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What is Poland? Changes in how Polish Writers for the Literary Magazine Kultura Viewed Nationality

“A backward country inhabited by millions of superstitious, fanatically religious peasants.” This depiction candidly illustrates how French journalists saw Poland in 1956.[i] Backward as it might have seemed to Western eyes, Poland had always been a country with a rich cultural and literary tradition. Ever since the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Polish writers and intellectuals wrestled with the question of national identity. How did Polish writers ascribe a national identity to their country? In a part of the world where borders frequently shifted and countries came in and out of formal existence, writers not only dealt with constructing their own identity as Poles but deciding where “Poland” would be physically located. During the first ten years of the Communist era from 1946-1956, many Polish writers wrote about their evolving national identity in the émigré journal, Kultura (Culture). While a Romantic nationalistic tradition dominated Polish literature for centuries before Communism, Kultura writers living through Soviet domination developed a more nuanced view of their nationality and their nation’s place in the world, blending a greater sense of realism and pragmatism with the patriotism they still cherished.


For the centuries before Poland regained its independence in 1918, Romanticism dominated Polish literature. Perhaps the most influential of these Polish poets and writers, certainly of the 19th century, was Adam Mickiewicz. While it seemed unlikely that Poland could ever become a country again, Mickiewicz helped keep hope for independence alive through writings which pushed Poles to sacrifice for the eventual triumph of the nation.[ii] This spirit of national sacrifice shows itself in one of his first poems, “Ode to Youth” which states, “Move on, Young Friends! / And happy he that perished in the strife / If for the others he’d prepared the stage / Of fame and honored life.”[iii] Associating Polish nationhood with heroic sacrifice peaked in his poem Konrad Wallenrod. This work characterized Poland as “the Christ of Nations” which would one day resurrect from partition and oppression in triumph.[iv] Written during a time when Prussia and the Russian and Austrian empires wiped Poland off the map of Europe, Mickiewicz’s writings would continue to inspire the nation to carry on under Communist domination. The Communist government’s ban on one of his plays in 1968 would even spark a political crisis.[v] 


The banning of Mickiewicz’s play represented a larger obstacle looming over Polish writers living under Communism: persistent censorship of their work. As soon as 1945, the Polish Workers Party, supported by the Soviets, would establish the Main Office for the Control of the Press, Publishing and Public Performances, the censorship organ of the country.[vi] Throughout the 1940s and 50s, the government embarked on a campaign to ban “clerical,” “anti-Soviet,” and “reactionary” literature. This ban meant the clandestine, systematic destruction of thousands of books.[vii] From 1949-1950, Socialist Realism remained the only officially sanctioned form of literature. These restrictions pushed many writers who sought to avoid censorship, including the Nobel Prize winning Czesław Miłosz, to emigrate.


While domestic literature faced harsh censorship under Communism, Kultura remained a diverse and intellectually honest source material for examining Polish literary thought in the 1940’s and 1950’s. To combat restrictions in Poland, Jerzy Giedroyc founded the journal in Paris in 1947, where it would continue to be a free and unencumbered space for some of the greatest works of Polish literature throughout the ups and downs of the Communist period. Giedroyc’s own experiences in the Second World War and as a supporter of Ukrainian and Belorussian independence would deeply influence the journal he had created, but it would also represent a great diversity of Polish intellectual thought through its support of liberalism and freedom of thought. Kultura’s embrace of many different Polish authors, poets, and correspondents without the limitations of Communist censorship or the stylistic confines of “Socialist Realism” also add to its utility as a source material. One of its most prolific contributors, Juliusz Mieroszewski, summarizes Kultura’s broad variety of thought, stating that “Kultura has neither the authority of a ‘leader’ nor a ‘providential statesman’ and as a result we have no ready solutions. We reach our opinions through studies and discussions conducted in an atmosphere of total liberalism.”[viii] While the journal held to a necessarily anti-Communist viewpoint, as it had been banned by the Communist government, its writers vehemently denied endorsing any political platform, only supporting anti-Communism to the extent that it “defended freedom and democracy.”[ix] This openness would mean that while Kultura’s writers would sometimes think similarly on certain issues, their writing would not be constrained by a certain political orthodoxy.


