Disenchanted Europeans

Polish Émigré Writers from Kultura and Postwar Reformulations of the West

by Łukasz Mikołajewski (Author)
Monographs X, 472 Pages
Series: Exile Studies, Volume 16


As Europe experienced tumultuous change after the Second World War, two Polish exiles, Jerzy Stempowski (1893–1969) and Andrzej Bobkowski (1913–1961), discussed and redefined their ideas of the continent in the pages of Kultura, the Polish émigré review. Highlighting the changes in their writings about «the West», «the East» and «civilization», this book pieces together the evolution of their own self-understanding as Europeans, the overlooked shifts of accents along with silences and falsifications. By following these two writers’ accounts of the events that led them from Poland and Ukraine to France, West Germany, Switzerland, the United States and Latin America, this study shows the tension between changing discourses and individual lives, between the wider concept of Europe and the experience of exile, emigration and belonging.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: What About Us? Polish Exiles from Kultura and the European Dilemma
  • Part I: The Last of the Europeans: Jerzy Stempowski Bids Farewell to His Land
  • Chapter 1: Changing Images of Europe in the Writings of Stempowski: A General Overview
  • Chapter 2: Anger and Disenchantment with the West: Jerzy Stempowski as a Political Exile
  • Chapter 3: An Eastern European Writing about Germany and Austria in 1945
  • Chapter 4: Metaphors of Provincialization: Postwar Essays on Europe
  • Chapter 5: Continuity and Rupture: Classical Self-Fashioning and Farewells to Europe
  • Part II: Angry Young European: Andrzej Bobkowski Leaves the Continent Behind
  • Chapter 6: Personal Rebellion against Europe: Autobiographical Texts from 1945 to 1955
  • Chapter 7: Reassessments of Occidentalism in Sketches with a Quill
  • Chapter 8: Obliterating Interwar Europeanism: Postwar Corrections in Sketches with a Quill
  • Chapter 9: From Distant Lands: Travels to America in Kultura
  • Conclusion: Occidentalism and Its Discontents
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← vi | vii →


← viii | ix →


For all the illuminating surprises, moments of discovery and satisfaction that accompany research and writing, preparing a longer text can also be a bumpy ride. I would like to thank some of the people who have helped me over these years, discussing my work with me, offering their comments and asking inspiring questions. I am grateful to the professors at the European University Institute who I met when I began working on the doctoral thesis that later became this book: many thanks to Philipp Ther (who was also the supervisor of my thesis), Anthony Molho, Antonella Romano, Kiran Patel, Giulia Calvi and Martin van Gelderen. Equally important were the other researchers who worked on their topics at this international institution and the friends whom I made while working in Florence: Özge Ertem, Fatih Artvinli, Alexander Lukas Krüger, Niki Koniordos, Natalia Krasicka, Gabriela and Julian Welch, Agnieszka Majer, Tomasz Woźniak, Sanne van Tongeren, Irene Bueno, Marius Buning, and Lidia and Philipp Zessin-Jurek. Meeting you and talking with you was one of the most rewarding things about the process of working on this book!

Here I would also like to give special thanks to two families. Sara, Ivan, Linda, Sandra and Fernando di Pede were close and caring friends in Florence. Anton and Valentyna Kotenko together with their parents showed me many of the places described in Stempowski’s essays and helped me form a better understanding of their history. My friends and family in Warsaw and elsewhere each supported me in their own way: many thanks to my parents Hanna and Henryk, my sister Paulina, Anna Piliszek, Paweł Kącki, Jan Dzierzgowski (for reminding me where English tea came from – but not only for that!), Jędrek Burakiewicz, Marta Świgost, Marianna Zieleńska, Paulina Wróbel, Grzegorz Podleśny, Aleksandra Daszkowska-Kamińska, Kuba Kamiński, Grzegorz Pac, Marek Matusiak, Piotr Kieżun, Natalia Jarska, Dominika and Andrzej Owsiński, Krzysztof Grzenia, and Zosia and Stefan Sawicki. Without the seminars I had at the University of Warsaw with Professors Paweł Śpiewak, Małgorzata Melchior, Andrzej Waśkiewicz, Marcin Król ← ix | x → and Mirosława Marody I would not have had the initial idea to research this topic. Even earlier, Tomasz Stryjek’s lessons were a great introduction to history and political philosophy. I have also learned a lot from conversations with Amr Adly, Jannis Panagiotidis, Alanna O’Malley, Małgorzata Pakier, Stanisław Tyszka, Natalia Koniordou, Davide Bertelli, Jelena Bulić, Anna Welch, Giovanni Deserto, Timo, Susanna and Piero Metelli, Andrzej Stanisław Kowalczyk, Jan Spież, Grażyna Drabik, Anna Wojciuk, Janusz Korek, Laura Engelstein and the late Andrzej Melchior. Love and gratitude to my dear and unforgettable friend Berenika Stefańska (1983–2016).

