Objectivity and the Polish Question: Two Answers

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14. 10. 2022 / Anna Müller, Jadwiga Biskupska

čas čtení 20 minut

In May 2021, Jill Massino and I organized a roundtable at the annual congress of the Association for the Study of Nationalities in New York. It was entitled The Benefits and Burdens of the “Invisible Suitcase”: Writing Contemporary History as an Outsider.

Some of the greatest historians of the contemporary period are “outsiders” to their country of study, for instance Robert Paxton and Christopher Browning in the case of France and Germany during the Second World War. Outsider perspectives enhance, complement, and complicate existing narratives, and, as such, help to produce a more nuanced and complex portrait of the past. Yet our collective experience is that Western historians of communism in Central Europe struggle to establish their legitimacy among societies that remain attached to an ethnonationalist definition of identity. Also, many people believe that only contemporary witnesses are entitled to speak about contemporary history. This roundtable offered the accumulated experience of four scholars: Marci Shore, Jill Massino, Jan Čulík, and Muriel Blaive. We reflected on the way in which our status has affected our research, our writing, and our reception. As a result, our round table also offered insight into the societies we are studying and into the stakes involved in the production of history.

Britské listy has kindly offered us to publish our texts, as well as a few others on the part of colleagues who attended the panel and participated in a very lively discussion. Here is the second one from Anna Müller (University of Michigan-Dearborn) and Jadwiga Biskupska (Sam Houston State University).

Muriel Blaive

Previous piece:

Marci Shore, Ostranenie, or the Epistemological Advantages—and Disadvantages—of Marginality

Marci Shore, Ostranenie aneb Epistemologické výhody a nevýhody marginality

Objectivity and the Polish Question: Two Answers

Anna Müller

Jadwiga Biskupska

We, to begin in the first person plural, study modern Poland, a nation-state the history of which is intertwined with questions of who was and was not Polish. Those who have explained its history to outsiders have disproportionately been Polish, insiders to the project, familiar with its particulars. Polish historiography thus suffers and profits from an objectivity conundrum. We study it from fundamentally different and fluctuating perspectives. One of us is definitely Polish, and one of us is definitely not. Or, both of us might be or might have been.

Anna Müller: I am a historian of modern Poland, born, raised, and educated in Poland. I grew up in 1980s Gdańsk, then a provincial city in northern Poland. But, regardless of how provincial it was, ​​Gdańsk was also at the heart of the throbbing organism that was Poland in the last decades of socialism. Since the late 1970s, a certain historical drama—mostly focused on the Manichean struggle between the regime and its opponents—unfolded in front of our eyes. The Solidarity movement that shook Gdańsk in 1980 and later all of Poland led to what we might call a revolution of dignity, even though the term was coined much later and in a different context. My coming of age was hence accompanied by observations of this struggle for dignity and the sudden outburst of individual agency, both struggles framed by the concept of collective good. From that perspective, my resolve to study history was not a career decision but more of an existential search to understand the deep entanglements between history and individual lives. 

In many respects I was an insider: the historical and political debates that energized society and built our sense of citizenship as I was coming of age were also discussions of who I was, and who I was becoming. My first move to the United States, provided by the chance to enroll in a graduate program to earn a PhD, did not influence my identity much. But the more I belonged to American culture, the more I understood my colleagues’ and students’ lives and became privy to social problems that divide the United States, the more my perspective on what Polish history meant to me and how I read it began to change. Or perhaps I could frame this differently: the more I became engaged in American life, the more I stood somewhere in between Poland and the United States. I became an insider and an outsider in Poland, by virtue of not living there, of pondering with my students the weirdness of what had not appeared weird before, and of explaining to them problems that did not seem to need an explanation before. This crossing of boundaries, looking from the outside into a world that on the surface appeared as cozy as the inside of my own pocket, was a mobility that felt transgressive. This shifting challenged what I knew and why I was familiar with certain things and not others. 

