Book Review: 'Poland,' by James Michener (1983, Random House)
Poland at the Close of the Twentieth Century
When James Michener's Poland was first published in 1983, the Soviet Union still controlled that country, as well as a large portion of continental Asia and eastern Europe. The nation was officially known as "The People's Republic of Poland," and had suffered under the occupation of the Red Army, ever since the Soviets had expelled the Germans from Polish borders at the conclusion of World War II.1 While American troops of the 28th and 29th Infantry Divisions were marching down the Champs-Élysées in August of 1944,2 bathed in the adulation of liberated Parisians, the citizens of Warsaw were being subjected to the redoubled efforts of Nazis intent on exterminating as many Poles and Jews as possible, before they must inevitably succumb to the Slavic horde that was steadily bearing down on them from the east.
On January 17th, 1945, the Red Army successfully ousted the bulk of the Third Reich's forces in the Polish capitol;3 And yet, the initial relief of the city's inhabitants must surely have been tempered by a sobering realization that these Russian "liberators" did not intend to leave. All knew that one oppressor had been exchanged for another, and the citizens of Poland could only hope that their new masters would prove less demonic than those who had come before. Prophetically, Joseph Stalin was able to quickly implement his territorial designs to make Poland a Soviet puppet state, through the manipulation of questionable elections that were held in the early years after the war, which resulted in a steady (and predictable) rise to power for Communist party officials.4 Thus, Poland became a satellite state of the Soviet Union, and so it would remain for the second half of the twentieth century, with the indignation of a long subjugated people brewing dangerously behind the iron curtain- year after year- awaiting a spark that would ignite national outrage like a signal flare for all the world to see.
The opening pages of Poland take place at just this moment of- immediate, at the time of 1st publication- history, during the well documented "Polish Crisis of 1980-1981" (most commonly associated with the rise of Solidarność, or the "Polish Trade Union").5 The introductory section of the book is written from the unique perspective of a people who have had quite enough of foreign rule, by not one but two conquerors, over the course of a generation. To the outside observer, it might seem that the situation could not possibly get any worse than years of Soviet oppression, following on the heels of an attempted Nazi genocide. However, as Michener explains, these are just the latest developments in a centuries old conflict between two opposing cultures- German and Russian- who have historically used Poland as a focal point for their struggle to establish dominance, like two dogs fighting over the same steak.
Michener hints to the reader early on that one of the most remarkable aspect of Poland, is that the nation still exists, when so many have set themselves upon the task of destroying her. He then proceeds to lay out, in vivid detail, the remarkable history of the Polish people- their strength of spirit, their rich cultural identity- by spinning an interconnected tale about three (fictional) families, each an archetype for a distinct aspect of Polish culture, as they experience the (factual) real world events that have shaped Poland over eight centuries: The Counts Lubonski of the high nobility, are masters of their domain and represent a class of people- the magnates- who comprised the real power in the country for much of it's history; The Bukowskis of the lesser-gentry, who serve as retainers to their more affluent counterparts, and are likened by Michener to the Spanish caballeros of old, who possessed nothing " ... [B]ut a lance and a proud name; " And finally, the peasant Buks- most limited of rights and under appreciated of the three- the peasant class nevertheless personifies the determination, and the quiet strength inherent in Polish society, most of all.
The Polish History of Violence
Owing to Poland's strategically desirous location, the country- which spans approximately two hundred-fifty miles from top to bottom, and two hundred miles across- has long been the target of foreign invaders. Moreover, the shocking intent of various would be conquerors that the moderately sized nation has had to endure over the years, has not merely been to absorb Polish lands for their own devices, but rather to exterminate the people who live on those lands- to erase the Polish, their customs, and their traditions from the face of the earth. The Nazis were only the latest in a list of offenders who have sought to achieve this brutal end:
In the thirteenth century, A.D, Poland was plagued by assault from the ethnically diverse confederation of the Mongolian empire- that roving terror of extraordinary horsemen known to Europeans of the time as the Tatars- on three separate occasions. The first, and largest, of these invasions was launched in the year 1240. During this trying time, Polish forces reeled from an onslaught that resulted in the sacking of major cities like Lublin, Wroclaw, and Kraków. Finally, at the Battle of Legnica, the Polish army- led by Henry II the Pious- while soundly defeated, were yet able to halt the Tatar advance.6
At the dawn of the fifteenth century, Poland found herself embroiled in (what was destined to become) a familiar conflict, as Germany based knights of the Teutonic Order declared war on their neighboring country. On July 15th, 1410, Polish and allied Lithuanian forces met the invaders together, on a field between the villages of Grunwald and Stębark, and the resultant battle- one of the largest ever fought in medieval Europe- would signal an end to much of the Knights' influence in that part of the world, as most of their senior leadership was killed or captured by the victorious Polish-Lithuanian army.7 However, history would prove that the Germans had been beaten, not broken; And, though they retreated to lick their wounds after the Battle of Grunwald, they did so with every intention to return for Poland, and settle accounts, at a later date.
