The Past in the Present

The Construction of Polish History

by Robert Traba (Author)
©2015 Monographs 336 Pages


What do we remember from our national past and why? What are the dangers of history being (mis-)appropriated by politicians? Past in the Present provides a critical analysis of recent disputes over Polish historiography. The author uses theories of collective memory as a guideline, and the Polish-German borderlands as his leitmotif. Western academic currents and long-standing (and often forgotten) Polish intellectual traditions serve as backdrop. Throughout his work – with topics ranging from Golo Mann and Stefan Czarnowski to the «other side of memory» and the «political cult of the fallen» – Traba advocates modernization and «polyphony» in the construction of a new Polish history.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: Two Dimensions of History: An Opening Sketch
  • Chapter 2: History as a Space for Dialogue
  • Chapter 3: Poland’s Kresy (Eastern Borderlands): Realms of Memory in the Process of Cultural Reproduction
  • Chapter 4: Constructing Memory: A Semantic Analysis of Polish Celebrations on the Anniversary of Grunwald
  • Chapter 5: Stefan Czarnowski and the Continued Relevance of his Theories in Contemporary Historical Thought: A Sketch Portrait of a Sociologist
  • Chapter 6: Applied History – A New Opening
  • Chapter 1: “The Other Side of Memory”: Historical Experiences and their Remembrance in Central-Eastern Europe
  • Chapter 2: Realms of Memory (lieux de mémoire) in the Context of German-Polish Relations
  • Chapter 3: Quo Vadis Regional History?
  • Chapter 4: Cultural Memory – Communicative Memory: Theory and Practice in the Work of Jan Assmann
  • Chapter 5: Golo Mann: A Turn Toward Narrative History and an “Obsession with Germany”
  • Chapter 1: On Germans “Mine” and “Not Mine”: A Personal Case Study
  • Chapter 2: In Search of a “Portable Homeland”: Poles in Multi-cultural Berlin
  • Chapter 3: Warmia/Ermland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: A Sketch Portrait of the Village of Purda Wielka as a Backdrop
  • Chapter 4: Collective Memory and Cultural Landscape: Reflections on a War Cemetery Restoration Project in Drwęck (Dröbnitz)
  • Chapter 5: “You Glorify the Foreign, but You Do Not Know Your Own”: The Magic of Place and the Mythologizing of Landscape as Factors in National Education in the First Half of the Twentieth Century. The Case of East Prussia
  • Chapter 6: The “Landscape after Battle”: The Political Cult of the Fallen in Poland after World War II
  • Chapter 7: “It Was Only a Film!”: Three Images of Conflicts and Dialogues of Memory
  • Index

← 6 | 7 → Preface

This book combines material from two of my previously published works, Historia przestrzeń dialogu (2006) and Przeszłość w teraźniejszości. Polskie spory o historię na początku XXI wieku (2009). I have also included two articles published in 2013: “Kresy: miejsca pamięci w okresie reprodukcji kulturowej” and “‘To był przecież tylko film!’ Trzy obrazy konfliktów i dialogów pamięci / ‘It was only a film!’ Three images of conflicts and dialogues of memory.”1

Taken together, the texts found in this book comprise my internal dialogue about history, though the reader will no doubt notice the absence of references to at least a few important recent works, for example by Tony Judt, Timothy Snyder and Jeffrey K. Olick; today, in 2014, such works would certainly be included. Nonetheless, I hope that this book’s parts make up a coherent whole that is of continued relevance, and that its thesis - using the lingua franca of contemporary historiography - enriches the discussion of the history of Poland, Germany and Polish-German relations.

I want to thank Łukasz Gałecki for accepting my book for publication by Peter Lang; Alex Shannon for producing a professional English translation that captures the nuances of the Polish language; and Professor Igor Kąkolewski for his assistance in making final decisions regarding the English version.


Robert Traba ← 7 | 8 →


1For these two articles in the original Polish, see Tomasz Zarycki, ed., Polska Wschodnia i Orientalizm (Warszawa: 2013), 146-170; [Marzena Daszewska], eds., Pamięć. Rejestry i terytoria/Memory. Registers and territory, trans. Jessica Taylor-Lucia (Kraków: Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury, 2013), 9-22. Below, see Part I, Chapter 3 and Part III, Chapter 7.

← 10 | 11 → Chapter 1: Two Dimensions of History: An Opening Sketch

“National traditions […] eternal, handed down from one generation to the next, sometimes prophetic in nature; they are, in large part, a freer and truer expression of national sentiments than attained facts and written history.”

