God’s Playground is Norman Davies’ ambitious history of Poland.
Despite my heritage, I know almost nothing about Polish history, something that was really brought home to me when I found that there had been an entire significant war between Poland and Russia in the 20th Century that I had known nothing about until stumbling across it on Wikipedia (thePolish-Soviet War, February 1919 – March 1921). That’s one of the things that made me get this book. It also makes me rather underqualified in terms of reviewing it. Caveat lector.
Volume I covers the history of Poland from its origins to its dismemberment at the hands of Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1795. That’s rather a lot of ground to cover, but Davies did it quite well. I found the sections detailing Poland’s internal politics, and its economic state, most interesting.
Poland (together with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with which it more or less united in 1569) was for a time the largest state in Europe, controlling vast swathes of Eastern Europe. However, its political structure made it fragile in comparison to its neighbors, all states evolving towards strong centralization. In many ways Poland’s lack of central state control made it more attractive in some respects: it was a kind of quasi-democracy, with the nobles electing its Kings, and also playing a very large role in any legislation. It had the largest noble class in Europe, with about 10% of its population qualifying. Its restricted democracy was explicitly anti-autocratic, and focused many of its energies on preventing Poland’s Kings from attaining too much power. It also ran on the basis of unanimity, meaning that any noble (any one out of tens of thousands) could prevent legislative change.
The rest of the country was more or less in thrall to the nobility, and many of them were in fact quite poor. Poland oppressed its serfs, who were terribly exploited on noble estates. And the country’s economic decline after the 1500s meant that the nobility controlled an increasing amount of a shrinking pie. The most powerful nobles were immensely wealthy, ran their fiefdoms like separate states, and competed with each other and the King.
While Poland resisted strong state power, Prussia, Austria, and especially Russia established it, and their focus allowed them to eventually overwhelm Poland, partly by exploiting its internal divisions—particularly by playing the powerful nobles against one another or simply bribing some of them to prevent legislation from going forward. And, of course, the lack of central control made it extremely difficult for Poland to develop a strong modern army.
Eventually Russia more or less controlled Poland directly with military force, and finally decided to carve it in three along with Prussian and Austrian cooperation, destroying one of Europe’s most unique nations (at least temporarily).
Davies covers all of this well, and presents it in an interesting way. He weaves in a lot of cultural material, giving the reader an insight into how contemporaries saw the situation, and what their culture was like. I will definitely get Volume 2.
(I read God’s Playground (Volume 1) from 15 August 2006 to 30 August 2006.)