The events of the mid-seventeenth century almost spelled an end to the nation of Poland, as well as her people, when the army of King Charles X Gustav of Sweden razed vast swaths of the country to the ground from 1655-1660, killing men women and children indiscriminately, while simultaneously looting anything of value. This dark period of Polish history would come to be known as "The Swedish Deluge," and the final death toll would amount to no less than forty percent of the native Polish (and allied Lithuanian) population. Additionally, the Polish treasures that were carried off by the Swedes- including art, jewels, and religious icons- during their rape of the land have never been returned, and remain to this day in the possession of private Swedish citizens, or on display in Swedish museums.8
Poland During WWII: "The Terror"
In 1939, Poland was once again confronted by the reality of Germanic aggression, this time in the form of "The National Socialist German Workers' Party," or the Nazis. After staging an implausible act of belligerence, whereby Nazi operatives disguised themselves as Polish malcontents and "attacked" a German radio station,9 Poland's perpetual nemesis had all of the justification it needed to launch- yet another- full scale invasion of the country. On September 1st, the German war machine streamed over Polish borders from the north, the south, the east, and- for good measure- the west, with Teutonic fervor reminiscent of an earlier century, and proceeded to execute Nazi chancellor Adolf Hitler's "Case White" scenario for the occupation of Poland.10
By employing a revolutionary new form of warfare known as Blitzkrieg, or "Lightning War,"11 while simultaneously leveraging vast numerical and technological superiority, the German forces were quickly able to gain the advantage. Additionally, Russian covetousness for Polish lands was brought to bear, as the Soviet Union launched it's own invasion on September 17th.12 By early October, with the Polish military forces reduced to cinders, the Nazis and the Soviets had effectively conquered the country. In a show of magnanimity, the two aggressors agreed to "share" their new possession- for the time being- and proceeded to divvy up the country between themselves.13
In the section of Poland entitled "The Terror," readers are thrust into the hell experienced by people living in an occupied country during the second world war. The nightmarish details of the Third Reich's six year reign over Poland are well known- from an academic point of view- but Michener gets personal, writing from the perspective of those who lived through the atrocities: The secret police abductions; The displacement of Polish families from their homes to make room for German families (who simply replaced the pictures on the mantle and took over); The wholesale slaughter in the concentration camps of Auschwitz or Majdanek; And, the cruel implementation of torture for torture's sake.14
Throughout it all, the reader is granted a clear understanding of what happens when those who believe in the theory of Social Darwinism15 are allowed to mobilize, and seize absolute power over others for whom they bear ill-will. The Nazis did not (indeed, were conditioned to not) see Poles or Jews as human beings, but as an infestation of vermin, an undesirable native fauna that needed to be purged before the land that they had acquired- by virtue of physical strength, the only meaningful consideration when assessing self worth- could be settled. If the Poles and the Jews were weak, then they did not deserve their Lebensraum, or "Liferoom."16 Therefore, was it not the duty of the strong to take it from them? To do otherwise would violate the natural order, and weaken the species as a whole.
The Indomitable Polish Spirit
Despite Michener's faithful recreation of these (and other) tragedies that have been visited upon the Poles throughout history, Poland does not read like a lament. Even in the most heart wrenching sections of the narrative, the reader is encouraged by the tangible, bone-deep, and unwavering determination to go on that is ever present within the remarkable Polish people. At times throughout their tumultuous history, it is true that the world has been pitch black, and yet the radiant string of hope- that seems to be a part of the Poles' genetic makeup- serves as a lifeline that invariably leads them through the darkness, and back into the light.