Cezary Biernacki, Encyklopedia

“Tradition is the illusion of permanence”

From Woody Allen’s film, Deconstructing


Looking back at the two-decade history of the Polish Second Republic (1919-1939), we are able to describe an era of great hope and transformation. Looking back at the last quarter-century of post-communist transformation (1989 - present) – that is, at the history of the Third Republic - we are choked by the proximity of events, by a surplus of emotion, and by partisan political conflict. In effect, we are not describing a transformative epoch; rather, we are entangling history with politics. This is, on the one hand, the inevitable consequence of the unity of space and time, in which the author/historian is – whether he likes it or not - an actor in the theater of public events. On the other hand, it is the result of a continuing insensitivity among Poles to the modernization of the historian’s craft; if embraced, such modernization would allow us to build a new research instrumentarium, by which we could, in turn, gain some distance from still “hot” events. Or is it simply a fact that the historian’s research instrumentarium is doomed to fail when describing recent phenomena, in which “history” is not so much an academic discipline as it is one of the main actors (subjects) in current political disputes? I ← 11 | 12 → do not intend to provide simple answers to such questions, in part because I do not have simple answers. In any case, now that the boom in the so-called “new politics of the past” (polityka historyczna) in Poland from the years 2004-2007 has passed, it is worth returning to the topic in order to prevent us from once again falling into the trap where politics appropriates history. Aside from that threat, one of the clear merits of the “new politics of the past” is the fact that - in the public debate – the question of what place history “should and should not take” in the social discourse has been given increased weight. Until recently, the subject was either treated marginally, or was politely avoided as something not quite worthy of serious discussion, and this is because Poles, general speaking, oppose using history for political purposes in light of our experiences with how the communists manipulated it for decades. Paweł Śpiewak summarized the debate over history in the first decade of the Third Republic by writing that - against the background of the “dispute over Poland” - issues of identity (with history as the foundation) were so prominent that it was not so much intense as it was “obsessive.”3

Several issues - the conflict over former President Lech Wałęsa’s biography (not just its political aspects); ongoing disputes about the foundation myth of the Third Republic; the continuing (today, through the back door) “historical initiation” of the Fourth Republic; and finally, the return to irrationality in the debate “with” and “about” the Germans and the Russians - indicate that we are still at the center of not so much a dispute among historians, but an ideological struggle that reflects a question that Polish historian Jerzy Jedlicki once posed: What kind of civilization do Poles need? Narrowing down Professor Jedlicki’s question, I would ask today: What history, and what memory, do Poles need?

Sociologist Marek Czyżewski, in an analysis from the year 2006 (that is, at the height of the dispute over the “politics of the past,” or – to use another term – the “politics of memory”), distinguished two axes in that public debate: eccentrism versus ethnocentrism, and social criticism versus moralism.4 While eccentrism (understood as programmatic avoidance of prejudice against others) and social criticism (understood as behavior explaining problems by objective circumstances) are - according to Czyżewski - characteristic of the discourse carried out ← 12 | 13 → in the “historiography of the Third Republic,” ethnocentrism and moralism are at the core of the historical message of those demanding the establishment of a Fourth Republic. Czyżewski defined ethnocentrism not as national chauvinism, but as a “return to respect for so-called common sense” – that is, for the principle that each ethnic group is ostensibly guided by the requirements of group loyalty and, hence, a “measure of understanding” for one’s own transgressions and a “measure of incrimination” for the transgressions of others. Moralism is the application of the same model on an internal foundation, signifying – as it does - a division between a “history of shame” (e.g. communist rule in Poland) and a “heroic history of glory” (heroic feats).

I would argue thatSelf-critical debates on the subject of identity have in s the categories employed in the “discourses of the Third and Fourth Republics” are relevant in relation to wider ideological divisions in Poland at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is justified to conclude that the dynamics and philosophy of the dispute have led to a hardening of argumentative strategies. Instead of polyphony in the public sphere, and instead of methodological-conceptual diversity in the academic sphere, an attempt at political exclusion and self-ennoblement has been put on stage, all of which has been fostered by – to employ a concept used by the American sociologist Anselm L. Strauss – a shortage of “arenas” for dispute - that is, for example, of those public media that would make possible a direct, matter-of-fact confrontation among adversaries. Today, that role is still being played by the Catholic weekly magazine Tygodnik Powszechny and, to a lesser extent, by Przegląd Polityczny. To a certain degree, it has also been played by publications put out by one of the main players in the “discourse of the Fourth Republic,” namely the Instytut Pamięci Narodowej (The Institute of National Remembrance, IPN), from which the above-cited Czyżewski article comes. The use of antagonistic discourses (“The Third Republic versus the Fourth Republic”) is deceptive when defining historiographical debate. While I - as a participant in these debates in the public sphere - would without hesitation categorize myself as a representative of the “discourse of the Third Republic,” I would argue that Poles – in the academic sphere – need to carry out an extensive search for new, more accurate categories to define various trends in Polish historiography.