Many scholars, editors and archivists whom I met over the last few years kindly offered me their help or advice. Throughout my research on this topic Professor Larry Wolff has been a great interlocutor, reader and critic. I would also like to thank Piotr Kłoczowski of Instytut Dokumentacji i Studiów nad Literaturą Polską, for the way he welcomed me into the field of studies on Kultura, Jane Kedron of the Polish Institute for Arts and Sciences in America, Wojciech Sikora of the Archive of Instytut Literacki, and Henryk Citko and Maria Wrede of the Polish National Library. Julian Welch, Franziska Meyer, Laurel Plapp and Kate Kingsford were wonderful editors, each providing so much help to make the language and the argument of this book as clear as possible. The late Mykola Kostrytsia’s family kindly agreed to the use of an old postcard of Berdychiv/Berdyczów from his collection for the book cover. Finally, this research would not be possible without the research grants and fellowships of the three following institutions: the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (and Komitet Integracji Europejskiej), the European University Institute and the Remarque Institute at New York University. The Institute of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Warsaw as well as the European University Institute’s Department of History and Civilization subsidized the publication of the final version – many thanks to Barbara Lewenstein for helping me through the process.

This study was written with those people in mind who were, are or will be trapped in their own countries, their freedom of movement severely limited by the states in which they happen to live and which treat their citizens as property, as well as by the deadlocks of international relations, sealed borders and widespread fear of otherness. With hope, I dedicate it to the new generation that I’ve watched being born and growing up over the past ten years – among them Łucja, Hanka, Andrew and Leon.

← x | 1 →


What About Us? Polish Exiles from Kultura and the European Dilemma

In the summer of 1948, the Polish émigré Aleksander Janta went to communist-ruled Poland for ten weeks in order to judge the scale of the revolutionary reforms implemented since the end of the war. Sent there by the American magazine Life to report from across the Iron Curtain, he came as a foreigner to his own land – it had been nine years since he last saw it. Walking through the ruins of Warsaw, he could not help but wonder at the complete destruction of the city, with which the uprising against the receding Germans had ended four years earlier. He reflected on the huge toll of lives it had taken among the desperate resistance fighters, which was even greater among the civilian population. What to him still seemed ‘a document of destruction’ – terrible evidence of the madness that had overtaken Europe and the failure of the old Polish Republic’s political and military leaders to respond to it sensibly – was, to the inhabitants of Warsaw, already ‘a stage of reconstruction’. A new Poland was being built upon the rubble, a Poland based on different political principles, a different model and a new geopolitical balance of powers incarnated in the form of the communist government and the presence of the Red Army. Like the travellers who visited the Soviet Union in the interwar years, Janta came to the recently reoriented Poland to inspect the reality of the new regime and people’s reactions to it.

Those responses varied. In the account Janta wrote about his visit, he noted the fearful and hostile silence that had fallen upon his fellow passengers on a train, when, after listening to the political jokes they were telling, he had taken a Marxist brochure from his bag and begun to read it. He also noted the hesitation of older Poles, who had no enthusiasm for the new rulers but yearned for peace. He depicted the readiness to support ← 1 | 2 → the regime among many young Poles, which in his eyes stemmed not so much from the power of their belief in the doctrine, but rather from their desire to cut the ties with the old world, their bitter anger towards Poland’s erstwhile allies and the whole ‘West’ – ‘this world that has been and still seems to many people to be the synonym of the true civilization, of freedom, perhaps even salvation’.1 Quoting a paragraph from Tadeusz Borowski’s Auschwitz testimony, in which the young author curses the civilization of Plato and declares his own rejection of it,2 Janta wrote with understanding about Borowski’s decision to join the communists. At the same time, he underlined the radical change in the attitude many young Poles displayed towards ‘the West’, which had been much vaunted by earlier generations:

For this West has abandoned them, has left them at the mercy of opposite influences. Utterly disappointed, belied and revolted by everything they come against, from the depth of their experiences, this generation of barricades and camps, the civilization of crematoria, murder and rape, living in a tragic sense of abandonment.3

While describing the scale of wartime destruction, Janta stressed the determination of the Polish communist leaders and their devotion to the task of rebuilding the country, which in his eyes was not diminished because of the fact that many of his friends were ‘sitting now in prison’, or the ‘anti-humanistic deviations’ in the way the communists introduced their reforms.4 Writing about the changes at universities – the substitution of the old numerus clausus, which once limited access to education for the Jewish minority, with a similar rule banning access to students from social classes deemed hostile to the revolution – Janta observed: ‘The isolation ← 2 | 3 → of Poland from western ways of thinking, from the connection it has to the foundations to its civilization, begins then from its very roots.’5 Still, in his account he depicted himself as generally favourable towards this reorientation, understanding the deeper motives behind it: disillusioned geopolitical considerations and a new political realism.