The Polish National Anthem: 'Poland is Not Yet Lost,' circa 1797. (English subtitles included)
For instance, merely twenty-three years after "The Swedish Deluge," a devastated Poland would rally under the leadership of her greatest king, Jan III Sobieski, and come to the rescue of western civilization. In 1683, the Holy Roman Empire's centuries old struggle with the Ottoman Empire had reached a critical point, as the Ottoman's laid siege to the Austrian capital of Vienna. A loss of the city would have had dire ramifications for Europe, serving to fuel even more expansionism from the Islamic ruled empire. For two months the situation grew increasingly more desperate as the siege dragged on, and Leopold I (the Holy Roman Emperor from 1658-1705), as well as Pope Innocent XI, petitioned Catholic Europe for aide.
No one could have expected that a war-torn, and greatly reduced Poland would volunteer for the task. However, these expectations were confounded as King Sobieski, leaving his country virtually undefended, marched an army across the Danube in order to relieve the distressed city. On September 11th, this greatest of Polish monarchs led the Catholic forces in a counter-assault against the besieging Ottomans in "The Battle of Vienna." After two days of intense fighting, the Turks were finally routed, and in fleeing for their sheer lives they left a vast and lavish amount of wealth to be appropriated by the victorious Poles. In honor of Sobieski's heroics, the Austrians built a church for him in the district of Kahlenberg, renamed the train route from Vienna to Warsaw in his honor, and even dedicated a newly discovered constellation by an Austrian astronomer as Scutum Sobiescianum, or "Sobieski's Shield!"17
"A Michener epic is far more than a bedtime reader, it's an experience. 'Poland' is ... a magnificent guide to a better understanding ..." -- Chicago Tribune
Earl's Bottom Line:
Inspiring turns of events such as these abound in Poland, frequently occurring when least expected. The Polish people have traditionally shown courage in the presence of tyranny, hope while enduring oppression, and determination when faced with insurmountable odds. These are the lessons taken from James Michener's epic novel. Though at times readers will be overcome with empathy for a people who have endured so much, the inner-strength that infuses the unbreakable spirit of Poland and her people is more than enough to carry them through the dark times, to trump any lingering feelings of despair, and to leave them with a quiet sense of awe.
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- Wikipedia contributors. History of Poland (1945–89) [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Jul 12, 09:59 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_Poland_(1945%E2%80%9389)&oldid=563938021.
- Wikipedia contributors. Liberation of Paris [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Aug 25, 12:56 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberation_of_Paris#Victory_parades_.2826_and_29_August.29
- Soviets capture Warsaw [Internet]. [Place unknown]: History; [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/soviets-capture-warsaw
- Wikipedia contributors. History of Poland (1945–89) [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Jul 12, 09:59 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Poland_(1945%E2%80%931989)#Rigged_1946_referendum_and_first_elections_of_1947
- Wikipedia contributors. Solidarity (Polish trade union) [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Aug 14, 21:44 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Solidarity_(Polish_trade_union)&oldid=568566590.
- Wikipedia contributors. First Mongol invasion of Poland [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Jul 31, 21:41 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=First_Mongol_invasion_of_Poland&oldid=566632030.
- Wikipedia contributors. Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Jul 29, 14:25 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Polish%E2%80%93Lithuanian%E2%80%93Teutonic_War&oldid=566288608.
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- Wikipedia contributors. Gleiwitz incident [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Jul 18, 13:55 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gleiwitz_incident&oldid=564790570.
- Wikipedia contributors. Invasion of Poland [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Sep 7, 04:33 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Invasion_of_Poland&oldid=571873181.
- Wikipedia contributors. Blitzkrieg [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Aug 28, 09:31 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Blitzkrieg&oldid=570509712.
- Wikipedia contributors. Soviet invasion of Poland [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Sep 11, 22:25 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Soviet_invasion_of_Poland&oldid=572546047.
- Wikipedia contributors. Soviet–German relations before 1941 [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Jun 29, 02:45 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet%E2%80%93German_relations_before_1941#World_War_II
- Wikipedia contributors. Nazi crimes against the Polish nation [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Aug 29, 09:41 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nazi_crimes_against_the_Polish_nation&oldid=570648951.
