God’s Playground: A History of Poland, Vol 1., The Origins to 1745, Vol. 11, 1745 to the Present 
by Norman Davies.
Oxford, 605 pp., £27.50, December 1981, 0 19 822555 5
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Dr Davies claims that ‘very few comprehensive surveys of Polish history, written by British and American scholars, have ever been attempted.’ He sees himself as producing something which had a predecessor in W. F. Morfield’s Poland, first published in 1893. A glance at his bibliography reveals that modern interpretation of Polish affairs in English has long since progressed beyond the stage where a comprehensive history of Poland is really necessary, unless it represents a synthesis drawing upon most recent historical work. Dr Davies’s footnotes reveal that he has used English, French, Polish, Latin, German, Russian and Ukrainian sources. He may rightly say that his work is more up-to-date than The Cambridge History of Poland, edited by W. J. Reddaway and produced in 1941-50. The title of his work, God’s Playground, is perhaps not a very happy translation of the Polish expression Boze Igrzysko, but the reader must not be deterred by it, nor put off by the introductory chapters, because in the end Dr Davies gets to grips with factors which have a bearing on the events of the present day.

He sees Poland as emerging in the 15th century as a country consisting of five separate estates, the clergy, the nobility, the burghers, the Jews and the peasantry, with the noble estate or szlachta dominating the Church and the offices of state. With the acquisition of Danzig in 1466, Poland obtained access to the wider markets of Western Europe and the era of economic expansion began – a period which the author describes as ‘the Nobleman’s Paradise’. Demesne farming was carried out with peasant labour. Labour services could reach as many as eight days a week, which in effect meant that the peasant family rather than the individual peasant was the unit of exploitation. Dr Davies does not deal adequately with the fact that the landlords relied on farm managers to supervise peasant labour. This is a problem of major importance. In the 19th century the partitioning powers outbid the Polish left wing by themselves carrying out agrarian reform. The landowning szlachta were confronted with the economic crisis of conversion to modern capitalist farming, which brought to an end the life of bucolic bliss. Younger sons and daughters had thereafter to think in terms of careers outside agriculture, which in effect meant a migration to the towns. Since the szlachta constituted about 10 per cent of the population, it followed that a far higher portion of the Polish nation began to seek professional qualifications than was the case in some other European countries. It is perhaps not wise to translate the word inteligencja as ‘the intelligentsia’, which in English tends to have a much narrower meaning: in Poland the inteligencja is not an élite, but rather the broad mass of people engaged in white-collar occupations for which they have the necessary educational requirements. As Dr Davies points out, a large section of the Polish population has the urge to engage in political activity.

The Jews began to appear in large numbers in the second half of the 13th century. Dr Davies should say at the outset that they were Ashkenazim speaking Yiddish, a factor which set them aside from the Christian Polish population in the towns. The anti-semitism which has been an unpleasant aspect of Polish history first appeared in the 15th century. This problem was made more acute in the 19th century with the influx of szlachta into the towns to swell the ranks of the inteligencja, and was felt most keenly in the Kingdom of Poland, created by the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, and in the Pale of Settlement established in the 18th century in the Russian Empire proper. Dr Davies sees the possibility of assimilation up to 1881, when an anti-Jewish riot broke out in Warsaw. The problem intensified when troubles in the Pale in 1882 and after led to the migration of Jews into the Kingdom of Poland and Austrian Galicia. The problem of anti-semitism was to increase after independence was won in 1918-19, but the hideous Final Solution adopted by Nazi Germany in the years of occupation during the Second World War led to the virtual extermination of the Jewish population, leaving only some forty thousand within the frontiers as they exist today. Nevertheless, anti-Jewish feeling was to persist, and many Jews were to seek employment outside Poland. Dr Davies’s humane and understanding attitude towards these problems is a welcome corrective to the distortion which occurs if it is assumed that they did not exist, which is the impression one can obtain from some Polish writings.