Janta’s reportage was eventually written not for Life but for Kultura, a political literary periodical published on the outskirts of Paris by a small group of Polish exiles who opposed the creation of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Its chief editor, Jerzy Giedroyc, decided to publish Janta’s account despite the wave of criticism it would undoubtedly provoke among fellow émigrés. Scandalized by the tone of the travelogue, somewhat similar to travel accounts from communist lands in its compliance, the Polish émigré authorities in Britain even refused to distribute the issue of Kultura in which the first part of Janta’s text was published. Giedroyc defended his decision by stressing the importance of learning about the opinions held by Poles living under the regime, and he prepared a longer book version of the travelogue. In doing so, he made one of those controversial editorial decisions that in the coming years would make both Kultura and its publishing house, Instytut Literacki, an unusual platform of communication between the Polish exiles scattered around the world and their readers living in the communist state.6 Rather than isolating themselves from life in postwar Poland, Giedroyc and his team of authors sought to take part in it, to influence it from without.

Still, the exiles had reason to feel surprised by the sympathy with which Janta depicted the disheartenment with the West among the inhabitants of Poland, and their resigned acceptance of the new situation. Had not Kultura’s ← 3 | 4 → editing team declared only one year before their own firm rejection of Soviet communism, their conviction that it could never be reconciled with European traditions? Had they not reprinted in the very first issue of the periodical two well-known essays by Paul Valéry and Benedetto Croce asserting the unbroken continuity of European civilization?7 In 1947, in the editorial preceding these two texts, the Kultura team set out their goals for the new periodical:

Kultura wants to remind its Polish readers who, by choosing the path of political emigration, have found themselves outside the borders of their fatherland that the cultural circle in which they live has not died. Kultura wants to reach Polish readers in the homeland and to strengthen their belief that the values that are important to them have not succumbed to the strike of naked force.

In the final sentence of the manifesto, the team alluded to the speech given by André Malraux at the inauguration of UNESCO: ‘Kultura wants to search in the world of Western civilization for “this will of life, without which the European is going to die just like the ruling strata of the ancient empires once died”’.8

The publication of Janta’s account can be seen as an early contribution to the debate that took place in the pages of Kultura. Over the next few years, the exiles reconsidered their earlier understanding and political hopes associated with the notion of Europe and ‘the West’. Bearing the brunt of Yalta with Poles living in the communist state while still remaining on the other side of the Iron Curtain, political émigrés had to redefine their relationship with Poland’s erstwhile allies, and reassess their political programmes, cultural aspirations and wider sense of belonging. They were living through a time of deep uncertainty and doubt about Europe, ‘the West’, and its ‘civilization’: not only were many European cities lying in ruins, but several notions and concepts crucial for the older collective self-portraits drawn by Europeans had been shattered, compromised by recent events. ← 4 | 5 →


Figure 1:  The cover page of the first issue of Kultura, published in June 1947 in Rome. ← 5 | 6 →

These notions, too, demanded urgent and profound ‘reconstruction’. After the years of demolition came a time for reconsiderations, refutations or readjustments of earlier concepts to the postwar reality, as well as for the first attempts to look back and comprehend what had actually happened. In the rapidly changing reality, many intellectuals found themselves asking basic questions about Europe and its promises. Who was the ‘European’ from Malraux’s speech? Was the ‘empire’ that he had been ruling a thing of the past – was his self-avowed ‘civilization’ truly the peak of universal progress? How would this ‘European’ fit into the postwar world, the political situation determined by the conflict between ‘the West’, led by the United States, and the communist states, modelled upon the Soviet Union?

