Poland: A history, By Adam Zamoyski

This short history of a complicated country is shrewd, but there are some strange omissions
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The Independent Culture

In Krakow, in 1311, the Polish army, provoked by the rapidly growing number of German-speakers and foreigners (blame it on the Teutonic Knights), rounded up a number of inhabitants and asked them to recite a Polish tongue-twister. Those who stuttered, stumbled or spat were beheaded. The city's latest invaders – UK stag-parties – should take note.

Adam Zamoyski's history of Poland, a country that once disappeared off the map altogether for 123 years, offers its fair share of anecdotes, the naughty nitty-gritty that lurks between the details and the dates, especially during medieval times. Yet, overall, it's a sombre calendar of a beleaguered country many times close to achieving self-rule until mismanagement or, more often, war thwarted its plans. (Blame it on the neighbours.) This is something that Zamoyski is acutely aware of. His first attempt at a history, The Polish Way (1987), more or less presented the country's past as one dominated by failure.

In the preface of his new book, however, Zamoyski argues that, due to Poland's rapid advances since 1989, its history must now be viewed in a more positive light. After all, even Norman Davies's highly readable God's Playground assumes Poland as the martyred nation of Europe, a view held by many Poles since the Romantic poet, Mickiewicz, portrayed the country as the Christ of the continent.

Enough, says Zamoyski, whose own style – a straight, linear surge through history (minus footnotes and references) – is quite different to Davies's, which regularly overtakes itself, doubles back, cross-references and digresses, while spinning the web of history. In his baffling preface, Zamoyski continues that he "could not just brush up and update The Polish Way" before adding "I did not see any point in beginning a new history of Poland." Which, of course, makes you wonder what he has actually changed here, except the title and the addition of an excellent section – the best in the book – about the country and its politics since '89.

But there are other troubling statements in this curious preface. Such as: in an age of "globalisation and the huge shifts in economic and military power... the historian has less to explain and fewer prejudices to break down." This is surely not the case. And how about: "The majority of the population of the European Union now thinks in terms of societies rather than nations"? Well, it's a nice idea, but... Then, in justifying the absence of footnotes, which in itself assumes the reader has prior knowledge of Poland, Zamoyski writes that this work is "an essay not a textbook. It is based on well-known and undisputed facts, and is not in any sense meant to break new ground." Oh, so he's not offering a new perspective after all?

Besides, Poland's history is rife with disputed facts, as recently highlighted by the exhumation of a wartime leader, the highly-respected General Sikorski. Having contributed 220,000 Polish soldiers to the Allied forces (including pilots crucial to the victory in the Battle of Britain), Sikorski believed Poland was fighting for its own independence, too. He also called for Russia to explain the massacre of 4,000 Polish officers at Katyn. But Churchill and Stalin had other plans (the treaty of Yalta) and Sikorski stood in the way. He died in a mysterious plane crash off the coast of Malta in July 1943. Zamoyski refers to this event as a "disaster" and swiftly moves on. The exhumation, meanwhile, proffered no new evidence.

Nearly 70 years on from the start of the Second World War, it's a good time to take note of the enormous Polish contribution to the Allied effort, a fact crudely overlooked by a UK media keen to lampoon Polish plumbers, babysitters, and lost lorry-drivers. Zamoyski is comprehensive here. Six million Poles were killed in the war, including one in three intellectuals, and 38 per cent of the country's national assets were destroyed (compared to 0.8 per cent of the UK's). Not only that, returning heroes were often incarcerated or shot by the Communists, whose austere 44-year rule was just beginning. Zamoyski quite rightly derides the "Western love affair with communism". He's good throughout the book on the crucial role of the Catholic church, not least as a safe haven and meeting place during Soviet times. His account of anti-semitism in Poland – another frequently argued topic – is also shrewd.

But there are telling omissions here. Zamoyski states that the role of women has become increasingly important in Poland, but he does not expand on this beyond a short paragraph. (A truly revelatory history of Poland would be written by a woman.) He's also a little skimpy on the cultural side, not even mentioning the 1920s Mloda Polska movement, one of the leading avant-garde groups of writers and painters in Europe. Similarly, we get Conrad, Chopin and Copernicus, but there's no mention of the use of Zbigniew Herbert's poems by the Solidarnosc movement, or any space for the film-maker Krzysztof Kieslowski, or Andrzej Wajda's film Katyn, which looks at the massacre mentioned above, or for 20th-century composers, Szymanowski, Penderecki, Gorecki.

As his self-contradictory preface points out, Zamoyski was torn between a straight-forward history and something a little more daring. Alas, he should have been braver.