Master of historical policy

Piotr Wandycz, one of the greatest Polish historians, and a man who no doubt had a big influence on world historiography, died in Branford, Connecticut, in the United States on Saturday 29 July 2017. Yet, his achievements seem to be more widely appreciated abroad than in Poland.

Wandycz wrote 18 books and over 500 academic papers. They can be found in every good library around the world. Many of his publications are still considered essential reading for students of European diplomacy of the 19th and 20th centuries, the foreign policy of France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, as well as Polish-Soviet interwar relations, Polish-US relations, 20th century history of Central and Eastern Europe and last but not least the history of ideas. He did not succumb to any academic fashions, such as post-modernism or gender studies. He consistently held on to what has gone out of fashion today, but is very important, especially to European nations.

Piotr Wandycz’s career in the United States was no less impressive than that of great “Zbig” - Professor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who died in June this year. Obviously “Zbig" was a much better known figure internationally. This is because he decided to leave academia to practice world politics. It allowed him to voice his opinions on many current political issues, including matters directly linked to Poland’s national interests. Piotr Wandycz had far fewer opportunities to do that. Yet, he conducted his own, well-thought out “historical policy” which introduced (the history of Poland and Central and Eastern Europe into American deliberations on history and the global intellectual mainstream. And he was very effective.

Melchior Wańkowicz, a Polish writer, journalist, and publicist, noted for his travel reports, his work on the battle of Monte Cassino and his reports from the Polish Armed forces during World War, once wrote “An evening with Professor Wandycz. He is one of several hundred of our academics who are politically independent, are not financed by US political funds; therefore his opinion weights on the US’s attitude towards us." Wandycz had excellent opportunities to have an impact as a highly regarded US academic. He was a professor of history at Yale University – the best school of history in the US, for thirty years. He also lectured at other prestigious universities in the United States.

He was also the first historian whose books were twice awarded the George Louis Beer Prize – the equivalent of the Pulitzer for journalism, an award bestowed since 1895 by the American Historical Society. The list of its laureates is impressive, with such names as Robert Ferrell (1952), Richard Pipes (1955), Alexander Dallin (1957), Vojtech Mastny (1997) and Timothy Snyder (2003). Wandycz received the Prize in 1962 for his book France & Her Eastern Allies 1919–1925, and then in 1989 for The Twilight of the French Eastern Alliances 1926–1936. French-Czechoslovak-Polish Relations from Locarno to the Remilitarization of the Rhineland. The only other scholar to receive this award twice was Gerhard Weinberg for his monumental works on foreign policy of the Third Reich and the history of the Second World War. The list of all the awards and distinctions bestowed upon Wandycz is too long to mention here, but it is fitting to say that he received honoris causa doctorates from the Sorbonne in Paris, the Jagiellonian University, the University of Wrocław and the Catholic University of Lublin.

I dreamt of walking around Lwow

Paradoxically his two US award-winning books have never been published in the Polish language. In the Polish People’s Republic their publication was not possible for political reasons, but in a free Poland only ignorance and impossibilism can be blamed for this.. As a result, besides historians and intellectuals – mostly thanks to cooperation with Jerzy Giedroyc, his Paris-based “Kultura”, a leading Polish-émigré literary-political magazine, and it’s historical incarnation “Zeszyty Historyczne” – Professor Piotr Wandycz was a little known figure in Poland. So it is worth raising awareness about this special person, even if posthumously.

He belonged to a generation that came of age during World War Two in Poland. If he had been born in Warsaw in 1923, he would have most probably fought in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or – if he had been luckier – in the Warsaw Uprising in August of 1944, like his cousin. His father Dawid Kon was born into a polonising Jewish family. He played an active part in Poland’s struggle for independence before the outbreak of the First World War. As a student in Prague he was a member of the Union for the Active Struggle - a Polish secret military organization founded in June 1908 in Lwów by Józef Piłsudski, and it was there that he first used the pseudonym “Wandycz”. When the Great War broke out, he enlisted in Józef Piłsudski’s Legions at the age of 22 and completed the combat trail of the First Brigade. He was decorated with the Legion’s badge of merit “For faithful service.” In 1916, in Baranovichi, he converted to Catholicism and took the name Damian. His pseudonym in the Legion became the last name of his whole family – as his three brothers also converted to Catholicism and started using the name Wandycz. What a powerful example of the magnet of inclusive patriotism of Piłsudski’s Legions!

Piłsudski must have noticed this young man, because in December 1918, while serving as interim Head of State, he sent him to Prague as part of a three-member delegation to conduct confidential political talks with the Czech leaders. This mission was forgotten for many years and was evoked by none other than Damian Wandycz in 1953, who published his recollections of the mission in the émigré periodical “Biały Orzeł”. He recollected that he delivered a personal letter from Piłsudski to Masaryk. His son, Professor Piotr Wandycz, returned to this historical event 17 years later when he published documents discovered in archives that concerned this mission.