Dimension One: History as Politikum, or On the Need to Choose

“Construction” and Choice

The two epigraphs with which I began this work are divided vertically by 130 years and horizontally by transatlantic space. But it seems to me that even today, ← 13 | 14 → despite the passage of time and the great distance involved, they make up the qualitative framework, indeed the axiological framework, of the Polish (not only) public debate about tradition, memory and history. I consider both, for different reasons, to be broad indicators of this debate.

Biernacki’s definition of national traditions, typical of the era in which the ideology of nation-states was being created, tries to convince us - using other words – of the existence of the “soul of a nation,” of the perpetuity of tradition, which is “a more free and true expression of national sentiments than attained facts and written history.” In effect, this is a call for the creation of a national myth, and for that myth to be passed on from one generation to the next. By chance, Biernacki reveals for us the two dimensions of the “real” function of historical fact identified over the last hundred years by those working in cultural sociology, and a bit later by those in modern historiography: As a specific event, and as an idea or image, which – because it gives meaning to our thoughts and attitudes – becomes itself a real, social fact. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Polish sociologist Florian Znaniecki defined and developed this duality of fact into a humanistic indicator.5 In the 1970s, French historian Pierre Nora introduced into the study of history the concept of “history of the second degree,” or that which happens in our minds and defines our individual and collective identity. The dominance of historical myth in the public space is characteristic of each national ideology.

Harry Block, the main character of Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, is a neurotic writer from Manhattan with a complex psychology and a Jewish family background. He rejects tradition entirely. In an argument with his half-sister, an orthodox, fanatical Jewess with a weakness for the perverse, he declares that “tradition is an illusion.” In the individual dimension, in an attempt to build a distinct identity, many people try to free themselves from the family ballast; some actually manage to make such a break. But in the collective dimension, the mechanism for an abrupt “break with tradition” is an illusion, and when it does happen, it is with the help of authoritarian (totalitarian) state structures.

Anthony Giddens, a towering figure in modern sociology, formulated concisely the quintessence of what occupies the space marked out by these two epigraphs:

Most nations refer to historical myths, and those myths are based neither on the past, nor on a reconstruction of that past. The creation of nations is the extraction of those ← 14 | 15 → values which may be useful now. […] The past can be constructed from various points of view. Nations usually shape their sense of identity by focusing on certain issues and ignoring others.6

I make only brief mention of this passage because, in a previous book, I wrote extensively on the theory of the construction of collective memory,7 and with this in mind, I would like to highlight my basic thesis, which is that identity, memory, tradition, and finally the study of history itself (more on this a bit later), are – in fact - constructions. Let me add that my approach has nothing to do with yielding to outdated fashions in the Western social sciences and humanities; rather, it is about inspecting - in the processes by which nations are created - both the traditionally load-bearing elements of tradition and language, and the roles played by choice and randomness in the formation of nations, in the perception of the nation as an imagined community, which was created both through a conscious selection of shared symbols and characters, and through a consensus among the elites who selected them.

In the last few years, disputes in Poland over history’s place in the public sphere have apparently calmed; it is sometimes said that we have ended our fascination with the “new politics of the past” only to fall into a vacuum, in which the “discourse of the Fourth Republic” drifts along the margins. But this is only apparently true. I believe that we find ourselves in a dangerous stage of transition, in which ideological-national interpretations of history, politically promoted at the beginning of the twenty-first century, are strengthening and spreading. Basil Kerski reflected accurately on this phenomenon in his recent book Homer na Placu Poczdamskim (2008, Homer at Potsdamer Platz). His views are particularly interesting in that, in light of his own biography, they are rooted with varying degrees in four cultures (Polish, German, Iraqi and Jewish). The selection and construction of his own self-identity is an inherent part of his life-experience and personality.

Self-critical debates on the subject of identity have in fact not yet ended, though I have the impression today that many people, feeling a certain level of fatigue and exhaustion, yearn for a clear vision of history, for positive myths. Critics of self-critical patriotism and intercultural dialogue are currently experiencing their heyday. One could clearly feel this climate in the campaign leading up to the most recent parliamentary and presidential elections [2005], in which a central role was played by the issue of corruption ← 15 | 16 → and socio-political issues, but also in which competing visions of history and different concepts of the Polish nation and its relationship to neighboring countries became important elements in the political struggle. […] Today’s critics of the culture of self-critical patriotism are connected by an old-fashioned view of international politics as a Darwinian struggle of nations; it is a perspective that excludes the existence of pluralistic societies.

