessment of Poland’s internal and foreign policies from 1918 until 1944. I must admit cursory (or just general) knowledge of Poland’s history in that period (even if better than average for the Polish society) is not enough to judiciously evaluate the book in terms of its content. I have taken the trouble to check some of the facts the book mentions and indeed, uncle Google knows about all of them, so credit to RAZ for citing reliable sources. The book, however has a drawback of failing to clearly distinguish facts from opinions. Because this is not an academic dissertation, but rather a loose essay, such form is acceptable, albeit I have not been fond of it.

The reading has left me with mixed feelings. I will not conceal I generally dislike RAZ, not for his (right-wing) views, far from mine, but for the bias he exhibits and lout-like writing style he tends to boast about (because it distinguishes him from self-styled elites). Despite my aversion towards RAZ, I appreciate the chap has guts to write or speak out what he thinks (sometimes no matter how stupid or controversial it is), is uncompromising and does not know such word as self-censorship. Even though his writing does not take my fancy, I hold dear its straightforward character.

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