On the question of the peasantry Dr Davies might have been more analytical. It is not correct to see the Polish peasants as having ‘Russian counterparts, whom until the mid-19th century they closely resembled’. In Muscovy proper there was a system of repartitional tenure, whereas in Poland individual land tenure prevailed. When emancipation took place and the Polish peasants became the owners of their land, holdings were subdivided. Dr Davies is certainly right when he says that Lenin’s views on the differentiation between the richer peasants, or kulaks, and the poorer peasants, which Lenin assumed was likely to increase, do not apply in Poland. He states that ‘in the view of other observers, the distinction between rich, middle and poor peasants was a false one.’ One would have welcomed some analysis of the views of the late Wincenty Stys, whose basic argument was that richer peasants tended to become poorer and poor peasants to become richer. He also argued that the size of a peasant’s holding would fluctuate during his own lifetime: on marriage he would acquire a portion of his father’s land, and a portion secured by his bride from her father, and then, as his family grew to adult years and themselves were married, he would surrender portions of it. If a peasant can go from being a poor peasant to a substantial peasant to a poor peasant again, Leninist doctrines of differentiation do not apply, at least in those parts of Poland which Stys studied. Whether Stys’s arguments hold for the rest of Poland it is difficult to say. Even now, Poland is a country in which peasant holdings are the predominant element in agriculture. There are over three million farms in Poland, of which only 1.2 per cent in 1970 were over 20 hectares in size. No less than 57 per cent fell in the category 0.5 to five hectares. The smallest farms belong to peasants who supplement their income by working in industry and elsewhere. In this situation lies the problem of the provision of foodstuffs to the towns. The low prices which foodstuffs have obtained in the past have encouraged a tendency among the poorer peasants to consume their own livestock. Besides, if there are few consumer goods in the shops, the peasants have no incentive to market their produce. Raising food prices has in the past caused bitter resentment: it remains to be seen whether in raising them by 400 per cent General Jaruzelski has cut the gordian knot. Dr Davies seems to suggest that agricultural production suffered from the reluctance of the state to improve mechanisation by the provision of small tractors. In theory, collectivisation could provide an answer, but that strikes at a peasant way of life based upon individual land tenure. The basic problem is probably structural.

Social and economic questions are no longer complicated by ethnic problems. Dr Davies points out that within the new frontiers of modern Poland ‘overall density had ... fallen from 89.8 to 76.4 inhabitants,’ but adds that ‘the national minorities had almost disappeared’: ‘the People’s Republic was to be the first truly national state in Polish history.’ He rightly draws attention to the high birth-rate – the population rose from 23.9 million in 1946 to 35.1 million in 1979 – which has constituted a difficult problem. The large number of school-leavers forced the Government to commit itself to a policy of capital investment in industry to provide jobs for them. Dr Davies correctly describes the policy of Edward Gierek in contracting loans abroad as a gamble which did not pay off. The muddle which has led to the accumulation of an estimated debt of $27 billion remains unsolved. This is as much a problem for Poland’s Western creditors as it is for Poland itself. The dislike of military rule in Poland leads some to propose sanctions, but sanctions can only deepen the difficulties of the banks which have extended credits to Poland. It is also the case that those who wish to protest against the introduction of martial law are deterred by the knowledge that sanctions merely mean punitive action against the ordinary people of Poland, with whom they sympathise.

How the present situation came about invites investigation of the development of the Polish state, its partition, the gaining of independence, the tragedy of the Second World War and the emergence of the People’s Republic. Not everyone will see eye to eye with Dr Davies when he declares that after the agreement of Horodlo in 1413 the Polish and Lithuanian nobility ‘to all intents and purposes ... became one nation. Henceforth, to be “Polish” was to be a citizen of the Polish-Lithuanian state.’ The real fusion of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility came when they adopted a common culture after the Union of Lublin in 1569, and was a result of the progress of Jesuit education, which attracted the Lithuanian szlachta away from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. Even then, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had its own chancellor, marshal, treasurer, hetmen and administration. It is true that in 1569, before the Union, Poland proper, or the Korona, absorbed the provinces of Volhynia, Braclaw and Kiev, the nobility there being won over by being granted the privileges of the Polish szlachta. No doubt today those whose names end with the Byelorussian patronymic form, -iewicz/owicz, feel themselves to be Poles as much as those with the noble adjectival ending of -ski, but that is a factor which did not emerge in the 15th century immediately after the agreement of Horodlo. The union with Lithuania invites closer inspection because it involved the Polish Republic, as it became in 1569, in conflict with Muscovy, and involved Poland in an expansionist policy in the east. It is somewhat late in Dr Davies’s work that the reader is informed that the forces of Stanislaw Zolkiewski, the field-hetman of the Korona, actually took Moscow in 1610 and installed a garrison in the Kremlin. Yet even before this he has discussed the constitutional paralysis made possible by the adoption of the Liberum Veto, the concept that a single Deputy in the Sejm, or Parliament, could, on the basis of the principle of unanimity, break up the assembly and nullify its resolutions. The Liberum Veto was first applied in 1652 by the Deputy Wladyslaw Sicinski, the Deputy from Troiki in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Long ago the Polish scholar Konopczynski showed that the Liberum Veto was used in the majority of cases by Deputies from the eastern regions of the Polish Republic acting as agents of the great magnates. The Confederation of Targowica of 1792, which preceded the Partition of 1793, was likewise the work of the great landlords of the east, opposed to the principles of the Constitution of 3 May 1791.

