A Concise History of Poland

Article excerpt

Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki. A Concise History of Poland. Cambridge Concise Histories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xviii, 317 pp. Illustrations. Maps. Bibliography. Index. $50.00, cloth. $19.00, paper.

A member of NATO and soon, most likely, a part of the European Union, Poland is fast becoming a member of the international community of successful nations. Yet, it is difficult to learn about Polish history and culture if you do not read Polish. General English-language histories of Poland can be counted on the fingers of one hand. It is very good, therefore, that a prestigious publisher has issued a Polish volume in a series on Concise Histories of particular states. The book under review was written by two outstanding Polish historians from England. Jerzy Lukowski, a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, specializes in the eighteenth century and has published two excellent monographs: Liberty's Folly: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Eighteenth Century and The Partitions of Poland 1772, 1793, 1795. Hubert Zawadzki, a history instructor at Abington School, concentrates his studies on the nineteenth century and has also authored an excellent book: A Man of Honour: Adam Czartoryski as a Statesman of Russia and Poland 1795-1831. This outstanding team of scholars was destined to succeed and, indeed, A Concise History of Poland is a brilliant, well-written, sophisticated, and fascinating book. One reads it like a good novel and is surprised that a phenomenon as complicated as Poland's past can be described and explained in such a simple yet, simultaneously, accurate way.

The book consists of two parts: "Poland, to 1795" (Chapters 1-3) and "Poland, after 1795" (Chapters 4-7). Lukowski and Zawadzki should be admired for their discipline and precision in organizing their volume. The concise chapters include: "Piast Poland, ?-1385," "Jagiellonian Poland, 1386-1572," "The Commonwealth of the Two Nations, 1572-1795," "Challenging the Partitions, 1795-1864," "An Era of Transformation, 1864-1914," "Independence regained and lost, 1914-1945," and "Communism and Beyond, 1945-?." The book also includes a note on Polish pronunciation, 49 illustrations, 12 good maps, genealogical charts of Polish rulers, a list of heads of state, presidents, Communist Party leaders (1918-2000), a bibliography, and an index.

The authors abandon traditional stereotypes and present their interpretation of Poland's history in a balanced but, simultaneously, fresh and non-conservative way. They are not afraid to call the best King of Poland, Casimir the Great, "a strong, at times even, brutal ruler" (p. 29), the Polish national hero, Prince Jozef Poniatowski, a "playboy" (p. 115), and one of the objects of Polish national devotion, the outbreak of the 1830/31 November Uprising, "a reckless and inapt affair" (p. 132). In the Preface, Lukowski and Zawadzki emphasize that their book is primarily a political history. In fact, however, it includes quite sizable fragments devoted to cultural, social, and economic issues. It depicts many colourful individuals who participated in Polish historical vicissitudes and shows several fascinating paradoxes of Poland's past. The best chapter, in my opinion, devoted to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, shows the strength of this state and, at the same time, its volatile political system and quarrelsome, greedy, and arrogant magnates, destabilizing the political order. …