It is alarming that critics of self-critical patriotism are found not only among former communist activists or extreme nationalists, but also among young, liberal-conservative intellectuals. […] Only answers to critical questions about the history of Poland can form the basis for a new national strategy - a strategy with chances of success.8

“Confrontational-national” views are promoted and reinforced above all by decision-makers (not all of whom are historians) at the IPN and by its politics-oriented educational strategy. Another large Polish institution of public education, the Museum of Polish History (which concentrates its activities more on public history events like exhibitions than on a deepened sense of the historical record) accepts this state of affairs by avoiding controversial debates that could foster new perspectives.

The IPN’s activity is a history in itself. In 1999, the act to establish the institute came into force. Various hopes were tied to the institute at its creation. It was built on the basis of the decades-old Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu, or the Main Commission for Research into Crimes against the Polish Nation, which investigated and prosecuted crimes from the Second World War (until 1990, it was called the Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich, or the Main Commission for Research into Hitlerite Crimes). The IPN inherited the Commission’s archives, its excellent library, and several of its prosecutors. In the 1990s, the Main Commission took up the investigation and prosecution of Stalinist crimes. The eventual transfer of such responsibilities to the IPN was natural.

The IPN was originally intended to solve problems related to the archives of intelligence services of the communist Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa (People’s Republic of Poland, PRL) by taking their contents out of the hands of free Poland’s intelligence agencies, and thus eliminating the temptation to use the document “folders” (in Polish: teczki) as a tool in wider political games. Much more than that, politicians were not to have access to these records. The archives were supposed to be the subject of research for historians, the goal being to gain knowledge about the PRL, about the mechanisms used to govern communist ← 16 | 17 → Poland, and about the Polish people’s struggle for freedom and their repression. It was about gaining an understanding of the past in all its various dimensions. For this purpose, the Biuro Edukacji Publicznej (Public Education Office) was established within the IPN, where dozens of historians with outstanding capabilities found employment; recruitment focused mainly on graduates from distinguished Polish universities.

The act establishing the IPN was to bring redress to victims of the communist system and to people who had struggled against it in the name of liberty and an independent Poland. The category of “aggrieved” was thus introduced - that is, a person who had been the subject of surveillance and repression. For several years, the IPN issued certificates to those aggrieved, which gave them the privilege to access records collected against them and to obtain copies. The act was also to serve to stigmatize the Urząd Bezpieczeństwa (Office of Public Security, UB), which had been responsible for repression directed against Polish citizens, along with its successor, the Służba Bezpieczeństwa (Security Service, SB). The key institution within the IPN was its president, whose method of appointment and powers were set in such a way that he would not be susceptible to pressure from politicians, including heads of government; he would also not be subject to pressure from the intelligence services, including those established after 1989. Appointment to the position of president was a complicated procedure, giving him a powerful position within state organs. The 11-member IPN Council was intended to be a pluralistic body; nine of its members were appointed by the Sejm (Polish parliament) from among candidates submitted by the various political parties. The Krajowa Rada Sądownictwa (National Council of the Judiciary of Poland) appointed two members, who were to be approved by the Sejm.

At least this was the theory. After a short period when an open formula was being shaped under the presidency of Leon Kieres (2000-2005), actual practice succumbed to the pressures of politicians and historians with clear national-conservative views:

Prosecutors, firmly convinced of their own exceptionality and fenced off by their official duties, avoided contact with historians, who in turn were struck by the prosecutors’ stiffness and weak knowledge of the past.9

The archive (which contains documents that would stretch to around 90 kilometers) has a closed structure guided by bewildering procedures. These procedures have led to massive slowdowns in responding to requests for access to files. ← 17 | 18 → The IPN was formed around three separate organizational structures, which are united only by the person of the President: The Chief Commission, the archive, and the Public Education Office. Contacts between them are formalistic and rather weak.10


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
polnische Geschichtswissenschaft intellektuelle Tradition deutsch-polnisches Grenzgebiet kollektive Erinnerung
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 336 pp.

Biographical notes

Robert Traba (Author)

Robert Traba is a Polish historian with broad interests in collective memory, applied history, and regional history, above all in the Polish-German borderlands. In 1990 he founded the Cultural Community Borussia in Olsztyn (Poland), whose focus is the regional history of Warmia/Masuria. Since 2006 he has been director of the Centre for Historical Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin.


Title: The Past in the Present
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336 pages