Some scholars consider Kultura, which was published abroad with a relatively small circulation, not to have widely influenced the Polish non-communist opposition, and therefore not to be a good marker of change in the literary canon of national identity.[x] While Kultura’s influence on Poland’s general public, or even domestic elites should not be overstated, it can reliably be used to show changes in how writers of Polish literature viewed the nation with the diversity and large number of authors the journal showcased. The reach of Kultura’s publications was also likely larger than it appears. Though officially Kultura remained blacklisted throughout the Cold War, its official circulation, which remained under 10,000 copies an issue, undercounted the number of copies circulated and shared underground.[xi] During the 1950’s, when Kultura faced its strongest persecution and censorship by the Communist government, there existed a sophisticated network to smuggle the journals into Poland, where many Polish Communist officials would later admit to reading Kultura regularly.[xii]  Kultura’s survival throughout the Communist period, keeping independent political thought and literary tradition alive during one of the most difficult times in Polish history, is a testament to its national importance.


Some of Poland’s literary post-World War II development of national identity emphasized pulling away from Romanticism’s praise for lone heroic actions towards greater realism. As world leaders in the late 1940’s feared the possibility of a coming war between the U.S. and Soviet Union, Kultura’s contributors added their own commentary to the possibility of war. Marek Suszko states in “Kultura and European Unification” that none of Kultura’s authors advocated an anti-Communist uprising in any of the east European states. For Kultura’s writers, if a war occurred, it “had to be global to be successful.”[xiii] The failure of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, seen by many authors as a yet another of Poland’s failed efforts toward independence, left a large impact on Kultura’s contributors. Aleksander Janta, writing for Kultura in 1948, revisits the impact of the Warsaw Uprising, stating eloquently, “The sight of this garden of torment, this terrible cemetery on the day where the elite of Polish youth met underground will long haunt me with the memory of the horrors of Polish fate and Polish dying…It will even cover the ruins of Warsaw, because these ruins are living and reborn again, while no one will come back to life from these buried ranks.”[xiv] As seen in Janta’s writing, Kultura’s idea of Polish nationality under Communism experienced a shift towards valuing individuals more than the concept of the nation. This change represented a push away from popular narratives of Polish history, which largely glorify sacrifice and victimhood. Janta puts this sentiment well in his question “Does the concept of Poland really have to bear this necessity of dying young for her, instead of finding ways to protect this youth as her dearest and fullest treasure?”[xv]


Other authors also turned away from the idea of Poland as martyr. Rejecting the view of Poland as having a unique destiny among nations, they wrote urgently of their country’s need for salvation from the West. Aleksander Kawałkowski, in an article featured in Kultura, warns that the Soviets would go to any length, including war, to spread Stalinist Communism and paints a stark choice for the West: war, or peace and quiet “at the price of concentration camps.”[xvi] His writing represents a clear connection between Mickiewicz’s vision of Poland as the “Christ of Nations” in suffering, but also of a more pragmatic realization that Poland was incapable of saving itself. The nation may suffer, but Kawałkowski recognizes that another uprising would be futile—Polish identity was based on more than national suffering. Tadeusz Sołowij writes in a similar vein, that “the political sense of the intelligentsia was shaped less under the influence of a rational analysis of the political sense and consequences of the uprisings…. than under the influence of family traditions, shining on legendary insurgent grandparents.”[xvii] For both authors, the beginning of Communist domination in Poland was a time to re-evaluate the nation’s traditional literary emphasis on desperate heroism and now transition to a more pragmatic, rational approach to Poland’s place in Europe.