Jadwiga Biskupska: I am also a historian of modern Poland, but in a very different way: Polish history is not “my” history in the way it is Ania’s. I am an outsider in Poland, and I will always be. Many Poles have welcomed me, fed me, commented on my Polish heritage with amusement, correcting (or ignoring) my many grammatical mistakes. Being an outsider means that I miss things and misinterpret others. I have to go more slowly and read more carefully; I have to listen more, and not just listen to respond; I have to think before I speak in a way I never do at home, where I am impulsive and quick to formulate opinions and arguments. Those barriers are real but overcoming them may make for worthwhile history in the end. Good history, I am more convinced every day, unfolds slowly, and is open to the evidence of the past rather than hurrying to make arguments about the present. 

I like the metaphor of being tied to Polish history—there is a connection there, an anchor of sorts. But I also like the metaphor of being pulled by Polish history, of the questions it asks, and their particular moral and political weight. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries are filled with Polish historians who saw their historical work as a cause: Poland was a cause; Polish history was a cause. They did the work of narrating the past in order to create a future in which there was some sort of independent Poland. I am fascinated by that, but I am outside of it: I study Poland because I think it is interesting and strange, and because the answers Polish history offers to larger questions about nationalism, violence, war, and the durability of state projects are unique. My situation stems from the particular blessing of being an American, and having been raised and educated in a society in which everyone around me takes our statehood for granted. It makes me wonder all the more what it has been like to live in a society where such a blessing cannot be taken for granted. Being close enough to appreciate the strangeness of modern Polish history already implies a closeness to it, however: Polish history is not well integrated into European or global history (or even into the history of the Second World War, my specialty) and thus its insights often remain tangential to wider discourses. I can see that this is a problem and I want to help correct it.

This doubled insider-outsider posture captures those who study places that are not their own, or who study from places not their own. The problem is not really a problem, though. It’s an opportunity. Without it, perspective—and especially the wide perspective that builds new narratives or is willing to reinterpret entire events, familiar characters, and epochs—is impossible. 

AM: Every couple of years, I take students on a month-long study abroad program to Poland. We usually begin in Kraków and make our way north via Łódź, Warsaw, and Białystok, to Gdańsk. Over time I have come to realize that the feeling of being out of place, dealing with the sensory and emotional overload that comes with foreign travel and embracing the unfamiliar, is more important for my students than the encounter with Polish history. These students are usually first-generation college students who have not travelled much outside Michigan, where I teach, though many of them are of Polish origin. The trip teaches them about themselves and their own country as much or perhaps even more than the country they are visiting. It invites them to look at their own country from the outside. 

JB: So you bring your Polish-American students to Poland to teach them about Polish history and accidentally teach them...something else? And then you bring them home to Gdańsk and discover that it’s not your home anymore? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that your students and teaching sprang to mind during our discussion, though the combination of teaching and travel is especially transformational. To teach well is to shift perspectives, to take the position of someone who doesn’t know and remember how it felt to be there. 

AM: These are important questions, but I will shift them a bit. It’s not that Gdańsk is not my home anymore, but that my perception of what home is has changed. Traveling is a form of mobility that offers opportunities, something that expands our imaginations and our capacity for empathy–something you just mentioned. Tim Cresswell’s On the Move discusses such mobility. On the one hand, mobility signifies progress and change. On the other, it remains suspicious since a sense of home and rootedness are fundamental human needs. “To have roots in a place is to have a secure point from which to look out on the world, a firm grasp of one’s own position in the order of things, and a significant spiritual and psychological attachment to somewhere in particular” (p. 31.)Place organizes meaning. Mobility implies a lack of roots, loneliness. Migrants like me know the meaning of this loneliness only too well. But perhaps, as you suggest, we should look at being an outsider as an opportunity to look for new connections, for explanations about why we feel uncomfortable in new situations—like my students do in Poland. What drives us is the need to understand, to organize this thinking, to tame the unknown and—following Cresswell’s intuitions—to domesticate it, to put down roots.... 

