Shelton on Stefancic, 'Armies in Exile: The Polish Struggle for Nation and Nationalism'

David Stefancic, ed.
Anita Shelton

David Stefancic, ed. Armies in Exile: The Polish Struggle for Nation and Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 231 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-88033-565-2.

Reviewed by Anita Shelton (Department of History, Eastern Illinois University) Published on H-Nationalism (August, 2006)

Armies in Exile is a collection of eight essays discussing different aspects of Polish military efforts in exile during three periods (Napoleonic and the two World Wars) and their significance for Polish nation-building. It is a welcome and important complement to the existing scholarship on modern Polish national consciousness which generally focuses on culture (visual arts, music and literature), diplomacy, uprisings, commemorations, historiography and politics. This book reminds one of the huge impact that the activities of the Polish military had on the shaping of the Polish national identity and values in the absence of a state. Although the essays are unequal in quality and importance, taken together they make a strong case.

The first section of the book includes two essays on the Napoleonic period, the first of which (John Stanley's "The Polish Military in the Napoleonic Era") is a general survey and the second of which (Stefancic's "At a Gallop: The Charge at Somosierra: 1808") provides a case study for the main point made by Stanley: namely, that although in the end Polish efforts to regain statehood through military support of Napoleon's ambitions were futile, they are important nonetheless for creating a founding myth upon which a national pride could be based. Stanley's essay, which may be the most useful in the entire volume, argues persuasively that the Napoleonic experience of the Poles cast the mold for modern Polish nationalism. It reinforced their intellectual ties to Enlightenment principles and rationality; promoted education and literacy among the troops; carried the insurrectionary tradition of Ko?ciuszko into the romantic era; undermined the strong class consciousness of the Polish szlachta through both promotion by merit and a strong discouragement of the favorite pastimes of gentry (dueling, card-playing and drunkenness); and established a primacy of military over civil authority.

The next three essays center around World War I and the Polish Legion Movement. M. B. Biskupski's "The Militarization of Polish Politics and the Legion Movement of the First World War," picks up one of Stanley's main themes and shows how it is personified and powerfully stamped by the charismatic "Dziadek," Jósef Pi?sudski. In "Pi?sudski's Polish Legions: the Formation of a National Army without a Nation State," David Stefancic argues that although the Legions failed in their political objectives for the new state (opposed in their ambitions by both National Democrats and communists), they were successful in forging an experienced and strongly unified army for it. And, finally, Joseph T. Hapak contributes an article on "The Polish Army in France," in which he describes efforts to organize volunteers from Polonia (especially from the United States) and Polish POW's from the Austrian army into a cohesive unit on French soil. These three articles together highlight the complexities and difficulties faced by patriotic and stateless Poles trying to fight for a united and independent Poland amidst the disintegration of the three empires that had partitioned them. Again, actual accomplishments on the battlefield pale in importance compared to the impact of these many and varied efforts on a growing national consciousness.

The last three essays in the book are devoted to World War II, when after a two-decade-long interlude of statehood, Poland found itself once again conquered and partitioned--and again fighting in exile. Two of the articles, both by Alfred Peszke ("Polish Military in Exile: Political and Strategic Goals" and "Polish Military Aviation"), dramatically juxtapose the heroic and militarily valuable contributions of Poles in exile to the Allied war effort with their almost total abandonment by the Western Allies to Soviet control in 1944 and 1945. Peszke's essays manage to be both fair-minded (in assessing the political realities at the end of the war) and passionately partisan (in extolling Polish military accomplishments). One final essay to be mentioned is that of Alan Carswell on "Poles in Scotland" during World War II. It reinforces in a particular context the main points of Peszke's articles.

The story of the Polish romantic insurrectionary tradition is nothing new. What is different here is the refusal to conclude patronizingly that it was as futile as every undergraduate's favorite story of the Polish cavalry riding out to engage the Nazi tanks. Instead, these authors collectively make the point that the repeated efforts, while failing in their immediate political goals, succeeded in the long term not only in keeping Polish national consciousness alive, but in determining many of its most salient characteristics: a western orientation, a commitment to Enlightenment principles, a (perhaps exaggerated) respect for the military, and a tradition of self-sacrifice. It is fascinating to note all of these elements present in Poland's most recent (and successful) effort to achieve independent statehood--during the Solidarity era of the late 1970s and 1980s.

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Citation: Anita Shelton. Review of Stefancic, David, ed., Armies in Exile: The Polish Struggle for Nation and Nationalism. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. August, 2006. URL:

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