In 1919 Damian Wandycz married Stefania Dunikowska, and their son Piotr was born four years later. In 1930, the family moved to Lwow, where Damian took up a job in the oil business. Piotr had fond memories of the two cities throughout his life. “I knew Lwow better, but I had ties to Krakow and the Krakow Province thanks to my mother’s family, who lived in the Nowy Sącz region,” he recalled in 2011 in an interview granted to “Nowy Dziennik.“ “After the war, I dreamed many times that I was walking around Lwow looking for familiar places,” he added.

The Wandycz family fled Lwow on 14 September 1939 when the German troops started to close in on the city. The Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939 forced them to continue fleeing. In Romania, Damian Wandycz joined the Polish Foreign Service. In the spring of 1940, the Polish government summoned him to France. After France capitulated, the Vichy government that collaborated with the Germans made a few hotels in Grenoble available to Polish government officials and the pre-war Polish authorities. The Wandycz family was accommodated in the Hotel Grand together with a group of Polish politicians and government officials. They lived next door to the Polish Ambassador in Moscow until 17 September 1939, Wacław Grzybowski PhD. There Piotr Wandycz spent two years, finished secondary school and saw his mother die in 1941.

A year later his father managed to obtain Spanish visas that permitted them to flee to Great Britain. Piotr enlisted in the Polish army. He served in the artillery of the 1st Armoured Division commanded by Major General Stanisław Maczek. He ended his military service in the rank of second lieutenant. Even though, as he recalled, it was possible to get a study leave, it did not seem “fair” to him so he got his leave only when the war was over.

He studied history at Cambridge, and was granted a PhD in 1951 on the thesis Liberal Internationalism. The Contribution of British & French Liberal Thought to the Theory of International Relations. In his thesis, he analysed the attitude of liberal thinkers towards such notions as peace, international law, and morality in international politics. Professor Norman Davies, who read his PhD thesis in the mid-1980s, noted that Wandycz had deliberately avoided pointing at cases from Poland’s history to support his arguments. He evidently wanted to shun criticism of being intellectually biased. He made just one exception, when he quoted a letter from the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau to Poland’s prime minister Ignacy Paderewski dating from the time of the Versailles Conference in which Clemenceau wrote: „I must recall to your consideration – stated the French premier – the FACT that it is to endeavours and sacrifices of the [Allied] Powers… that the Polish nations owes recovery of its independence. Wandycz added his gloss: this TONE – he wrote – this tone hardly showed an understanding or sympathetic attitude”.


Federalism is becoming the theory of the day. Like every attractive theory it is more and more often the subject of discussion and dispute. The number of people who consider themselves federalists and the number of people who declare themselves to be absolutely against federalism is growing. The hosts of the indifferent, who are entirely uninterested in the problem, are shrinking. This phenomenon is proof that federalism is becoming an issue that cannot just be ignored. One has to be for or against, but one cannot deny its existence or importance.

The essence of federalism is often misunderstood and misinterpreted both by some of the supporters of the federal idea and a large number of its opponents. Uncritical and idealistic supporters of federalism seek in it an escape from all the problems of this world. The word “federalism” is for them a magical formula opening the gates to a new world of happiness, to a world with no wars or conflicts, to a world in which all the problems oppressing today’s generation will find ideal solutions.

Opponents of federalism, who regard themselves as sober realists, are very sceptical about such hopes. They dismiss federalism as a pipe dream – noble, to be sure, but so very distant from the reality we live in. What is more, they see federalism as but an external façade, invented to pull the wool over the eyes of the masses longing for peace, while lurking behind it are the hostile interests of either the great powers or international cliques.

Federalism is both an ideology and a practical plan of action. Federalism seeks to create a union of states that will give up some of their sovereignty in favour of the federal community. Federalism rests on the principle that the federal government and also the governments of federal states are in direct contact with their citizens. A federal constitution limits the power of the federal government and the governments of the federal states with the stipulation that every government is – in its own realm – independent both of other federal states’ governments and the central federal government. [...]

Poles too can be found among writers supporting unification ideas. Stanisław Leszczyński proposed a universal alliance of monarchs. In the closing years of the 18th century, Father Skrzetuski wrote Projekt, czyli ułożenie nieprzerwanego w Europie pokoju ('A Project, or Concluding Unbroken Peace in Europe'). Over the course of the 19th century, Wojciech Jastrzębowski, and later Stefan Buszczyński, advanced their concepts of a European union.

