Interview with Prof. Neal Pease - by Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm
|Prof. Neal Pease, Thomas Napierkowski and Anna Jaroszynska-Kirchmann receive|
medals from the Polish government, Warsaw, 2014.
-The subject of my master’s thesis, done at the University of Kansas, under the direction of Professor Anna Cienciała, had to do with the portrayal of Poland and issues dealing with Poland in the British press during the interwar years. My doctoral dissertation, completed at Yale in 1982, under the direction of Professor Piotr Wandycz, focused on relations between the Second Polish Republic and the United States in the years following the First World War, with an emphasis on financial relations, and their political and diplomatic repercussions, between the two countries. This became the basis of my first book, Poland, the United States, and the Stabilization of Europe, 1919-1933.
How did you become interested in the subject of Polish history?
-I am often asked this, since I have no Polish ancestry. It was unusual in my day for a “niepolak” to go into this field of study—less so, nowadays, when Polish studies have gone more “mainstream” in the United States, and many of the better scholars of Polish matters, of generations younger than mine, are of non-Polish background. In my particular case, the initial motivations were purely accidental, even trivial. I grew up in a college town, and as it happened, a goodly number of the kids I went to school with, and chummed around with, were sons and daughters of faculty in Slavic studies at my hometown University of Kansas. When I was starting my second year at KU, one of these friends suggested I join him in signing up for a course in Polish and east European history that, by fortuitous chance, was taught by Anna Cienciała. I found the course fascinating, in part because its material was entirely unknown to me. Professor Cienciała encouraged me to pursue my studies further, and convinced me to spend a year abroad participating in an exchange program between Kansas and Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań—and I never looked back, as we say. It also helped that these were the early 1970s, when very interesting things were starting to happen in Poland.
So, it can be said that to a large extent American historians of Polish origin - professors Anna Cienciała and Piotr Wandycz--contributed to the development or orientation of your interests and your research?
- I can safely say that, had I not had the good fortune of having been trained and mentored by Anna Cienciała and Piotr Wandycz, I never would have entered the field of Polish and east central European history. The debt I owe to their erudition, their example, and their kindly interest is beyond repayment. I can only hope that, in the course of carrying out my own career, I will have reflected well on, and done justice to the excellent preparation they gave me.
In your books and essays there are many interesting topics. One of them is the role of the Catholic Church in contemporary Polish history. You conduct courses on the history of Poland and Central Europe, the history of Christianity, including the Catholic Church. What archives do you use?
- Naturally, one uses different archives, depending on the particular subject one is researching, so my lifetime itinerary to various archives and libraries will reflect my list of publications. Over the years, I have probably spent most of my time in state and ecclesiastical archives in Poland itself, but because documents relating to Poland have been spread throughout much of the globe owing to the disruptions of war, dictatorship, and emigration, I have logged a good many hours and miles in the United States and London as well. Other collections I have consulted are as modest and nearby as in my home city of Milwaukee, or as famed and distant as the Vatican Archives.
Another topic of your lectures is the so called “Jewish revival” in contemporary Poland. Can an American student develop positive thinking about it?
- This is an extraordinarily interesting and important subject. It is not one that readers will find in my own published work to date, but it is one that I hope to get the chance to address in projects I am now working on that I hope to get into print eventually. In the meantime, there are numerous excellent scholars and commentators working on this subject, and I am eager to promote their work in my capacity as editor of the journal The Polish Review.
You lecture on the history of Western civilization - from the year 1500 to the present day. Other courses: Poland and its neighbors in 1795-1914, Poland and its neighbors - 1914-1945, Catholic Church from 1500 to the present. Can we expect books based on your lectures?
- The possibility of writing one or two books of this sort has occurred to me. For the time being, any of them would need to be added to the lengthy list of “things I’d like to get around to doing someday.”
You are a member of the Board of Directors of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences (PIASA), also in the Polish American Historical Association (2011-2012 - President), and as well you are a member of the editorial board of Polish American Studies. Since 2014 you have been the editor-in-chief of The Polish Review, a reputable scientific journal opened in 1956. It is available in 575 not only American libraries. Do you agree that the ability to read selected texts is an important aspect because it is possible to influence the elites?
- I am honored to have been entrusted with the editorship of The Polish Review, with its distinguished history. It has a slightly unusual profile, in comparison with other journals in our scholarly profession. On the one hand, it is an academic publication, and of course we seek to maintain a high standard of scholarship, but it is not purely academic, in the strict sense: it is the organ of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, whose membership and leadership is composed not merely of academics, but professionals in other fields of Polish identity, or strong interest in Polish matters. For this reason, our potential audience might be somewhat broader than is typical for most scholarly journals, and to the extent this is so, we see this as a sign that the Review is fulfilling its mission.
