How the Poles Saved Civilization

On a June evening in 1979 I was having a drink on a small balcony outside a sixth-floor apartment in downtown Warsaw with a very civilized, elderly Polish intellectual, a retired mathematics professor who had taken a degree at Cambridge between the two world wars and spoke a refined, witty, patrician English. Inside the apartment about a dozen much younger Poles, twenty-five to forty-five years old, were having a secret meeting, their voices inaudible due to the classical music being played so as to hide or muffle their discourse in case the apartment was bugged. They had each arrived separately, by pre-arrangement, from different parts of the city. The elderly professor, whom I will call Professor X, had discreetly let them into the apartment, then offered me a drink and retired with me to the balcony, apparently either uninterested in their conversation or prudent enough not to want to know its content. (As a non-Polish speaker, I could not follow it anyway.) Among the young men in the apartment were several figures who would later become known for their prominent participation in the underground Polish anti-Communist movement and some who already were, including my friend Pawel B., a meteorologist who had brought me along by a circuitous route that required our rapid and sudden exit from a tram-car, the immediate flight to two hidden bicycles, and a fast ride across a large urban park, measures designed, successfully, to elude the two Polish secret service agents who had clearly been following us both, and one of whom was apparently assigned to watch his apartment full time. (It was an apartment that Pawel and his family shared with another family, where in the single bathroom the only toilet paper consisted of successive pages torn out of a stack of the Polish-language edition of Stalin’s collected works.)

By contrast, Professor X lived alone in the apartment to which we had come, but it had not always been his apartment; it had belonged to a prominent, exiled friend, Prof. Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009), a once-eminent Marxist historian, philosopher, and theoretician who had left the Communist Party, publicly criticized the regime, and managed to leave the country about a decade before, going on to appointments at McGill, Berkeley, Oxford, and the University of Chicago, and subsequently winning many awards in the West, including the Erasmus Prize and, in 2003, the U.S. Library of Congress’s lifetime scholarly achievement award, before dying in 2009. Along with the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz and Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, Kolakowski was one of the three great post-World War II cultural figures of Poland and apparently a great inspiration to the young Poles assembled in his former apartment. Such were the Byzantine arrangements prevailing in Communist but in some ways half-hearted Poland that Kolakowski had been allowed to leave his apartment to his old friend Professor X, a widower, who was allowed to take up residence in it.

Professor X was a genial host with a pleasantly ironic manner who, to my surprise, fended off my questions about the young men inside and their political activities, preferring to talk about remote, high-cultural, literary topics and Warsaw sights visible from our balcony. Somewhat frustrated with this conversational tactic, I pressed him, until, wry but unannoyed, he said to me: “Look, I sympathize with these cowboys, I’ll even help them a bit, but it will all come to nothing, or it will only cause them harm.” He then pointed to a gigantic, ugly, multi-story building in the distance, lit up brilliantly for the evening. “Do you see that?” he asked. “It is the Palace of Culture, the gift of our fraternal Russian Communist friends, our big Slavic brothers.” After a moment’s silence, he went on. “Do you know how many Russian military divisions there are in this country?” I didn’t, but he did, and after telling me, he said: “They’ll never leave. Believe me, they’ll never leave, or if they do, only in the midst of a nuclear holocaust that will kill us all. I’m an old man,” he said, “who was born here when Warsaw was part of the Russian Empire. I have survived Russian, Polish, and German regimes, and I know what is possible here. They’ll never leave.”

A few days later in Cracow, in southern Poland, I was present in a vast park where over a million people assembled enthusiastically to welcome home the native son, Bishop Karol Wojtyla, who had a year before become Pope John Paul II. A cynical French woman journalist with whom I had struck up an acquaintance stood next to me and said: “The poor Slavic idiots! Credulous as ever. They simply don’t understand the modern world.” Though I was not a Polish-speaker, I was a keen student of modern history, I had already seen and heard a lot in Poland, and I thought she was wrong, as I had thought Professor X was wrong in Warsaw.

