Paweł Stachnik talks with prof. Andrzej Nowak – a historian, publicist, an author of the book ‘Strachy i Lachy. Changes of the Polish memory 1982-2012’ edited in ‘Biały Kruk’ Publishing House.

PAWEŁ STACHNIK: - Your latest book ‘Strachy i Lachy’ has also got the subtitle ‘Changes of the Polish memory 1982-2012’ and is devoted to a big part of just the social memory of Poles. Why is the memory about the past so important in the life of every nation?

PROF. ANDRZEJ NOWAK: - I would not have surely given this subtitle, if it was not for the sense of a kind of a danger for this continuous memory in the recent years. A different danger than in the communist times, from which my book starts. At that time there was an attempt of hypocrisy and pushing away the memory about heroes fighting for independent Polish Republic into non-existence, during a conflict with our neighbouring country – Russia. Whereas history was not pushed away as such. Hypocrisy – yes but nobody stated officially that history is unimportant or not worth any attention. At present times we are dealing with a very serious crisis of memory and breaking the sense of continuity for the sake of living the current moment.

– In one of the chapters of the book you write about a struggle for a proper dimension of teaching history in Polish secondary schools. Poles must know history in order to remember about the future.

– Certainly. The environment of professional academic historians joined critically the actions against the process of diminishing the rank of history in our education, at the moment in which this process, unfortunately, was quite advanced. It did not start at the moment of taking over the education department by Mrs Katarzyna Hall, but it had already been taking place since the 90s of the last century. If to look at the number of hours assigned for history in the whole education curriculum, from the primary school till the secondary school leaving exam, at that time and today, it is seen how much it was reduced – by nearly 40 per cent. Whereas the program reform became a clear alarm, prepared by minister Hall, who removed history as a compulsory subject in secondary schools, apart from the first year. After the reform, history is to be taught compulsorily only in the first year. From the second year – that is in reference to the most mature students, preparing for the secondary school leaving exam – history is not compulsory any more but became a subject to select. In addition it has a form of a block named ‘History and society’, blending elements of history, society studies and study about culture. In fact this subject has a any character, because teachers will compose it out of nine themed sets (devoted, among the others, to a woman and a man, mass media or military), among which four of them should be selected. The problem is based on the fact that the selection can be arbitrary, so the common core of teaching history is disappearing!
A minimal compromise, about which we spoke from the very beginning was pointing out to at least one common element of teaching for everybody. We pointed out to one of these blocks, entitled: ‘Pantheon of homeland and disputes of homeland’. For some elements of patriotic and national education can be created. Finally, after resisting for a very long time, in this August new minister Krystyna Szumilas made a statement that this block should become compulsory within the subject ‘History and society’. It does not change the fact that we must be still fighting for bringing back history teaching in secondary schools, and also look carefully at the content of schoolbooks accepted by the education ministry. For, I write in my book that the content of schoolbooks accepted for the first year of secondary schools, teaching about the events of the XX century, turn out to be far diverging from the standards of the current historical knowledge and the civilian aspect. It is another problem, which we must face.

– The patron of the book is NSZZ ‘Solidarity’. The recent events: collecting over 2 million signatures in the matter of announced referendum concerning the raising of retirement age, the march attended by a half a million of people ‘Poland, wakeup’ show strength and the meaning of this relation. What is the role of ‘Solidarity’ in your opinion?