- Wikipedia contributors. Social Darwinism [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Sep 8, 09:34 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism#Nazism.2C_eugenics.2C_fascism.2C_imperialism
- Wikipedia contributors. Lebensraum [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Aug 17, 09:57 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lebensraum&oldid=568913223.
- Wikipedia contributors. Battle of Vienna [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2013 Sep 11, 13:04 UTC [cited 2013 Sep 12]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Battle_of_Vienna&oldid=572481646.
- "The Niedzica castle ruins and Czorsztynski reservoir, in Poland. The painting depicted on the front cover of the 1st edition of 'Poland,' portrayed a scene very similar to this photograph of Niedzica." Source: Merlin, CC-BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. 2005 Apr 04. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Poland_Niedzica_-_castle.jpg
- "Mural commemorating thirty years of the 'Solidarność,' or 'Polish Trade Union' movement, in Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski. Father Jerzy Popiełuszko (1947-1984) is depicted in the foreground." Source: Krugerr, CC-BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. 2010 Aug 15. available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ostrowiec_Solidarnosc_20100815.jpg
- "Gdańsk Shipyard's gate during the strike of 1980. Lech Wałęsa is at the podium (photo published in "Znak," in September of 1980; Author unknown)." Source: Gytha, PD-Poland, via Wikimedia Commons. 2011 Mar 10. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Solidarity_August_1980_gate_of_Gda%C5%84sk_Shipyard.jpg
- "Altar at the National Museum of Warsaw depicting the legend of St. Hedwig of Silesia, mother of Henry II the Pious, who died in the battle of Legnica (04/09/1241), during the Tatar invasion of Poland (artist unknown, circa 1430)." Source: Shalom Alechem, PD-Art, via Wikimedia Commons. 2006 Dec 28. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gotyk5.jpg
- "The Battle of Grunwald (1410 Jul 15) between the Teutonic Knights and Polish (also Lithuanian) forces, as depicted by J. Matejko. The Knights were never again able to achieve their former influence, after suffering a crushing loss here." Source: Jan Matejko (1838-1893), PD-Art, via Wikimedia Commons. Circa 1878. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grunwald_bitwa.jpg
- "King Charles X Gustav of Sweden, who launched an invasion of Poland that lasted from 1655-1660, when destruction was rained down on the country (painting by S. Bourdon). Source: Sébastien Bourdon (1616-1671), PD-Art, via Wikimedia Commons. Circa 1652-1653. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:S%C3%A9bastien_Bourdons-Karl_X_Gustav.jpg
- "In the 'Battle of the Bzura,' in September of 1939, Polish cavalry in Sochaczew valiantly rode out to meet the invading German forces, despite their immense technological disadvantage (photo courtesy of Apoloniusz Zawilski)." Source: Battles of Polish September, by A. Zawilski (1972); PD-PolishGov; via Wikimedia Commons. available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polish_cavalry_in_Sochaczew(1939)a.jpg
- "A military cemetery in Poland. (Photo courtesy of the Polish Archive.)" Source: Jarekt, PD-PolishGov, via Wikimedia Commons. 2008 May 14. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WWII_Poland_-_Military_cemetery_-_330.jpg
- "The public execution of Michał Kruk and several other people from Przemyśl, Poland, on September 6, 1943. The murders were performed by the Nazis, as a punishment for those suspected of having aided and abetted local Jews (author unknown)." Poeticbent, PD-PolishGov, via Wikimedia Commons. 2008 Oct 09. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michal-Kruk-1943-execution.jpg
- "Execution of Kiev Jews by mobile killing units, or 'Einsatzgruppen,' near Ivangorod. The photo was mailed from the Eastern Front to Germany, but was intercepted by a member of the Polish resistance. (Author unknown, circa 1942)." Source: Jarekt, PD-PolishGov, via Wikimedia Commons. 2008 Feb 19. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kiev_Jew_Killings_in_Ivangorod_(1942).jpg
- "Jan III Sobieski, regarded by many as Poland's greatest king, at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. This painting (commissioned in 1686) is currently on display at the National Museum of Warsaw." Jerzy Siemiginowski-Eleuter (1660-1711), PD-Time, via Wikimedia Commons. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siemiginowski_Sobieski_at_the_Battle_of_Vienna.jpg
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© 2013 Earl Noah Bernsby