Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski. Poland: An Illustrated History. New York: Hippocrene Books, 2008. Illustrations. Index. 282 pp. $19.95 (cloth).
With this work, Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski makes a valuable contribution to Hippocrene Books' long list of publications on Polish history and culture. Pogonowski -- trained as a scientist and identified as a lexicographer-writer on the book's back cover -- is also the author of Jews in Poland: A Documentary History (Hippocrene Books,1997) and Polish-English dictionaries. This most recent book, Poland: An Illustrated History, covers more than a thousand years of Polish history in fewer than three hundred pages. The result of Pogonowski's ambitious attempt is admirable. All major historical figures and events are mentioned. Political and social issues are aptly discussed, and cultural history is very much an integral part of the book. Overall, the book is written in a clear and concise way, which makes it easy for all audiences to read.
The book is divided into many short chapters, ranging from one to a few dozen pages. It also contains maps, timelines of Polish history, lists of Nobel Prize winners born in Poland, and an index of key figures and events mentioned throughout the book. A highlight of the book is the section on the Second
World War. Pogonowski's personal experience of the war no doubt enables him to narrate many events with a rare authenticity and authority. The book describes the Nazi invasion of 1939 in detail and discusses the effects of the German occupation on the press, art and literature. This section is narrated with precise dates and statistics, and the result is a gripping account of the war that commands the reader's attention.
To cover such an expansive period of history in so few pages, one must necessarily prioritize the most important information, sometimes at the expense of narrative coherence. In several instances, the book simply lists historical events as if they were self-explanatory. For example, Pogonowski writes "President Carter stated that his national security advisor would be Polish-born Dr. Zbigniew Brzeziński" (239), without discussing the significance or implications of such a choice. Whether this frequent lack of coherence is a result of space limitations is unclear, but one-sentence paragraphs and a lack of transitions are common throughout the book. Consequently, Pogonowski often leaves ideas and arguments underdeveloped and sometimes his paragraphs lack a logical flow.
The book provides a solid starting point for those seeking an introduction to Polish history, but it is not detailed enough for scholars to use as a reference. In contrast to existing accounts of Polish history, such as Norman Davies's God's Playground (Columbia UP, 1982), Pogonowski's book cites other works only sporadically and has no bibliography. Furthermore, the author sometimes abandons the historian's ideal of objectivity and strays into subjectivity. For example, we see the phrase "parasitic growth of Prussia at Poland's expense" by the map of the 1795 partition (147). Pogonowski's diction sometimes reveals a pro-Poland bias and his desire to portray Poland as a victim. This is especially apparent in the book's conclusion, where he states, "Poland is here to stay, judging by the performance of Polish culture which is of considerable importance to Europe, flourishing as it does in the physical center of the European continent" (253).
The book rightfully claims to be an illustrated history, as it contains facsimiles of numerous paintings and photographs. Additionally, many charts and maps are reprinted from Pogonowski's earlier book, Poland: A Historical Atlas (Hippocrene Books, 1987). They are convenient and show the author's meticulous work, though the charts tend to include details that can distract from the main issue. For example, the map of the final partition in 1795 includes information of the Polish gentry's rise and fall, and on how the Polish Commonwealth had the greatest freedom in Europe (147). The book concludes with a list of "Nobel Prize Winners Born in Poland" and a "Chronology of Poland's History." Helpful though they are, the lists are also at times misleading. Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz, for instance, was born in modern-day Lithuania -- then part of the Russian empire -- not in Poland.
The book would have benefited from better editing, which would have caught such errors as the misdating of Stanisław Wyspiański's life (it is dated in a caption 1846-1916, rather than the correct 1869-1907 (189)) and the Seven Years War (printed as 1758-1763 instead of 1756-1763 (122)). Furthermore, Polish diacritics are often misprinted: Łódź as Łódż (230, 238), Pożegnanie as Poźegnanie (136), Jędrzej as Jedrzej (197), and Przegląd as Przeglad (184). The book is also not free of typographical errors: Gdańsk as "Gdański" (237) and Balloon as "Baloon" (208) are just two examples.
Overall, it would be most appropriate to treat this book as a starting point rather than an authoritative source of information about Polish history. Even though it has shortcomings, it is ideal for those with little to no knowledge of the subject matter. It is easy to read, and the graphs and maps certainly make the fact-filled narrative more interesting. Finally, this book makes a strong case for anyone who has doubts about Poland's significance in Europe.
Tony H. Lin, University of California, Berkeley