Piotr Wandycz, International Organizations in the Federal Movement, 1949

[in: Towards a United Europe. An Anthology of Twentieth Century Polish Thought on Europe, ed. S. Łukasiewicz, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, 2011]

Response to harmful books

The years spent in the UK, both in the army and at the university were for Wandycz a formative period. It made him realise that international politics is not just a conflict of interests, but also a clash of ideas. Those that are harmful to Poland’s national interests should be fought just as fiercely as enemy tanks. Wandycz learned his excellent skills as a historian of diplomacy from the British which allowed him to skilfully manoeuvre in the plain of political thought, and to reason without emotion: “I admired the way the English conducted themselves during the war; for instance, when I went to the cinema in London and an air raid was announced, no one left their seats. People calmly waited for an announcement that the alarm was over. I was very much impressed with the English stiff upper lip and composure – I never saw anyone panic. I liked Cambridge, its teaching system and customs. I had very good relationships with people. So, when the British government abandoned us after the war I felt deceived in my love.”

After his PhD, Wandycz immigrated to the United States. His father had been living there since 1944, sent to the States by the Polish government on a diplomatic mission. When the war ended, he had nowhere to return to – later he headed the Józef Piłsudski Institute in New York. Dr Piotr Wandycz was offered the post of history professor at Indiana University thanks to recommendations he had received from Cambridge. There he worked for ten years, with a two-year break during which he lectured at Harvard.

In 1954, a period of very intense academic, social and patriotic activity began which could be described as Piotr Wandycz’s private campaign of “historical policy”. He gradually introduced Polish issues to the intellectual life of the United States, wrote about the political and historical conditions of Central and Eastern Europe. As an academic teacher, he educated two generations of American scholars, diplomats, journalists and politicians. He fought. He steered his research interests in such a way as to respond to the deficit of knowledge in the US society and to counteract political stereotypes and clichés that were based on ignorance and were potentially dangerous to Poland and other nations prisoned on the wrong side of the Iron Curtin.

In 1953, two books that were very harmful for the Polish cause were published in the United States. Harvard University Press published an excellently written work by Samuel Sharp, designated for a wider public: Poland. White Eagle on a Red Field. The author argued form the position of the so-called political realism that the idea of Poland’s independence is a pipe dream, because in the world of real political interest there is no room for small nations as the international relations are the playground of the Powers. Thus because Poland has been and will always remain a part of Russia’s vital interests, and only incidentally of the interests of the United States, its independence can never become a real US foreign policy programme. At the time of its publication, Yale University issued a study by Louis Gerson titled Woodrow Wilson & the Rebirth of Poland 1914–1920. This author in turn argued that the US president was manipulated by “a Polish ethnic minority” in the United States and that he had conducted a wrong policy concerning Poland’s independence, contrary to the US interests. His book was full of factual and interpretation errors and the author had no knowledge about the Polish historical context. Even though the Polish-American community raised a ruckus, it did little to change the situation. Both publications gained the status of academic textbooks.

Wandycz responded by writing his own books. The first publication, Soviet-Polish Relations 1917-1921, was published in 1955 by Harvard University. In it, Wandycz presented a wide historical context of Polish-Russian relations. In an excellently written book, based on Polish, British and Russian source material, in that time unknown in the United States, he presented the aims of Józef Piłsudski’s policy in the context of the Bolshevik vision of the world and their politics not only towards Poland, but also towards Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine. Relying on the sources, he demonstrated that the Polish-Soviet conflict had not been caused by apparent “Polish imperialism,” or by the Bolsheviks’ efforts to secure “self-determination” but that it had emerged from strategic and ideological premises and was thus unavoidable.

Piotr Wandycz’s monograph is still the best study of Polish-Soviet relations from the Bolshevik coup to the Peace of Riga in the US historiography and continues to exist as recommended student reading. Wandycz sneeringly observed after many years that the Polish-American community had taken almost no notice of his book.

Another monograph he devoted to Polish-US relations., The United States & Poland, was published by Harvard University Press in 1980. Not only did it replace Louis Gerson’s book on the list of recommended reading for students of the best US universities, but it has been the best study to date of Polish-American relations from the Partitions of Poland in XVIII century up to Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

We thus return to the problem of how Wandycz’s writing was received at home. We are right to complain about a deficit of Polish historical policy, but at the same time we are not familiar with the writing of its true master. Professor Wandycz, often acting alone, scored more successes in this field than any other person, including all the ministries and offices independent Poland taken together.

There is not enough room here to discuss all of his achievements, but two aspects are worth looking into. It was no coincidence that a selection of documents about Katyn in English Katyn. A Crime Without Punishment, edited by Anna Cienciała, Natalia S. Lebiedeva and Wojciech Materski, was published by Yale University Press – a publishing house of the university at which professor Wandycz lectured and where he enjoyed great esteem. Wandycz inspirited generations of historians both in the US and in Europe. It is also symbolic that Professor Timothy Snyder, now the most outstanding US historian who specialises in Central and Eastern Europe history became his successor at Yale.  