I had come to Poland at the invitation of my friend Pawel B., a courageous dissident who had managed by subterfuge to get a travel visa out of Poland in 1977 and then, instead of attending the meteorologists’ conference somewhere in Germany that was his ostensible destination, had proceeded to pick up a large packet of photographs sent out of Poland for his use and travel to Venice. The post-World War II Venice Biennale, a major international art show, had for years been used as a forum for Italian Communist agitprop and anti-American propaganda, but in the mid-1970s the Venice City Council, which runs the Biennale, had fallen into the hands of a non-Communist majority under the leadership of an ex-Communist, Socialist politician named Carlo Ripa di Meana. This majority took the unusual decision of devoting the 1977 Biennale to “The Literature and Art of Dissent in Russia and Eastern Europe,” and I attended. Pawel B. had set up his exhibition of photographs called “Uncensored Poland,” which showed churches being built illegally by night, anti-government worker demonstrations, and marches of church parishioners protesting mandatory Communist indoctrination in schools. One marching banner had an icon of the “Black Madonna” of Czestochowa, with Latin words written above it: “Nec temere nec timide”—neither arrogant nor frightened; the words and the icon blending symbolically the elements that comprise the classical-Christian tradition that gave us Western civilization itself. I befriended Pawel B., but when I kept stepping out of the way so as not to hide him from photographers, he stopped me with a smile: “Don’t bother. They’re Communists, Poles and Italians, documenting my presence here; I’ll see the photographs when I get home.” After his time in Venice and before his return to Poland I was able to be of some help to him, and my 1979 trip to Poland was at his invitation. Returning to Poland, he was rebuked, surveillance of him was increased, and, subsequently, after my visit, he had to hide for several months in the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland under an assumed name before managing to emigrate to the USA, eventually arranging to get his wife and two children out too.

About the eventual fate of Communist Poland and its larger, fraternal neighbor, Professor X, the French journalist, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, Paul Samuelson, and E.J. Hobsbawm were all wrong. Not only did Communism in Poland disappear, but the Polish revolt that I was so honored to see first-hand was the key domino that led to the fall of Communism throughout eastern Europe and Russia. Our tenured historical professoriat cannot easily deny this, but they can neglect to admit it or teach it in their courses in modern history. In fact they can neglect to teach the political history of the twentieth century altogether, as it is so damaging to Marxist or secular, Whig assumptions and expectations about human nature and action and about the inevitability of progress. But the fact remains, unremarked or untaught or embarrassing as it is: the Poles began the overthrow of Communism; they changed history. “Rien n’est beau que le vrai,” as Malcolm Muggeridge used to say: Nothing is beautiful but the true.

In the galleries of the Vatican Apartments in Rome there is a vast historical painting that depicts the arrival at the gates of Vienna in 1683 of King Jan Sobieski and a Polish army. From 1453 to 1683 the Ottoman Turks had progressively penetrated the Balkan peninsula and then central Europe, subjecting the inhabitants to Moslem rule. Sobieski and the Poles arrived at the very last moment when it was possible to defeat them before they took Vienna, and this victory was a turning-point in the history of Europe and the world. It began a steady movement by Christian Europeans to expel the Turks from the Balkans. The painting of the victory of Sobieski and the Poles must have been a favorite of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, himself born in 1920, the year the Ottoman Empire finally fell, with complex and ambiguous effects, to be sure, which is the case with many historical events. But if the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 is a lasting, permanent shame for Christians, much of the twentieth century comprises a permanent shame for atheists of the left and right. Absurdism, post-modernism,  de-constructionism, perspectivalism, radical relativism, and other interpretive fads provide convenient intellectual escape mechanisms for our dominant intellectual elites from having to make  normative moral evaluations of modern history, though what Michael Polanyi called their own ‘morally inverted’ agenda assumes and requires some cross-cultural, universal sense of obligation. Despite oceans of words, our voluble, neophiliac, leftish utilitarians aren’t very good reasoners.

M.D. Aeschliman (Ph.D., Columbia) is Professor of Education at Boston University, Adjunct Professor of Anglophone Culture at the University of Italian Switzerland (Lugano), the author of The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism (1983; second edition, Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), and a widely-published scholar and literary critic.

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  • plowshare

    I beg to differ on one detail. It was Hungary that began the overthrow of Communism by opening its borders, enabling a steady stream of East Germans to escape their country by traveling first to Hungary and then either Austria or West Germany. This hemorrhaging led to the downfall of the repressive East German regime and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

  • plowshare

    I posted a comment here, and it stayed here for at least a day.  Now it has been removed. I would appreciate an explanation.  

  • Kurt Cybulski

    I am planning on writing some historical fiction and came here. I was deeply moved on your account. I am 3rd generation American of Polish descent and I was a teenager as the Polish freedom movement began. I deeply appreciate your wonderful story.

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