Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Royal memories in the heart of Europe

Adam Zamoyski

When the communists took power in Poland in the wake of the Second World War, they were desperate for any shred of legitimacy. As a result, they reached back to the tenth century and to Poland's first royal dynasty, the Piasts, for a sense of homeland and nationhood around which to build their new People's Republic.

This is hardly surprising. Poland had been created and put on the map of Christendom by the Piasts in the year 966. The kingdom fragmented several times, and might have been sucked into Bohemia or one of the German states had it not been for this energetic dynasty. Under the last Piast, Kazimierz the Great (1333-1370), the country flourished as never before and rarely since.

At this point, Poland became part of a dynastic union under the Lithuanian Jagiellons, which more than doubled the size of the kingdom and extended its power correspondingly. But when the Jagiellon dynasty died out two centuries later, the Poles were obliged to start electing their kings.

This elective monarchy, which lasted from 1572-1795, was in effect a presidential system. It had its advantages, but these were far outweighed by the negative consequences. It did not provide the continuity and stability which were essential in view of Poland's multi-ethnic and multi-religious makeup, as well as its far-reaching civil liberties. Most of the kings did no more than wield power while they had it, and few even thought of investing time and funds in long-term enterprises or improvements. Poland declined into a state of political impotence.

In a last-ditch attempt to save the state, a group of enlightened aristocrats and patriots passed a new liberal constitution in 1791, which was universally hailed as a great fruit of the Enlightenment. This was based on a return to a stronger, constitutionally-framed hereditary monarchy on the English model. Fearing a Polish resurgence, Russia, Prussia and Austria sent in their troops and partitioned Poland's territory amongst themselves.

Had they allowed that constitution to stand, there can be no doubt that in the nineteenth century Poland would have become an outpost of liberalism and economic progress in Central Europe. This would have made it impossible for Tsarist Russia to resist reform, and probably would have meant that Prussia would never have gained the ascendancy in Germany that she did. The history of that whole area, and therefore of the world, would have been entirely different.

Between memory and longing

The Poles are not naturally deferential. They have always shown aggressively egalitarian instincts. Quite apart from the fact that there are no likely candidates, there could be no question of establishing a monarchy in Poland today. But they still think of their country and its past largely in terms of those who reigned over them. Periods and styles are defined by individual rulers, kings and queens figure prominently among national heroes and are used to brand drinks and cigarettes. The royal mausoleum in Krakow is massively visited. And when the old communist currency was finally replaced in the 1990s, only kings appeared on the notes.

More to the point, most Poles realise that the decline in national cohesion and stability which led to the partitions and all the subsequent disasters was the direct result of a lack of strong monarchical power, and not a few look wistfully at the English model.

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