You are the author of important books, essays, and scholarly papers. Interesting is your book: "Rome's Most Faithful Daughter: The Catholic Church and the Independent Poland, 1914-1939". (Ohio University Press, 2009). You write that when Poland reappeared on the map of Europe it was perceived as the most Catholic country on the continent. You write that, despite this, relations between the Polish Church and the Vatican were not entirely good, and at times were even difficult. You show the intricate relations between Poland and the Vatican. The Vatican counted on Poland's plan to "convert Russia into Catholicism", while the Polish government was reluctant to take part in this plan. These are not commonly known issues. How did you reach them? Was it mainly thanks to the recently released Vatican archives?
- This was precisely the subject that, to my mind, turned out to be the most complex and fascinating aspect of the book as I progressed through the project. In brief: the Holy See, under the leadership of Pope Pius XI (who had served as papal nuncio to Poland before becoming pope) thought that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, while monstrous in itself, opened a historic opportunity to expand Catholicism eastward into the lands historically Orthodox; this was opposed resolutely by the interwar Polish governments, and to a large extent, by leadership of the Church in Poland, because the Vatican wished to convert the Orthodox to eastern-rite Catholicism, regarded as undesirable by its Polish counterparts as a hindrance to assimilation of Ukrainians and Belorussians into Polish culture, and out of fear that these efforts might further complicate the difficult relationship between Poland and the Soviet Union. Now, these matters were not entirely unknown, and careful readers of my book will note that I made use of a wide variety of published work. But I had an advantage over my predecessors in that I was able to make use of a goodly number of archival sources in order to fill out the picture. I did indeed find some relevant material in the Vatican Archives—but on the whole, I gained the most information from documents in Polish state archives, since this was a matter of considerable discussion—usually unsympathetic discussion—within Polish official circles.
Another book entitled "Poland, the United States, and the Stabilization of Europe, 1919-1933" (Oxford University Press, 1986) is the first publication on the relationship between Poland and the US after the First World War when Poland turned to America to improve its precarious situation. Based on the numerous archives, you show how the Polish leaders in the 1920s were expecting America to support stability in Europe, as Poland regained its independence after gaining the United States of America for political and financial support. How far has this policy and expectations of the United States maintained or changed?
- The heart of that book is summed up in the joking response I would make to colleagues and friends when they asked what I was working on: I would tell them it was a detailed account of something that did not happen, the „something” being the creation of a solid economic and political partnership between the fledgling 2RP and the United States. After the First World War, as is widely known, the US decided to reject President Wilson’s vision of a permanent American role in underwriting European peace and security, preferring to limit itself to financial investment in the Old World. What I discovered was that the Polish governments hoped to overcome American reluctance to support Poland politically and to win an alliance with the transoceanic superpower “through the back door,” so to speak, by attracting US loans and investments in the country on the theory that, sooner rather than later, Washington would feel the need to protect the independence and territorial integrity of a country where many American dollars were at stake. The flaw in the plan was that Americans by and large avoided investing in Poland—precisely because the country was so obviously at risk to the unfriendly ambitions of Germany and Soviet Russia, so it became a vicious cycle discouraging American commitment to interwar Poland.
That said, it strikes me now that I wrote that book during the era of the Cold War and the PRL, and in many ways my approach to the topic reflected a prevalent view of the time, that the absence of close ties between Poland and the United States was somehow a “natural” state of the relationship, dictated by unpleasant but stubborn geopolitical realities. In light of the strong partnership that has developed between the two countries since 1989, now I might approach the subject differently, and invite readers to regard the Polish policies of the 1920s as perhaps premature, but foresighted and prophetic, rather than simply chimerical.
In an essay titled "This Troublesome Question": The United States and the 'Polish Pogroms' of 1918-1919. "Ideology, Politics and Diplomacy in East Central Europe”. (Ed. Biskupski, M. B. University of Rochester Press, 2003) you quote a fragment of Herbert Hoover's journals (1874-1920). Hoover writes that in the news in April 1919 information about the "Pinsk massacre" was reported - the execution of 50 Jews executed at the command of the General of the Polish Army. Americans - at the request of President Wilson, with the approval of Paderewski - sent a delegation to investigate what had happened. It turned out that such an accident did not occur, that it was a lie. In the meantime, I read, for example, in Polish wikipedia, that historians do not judge the massacre in Pińsk unequivocally. Do you think it is important and possible to clarify this matter?