Kultura’s editor would also address the geographic and ethnic aspects of Poland’s national question early in the Communist period by advocating for a change in how the nation viewed its borders and foreign policy. While Giedroyc claimed to be influenced by the idea of a multi-ethnic authoritarian Poland, his experience of life under Communism led him to realize the necessity of political independence for Poland’s national minorities. His realization represented not only the development of pre-existing Polish political thought, but also a turn towards greater pragmatism and realism, occurring concurrently with the realist turn in Polish poetry and literature. Giedroyc writes in his autobiography, “Our prime aim should be the normalization of Polish-Russian and Polish-German relations, at the same time supporting the independence of the Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States and acting in cooperation with them. We should recognize that the stronger our position in East-Central Europe, the stronger it will be in Western Europe.”[xviii] While Pilsudski had envisioned a modern Poland as it had been during the height of its power in the 16th century, when a unitary government ruled over a vast confederation of peoples, Giedroyc reinterprets his idea, keeping the heart of it the same, but recognizing that realistically, Poland could not maintain such a large and complicated coalition. Giedroyc similarly interprets the case for Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Baltic independence in light of a weakening Soviet Union. He recognizes the pragmatic necessity of focusing not on making Poland the strongest country in Central Europe, but rather guaranteeing its security by ensuring that Russia would not maintain a power monopoly in the region.


Giedroyc was not alone among Kultura’s writers in claiming that the only way for Poland to pragmatically regain and maintain its independence lay within a federalized Europe.[xix] Mieroszewski, who wrote earlier of Kultura’s openness and liberalism wrote that the journal as a whole favored the Central-East-European countries’ participation in a united Europe.[xx] For Kultura’s authors, this support for a European Union style federation was not given simply out of an identification with Western values in Poland or a cosmopolitan globalism, but as the means to guarantee security for the states of Central Europe from Russian domination. Developing political ideology in Poland’s literary world represented how Russian domination under Communism pushed Polish intellectuals to moderate their view of Poland as the 17th century’s “defender of Europe” towards the realization that it was in fact Poland which needed the help of Europe to ensure its security. This meant that Polish national identity could not be based on “cheap patriotism” as Giedroyc puts it, but on identification with Europe’s (excluding Russia’s) common heritage. The acceptance of Poland as but one part of a European federation represented an act of national humility that went against centuries of thought placing Poland as a centerpiece of European importance.


The late 1940s saw many changes for Poland, including the implementation of one-party rule under Communism, show trials of Polish nationalists who had fought in World War II, and an overhaul of the economy. Yet, even as the country began to see increasing liberalization in the mid-1950s, Kultura’s vision for the nation’s domestic character remained focused on pragmatic survival. In 1956, Poland saw reform both in politics with the election of Wladyslaw Gomulka, whom Kultura initially supported, and the move towards a “Polish Road to Socialism.” The shift towards greater independence meant fewer restrictions on literature for a short time. Kultura, though attacked by the Communist government throughout the 1950s, saw a short period of freedom from 1956-57, when its publications were easier to import and circulate.[xxi] Even despite the thaw, government publications continued to criticize the journal. Czesław Miłosz recalls criticism of Kultura by Nowa Kultura, a weekly periodical officially managed by the Communist government. Nowa Kultura, according to Miłosz, remained caught between forced praise of the Communist regime for Poland’s improving living conditions, and accusations of Kultura’s authors of living in comfort while writers in Poland suffered domestically.[xxii] This increasing liberalization derived in part from the effects of worker strikes in Poznań. While the strikes and subsequent violence seemed to fall in line with the romanticized Polish tradition of resistance, Kultura’s authors took a measured response to it. Contributor Adam Uziembło expressed hope that the ideological impact of the strike would be “stronger than tanks,” while recognizing that earlier, less publicized strikes in Łódź and Zagłębie had little impact on government policy.[xxiii] While Kultura’s authors condemned the actions of the Communist government against the workers, they did not advocate continuing uprisings or a violent anti-government struggle, as was occurring in Hungary.


Nearing the end of the first decade under Communism, Kultura’s writers again addressed the question of national character through their country’s treatment of ethnic minorities. While at the beginning of Soviet domination, Kultura’s writers focused on the effects of World War II on their nation, their focus later expanded to include acts of violence and conflict taking place under Communism. Though border revisions and the effects of World War II made Poland significantly more ethnically homogenous, ethnic conflict in the country persisted.[xxiv] Ethnic violence was widespread in Poland during World War II. It is estimated that around 110,000 Poles and Ukrainians were killed and 1.5 million lost their homes in acts of ethnic cleansing from 1943-1947.[xxv] Around 300,000 Ukrainian civilians were deported at the conclusion of the war. Germans living in Poland were likewise expelled by the hundreds of thousands at the war’s conclusion, this “transfer” legitimized by the Treaty of Potsdam in 1945.[xxvi] Seen as members of a nation that had started the war, Poland’s German minority became a target of revenge.[xxvii] The response to this uprooting and resettlement of millions of civilians would be a test of how Kultura’s writers defined their national identity.


Kultura’s contributors would demonstrate their support for a multi-ethnic Poland by addressing ethnic injustices and cruelty arising from deportations. Writing in 1956, Kultura’s Józef Mackiewicz decried Polish acts of retaliation against Germans living in Poland. Stating that Soviet domination encouraged Poles to see Germans as their enemies in order to deflect criticism of the regime, he vehemently disagreed that seeing other ethnicities, many of whom had lived in Poland for centuries, as enemies represented a “patriotic” viewpoint. Mackiewicz scathingly questions, “Should we go back to the worldview level of elementary school, when people and nations could be so easily divided into black and white?! I do not ‘defend’ Germans or Russians. I defend myself against the infantilism of the views imposed on me.”[xxviii] Jeleński, another contributor, exposed recurring Polish antisemitism in a Kultura issue devoted to examining Polish-Jewish relations. He critiqued ongoing prejudice and violence against Polish Jews both within and outside of the Communist party as a blight on Poland’s national identity.[xxix] Both authors’ criticism of those who advocate a monoethnic Poland as the best solution for the nation demonstrates that at least some literary figures believed national identity should include national minorities.


Writers in early Stalinist-Communist Poland developed a national identity that tempered and matured the romantic, nationalist ideas of the past. A country with a long and troubled struggle for independence saw in Kultura a trend towards a national character based less on heroic suffering, and more upon increasing an atmosphere of liberalism while surviving Communism. While their writings in the 1950s expressed hope for greater freedom and independence in Poland, the hopes and visions of Kultura’s contributors would take nearly half a century to be realized. Their greatest triumph would come not in 1989, with the fall of Communism, but with Poland’s acceptance into the European Union in 2004. Today’s Poland faces criticism over the endurance of far-right nationalism.[xxx] A cultural division still exists between Kultura’s vision of a multiethnic Poland aligned with Western Europeand the view of Poland as an ethnic nation-state. Even Poland’s far-right nationalists harken back to the country’s resistance to Russian domination under Communism. Perhaps there would be no better time than now for nationalists to look back at the writings of Kultura and see how those who took an active role in fighting against totalitarianism and foreign domination saw their country. They would find that these heroic men and women envisioned a free, interconnected, and tolerant Poland as a Poland to be proud of. As Mackiewicz would put it, let us have “less patriotism and more truth of life.”[xxxi]


[i] Herbert Auberon, “Party Number 1950,” Kultura, (1956) 129.

[ii] Adam Czerniawski, "The Polish Poet as Custodian of the Nation’s Conscience." The Polish Review 24, no. 4 (1979): 3.

[iii] Adam Mickiewicz, “Oda Do Młodości” [Ode to Youth] Translated by Jarek Zawadzki. Selected Masterpieces of Polish Poetry (BookSurge Publishing, November 23, 2007).

