Don’t Forget Polish Suffering — and Heroism

POLITICS & POLICY

I have no known Polish or Hungarian blood or relations, though I have traveled in both countries, but the recent and continuing European Union criticism of Poland and Hungary for alleged human-rights or judicial-procedure deficiencies strikes me as a classic example of amnesia and present-mindedness inflicted on peoples and nations whose vast sufferings in the long past and the recent past are almost impossible to conceive. Thank heavens for celebrity intellectuals (inasmuch as they are) such as Tom Stoppard and Roger Scruton for drawing sustained attention to the history of Eastern Europe under Nazism and Communism, and shame on those opinion-makers, including historians of modern Europe and journalists, who neglect to evaluate the last hundred years of European history in light of the sufferings of these nations. George Bernard Shaw, a witty fellow traveler with the Communists, argued after the Nazi and Red dismemberment of Poland in 1939 that there was no longer any reason for British suspicion of Russia: Having digested Poland, Hitler and Stalin had pacified Europe. In a public lecture that I attended by Tony Judt at Harvard about 15 years ago, about the end of Communism in Europe, this Mandarin historian made no mention of the names of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

National Review has a noble record of interest in Eastern Europe, especially clear in the lucid and learned columns “From the Continent” over many years of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909–1999; one of William F. Buckley’s teachers), the polyglot, Catholic, anti-Nazi, anti-Communist Austrian. His learned books Leftism Revisited and Liberty or Equality are of great value. The magazine also frequently published the polyglot Hungarian emigrés John Lukacs and Thomas Molnar, both intellectuals of distinction, and more recently Radek Sikorski, a Pole who is now a major figure in his country’s politics. Over 40 years ago the first editor ever to offer to publish me as a writer (an essay on the Russian dissident Andrei Sinyavsky) was the London Polish emigré Leopold Labedz (1920–1993), a veteran of General Wladyslaw Anders’s Polish army in World War II. (Anders is buried in Italy at Monte Cassino, which he and his Poles helped take from the occupying Germans at great cost in early 1944.) Labedz was a fervent anti-Communist, who became a good friend. There is a fine appreciation of this noble Polish intellectual by Jennifer Coates in Bearing Witness (1999).

The student of the tragedies of 20th-century history who wishes to learn (or teach) anything of value from its apocalyptic character must know something about Europe during the period 1914–90 and take into account the experience of Eastern Europeans with Communism and Nazism, but also their long experience with Islam. Many Poles and Hungarians look at Communism and Islam — and secular Western liberalism — very differently than do their more fortunate Western European EU colleagues, though France’s President Macron seems to be having a welcome “crise de conscience” on these issues. We should now realize that “modernity is on endless trial,” as the great ex-Communist Polish refugee philosopher Leszek Kolakowski put it (in a book title in 1990).

I have no intention of criticizing the EU as a venture — I regard it as having blessedly mitigated the fierce and lethal nationalisms that disfigured and nearly destroyed Western civilization in the period 1793–1945. (And I have lived happily on the continent intermittently over the past 50 years.) But “How the Poles Saved Civilization,” the two-part essay on Poland that I published in Crisis magazine eight years ago, should help to indicate why the “miracle on the Vistula,” the unlikely victory of the Poles over the invading Red Army in August 1920, just one hundred years ago, should be better known — and in fact should never be forgotten by individuals who wish truly to learn from modern history rather than being misled, humiliated, mocked, or destroyed by their ignorance of it and their smug, cosmopolitan, secular-liberal assumptions and bromides about progress.

M. D. Aeschliman (Ph.D., Columbia University, where he studied with Fritz Stern, the great historian of modern Germany), a retired university professor from American and Swiss universities, lives with his wife on a remote Tuscan hilltop. He has written for National Review since 1984.

M. D. Aeschliman, professor emeritus of education at Boston University and professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland (1996–2019), edited a new edition of Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1934 satirical-documentary novel Winter in Moscow in 1987. The third edition of his The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism has recently been published by Discovery Institute Press, and in French translation by Pierre Téqui (Paris). The first edition (1983) contained an introduction by Malcolm Muggeridge.

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