Much of Piotr Wandycz’s intellectual legacy will not age with time, like his remark about the mental context of US-Polish relations. “Americans, as the novelist Emily Hahn put it, ‘have never been overly fond of history. We always think that what we are experiencing is new.’ Nor I such an attitude surprising. The successive waves of immigrants to America were escaping European history and its burdens. The call of the ‘new’, whether in terms of a new frontier or a new experience or a new deal, has been irresistible; at the same time large chunks of the past disappear each year from the American landscape. The Poles, in spite of recent changes in attitudes, are among the most history-conscious peoples. Even if they wished to escape history, they could hardly do it; the past permeates the present and a Pole turns to the past centuries to seek inspiration, consolidation or justification for the actions of today.”

In the context of the endless Polish debate about idealism (Romanticism) and realism (Positivism) in politics, it is worth recalling what Piotr Wandycz said when he argued that the criterion of “realism” and “idealism” is not a good guide to Poland’s history. In 1983, he wrote: “The so-called realists often turn out to be very unrealistic in their tactics and choice of means of action. For instance, Wielopolski’s conscription, which was condemned by Michał Bobrzyński [a Polish historian, one of the founders of a realist school in Polish historiography, and conservative politician] from the position of a level-headed politician and ‘realistic’ historian. [...] And in turn how much pragmatic realism was there in the different political moves made by the ‘romantic’ (idealist?) Piłsudski? [...] Common use and especially abuse of these ideas can easily lead to judgemental treatment of those with whom we disagree, and to condemning our opponents. The accusation of a lack of realism, a lack of understanding of reality, of incorrigible idealism turns into a weapon or an instrument in conflict situations. The idea obviously is not to eliminate the word itself, but to consider its adequacy.”

The situation leads us to quote Juliusz Mieroszewski, a political columnist of “Kultura, a group with which Professor Piotr Wandycz was closely associated with for several dozen years. In an essay Kordian i cham (‘Kordian & Boor’) published in 1973, Mieroszewski wrote: “Leaf through history! The dreams of romantics were made real by realists. If it weren’t for the romantics – the realists would not have had anything to make real.” A little known fact is that Piotr Wandycz was Juliusz Mieroszewski’s cousin. Piotr Wandycz’s mother, Stefania Dunikowska, was the sister of the columnist’s mother.

Thrice great

“A great historian of a great nation is the greatest honour,” wrote Professor Szymon Askenazy, another famous Polish historian and diplomat, about one of the greatest French historians of diplomacy, Albert Sorel. In Askenazy’s opinion, Sorel was “a great historian in the triple meaning of the word: scholarly, civic and literary. A great scholar not a dilettante, a great writer not an artisan, not a pedant, a great citizen, but free of any a priori tendencies.”

This criterion of a historian’s greatness was invoked by Piotr Wandycz in an article Szymon Askenazy & Historical Policy written for a conference organised in the Belvedere Palace by the Polish Institute of International Affairs under the auspices of President Lech Kaczyński in 2006. Because of his ill health, Professor Wandycz was unable to take part in the conference. He asked me then to read out the sent paper. It was published just recently in April 2017 after the reactivation of “Polski Przegląd Dyplomatyczny”.

Fate would have it that his observations about the historian’s social role and contribution to the development of historical policy based on his deliberations about Szymon Askenazy were Professor Piotr Wandycz’s last text that was published during his lifetime in Poland. This gives me the courage to use Professor Askenazy’s classification here. In the 20th century Poland had many great world-class historians and intellectuals. Many of them have been forgotten or ignored at home for different reasons. One of the greatest of them all was no doubt Professor Piotr Wandycz, a great historian in the triple meaning of the word: scholarly, civic and literary. We should preserve his memory in Poland. We should name an award after him or at least publish his major books in Polish.

Author: Sławomir Dębski

Source: “Rzeczpospolita”



SŁAWOMIR DĘBSKI is Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), a position he also held from 2007 to 2010. He is a historian and political scientist and was granted a PhD in history from Jagiellonian University in 2002. Between 2011 and 2016, he was Director of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue & Understanding and the Editor-in-Chief and part of the Editorial Board of the "Intersection Project". He has been a member of the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters since 2008. He was Editor-in-Chief of the Russian-language quarterly Evropa as well as the bi-monthly "Polski Przegląd Dyplomatyczny". He is the author of the book Między Berlinem a Moskwą. Stosunki niemiecko-sowieckie 1939–1941 ('Between Berlin & Moscow. German-Soviet Relations 1939-1941'), as well as articles and collections of sources on diplomatic history. His key areas of expertise include Polish foreign policy, external policy of the EU, Russian foreign policy, global security, and the history of diplomacy.