JB: We are home-making creatures, aren’t we? Outsiders—foreigners?—can find a home in new spaces, and this is often about the hospitality of “insiders,” isn’t it? I’m not a migrant and not especially mobile. I moved to Texas to teach after graduate school. I am not a Texan—you have to be born in Texas to be a Texan—but I’ve been welcomed here. It is, however, hard to move to a new place as an adult. You can rent a new apartment or buy a new house but it’s hard to build a new home. Raising the question of the insider-outsider bias, though, always makes me think of something very American and not at all Polish: the classic coming-of-age novel, S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I read it as a teenager—the same age the author was when she wrote it—and its characters have stayed in my head. It’s also a book about mobility and place finding: how teenage boys find and position themselves in society, and the enormous price they pay to do it. But, it’s a book written by a woman (“S. E.” is Susan Eloise) whose gender was obscured behind her initials, pitching her story as a universal one, rather than a matter of women’s concerns. The story she wrote resonated with me before I had much sense of who she, or I, was.

AM: The result of such mobility and re-positioning is never straightforward. Mobility is a kind of transgression; we move between places but also out of places. And perhaps we should put this on a spectrum, understanding that we’re considering a fluctuating way of seeing and being seen: you are never just an outsider or an insider. 

This idea of outsider placement and its potential for transgression reminds me of the conversation about the work of Joseph Conrad—Józef Konrad Korzeniowski—especially his 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness. Conrad was born and raised in a family of Polish patriots—romantic revolutionaries—in the Russian part of partitioned Poland, a Russian imperial subject. Orphaned at a young age, Conrad became a British sailor. He later wrote novels in English, his third language. The discussion around his work led to accusations of racism, especially in his treatment of African spaces. Indeed he was a racist. His intellectual and emotional horizons excluded the possibility of seeing Africans as “subalterns that can speak,” as Edward Said says of his work. And yet, despite his inability to recognize the full humanity of African natives, Said argues that it was precisely Conrad’s outsider position—perhaps his permanent outsider position—that allowed him to undermine, to unsettle the empires he wrote about. It could have been his formative experience as a Russian subject, or his ongoing sense of discomfort in British imperial spaces that made him such a careful observer, but he remains someone who still helps us think through the human condition: where and how we can be at home in the world. 

This brings me back to the research for my first book, If the Walls Could Speak, which was based on interviews with women who were once prisoners in Stalinist Poland, another kind of imperial space. The women I spoke with treated me like their granddaughter, very much like an insider. And back then, I was comfortable with that position, perhaps too much so. The women saw me as someone coming from the USA, but who was still rooted in Poland. They gave me an insider role and I accepted it. The Ukrainian women I tried to interview treated me as a Polish insider as well and that did not translate into the same trust I had with my Polish interlocutors. It was language, I think, and the fact that I was born and educated in Poland, that made the Ukrainian women see me as Polish, i.e. different from them. Moreover, the fact that I lived in the States was irrelevant for both my Polish and Ukrainian interviewees but not for me.  

I think in this case I was aware of the dynamic between the outsider/insider status and I tried to proceed in the best possible way for my project. Being an insider seemed the best course then. Now I am not so sure anymore. Taking the position of outsider forces one to make space in order to question the obvious, or perhaps, following Ruth Behar, it means “getting the native point of view” without “going native.” Jadzia, your recent book examines the Warsaw intelligentsia during the Second World War. Would you have written it differently if you had been an insider? How does your own subject position structure your work? 

JB: I am glad you did the research you did because someone else could not have done it. I can’t know if I would have written Survivors, my book, differently had I been raised in Poland. I assume so. I know that no Polish historian has written such a book, though I relied on the work of many scholars who preceded me to frame it. I think the questions I asked—What’s really going on here? How does this society function under stress? What do these people really have the ability to do?—are questions an outsider asks precisely because what is obvious internally is not obvious externally, as you mentioned. I’ll note that timing matters: you became the honorary granddaughter of your research subjects; I did not. Mine, the wartime Warsaw intelligentsia, had by and large died before I began. The generation of those who fought in and endured the Second World War have died during our lifetimes, turning over a new responsibility to historians who now speak for them rather than to them. Because of their status as intelligentsia—nation-builders of a sort—their stories were not “lost” in death. They wrote voluminously while they lived, becoming the first interpreters of the Nazi occupation they survived. I characterize such insiders as “participant-analysts” of the war, and they were both sources and interlocutors as I tried to understand the contours of occupation.