In this book I examine these dilemmas, disillusionments and postwar reconsiderations by studying them from the particular perspective of the exiles associated with Kultura. Focusing on the examples of two writers from the group, Jerzy Stempowski and Andrzej Bobkowski, I reveal the questions and doubts which all the Polish political émigrés had to face when writing about their European identity. By interpreting the texts in which the writers from Kultura reacted to the collapse of the political system on the continent and the postwar division, and by placing them in the context of the broader debate on Europe that unraveled in the periodical, I also show how the discussion among Polish exiles connected to broader changes in the international discourses about ‘the West’. Were Europe and the postwar ‘West’ the same thing? In the pages that follow, I analyse how the exiles from Kultura reconsidered their earlier understanding of Europe, based to a large extent on the Polish intelligentsia’s long-lasting belief in the central position of France on the map of ‘Western civilization’, as well as in the cosmopolitan traditions of nineteenth-century liberalism. I also try to understand how some writers from Kultura coped in their texts with their disenchantment and disorientation at seeing the Western European empires’ power waning, how they envisaged continuities and ruptures in European history, and, finally, how they refashioned their émigré literary self-representations as Europeans and members of ‘Western civilization’. How did the exiles grapple with these large notions at a time when the meanings and cultural images attributed to them shifted, and when the voices of liberal-conservative exiles from ‘un-Western’, Soviet-dominated ← 6 | 7 → Europe were dismissed by many intellectuals as reactionary or fascist, while being treated by others as a lost cause? Did they somehow reassess their earlier understanding of Europe, according to which, for example, the interwar numerurs clausus discriminating against the Jews could seem a ‘Western way of thinking’ to some, aiming at the defence of the civilization’s foundations? How did the postwar exiles present their views on Europe and ‘the West’ in the texts smuggled illegally through the Iron Curtain, and written for Poles living in a communist state? Did their opinions change and evolve over the course of the period? And if so, in what way?

The discourse on Europe after the Second World War: Picking up the pieces

In a work from the late 1980s, Edgar Morin recalled the period when, soon after the Second World War, the majority of young intellectuals in France were attracted to communism. To them, ‘Europe’ was a compromised word, tainted by the way it had been used during the last few decades and even earlier:

To me, to everybody, Europe was a word that lied. I had fought against what Hitler had used to call a ‘new Europe’. In the old Europe I saw the source of imperialism and domination rather than democracy and freedom. In the speeches about European humanism, reason and democracy I distinguished not their truth, but the lies they contained: the terrible brutality of conquistadors in Mexico and in Peru, the enslavement and exploitation of Africa, the devastating rule of the German Reich.9

Indeed, in ‘Il n’y a plus d’Europe’ [Europe Does Not Exist Anymore], Morin’s article published in January 1947 on the front page of Les Lettres Françaises, he depicted the notion of Europe as having been appropriated by more than one group of wrongdoers. Gone were the times when, in order to ← 7 | 8 → praise somebody’s humanism, one could simply and light-heartedly write: ‘Zweig is a good European.’10 After what had happened in Europe, such phrases could only sound cruel, or at best terribly naive and hollow. Europe was no more, Morin asserted, following the many intellectuals who, since the turn of the century, had warned the public about the steady erosion of shared ideas and concepts that had nurtured political life on the continent before the First World War.11 What might have seemed like a warning about an unwanted future in the making in the early twentieth century was, in 1947, an accomplished fact. One did not need to be a young communist like Morin or Borowski to consider the word ‘Europe’ – and the promises of cosmopolitan liberalism associated with it – as inadequate and out of date. To many older intellectuals, the large part of whom were against the further expansion of communism on the continent, ‘Europe’ had become a somewhat troubling and suspect term, loaded with self-delusions and abuses of propaganda, painfully clashing with both the recent past and the contemporary situation.

Two World Wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining world powers. This moment of anticipation is like the calm that settles after all hopes have died.12

These sentences, with which Hannah Arendt opened her preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1950, vividly attest to the general ← 8 | 9 → disorientation and desolation of the time. Arendt continued in the same sinister tone: ‘Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena – homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.’13 She was already living in the United States when she wrote these words, seven years after she predicted in a small autobiographical article that the situation of Jewish refugees from Europe known to her personally would become emblematic of the whole new epoch: a fate shared by many other members of the ‘comity of European peoples’, which ‘went into pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted’.14

In the preface Arendt forcefully stressed the necessity of changing one’s attitude to shared traditions, breaking with the selective and self-congratulatory practices on which conventional accounts of the past were based: ‘We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion.’ Opening her historical reassessment of the role played by antisemitism and imperialism in the emergence of totalitarianisms in Europe, she stated in the introduction’s closing paragraph: ‘The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition.’15

