The history I was taught at my London prep school was all kings and battles. It was not until I was in my mid-teens that less warlike areas such as Roman civil engineering, the development of castles and the architecture of cathedrals were ventured into, and not until a couple of years later that elements of constitutional history and the then fashionable study of the Industrial Revolution and the Chartists were explored.
The 1970s did much to change the way history was viewed, written and taught, but while old assumptions were undermined and the range expanded to include everything from witchcraft to gender studies, old perceptions died hard. Study was still compartmentalised in political units, occasionally regions, and only the more important ones were deemed worthy of attention. Importance was measured on a traditional scale: qualifying states were those that won wars, built up empires, expanded their economies, developed industry and put in place robust institutions--those deemed successful in 20th-century terms. The Holy Roman Empire was held up to ridicule, the German empire that took its place was treated with respect. The yardstick was tangible achievement and in this view of the past as a march of progress there was no room for losers.
Poland was a loser. Although it was a major power for a couple of centuries, it featured in histories of Europe only as an incomprehensible aberration, an early example of a failed state which had in 1918 been given a second chance, only to succumb once more. The general perception was that while it had certainly been cursed with the worst geographical position and the most aggressive neighbours of any country in Europe, and had finally fallen prey to the combined assault of Hitler and Stalin, its fate was in some measure of its own making.
Setting out to write a history of Poland in the mid-1980s was a daunting and often confusing enterprise. The very idea that it might have a past worth investigating was foreign to most British people I knew and many found it hard to think of it as a country at all.
This was not entirely surprising. In those days, the Iron Curtain cut across Europe, a tangible barrier both difficult and terrifying to cross. The might of Soviet Russia was everywhere to see, with troops and tanks clearly in evidence alongside the barbed wire entanglements and the watchtowers. In Poland, the militia and secret police were ubiquitous and, while the intense terror of Stalin's day had passed, people still lived in fear.
At the same time, the omnipresence in people's lives of the scars and consequences of the past, and the fact that there were so few amenities to distract them, meant that people in Poland, particularly historians, reflected more deeply on history and its significance than their counterparts in the West. These reflections were not happy ones. Viewed from the perspective of sordid flats in the run-down blocks of grey and dirty Soviet-style cities, Poland's past looked like one long chain of mistakes on the part of its people, compounded by unwarranted disasters visited on them by fate. While they fished in that past for things they could be proud of, they could not avoid the grim reality that Poland had indeed failed and that ultimately this failure was down to the Poles themselves. Excessive breast-beating alternated with over-emphasis of past achievements, often accompanied by gratuitous demonisation of Poland's neighbours and sometimes aggressive criticism of various countries such as Britain, France and America whose historical trajectory seemed maddeningly successful. There was much paranoia involved and complexes of one sort or another nourished the discussion.
Contact with Polish historians and intellectuals inevitably opened my eyes to a number of shortcomings in British historiography and, above all, to its parochialism. It also made me look at the past in different ways--because, while Poland's history was ostensibly one of failure, what I found within the country's prison-like frontiers was in many ways a truer and certainly more vibrant expression of the past thousand years of European civilisation than any to be found in the West. …