It could be argued that Poland paid a heavy penalty for the union with Lithuania. The uprising of 1794 under Tadeusz Kosciuszko represented a turning-point in Polish history. For the first time new forces came into play to direct the fortunes of Poland: as Dr Davies puts it, ‘nothing short of the entire nation in arms could match the overwhelming numbers of the enemy.’ What Kosciuszko did was to look beyond the nation, the word for which in Polish is narod, to the people as a whole, the lud. At the beginning of his second volume Dr Davies states: ‘For most of the 150 years from the abdication of Stanislaw-August on 25 November 1795 to the retreat of the German Army from Warsaw on 17 January 1945, “Poland” was little more than a name.’ Nevertheless, he goes on to show that the artistic, literary, academic and religious foundations remained firm, for all the damage partition did in a political and economic sense. He rightly draws attention to the Polish national anthem, the first verse of which he translates:

Poland has not perished yet
So long as we still live.
That which alien force has seized
We at swordpoint shall retrieve.

The delegates present at the Solidarity conference in Gdansk were to sing this anthem, indicating that they were not only a national but also a nationalist movement. General Jaruzelski in his justification of martial law was to end his address with its first sentence.

Dr Davies is extremely critical of Lloyd George, Keynes, Namier and E.H. Carr for their views on the Polish state which arose in 1918-19 and ‘cannot help speculating about their dubious motives.’ He wonders ‘why, from beginning to end, the Polish Republic should have provoked such torrents of abuse from all sides’. He claims to have set out to write an impartial history, but in his chapter on the inter-war years he makes some strange statements: for example, that during the Polish-Soviet War ‘the British refused to give Poland military assistance despite their clear obligation to do so.’ He complains that ‘a vociferous propaganda campaign, under the slogan of “Hands Off Russia”, led world opinion astray at a time when Soviet Russia was laying violent hands on its Polish neighbour.’ It should be pointed out that the refusal of the London dockers to load arms onto the Jolly George occurred on 10 May 1920, when Poland was laying hands upon her Soviet neighbour. One cannot avoid thinking that Dr Davies, despite his claim to impartiality, has absorbed some of the nationalistic spirit of the Poles. Namier’s views may perhaps be explained by his dislike of anti-semitism in Poland, but Polish dislike of Namier may result from his claim, in conversation at least, that he was the author of the Curzon Line. In and after 1939, he was to prove a good friend to the Poles.

It is to be doubted, however, whether Dr Davies’s views on People’s Poland will assist the circulation of his work in present-day Poland. He sees those who ousted Wladyslaw Gomulka from the post of General Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party as ‘Soviet stooges’, but declares also that ‘the authoritarian stance of the Party, no less than its sanctimonious rhetoric, resembles attitudes traditionally adopted by the Church hierarchy.’ ‘In a deeply Catholic country,’ he adds, ‘the similarity between the conduct of the Party and that of the militant Catholic Orders, such as the Jesuits, cannot be overlooked.’ Yet he can state that in respect of national unity ‘the new comrade is but the old patriot writ large.’ He admits the great changes which have occurred since 1945, but we may agree with him that ‘Poland still contains all the ingredients of past misfortunes.’ Dr Davies’s misfortune is that, while he was seeing this book through the press, Solidarity came into existence. He was able to add an appendix, ‘Solidarity, 1980-1981’, where he describes Solidarity as ‘strangely reminiscent of the Sejm, and the Sejmiki of the old Republic’ – a point of view not far distant from that of General Jaruzelski. The introduction of martial law overtook the book’s publication just as this review will doubtless have been overtaken by events by the time it is printed.

Dr Davies declares that ‘all I have to offer are a few facts, and a few observations.’ The few facts are offered in 1,330 pages and the observations are many and various. His two volumes are a mine of information. His quotations are lengthy and various, but some historians would shrink from printing an excerpt from a Baedeker’s guide, published in 1914, which occupied three pages of their text.

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