Arendt chose to write about the ‘Western’ rather than the ‘European’ tradition. As an exile living in the USA, addressing and aiming to influence the North American as well as European public, she did so for understandable reasons. Yet much of her émigré writings might still be interpreted today as an interesting example of how, in the postwar years, the earlier discourses on European identity – popular at the time when Arendt studied in Germany and wrote her first works – were reinvented and adapted to the ongoing debates in changed postwar circumstances. Like many other intellectuals from the vast and often politically discordant constellation ← 9 | 10 → of exiles escaping from crumbling Europe, Arendt drew heavily in her English texts on the traditions developed in her native Germany, as well as on her experiences as an émigré. This is visible not only in The Origins of Totalitarianism, but also in many of her other postwar works. It is easy to sense the importance of the interwar German philhellenic discussions in The Human Condition, in which Arendt sought to vindicate the political thought of ancient Greeks and Romans by presenting it as Western civilization’s hidden treasure: the source from which a lesson about the nature of freedom could be learned as a remedy against modern scientism, the dangerous shortcomings of Marxism and utilitarianism. In On Revolution, in turn, in which Arendt praised the American War of Independence and compared it to the less successful chain of violent revolutions in Europe, one can observe a partial refutation of continental political thought, not only in response to the ongoing Cold War conflict, but also in the context of her own experiences in France during the 1930s.16

If we compare Arendt to Czesław Miłosz, the most renowned intellectual from the émigré circle of Kultura, we immediately notice several similarities in their biographies as well as in their postwar political commitments. Both had a roughly similar trajectory of exile, leading them first to France and only afterwards to the USA; both also opposed Nazism and communism in their works. Both Arendt and Miłosz participated in the workings of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and both wrote important political works contributing to the Cold War debate on totalitarianism; at the same time, they cautiously kept their distance from certain strands of the anti-communist movement.17 Still, despite these similarities, there were also obvious and significant differences in their émigré works, visible in the type of narrative the authors favoured in their essays, in the collective identities they outlined, and in their slightly differing postwar revaluations of the European discourse. Those differences reflected to some extent their differing cultural backgrounds, as well as the histories of their exile. They are ← 10 | 11 → visible in their political texts (while Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism from The Origins of Totalitarianism was based predominantly on the German case, in The Captive Mind Miłosz sought to capture the mechanisms grinding intellectual freedom under communism by portraying fellow writers in Poland), but even more so in their essays that included autobiographical references. While an important part of Arendt’s writings dealt with the question of Jewishness, which ‘one does not escape’ in the times of exclusion and persecution,18 Miłosz spoke about another experience, known to him personally and to the plethora of the erstwhile European comity’s ‘weaker members’.

Czesław Miłosz’s émigré autobiography as a response to the continental division

In 1953 Karl Jaspers, Arendt’s mentor and friend, and at the time the honorary president of the Congress for Cultural Freedom,19 wrote the introduction to the French edition of The Captive Mind. Jaspers pictured Miłosz – then a little-known poet and refugee from Poland, far from the renown he would earn after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1980 – as one more exile, yet another bearer of the ‘common fate’. Referring to Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, and pointing to the continuing danger of rootlessness ← 11 | 12 → that many exiles faced as the main challenge of the time, Jaspers wrote with emphasis:

Even those who succeed in getting a new passport will remain as if severed from their roots. Who may they become spiritually, morally, humanely? The question remains open – and it’s our century that will answer to it through a reality forged by men like Milosz, those representatives of a common destiny. Through their own unconcealed experience, these men will show us what remains possible, in spite of everything, as they attain their human condition.20

Like the political texts written in this period by the ex-communists who escaped from the Soviet bloc, The Captive Mind entered easily into the mainstream debate on communism among intellectuals in Western Europe: it was published almost simultaneously in French and English translations alongside the original Polish version issued by Instytut Literacki.21 Despite the controversies that Miłosz raised in his critique of the intellectuals’ concession to Stalinism, he attracted considerable attention as an unknown messenger reporting on the ongoing communist experiment across the Iron Curtain. Still, it seems that it was Miłosz’s next essayistic book, Rodzinna Europa (its title literally translated as ‘Familial’ or ‘Native Europe’), published by Giedroyc in 1959, that corresponded better with the question outlined by Jaspers. In this work Miłosz sought to define his sense of belonging, and to render this self-identification understandable to others – he presented himself as an exile who resists uprooting and renounces homelessness by trying to explain to others the background of his émigré experience. Writing the book in France, Miłosz spoke from the position of a European – indeed, as an Eastern European:


X, 472
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (March)
writers in exile Kultura Jerzy Giedroyc Jerzy Stempowski Andrzej Bobkowski discourses about the West and Europe autobiographical writing
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. X, 472 pp., 12 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Łukasz Mikołajewski (Author)

Łukasz Mikolajewski is a junior professor at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences, University of Warsaw, specializing in intellectual history. He wrote his doctoral thesis at the European University Institute.


Title: Disenchanted Europeans