I will have you know that other than romance novels I have also been reading the Social History of Poland 1945-1989. It’s a 600-odd page textbook-like volume so it took me a good few months. I guess what I was trying to get from it is what 50 years of communism did to the Polish society, because surely it did something.
The book was written by a historian who doesn’t hide he used to be part of the communist nomenklatura, so his account is by definition slightly biased. I didn’t mind it because at this point I think I’m quite skilled at separating facts from feelings and personal beliefs. Additionally, I don’t see the world in black and white, so I’m happy to acknowledge some of the good things the People’s Republic of Poland did for its people.
Many of my compatriots are complaining about how communism suppressed our economic progress and if it weren’t for communism we would be as rich as Switzerland now. While of course it is true that the communism was not really good at making some of us rich, we have to remember that Poland before the war was piss-poor and the majority of its population lived in despicable conditions, except for small elite which was living it up. In truth, Poland then was in desperate need of some socialist policies (very much like the UK) although of course it would be nicer if those policies didn’t come accompanied by a totalitarian regime.
The totalitarian regime bit is what Henryk Słabek seems to forget to take into account in his book and I’m quite positive it influenced the society deeply. What I did find fascinating in the book was the careful examination of class structure as it was before the war and how it changed with the introduction of communism. Totalitarianism aside, one cannot argue against those changes. It is fascinating how Poland emerged as an entirely new country after the war. It shifted West and people have been relocated from all over the place (former Polish territories as well as France and even Africa where some people found themselves during war) to populate the newly gained territory. Whole communities were built from scratch. Local flavour was almost entirely lost and the country was unified. It also lost all its ethnic, national and religious minorities. Right now Poland is almost entirely Polish and Catholic (some 98%) but before the war only 68.9% of the population of Poland was ethnically Polish and only 64% was Roman Catholic. Small and big fortunes were lost in the war and the new land was divided more equally creating an entirely new social landscape. Słabek addressed a lot of those issues in his book but I think I’d like to read even more about it in form of historical reportage, memoir or even fiction, so do send me your recommendations.
I liked that apart from plain numbers and statistics the author quotes from diaries of regular people and letters to newspapers, etc. In that way the first part of the book was a lot better, once the regime’s feet of clay started to tremble and shake there were a lot less interesting clippings Słabek could use and he refused to write how bad it was, claiming that it had already been written about ad nauseam. Maybe so, but you shouldn’t call your book ‘the Social History of Poland’ if you intend it to be incomplete.