Sixty Years of Studying Poland – discussion with Norman Davies

It is often the treasures that have been abandoned to obscurity that are the most valuable. The history of humanity is full of forgotten voices  lost to memory through the ravages of conquest, subjugation, and time. For the historian, the human story provides an almost limitless field of exploration. The discovery of new perspectives, narratives, and stories is an exciting opportunity to broaden one’s knowledge and insight. For some, the act of shedding light upon neglected voices from history becomes a reward in itself. 

Such is the case with British historian Norman Davies, who has devoted most of his academic career to studying the history of Poland and making it accessible to the English-speaking world. Professor Davies was recently able to publicly discuss his passion for Poland’s history with his former student Prof. Robert Frost in the first episode of an open webinar series that aims to spread awareness of Polish history in English-speaking universities. During the talk, titled Sixty Years of Studying Poland, Davies reveals how he discovered the country as a young historian and speaks of his experiences as a student of the field when Polish history was unknown in the West and suppressed in Poland itself. 

When listening to the testimony of Davies as he recounts his journey, it becomes apparent that he is not only a great historian but also a pioneer. Davies accomplished something that no other English-speaking historian before him had done. Not only did he immerse himself in the history of a nation barely understood to the West, but he pursued his research in Poland, where he often had to contend with the ideological censorship of the socialist state. In doing so, he not only shed light on a part of Europe forsaken by the West, but he also breached the iron curtain which divided Europe from itself. In Poland, Davies would meet countless professors, scholars, and ordinary people who not only helped his research with astute advice but at times put themselves at risk in giving him insights into the forbidden past. In a sense, one can say that Davies’ work is significant for its academic strength and because it gave a voice to those who were not allowed to speak about their own history.

Davies’ works, White Eagle Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920 and Gods Playground: A History of Poland, are more than works of history. They were significant because of the time in which they were written and published. For westerners who had previously relegated Poland to the role as another Soviet satellite, Davies revealed a nation with a vibrant and fiercely independent history that was in no ways an appendage to the domain of the Kremlin. This revelation was significant in a time when Poles were protesting against the repressive socialist regime, a struggle that was increasingly gaining international attention. The work of Norman Davies was also very significant for the Poles. His books were considered subversive by Poland’s socialist government and were banned because they freely addressed parts of Polish history that were suppressed by the regime. The fact that a western historian had taken up the mantle of Polish history was of immense value for the Poles. Davies’s message for both Poles and non-Poles was clear: Poland and East-Central Europe were an integral part of European culture and civilization with their own unique heritage and story.

The opening line of Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz, is familiar to almost all Poles. In it the narrator yearns for his Lithuanian homeland and exclaims that only through losing it has he come to realize its priceless value. Throughout Poland’s modern history, the experience of losing independence to foreign occupations and exile has touched almost every generation. For many Poles sent to the depths of Siberia or living in self-exile in the West, the closest they could ever return to their homeland was the memories contained within their hearts. Maybe this is why to this day, Poland’s people are greatly appreciative of history. Under the partitions, Poland lost its political independence and its ability to tell its own story. After a brief period of independence in the 20th century, Poland was ravaged by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which exterminated the Polish elite and attempted to destroy the idea of Poland. Under decades of socialist totalitarianism, Poles were not allowed to properly come to terms with the traumatic events that they experienced. 

For the reasons above, the work of Professor Norman Davies was and still is important. Davies not only brought awareness to an integral part of European history that the West forgot, but he helped give a voice to those who did not have one. In the present day, Poland is a free and democratic country that has played a leading role with East-Central Europe. Still, the importance of spreading awareness of Polish and East-Central European history is no less urgent than it once was. The example of Norman Davies should be an inspiration for future generations of historians who seek to spread knowledge not only about Poland but about other places that have been forgotten, neglected, and denied a voice throughout history. We can only hope that the work of Norman Davies will continue to bear its fruit for many years to come. 

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by PAC intern Eliseo Nesci