- Over the years there has been considerable discussion and controversy over the sufferings inflicted on Jews dwelling in the kresy in the chaotic aftermath of the First World War, particularly those areas affected by the warfare between Poland on the one hand, and the Bolsheviks and advocates of an independent Ukraine, on the other. These gave rise to lurid reports of perhaps thousands of Jews slain in pogroms at least partially attributable to the encouragement or negligence of Polish military or governmental leadership. While emphasizing that historians still disagree on these matters, in good faith, I think it is fair to say that most commentators agree that these accusations, while not groundless, were considerably exaggerated. The significance of the Pińsk incident was that it was reasonably well documented and verifiable, enough so to prompt the American government to launch an official inquiry into the broader charges of Polish mistreatment of Jews—and there is reason to believe that the U.S. State Department hoped that the verdict of the investigation would largely absolve Poland of blame, and, going further, that the American diplomats cared considerably less about the welfare of the Jews of eastern Europe than they did about protecting the image of the Poland they saw, in that interlude right after the war, as an important European ally of the United States.
But your question raises the larger issue, of the necessity of re-examining the history of relations between gentiles and Jews in the Polish lands. This is of primary and urgent importance, and has been much discussed since 1989, primarily having to do with the years during and immediately after the Second World War, but it can, and should, pertain to the entirety of Polish history. One of the principal signs of a mature and confidently democratic country is its willingness to explore and confront its history, including those issues that are painful or challenging. The record of Polish scholars since 1989 in filling in the “blank pages” of the country’s past, of challenging old taboos, and of correcting the historical record as needed, has been admirable. One hopes they will be able to continue this valuable work, and that they will encounter no such obstacles as those that have hampered the free inquiry of Polish historians in the past.
Interesting is the subject - how Americans write about their "mistakes and distortions". In my opinion they do it usually without tearing robes and lamentations. I read a very interesting book by Lynne Olson entitled "Those Angry Days. Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 ", N.Y. 2013). The author, a well-known historian, writes about the years before America joined the Second War, and how strong were the anti-war and pro-German moods. Charles Lindbergh - American pioneer of aviation - in 1938 received a medal from Hermann Goering.
The book has a separate 18 page chapter titled "Setting the Ground for Anti-Semitism," where the author writes that most American universities, including almost all "Ivy League" institutions, had a strict quota system (numerus clausus) for admission to studies. The university Yale Daily News quoted anti-Semitic commentary. The author writes that even after graduation the Jews had problems finding a job. The book has a lot of reviews, none of the reviewers referred to this chapter, a topic that almost nobody knows. Ability to reject, perhaps rather: retraction of many topics - this is an American characteristic (and can be seen from different perspectives). Maybe that's why the average American is so aware of America's "unique role"? Even Indians do not want to remind them of the painful periods in their history. The National Museum of the American Indian (opened in 2004) does not show the period of suffering, "Trail of Tears”. When I was collecting material for the book, the Indians themselves did not bring it up, but they proudly talked about their participation in the Second World War, the code talkers.
- Generally speaking, all people everywhere find it easier to speak of, let us say, the more glorious moments in their histories, and more difficult to recognize or admit those that do not reflect well on them—and all countries have them. In the case of the United States, you mention the destruction and displacement of the American Indians, and a long heritage of class based, “genteel” antisemitism. There is no denying these. Of course, there is also the matter of slavery and its legacy, which lasts to this day. At the same time, historians in the United States have been examining these questions, and others, quite vigorously in recent, and it is likely that their findings will gradually gain more acceptance in wider American society with the passage of time.
You are also interested in sport - soccer in Poland and baseball in the United States. In the essay "Diamonds Out of the Coal Mines: Slavic Americans in Baseball”, you write about the baseball star, very well-known, and much admired, Stan Musial. The legendary baseball player Stan Musial was of Polish descent. (I remember my husband talking about him with admiration and respect). Do you agree that team sport is a form of teamwork and that it is important especially in the early years of youth?
- I am indeed interested in sport, as a pastime of my own, and, as a historian, in the ways sport can reflect and make connections with what we might call „real” history, the meatier affairs of politics, society, economy, and culture. So I have taught, or plan on teaching, courses in the role baseball has played in American history, and soccer (piłka nożna) in world history. For instance, sport has played an important role in the history of the Polonia of the United States, largely because athletics traditionally has served as a significant entryway for acculturation of immigrant populations into American ways of life. And yes, Stan Musial is, by all odds, the greatest American athlete of Polish ancestry.
The question you pose about the usefulness of team sport in teaching youth the values of teamwork, fair play, and citizenship is very interesting. In fact, one can argue the point both ways, either that it does encourage these positive social attributes, or that it can do the opposite. There is probably no one answer. By the same token, there is no question that over the years many social thinkers, in the English speaking world at least, with its vibrant and highly developed sporting culture, have believed that sport can serve these desirable purposes, and that this is the main practical virtue of having young people learn and play these vigorous, organized games—one thinks of the British saying that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, which, while undoubtedly overstated, certainly summarizes an argument for the social benefit of sport.
The Polish version of this interview appeared in ODRA, Wroclaw, May 2017.