History and politics

Leszek Cichoblazinski talks to Prof. Dr. Andrzej Chwalba, historian at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, about historical politics.

Leszek Cichoblazinski: - Recently the term 'historical politics', which was little known of before, has come up. It is known that for example the French have had big problems with their latest history, especially the history of World War II. How can their national consciousness accept the collaboration of Vichy's government? Lately we have seen spectacular actions of the German compatriots' associations, which the German federal government timidly refuses to take a stand on. The Russian government has taken a strict historical stand refusing to acknowledge the Katyn genocide. In Poland some actions have been taken in the sphere of historical politics, although they are very cautious and on a considerably smaller scale, I mean the opening of the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. It is worth mentioning that it was the initiative of the local authorities and not of the government.

Prof. Andrzej Chwalba: - I have doubts whether the term 'historical politics' is a good one. It is a cliché from German. Some associate it with manipulation and some associate it with the propaganda of the Polish People's Republic. Regardless of the term we must admit that history is an essential part of politics in Europe, Asia, both Americas and Africa, and it affects relationships between states, nations and societies. The fact that the matter was earlier neglected in Poland was a mistake and made us lose many important matters. Poland should demand its role in regional and European history. Historians should speak and write about Poland's important and valuable contribution to civilization and culture of the world. This is not art for art's sake. It will help us to communicate in Europe and in the world. Because of that we can feel more secure and without complexes. If we only repent we will be midgets and object of Europe's ridicule. Naturally, we are not the nation who has all wisdom; we had good and bad cards but the good ones were good enough to show the world, and what is more important, we should not to be ashamed of them. Since the world knows very little about our history and contribution towards European history, much too little. Therefore, the obligation of the state and social institutions is to present a true image of Poland's contribution to history and to improve our image abroad, especially in those places where the historical truth demands it. Historical education is Polish reason of state since we cannot be victims of other nation's history. But this has happened many times. We were ascribed deeds which we had not committed, taking for instance that some say we were Nazis during World War II, guards in the Soviet labour camps or guards in Auschwitz or that we created Polish concentration camps, etc. Unfortunately, this false picture can be found in the minds of many Europeans and other people all over the world; and what is important it is included in stereotypes, which are refreshed when Poland experiences difficulties or defeats, e.g. during the recent FIFA Cup in Germany. This is one of the reasons why in 2007 (28-30 June) the Polish Historical Society is organizing the First Congress of Foreign Researchers of Poland's History; there will be about 1,000 guests from 50 countries. These include historians, sociologists and political scientists who conduct research on Polish history in their countries, on the picture of our history in the media, schools, etc. Hopefully, during the Congress people will get to know one another and co-ordinate their efforts. We want to support the foreign scholars' researches. And we will grant Pro Historia Polonorum Award for the best book about Poland, which has been printed abroad. The first element of the programme will be a debate about historical politics in seven countries.

- Let us return to the example of Katyn... I do not know whether this is only the stand of the government or also a part of the Russian nation.

- This is a very complicated matter.

- Of course, but I would be astonished if the majority of the Russian people thought that this problem did not exist at all. Poles treat this matter in terms of truth and good; we can even see it in terms of reconciliation between nations. Whereas the Russian think that to call this crime by its name, genocide, is just slander.

- Perhaps there are Russian people who see it this way. As a historian I look at this matter somewhat differently... The Soviet Russia was a country of crimes from the times of Lenin and Stalin. Lenin was the first mass murderer of the 20th century. It was him that created an apparatus of repression, including labour camps that Stalin developed. Forty or even 60 million people were killed. As far as Katyn is concerned the Russian said, 'All right, we admit that we did it but we do not want to investigate this matter any deeper'. They fear that it is a time bomb and that other nations (the Ukrainian, the Byelorussian, Tartars, Lithuanians) will demand that Russia should plead guilty of its crimes against them. They fear that the Russian people themselves begin asking about the crimes of the system against them, about their 'Katyn'. Finally, they fear that if the crime of Katyn were discussed it would stain and distort a beautiful image of Russia, which it has built with a tremendous amount of means. Contemporary Russia, which does not meet democratic standards, fears the truth about itself. Therefore, we must also look at these matters from the perspective of Russia as an autocratic country, which is not ready to apologise, to discuss history and on the contrary it tries to play with history in accordance with its imperial aims.
The Russian government, meeting the Polish expectations, would have to acknowledge that Russia's predecessor, the Soviet Union, was a country that committed genocide and the Russian are not ready to do that. That's why they say 'niet'.

- But this is their internal problem of historical memory.

- Yes, and that's why we cannot expect any change in the near future.

- One can often encounter, even in some Polish environments, opinions that the activities of the state in the sphere of historical politics are simply a sign of national megalomania or wrongly understood messianism.

- We should not be afraid of speaking about our defeats. But we should not be afraid of speaking about our successes, either. We should correct wrong opinions but it should not be propaganda, which would whitewash facts. The thing is that we should not be forced to say something what was not in accordance with our history. In my opinion that has nothing to do with messianism or propaganda but it serves the country's interest on the international arena. But pay attention! I want to repeat again we cannot compile one picture from selected facts, picture that is later sold as another product because it would be a false product that can provoke conflicts between nations. Historical politics or perhaps better historical education, should lead to understand one's fate through the context of the fate of the Central European or European countries. It is to serve mutual agreement. Serving mutual agreement is a chance for historical politics, e.g. it is not we that won the battle of Grundwald but there were also other nations that fought there and that made the commonwealth. Why is not one to share victory with these nations? Why should we not share the heritage of the Union of Lublin and the Commonwealth of many nations? This was common history and we contributed this common history towards Europe's history as our great historical success. Why should we speak about this as a historical success? We cannot hide under the carpet what is valuable and then be sad about this. Exercising our own historical politics has nothing to do with national megalomania. However, it should not provoke new demons, conflicts and contradictions. Showing the truth builds good from the Christian point of view. Good that is shared with other nations.

"Niedziela" 35/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl