Collected Essays on War, Holocaust and the Crisis of Communism

by Jan Tomasz Gross (Author)
©2014 Monographs 170 Pages


The author undertakes an intellectual journey into the hidden past of the Polish history after 1939. He deals with Holocaust, collaboration, totalitarian rule, crisis of communism in Eastern Europe as well as Polish-Jewish relations during the war. The author is a founding father of a new approach in Holocaust research in Poland in which he has taken it from out of its intellectual ghetto as a strictly Jewish subject and repositioned it at the center of Poland’s wartime history. Among other topics, the collection of essays deals with Jewish community in the Soviet annexed territories on the eve of the Holocaust, opportunistic killings and plunder of Jews by their neighbors and Poland’s development from a civil society to a political nation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • 1. ‘Making History’: My Intellectual Journey into the Hidden Polish Past?
  • 2. Themes for a Social History of War Experience and Collaboration
  • Social Consequences of War in East Central Europe
  • On Collaboration
  • 3. Polish-Jewish relations during the war. An interpretation
  • 4. Jewish Community in the Soviet Annexed Territories on the Eve of the Holocaust
  • 5. Opportunistic Killings and Plunder of Jews by their Neighbors – a Norm or an Exception in German Occupied Europe?
  • A Close-up of a Murder Scene or What a Difference a Personal Testimony Can Make
  • Human Agency
  • The Significance of “Thick Description”
  • Change in Social Norms Concerning Jewish Property
  • A Norm, Not an Exception
  • 6. A Note on the Nature of Soviet Totalitarism
  • 7. Crisis of Communism in Eastern Europe
  • Scientific Socialism as Social Practice
  • The Enclosed World of Stalinism
  • Ability to Reform
  • Vulnerabilities
  • Historical Contingency
  • Poland’s Exceptionalism
  • Myopia of Foreign Policy Experts
  • The condition of permanent crisis
  • A Pyrrhic Victory
  • 8. Poland: From Civil Society to Political Nation
  • 9. Between Russia and the United States – Reflections of an East European

1.  ‘Making History’: My Intellectual Journey into the Hidden Polish Past?1

Even though autobiography is a well-established genre I find speaking about my own intellectual path somewhat awkward. I rather think that one should do one’s work and let it speak for itself. But I have been told that Copernicus lectures have had this semi-confessional character in the past, and so, with your indulgence I will draw a very subjective sketch of why I have chosen to study Polish history the way I do.

From the time I entered Warsaw University as a freshmen my academic trajectory was rather unusual. Ever since I remember thinking about it in school, I knew that at the university I would study… physics. Mathematics came easily to me (but as I was soon painfully to discover – not beyond the high-school level), and I chose physics as a field of study because, I thought it was also about the world. Somewhere in my mind the idea lingered that physics would serve as a good bridge to philosophy. A sympathetic commentator can appreciate in this jumbled reasoning an embedded, Comte’an, understanding of the hierarchy of human sciences. But it bespoke most of all confusion, showing that I didn’t know what to do. The important thing was that it made my parents happy.

Under “real socialism,” a child who chose a career relatively immune from political supervision by the state was a real gift to his or her parents. Especially that my family tradition, on both sides, was to pursue law – a really politically tainted field in the People’s Republic of Poland.

Even though I never entertained the thought of law studies (though after two years I switched from physics to sociology) I still managed to have an early brush with the law, which was also in tune with family traditions. My maternal grandfather was kicked out of the university for his patriotic activities before the First World War. He got, as it was then called, a wilczy bilet – a “wolf’s ticket” – from the tzarist authorities, and had to finish his law studies in Odessa, since he was banned from enrolling at any institution of higher learning in the Kingdom of Poland. ← 7 | 8 →

I got in trouble with the police while still in high school. It was not, however, what you may think. It was Adam Michnik. Already as a child, Adam had a bad influence on his friends. An avid reader since early youth, especially curious about Polish history and Communism, he stole books from his friends’ parents’ libraries. And so I, of course, became an accomplice. However, it was not theft that the security police hauled us to interrogation for.

We were the original baby-boomers, the post-war generation born between 1945 and 1947. In Eastern Europe, significantly, this made of us the first XXth century cohort that did not directly experience the full force of totalitarianism. Nazi occupation of the region was over before we were born. Many of us who had Jewish blood, had been born only because the Nazis had been defeated before they managed to kill our would-be parents. And given that Communist regimes mellowed within two or three years after Stalin’s death in March of 1953, Stalinist brutalities didn’t directly affect us either, because we were too small. When Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes and the cult of personality in his famous secret speech at the XXth Congress of CPSU, we were still in elementary school.

My friends, for the most part, came from a leftist secular milieu with a tradition of political engagement. Our parents before the war were either Communist or Socialist party members or sympathizers, and to their quasi-universal chagrin we, their children, also fell for the ethos of speaking and acting on behalf of worthy causes. Our sense of security springing from the lucky coincidence of being born after the war, and a belief that the ideals and the practice of socialism could be harmonized into “a socialism with human face” (to use a well-turned phrase popularized later during the Czechoslovak “Prague Spring”) gave us the impetus to establish while still in high school… a discussion club.

I know this sounds silly, but activity in defense of freedom of speech under authoritarian regimes that deny it to their citizens, consists, primarily, of acts of speech. In time we made ourselves enough of a nuisance for the regime, which was engaged in suppressing demands for liberalization originating simultaneously in various milieus of Polish intelligentsia and the Catholic church, to clamp down on our milieu as well.

High school and early university years had a formative influence on my life. I met people then who remain my lifelong friends and interlocutors. We were curious about the world, and given the state of media technology at the time this meant reading and talking a lot. Given the politics of the region in which we lived, this eventually got us into serious trouble. Scores of us would end up imprisoned for longer or shorter periods. Adam Michnik clocked over six years ← 8 | 9 → in jail before the 1989 revolution put an end to Communism in Eastern Europe. Many people, including myself, were pushed into exile. Altogether these experiences formed a bond that has lasted a lifetime.

For me and the group of friends who started discussing politics and history in the early nineteen sixties, the real moment of truth came in 1968, during the so-called “March Events.” In the aftermath of the June 1967 “six-days war” in the Middle East, where client states of the Soviet Union – Egypt and Syria – suffered a humiliating defeat, the Soviet bloc countries broke diplomatic relations with Israel and deployed anti-Zionist propaganda. In Poland the secret police funneled inflated stories and accounts to the first secretary of the PUWP about Jews, including party members, who were celebrating the Israeli victory. Wladyslaw Gomulka, who was well known for his temper tantrums, got incensed, and at the first opportunity, during a national congress of labor unions, delivered an incendiary speech denouncing a Zionist “fifth column,” inviting those who, as he put it, felt that Israel rather than Poland was their mother-country, to leave Poland altogether.

A few months later, on the wave of cresting official anti-Semitism, a secret police dominated faction in the Communist establishment decided to make its bid for top party leadership. They failed, but not before unleashing an official anti-Semitic campaign in Poland (cloaked in anti-Zionist garb), which led to a brutal pacification of the nascent student movement and creative intelligentsia which had been calling for greater cultural freedom and liberalization.

After a brief imprisonment, I was kicked out of the university – to male students this meant a revocation of draft exemption and the prospect of a two-year military service – and together with my parents decided to take the option made available by the regime in a fit of pique. While waiting for an immigrant visa to the United States I got lucky, and obtained a graduate fellowship to continue studying sociology at Yale University.

I’ve given this trove of personal details here because my engagement with the history of the German occupation of Poland during the Second World War came about, in a manner of speaking, for autobiographical reasons. To move from Warsaw, dreary and steeped in official anti-Semitic propaganda, into the intellectual comfort of Yale University’s ivory towers was quite a culture shock. It further accentuated the contrast between our student movement’s joyous engagement with liberty and freedom of speech, and the dull, repressive, quality of “real socialism.” The secret police may have pulverized the student and intellectual milieus during the “March Events” and their aftermath (sending people to jail and into exile in the process), but what the regime got for their trouble ← 9 | 10 → bode ill for it’s future – a wave of mediocrities moving into faculty positions at universities; cynical careerists pushing for accelerated job advancement in the administration, and hack journalists dressing their anti-Semitism in anti-Zionist rhetoric becoming the darlings of party propaganda (in scholarly literature about “real socialism” such a phenomenon is sometimes called “a mechanism of negative selection”).

Barely 5 months later, in August of 1968, a much more robust popular demand for political liberty – the Prague Spring – was cut short in Czechoslovakia, this time by a combined military effort of Warsaw Pact countries. Afterwards, it felt in one’s bones that the Soviet bloc regimes were non-reformable, and unable to accommodate people’s natural desire to live in freedom. So while we may have lost a battle in March of 1968, I thought that in the proverbial “long run” Polish society would cast off its Communist party rulers. Before too long, in fact.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (June)
Totalitarismus Sowjetische Besatzung Judentum Kollaboration
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 170 pp., 1 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Jan Tomasz Gross (Author)

Jan Tomasz Gross is Professor of History at Princeton University (USA). He is the author of the extensively discussed books Neighbors, Fear, and Revolution from Abroad. His research interests are comparative politics, totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, Soviet and East European politics, and the Holocaust.


Title: Collected Essays on War, Holocaust and the Crisis of Communism
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172 pages