We keep toying with this insider-outsider problem and haven’t come to clear conclusions, which is part of the fun. We also keep going in different directions because we ask different questions of the things that trouble us. Sometimes we are literally on the same page: our reading group just tackled Menachem Kaiser’s Plunder, a part-memoir and part-adventure story written by a Canadian Jewish author who goes to Poland to try and understand his grandfather’s Holocaust experience and reclaim family real estate and finds... something else entirely. He’s not Polish but partly Polish and he is welcomed and not welcomed. It’s a book on the author’s family and a book on Polish history, but it raises more questions than it answers, and with a casualness and familiarity that academic historians rarely touch: what is the role of Polish-Jewish history in Polish history? What role do Polish Jews and their descendants want in Polish history? Who is the rightful narrator of Polish history? Can one write a Polish history in which the subject is “they”—“them, the Poles”—as Kaiser does, and is that better than a book where the author could write in the first person, the insider historian perspective? Is that hostile, or objective? “Family stories,” Kaiser muses, “are poor preservers of history...but they’re meant and relied on as preservation of soft information...of who someone was, and subsequently, who you are.” (p. 169) Kaiser is of course thinking of his own family and its migration and shifting identity, but when you read the passage you think of your family and history, and you immediately think in the singular. He’s right, of course, about family narratives. Families tell themselves stories about their place in the world and this gives individuals a home, a place to be an insider. The details don’t have to be “right” or objectively true to give meaning. Soft information is “true”, too. Such stories say “I,” but they often imply “we…” They are a credo, their tenets are a matter of faith: “we are a people who…” 

As a historian I must pause here: how big is a family? How big a group needs or wants such a credo? Is a nation a kind of family writ larger? Does it need a story that starts with “we” and in which the accuracy of the details matters less than the fact of sharing them? I think it might, and yet historians consider this sort of story-telling by and large illegitimate. We historians want to get the details right, too, and we worry about the consequences when the details are wrong. Kaiser, as a storyteller-historian, is an insider: he says “we” when referring to his own past, and he prioritizes “soft” over “hard” information. But at some point the historian has to shift to “they” in order to move beyond soft information. The insider may have a harder time negotiating this shift than those like me who start with “they.” But what do we lose in between?

Ania, you are more comfortable with this in-between positioning than I am. I am still thinking about how your relationship with the women you interviewed has shifted. You’re currently writing a biography of a Polish-Jewish woman, and I know you’ve come to see similarities between her life trajectory and your own.1 You contextualize her within her family, but that family is not static. Where do you currently stand on the question of scholarly objectivity, of familiarity? Are you and Tonia na ty—speaking in familiar terms?

AM: I love this question. Yes, Tonia and I are “na ty” in my imaginationit is better in Polish: jestem na Ty… Tonia Lechtman, the subject of my book, is a woman whose life spanned the “short” twentieth century and who was a perpetual migrant—though not of her own free will. As I composed her biography, I tried to reason with myself, arguing that if the subject had been a man, I would never have felt such familiarity. Maybe. Maybe not. But it was not only that: friends and colleagues who helped with my research in Switzerland and France slipped into calling me “Tonia” by accident. I am okay with that. I am not sure why, but I am trying to figure that out.

This biography allows me to explore the complexity of her life and provide her specific answer to the overarching question of why we—we historians—are pulled to certain topics, to certain subjects, to historical figures that become our heroes, our friends, or at least the sort of people we would like to have a coffee with. Tonia—I call her by her first name, as we are now so well acquainted—herself transgressed borders and categories, political and intellectual: she was a Pole, Jew, Communist, migrant, refugee, mother, widow, Holocaust survivor. Most of her life she tried to fit in, looking at Poland from the outside. My role in trying to understand her life—through reading her correspondence, getting to know her children—is very much what Jadzia describes as an in-between positioning.

Let me offer one final thought: perhaps the best we can do is to be transparent about who we are and where we are coming from, whether that is Poland, the United States, somewhere in between, or somewhere else entirely. Where we come from structures the way we approach our research. Each story, each argument is built from a certain angle, and one way or another we become authors and analysts of, but also participants in, the stories we write.