– In the first part of my book, in which I am thinking about the fundaments of our identity, I am trying to show the essential place of the phenomenon of solidarity in the Polish history. For, it is not all about the labour union which appears in a very important moment in this history and plays an unusual role in it, but, first of all, it is all about the attitude of solidarity. And I am trying to analyse this attitude throughout our history. It owes a lot to the direct inspiration of the Holy Father and his words in 1979. John Paul II said about the need of maintaining the Polish tradition. Appealing for memory and respect to tradition, he pointed out, among the others, to a great significance of solidarity; solidarity comprising not only us, living here and now, but also the one concerning the generations preceding us, and progressing forward, from generations of our children and grandchildren, to whom we must leave homeland in a right state, with deepened good and values. This is what solidarity is based on and it was perfectly understood by people of the first ‘Solidarity’. Today this sense of solidarity is being reborn. Not only in the functioning of the needed labour union, but also in the movement resembling this deeper solidarity. Let’s remember what we owe to the first ‘Solidarity’. Especially the role of Anna Walentynowicz was important at that time, to whom I refer in a few places of the book. Her tragic fates after death have shocked us in the recent weeks, causing maybe stronger reaction to the appeal for this excellent march ‘Poland, wake up’ which took place in Warsaw a few weeks ago. Respect towards the dead is also a sign of solidarity, especially for the heroes of the previous generations. This all converges in the mission realised by the labour union ‘Solidarity’, so perfectly reborn in the recent years, first under the supervision of the representative Janusz Śniadek, and now the representative Piotr Duda.

– In an unusually interesting article entitled ‘Piłsudski is coming our of a cockpit’, you wrote how the Marshal might react to the Smoleńsk catastrophe. What would this great Pole have done in these dramatic circumstances?

– Firstly, he would not have flown to Russia. He would have done it not to get involved in a situation in which Russia – and in addition Russia with its hostile attitude – is taking over a full control over the security of the head of Polish country. But if such a tragic situation had happened, he would have made an attempt to prevent it from happening again and to show clearly that Poland would not accept this kind of humiliation, which were given to us from Russia of Vladimir Putin after the catastrophe. First of all, he would have summoned Russia in a total war – certainly, not in a military sense, but the diplomatic one. The maximum obstruction of the progress of the Russian economic and political offensive in Europe is impossible. Especially when one points out to the whole range of official actions of Russia breaching any standards of the civilizational country of law. Russia was behaving in the same way before the Smoleńsk catastrophe, during the Smoleńsk case and after it. Much hypocrisy is needed – and in a bad sense of this word – self-determination in order to pretend that everything is all right, as if it was done by the Polish governmental party after 10 April 2010. So, the firm defining the matter: giving the wreckage, a proper taking samples of the catastrophe and carrying out the section of all bodies of the casualties by Polish doctors. The latter ones are not an issue of family, but an elementary duty of the state towards its citizens, who had been killed in the catastrophe. All citizens, and especially towards the citizens representing it officially. The fact that the reliable investigation of the remains of the casualties was not done by Polish doctors and procurators, is an abnormal thing. The civilizational Polish country represented by marshal Piłsudski would not have agreed on it. There is one more the most important argument, if we do not stand up for explanation of this catastrophe, it means that we do not want to be a sovereign and seriously treated country.

– Somebody who wants to be treated seriously, should have a serious attitude towards his country himself. You write in the book a lot about patriotism and duties resulting from it. So, what should be the patriotism of Poles today?

– It should be as always. Today I am very irritated by opposing old patriotism to the new one. The old one allegedly stopped being valid and was replaced by the new one. It is often accompanied by the motto: ‘I pay taxes, so I am a patriot’. Well, paying taxes is not an element of patriotism at all, because it is a legal duty of a citizen. If I do not pay taxes, I breach law. We can say the same about the rule: I do not steal, I am a patriot…I think it is not right but harmful to reject this patriotism, in which martyrdom is cultivated. Well, memory about heroes who fought or worked for Poland, is an obvious part of patriotism, because we do not have any examples without this memory. We also have a sense of obligation that we owe something to those who lived earlier than us. And we should also feel gratitude to the generations fighting about Poland, its place in Europe, which were building its language, culture and economy and to whom we owe Poland in which we live, can speak Polish, attend Polish schools, etc. Today patriotism is also based on the fact that we should think whether we are responsible for this heritage in a right way, whether we develop, deepen and enrich it. It was expressed by Karol Wojtyła in his poem in the following way: ‘Thinking about Homeland’: how to develop this space which is fulfilled by Homeland. Certainly, it is not all about the territorial expansion but about widening the space of one’s own work for a community, one’s own engagement in passing the heritage of our grandparents and parents to our children in a better way.


"Niedziela" 46/2012

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: