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Fine Historical Argument
on May 20, 2006
In the preface to the first edition published in 1984, Norman Davies writes, "No history book which sets out to relate the past to the present is written at the right time." Davies For Davies, the time he chose was 1983 - a few years into Jaruzelski's military coup and what appeared to be a definite lull in the historical action. 1983, as it turns out was also on the cusp of the great changes that the fall of communism had in store for the world by the end of the 1980's.
This is also where the book begins and then proceeds in a reverse chronological fashion to cover 5 separate periods of history including first, the period of the People's Republic (1944-1983), second, the period encompassing World War II (1939-1947), third, World War I and the interwar period (1914-1939), fourth, history during the Partitions (1795-1918) and fifth, historic Poland (history prior to 1795).
Davies then returns to 1983 to demonstrate the "past in Poland's present" or as Davies more eloquently puts it, "Such is the burden of History in Polish consciousness, that any full appreciation of the Polish crisis requires a full examination of the way in which the chief actors on the political scene perceived their roles in relation to the nations traditions." The next chapter is (now) a misnomer entitled "Beyond History" in which Davies reflects on the state of affairs in 1983 and is looking forward to the not-to-distant future. This chapter was the last chapter of the First and Second Editions and, as it turned out, Davies did not have to wait long before the not-to-distant future arrived in 1989 in which the People's Republic melted away. This inspired a new chapter for the 3rd edition entitled "Liberation" and covers the period from 1983 to roughly 2000.
Davies' work has a two-fold purpose. The first purpose is to demonstrate that one who has recourse to history can more fully understand and appreciate the significance of present day events. That is not to say that the past predetermines the present, but it is to say the present loses its meaning and significance without its relation to the past.
The second purpose was to show that although much of Poland's past lies at the intersection of East and West (or to use Samuel Huntington's formulation, between the Western Civilization and the Orthodox Civilization), Poland's proper place is in the West and it was Davies' hope when he first published that Poland would move out of the Soviet orbit and back into the Western world. Those hopes were realized when Poland joined NATO and the EU.
Davies' work is not so much history as it is historical argument and, as such, is a fine historical argument. If one is looking for a more traditional history, I would recommend M.B. Biskupski's "The History of Poland" (short), or Adam Zamoyski's "The Polish Way" (medium) or Norman Davies' "God's Playground" (long).