BOOK REVIEW: ‘Poland: A History’ by Adam Zamoyski

I have been aware of the works of historian Adam Zamoyski for a number of years now, but this is the first book of his that I have ever read myself. Published in 2009, Poland: A History delivers exactly what it says on the tin, to use a layman’s phrase – a detailed and thorough history of his homeland, Poland…and it is exactly about as complicated as one could imagine when delving into the history of one of the most historically complex nations in Europe. However, Zamoyski does a very good job of navigating the historical complexities, nooks and crannies of his homeland, and delivers to us a book that serves as a very good introduction to Poland and its history.

Beginning with Poland during the Early Middle Ages – specifically from the 9th century – it is made clear from the outset that this book is not a history of Poland as a geographical region per se, but more a history of the Polish people themselves. This is one thing that readers of history must keep in mind when choosing and selecting books about the history of nations – there is a key difference between reading into the history of a geographical territory and the history of a people, given how geographical territories have frequently changed hands through numerous factors across the ages, whereas many different ethnic groups have been forced into and out of numerous territories themselves.

In terms of the content itself, Zamoyski effectively covers various different themes and areas of research when talking about his homeland – social, cultural, political, military and even demographic history is all covered in this book, and in impressive depth. As with most – if not all – historians, however, one can almost sense a small bit of the author’s personal political sympathies and leanings within his writing. In this case, I personally got the sense that Zamoyski leans more towards the centre-right, liberal conservative area of the political spectrum, considering that he speaks almost positively not only about Poland’s proud sense of national identity and traditions, but also about Poland’s historical multiculturalism and the shared lifestyles of the Poles, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians, all who have lived for centuries in what is now a homogenous and definitively Polish Poland. The story of how Poland went from being multicultural to being homogenous is a journey in itself.

In terms of writing style, narrative and presentation, Zamoyski is one of those writers of history who presents a more forward and “blunt” narrative style. Unlike historians such as Andrew Roberts and Robert K. Massie – both of whom are two exceptionally brilliant and talented writers of both narrative and analytical history – without meaning to sound almost critical, Zamoyski’s narrative writing style can often come across as a bit…dry. What I mean by this is that many other historians not only tell us accounts of what happened in history, but they also deliver these stories in such a way that makes you produce images in your own head of the very scenarios that you are reading about – almost as if you are visualising these historical figures and events in your own imagination in the style of what can only be described vaguely as a personal documentary or even film/TV series. It is these kinds of narrative styles which also help the reader to engage more in the subject matter that the author is writing about. Just as with fiction books as well, the same can also be applied to non-fiction works, especially history. This is not to say that EVERY work of non-fiction and history should employ a dramatic narrative style in the fashion of a fiction book, but in terms of keeping the reader’s attention on subject matter which should aim to draw them into going off to research further into the topics covered in the respective books themselves, Zamoyski’s Poland: A History does indeed do this in parts, but most likely in areas that are more specific to the reader’s own respective interests. For example, as a lover of military history, naturally, the parts of the book that covered the military history of Poland appealed to me more than the parts which covered, say, economic history. Even the parts that covered Poland’s political history did not do very much to entice me to go off and read more about that aspect of Poland’s past. That said, I was very much personally drawn into the story of Marshal Józef Piłsudski (1867 – 1935), a Polish military figure and statesmen who led his country between 1918 – 1922. While he remains a popular historical figure in Poland today – widely considered to be the father of the modern Polish state – he has also been criticised for his role in persecuting political opponents and even interring them in camps – which themselves have often been labelled as concentration camps.

To me personally, a good historian writing a work of narrative non-fiction should be able to keep us readers engaged throughout the entire book, even if we are reading chapters and sections about certain themes and topics which may not usually interest us. I for one would be very much open to reading more about, say, economic history, but if the writer cannot keep me engaged or interested in this subject matter when I come across it in a book, I would personally be less likely to go off and do more research into economic history. This is just my own personal opinion, however.

Overall, would I recommend Adam Zamoyski’s Poland: A History? As obvious as this may sound to most, if you are a newcomer to Polish history and would like a straight-forward introduction into the background of the nation and its people, this is indeed a very good starting point. From here – and as with most books covering the general history of a particular nation and/or people – you will likely end up picking out specific topics of personal interest from the book that will entice you to go off and do your own research and/or further reading into the respective topic. While not as narratively engaging as other popular historians, the style is clear and detailed enough to justify spending your money on this book and to fill your mind with more extensive knowledge about Poland, its history and its people.

I would personally argue that Adam Zamoyski is a historian that is more engaging as a speaker, so if you would like to hear him discuss history verbally, I would highly recommend looking up on YouTube his debate with Andrew Roberts on the legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte, a figure which Zamoyski has also written about extensively. Spoiler alert, however – he is not as big a fan of Napoleon anywhere near as much as Roberts is…

Stefan Brakus

ETN Board Member (Serbia)

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