[iv] Joseph A. Teslar, "Adam Mickiewicz's Social and Political Ideas." Études Slaves Et Est-Européennes / Slavic and East-European Studies 2, no. 1 (1957) 3.

[v] Marcin Zaremba, “1968 in Poland: The Rebellion on the Other Side of the Looking Glass,” The American Historical Review 123, no. 3 (May 30, 2018): 769–72.

[vi] Gaweł Strządała,, “Censorship in the People’s Republic of Poland,” (2013), 161. 10.7592/EP.1.strzadala.

[vii] Ibid., 

[viii]Juliusz Mieroszewski, “Budujemy Dom” [We Are Building a House] Kultura, (October 1954).

[ix] Juliusz Mieroszewski, “Karty na Stół” [Cards on the Table] Kultura, No. 99 (1956).          

[x] Marian Wolanski and Thomas Lane, Poland and European Integration: The Ideas and Movements of Polish Exile in the West, 1939-91 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 228.

[xi] Włodziemierz Bolecki, “Kultura (1946-2000)” in The Exile and Return of Writers from East-Central Europe: A Compendium (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2009), 177.

Jerzy Giedroyc, Autobiografia na Czetery Rece [Autobiography for Four Hands], edited by Krzysztof Pomian, (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1994), 138.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Marek Suszko, "Kultura and European Unification, 183.

[xiv] Aleksander Janta,“Wracam z Polski” [Coming Back from Poland] Kultura, No. 12, (1948).

[xv] Ibid.

21 Aleksander Kawałkowski, “Kapitulacja Czy Wyzwolenie” [Capitulation or Liberation] Kultura 44, no. 6 (1951). 3-4

[xvii] Tadeusz Sołowij, “Powstanie Warszawskie.” [The Warsaw Uprising] Kultura, (October 1951), 34.

[xviii] Jerzy Giedroyc, Autobiografia na Czetery Ręce [Autobiography for Four Hands], edited by Krzysztof Pomian.    (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1994). (Emphasis added)

[xix]Jerzy Giedroyc, “Nieporozumienie Czy Tani Patriotyzm.” [Misunderstanding or Cheap Patriotism] Kultura, (January 1953), 88–89.

[xx] Juliusz Mieroszewski, “Budujemy Dom.” [We Are Building a House] Kultura, (October 1954).

[xxi] Małgorzata Ptasińska-Wójcik, Z Dziejów Biblioteki Kultury 1946-1966 [On the Kultura Books 1946-1966]. (Warsaw: IPN, 2006).

[xxii] Czesław Miłosz, “Literatura Pracy” [The Literature of Work] Kultura, No. 101 (February 1956), 61.

[xxiii] Adam Uziembło, “Jak Niegdyś” [As Before], Kultura, No.107, (1956), 57.

[xxiv] Timothy Snyder, “Memory of Sovereignty and Sovereignty Over Memory: Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine, 1939-1999,” in Memory and Power in Post-War Europe. (Cambridge 2002), 45-46.

[xxv] Ibid., 41.

[xxvi] Philipp Ther, "The Integration of Expellees in Germany and Poland after World War II: A Historical Reassessment." Slavic Review 55, no. 4 (1996): 785-786. doi:10.2307/2501238.

[xxvii] Ibid., 785.

[xxviii] Józef Mackiewicz, “Kompleks Niemiecki” [The German Complex], Kultura, No. 99, (1956), 33.  

[xxix] K.A. Jeleński, “Od Endeków do Stalinistów” [From the Endeks to the Stalinists], Kultura, No. 107,    (1956), 18.

[xxx] Joanna Berendt, “Poland’s Leaders March With Far-Right Groups on Independence Day,” The New York Times, November 11, 2008, Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/11/world/europe/poland-far-right-independence-day.html

[xxxi] Józef Mackiewicz, “Kompleks Niemiecki,” 34. 

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