(Death – exile – hunger in personal documents. The Polish lands in the Great War 1914–1918)
Instytut Historii PAN, Warszawa 2015
Katarzyna Sierakowska’s book about the Great War on Polish territories could be called a counter‑narrative. For it is a story which takes on, and often contradicts, the positions and assessments dominating in Polish historiography and culture. Even in the introduction, the author distances herself from them, quoting the hackneyed opinions on the period from 1914 to 1918, historiographical concepts, omissions and uneven distribution of centres of gravity prevailing in the existing Polish research on the First World War. And although not all the results of her work presented in the four main sections – “From euphoria/trauma to the everyday life of war”; “Death”; “Exile”; “Hunger” – are equally successful and convincing, the book must be regarded as a very significant and inspiring narrative on the First World War. We should particularly appreciate the fact that the author gathered and ordered a large amount of archive material that had previously not been analysed, and attempted to apply new methodological approaches, relatively rarely employed in Poland in the context of the Great War.
Sierakowska starts her story with a diagnosis of Witold Molik, who believes that the Great War “occupies in Polish literature […] a less important place than in the historiography of Western European countries, especially France, Great Britain and Germany, which is particularly noticeable in the ‘scale of undertaken subjects and research questions’”. This assertion, true in both the quantitative (relatively few Polish studies of the subject compared to the number of texts in English, French and German) and qualitative sense (research interests largely limited to political and military history and no new methodological approaches), is confirmed not only by the condition of Polish historiography. For it seems that both in the area of Polish cultural memory and in our texts of culture (literature, music, visual and performance arts), the Great War occupies a separate and not very prominent place, being rather a place of cultural non‑memory than a place of memory in the sense proposed by Pierre Nora.
For Sierakowska, this state of affairs is due not only to the belief, common in Poland, that the experiences “of the second war […] assumed such a scale that ‘all preceding bloody conflicts seem trivial, almost harmless’”. She convincingly shows how collective memory was manipulated even in the interwar period, where “the memory of wartime hardships and casualties was skilfully replaced with the ‘joy of recovering your rubbish bin’” (a phrase used in Juliusz Kaden‑Bandrowski’s novelGenerał Barcz – translator’s note). According to the author, such memory of the Great War, transformed and devalued, had a significant impact on Polish historiography, taking a limited interest in the period from 1914 to 1918. Particularly conspicuous for her is the lack of studies in social history, describing the everyday existence of people in wartime conditions as well as letting them tell their stories.
If only for that reason, Sierakowska’s book is a rare – and all the more valuable for that – example in our domestic historiography of a scholarly interest in personal documents serving as testimonies of the Great War years. It is also the most complete study using personal documents and subjecting them to critical reflection. The classic book from 1971, Warszawa w pamiętnikach pierwszej wojny światowej by Krzysztof Dunin‑Wąsowicz, or the recent Polski wir I wojny 1914−1918 (2014) published by the KARTA Centre and edited by Agnieszka Dębska, although containing useful material, remain mere selections of source texts. This category also includes diaries, journals and memoirs issued or reissued in recent years, characterised by a growing interest in the period of World War I (for example, Pamiętnik z pierwszej wojny by Father Antoni Tenczar, Pamiętnik Oberleutnanta by Stanisław Marceli Gayczak, and Zawadiaka. Dzienniki frontowe 1914−1920 by Jerzy Konrad Maciejewski). If we were looking for closer analogies, we would probably name Żołnierskie narracje o wojnie światowej 1914−1918. Strzelcy, legioniści, Polacy w armii austro‑węgierskiej by Jacek Rozmus (2013) as the book thematically and methodologically closest to Sierakowska’s study.
Worth noting, although somewhat inconsistent, is the way in which the author categorises the collection of more than 80 personal documents (diaries and memoirs, reserving a separate place for letters sent through official channels and hence subject to censorship, and uncensored letters using other channels) that she collected. Besides such obvious categories as military/civilian testimonies or those written by young/middle‑aged/old people, Sierakowska also divides them by the sex and social background of their authors. Focusing attention on a significant number of female wartime narratives not only highlights the experience of women, often marginalised and regarded as taboo, but also allows the author to deconstruct the stereotypes of “male”, that is heroic and active, versus “female”, that is private and passive, experiencing the war. Equally important is drawing attention to the class origin of the writers, allowing for more detailed and careful analysis of the too often universalised “Polish” experience of World War I. It is a pity that the author did not signal, even in the footnotes, other characteristics of the writers than age, gender and social class. And so, although in Chapter 2, entitled “Death”, Sierakowska devotes quite a lot of space to the questions of sexuality and sex, as well as examples of rape and prostitution during the war – in the very interesting subchapter “Attempts at taming the fear of death” – the world emerging from her story is totally heteronormative; we will not find even an attempt at analysing homoerotic or simply homosexual relationships between the soldiers and civilians, both male and female. This omission is all the more surprising given that the studies Sierakowska cites in the introduction (for example by Joanna Bourke) do not shrink from this subject, and there are also studies such as Jason Crouthamel’s, using, as Sierakowska also does, personal documents, and analysing non‑normative sexuality during the Great War.
By far more successful than the second chapter is the truly eye‑opening Chapter 3, “Exile”. Here, the author takes up many aspects not only of the causes of wartime displacement, which swept across large swathes of the pre‑war multi‑ethnic society inhabiting the Polish lands before 1914. She also, using the example of exiles from Galicia, describes the dramatic conditions in refugee camps established by Vienna in many places of the Empire, and the often difficult returns. Sierakowska skilfully exposes clichés, and especially the misogynist and class‑based language characterising the recollections of educated men ridden with descriptions of female hysteria (“wenches are crying and baying”), by juxtaposing it with the female testimony painstakingly reconstructed on the basis of such documents as letters written by female refugees in the camps to the parliamentary deputy Zygmunt Lasocki, and by using press accounts, often exaggerated and unverifiable. Descriptions of violence and deplorable sanitary conditions and food supply in such camps as Wagna near Libnica or Gaj in Moravia, and especially Choceń, are combined with hard‑headed statistics. The numbers make a great impression, especially in the context of what Sierakowska describes in the introduction as repressing the traumatic memory of the First World War and replacing it with the memory of the Second World War. The author collects and quotes the statistics on the Choceń camp, which in the years 1914–1917 saw more than 80,000 inmates, more than 4,500 of whom (mostly children and elderly), that is over 5% of all refugees, died.
An equally interesting question, given the mass nature of this process and lack of major historical studies devoted to it, is the enforced and voluntarily displacement of the population of Krakow: in the period from October 1914 to January 1915 alone, as many as 60,000 people left the city. This is a huge number if we take into account the fact that at the outbreak of the Great War about 160,000 people lived there (without the fortress crew). Besides escapes and resettlements, the temporary population changes were also caused by the inflow of refugees to the city from other areas of Galicia, almost entirely under enemy occupation. Unfortunately, we do not learn the number of people in this no doubt significant category. But it is not a major omission by the author, as no comprehensive study has been made of the population changes and the general picture of wartime Krakow, and Sierakowska’s book may become a valuable starting point in this matter.
The only real and substantial gap (affecting not only the excellent chapter on wartime exile, but unfortunately the whole book) which the author should fill, perhaps while developing her interest and studies of the Great War, is the lack of testimonies from 1914–1918 in other languages than Polish. There is no single mention of personal documents written in other languages used by inhabitants of Polish lands in the period described – Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Russian, Ukrainian and others. As a result, the title of the book does not fully match its content (it should read “Death – Exile – Hunger in Polish‑language personal documents”). This omission, all the more puzzling given that the author often displays class and gender sensitivity when analysing the texts, results in an unjustified hierarchy of importance and a kind of – probably unintended – one‑sided ethnocentrism of this story. And I am not thinking here of such non‑Polish personal documents as frontline diaries of soldiers fighting in multinational and multilingual armies in Polish territories, but of the testimonies of people inhabiting these lands, who composed the society, history and memory of the Poland which emerged from the Great War.