How do foreign historians see Poland?
Agnieszka Konik-Korn talks to Prof. Dr. Andrzej Chwalba, Chairman of the Organisational Committee of the Congress.
AGNIESZKA KONIK-KORN: Professor Chwalba, how did the idea of the congress originate?
PROF. ANDRZEJ CHWALBA: The idea to organise a meeting of historians coming from various countries, who deal with Polish history, originated in 2004, during the 17th Congress of Historians, which was held in Krakow. During one of the discussions (which resulted in the book 'O nas bez nas' [About Us Without Us] with several hundred participants we realised that histories of other countries, both in the East and in the West, lacked a reliable and full picture of Polish history. The debate was so vigorous that we decided to invite scholars of Polish history from all over the world to Krakow in order to meet, share our experiences and compare research methods applied in various countries. This was to be the time of extremely interesting international dialogue.
The first step to organise a congress was to make a list of people dealing with some chosen topics concerning Polish history. That list expanded to include about 1,000 people who received our invitations. Over 400 researchers, junior assistants and professors, from 40 countries responded to our invitation. There were also about 300 guests from Poland.
It is worth stressing that the Congress was an important national event because the President of the Republic of Poland became its patron, and he sent a special address to the participants of the Congress. Kazimierz Michal Ujazdowski, Minister of Culture and National Heritage, came for the last day of the Congress. That shows the unique character of our enterprise.
- What were the objectives of the Congress?
- There were two objectives. The first one was to combine the potentials, to integrate and to get to know one another: Polish historians and foreign researchers of Polish history. Our intention was to make a list of all foreign publications and results of research concerning our history. The aim was to create a picture of Polish history that would be as true as possible and the picture would be inscribed in worldwide awareness and not only in Poles' awareness. The second objective was to create frameworks and to collect means to conduct international research on Polish history and to embrace Polish historians in the international historiography so that publications on our history could be published in various languages and countries. Unfortunately, the pictures of Polish history have not been presented in a satisfying way so far and Polish historians have not been active enough to change this. Thus the support of foreign scholars is indispensable.
- Can foreign historians write competent and solid dissertations on Polish history without knowing Polish culture or mentality?
- In spite of such fears this is possible. Foreign scholars of Polish history can write very good books on our history. Naturally, these publications are not always cross-sectional. Sometimes they concern only chosen topics but they are thorough and extremely interesting works. I must add that we were astonished by the speeches of the Japanese scholars who turned out to be unique experts in Polish history. They made us aware that in Japan there were three perspectives to look at Europe: British, German and Polish. In spite of appearances, Japanese historians do not look at our history through the works of Chopin or Wajda but from the perspective that embraces Poland as a picture of certain circle of civilisation, the circle of fighting for freedom, martylology, and most of all emphasizing the meaning of freedom and sovereignty.
- Which epoch of Polish history enjoys the biggest interest of foreign researchers?
- You may easily guess that this epoch is the 20th century, and within its framework the history of concrete processes and events, for example the period of World War II, the year 1989, the imposition of marshal law and perhaps the most symbolic event that has been associated with Poland - 'Solidarnosc'.
During the Congress 'Pro Historia Polonorum' Award was given for the first time. This is the award for the best book concerning Polish history, written in the years 2002-2006. The award was conferred on Prof. Timothy Snyder from Yale University, the author of the fascinating biography of Henryk Jozewski, artist, soldier and one of the creators of Polish policy towards Ukraine as well as an activist of the underground movement during World War II. As you can see even a publication dedicated to one figure of Polish history helped people realise the role of Poles in the history of Eastern Europe.
- Can we speak about concrete effects of the Congress?
- It was already on the first day of the Congress (28 June) that the first Polish web portal in Polish and English was created. It is administered by the Museum of Polish History in Warsaw, the main co-organiser of the Congress. We know about the plans of the Polish-German Congress in Darmstadt in 2008 during which Polish scholars will present the results of their works on German history and vice versa - German scholars will present their research on Polish history. And in Belarus scholars dealing with Polish history plan to create an association. A group of Polish historians from the former Polish lands in Ukraine is becoming very active; they understand Polish history well and today they polemicize with the post-Soviet and nationalistic historiography.
- When can we expect the Second Congress for Foreign Scholars of Polish History?
- The Second Congress is planned for 2012 and is to be also held in Krakow. After our experiences related to the organisation and the programme of the First Congress we could see that these meetings are extremely needed. One should add that the Congress included discussions and speeches as well as many attractions. Our guests could see Krakow by night, three coaches went around the region of Malopolska, and we could also listen to a wonderful organ concert in St Mary's Church. Our students, members of the Scientific Circle of Students of History at the Jagiellonian University contributed to the success of the Congress. The students presided over panel discussions and debates held for their peers from other countries and they helped to organise the Congress. They helped with the registration, too. I must admit that their work was perfect. Our guests were full of admiration for their work! And this is a testimony that Poles can be well organised.