BY ANY STANDARD, Poland should be one of Europe's most interesting countries. Its history is filled with honor and ignominy; its people have suffered all the afflictions that poverty and war can impose. Yet, even other Slavs would agree, Poles retain a vitality, a romanticism, a humor, that sets them apart from the more lugubrious Czechs or ham-handed Russians.
Until recently though, Poland has been largely put down, pigeonholed as just another dreary Soviet satellite or made the brunt of American ethnic yuks. The papacy of John Paul II seems to have turned that around for a number of reasons: The Pope's personal charisma, the appealing dignity of his visit home last June and a growing awareness abroad of how Poles have outsmarted the Kremlin through a spiritual independence which their flourishing church symbolizes. There is, Americans seem now to recognize, much more to Poland that the cliches of barbed wire subjugation or tee-shirted louts.
Poland is, if not fashionable, then at least engaging.
Now comes Richard M. Watt's Bitter Glory: Poland and Its Fate, 1918-1939 . Neither an academic treatise nor some superspecialized monograph, Bitter Glory -- a decade in the writing -- is meant to be something of an historical epic.
The story of Europe between the wars has already been told from many perspectives. But Watt takes that tumultuous period and focuses on Poland, pinpointing its internal turmoils and how these related to events elsewhere on the continent.
The result is the well-known tale of Europe's tragic dissolution seen through an unfamiliar prism. According to Watt, Poland's perpetual weakness and its often clumsy struggle for unity played a significant part in fueling the rapaciousness of Hitler and eventually Stalin. To understand why Europe convulsed the way it did in 1939, a sense of Poland's role is essential.
At the end of World War I Poland had not existed for over a century, partitioned, instead, among Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Wresting sovereignty and then fashioning a nation out of fractious political groups and deep-seated ethnic rivalries was no mean trick and Polish leaders never really succeeded. By Watt's account, the country lurched from one crisis to the next, at times ennobled with nationalism and good intentions, at other times diminished by greed and foolishness.
The most distinctive personal presence until nearly the end was Josef Pilsudski, a dashing, difficult figure who as Poland's chief-of-state and eminence grise kept the country together when so often it seemed to be tearing itself apart. Pilsudski was motivated, Watt observes, by his belief that " a basic flaw in the Polish national character was its peoples' inability to achieve agreement in political matters. His study of Polish history had proved to him that again and again the Polish people had precipitated the destruction of their government by a suicidal urge toward political anarchy."
World War II savaged Poland and in terrible ways solved many of its complexities. The Jewish problem and Polish anti-semitism subsided, for instance, because most of the country's Jews were dead. Smaller minorities ceased to be a concern also because they had been gerrymandered into other lands. There was no more overt divisiveness because only one political party was permitted.
This all sounds terribly grim. In fact, for those who survived, the communist-imposed order in Poland had the salutary effect of drawing the people together. What strikes me most in comparing the interwar Poland of Bitter Glory with the contemporary Poland that I have visited many times, is its people's shared commitment to Polish nationhood. The paradox is that without the full independence Poland had before, it now has the unity it so badly needed.
Bitter Glory doesn't get into all this, though I wish it had. By sticking so closely to his chronological narrative, Watt misses the extra dimension that might have made his book even more meaningful to the general reader. After all, linking the recent past to the present makes both clearer.
But what he does do, Watt does well. The 21-year saga unfolds with impressive detail and insight. The characters emerge boldly; the intricate politics clearly. There could, however, easily be more about the social and cultural life of the period, some more flavor of the way people spent their time and what they thought. Watt plainly set out to do a straightforward political history without a great deal of atmosphere. And that is exactly what he did. Poland deserves the attention it gets in Bitter Glory, but it might even have merited a little more.