• Faithful to my Homeland, the Republic of Poland



  • Article by Per Nyholm, Danish writer and journalist, on Polish-Danish historical relations.



    By Per Nyholm


      Poland to me as a Dane is first and foremost a neighbouring country, neighbouring because like Denmark it borders on the Baltic Sea, the identity, the history and the culture of both countries having been shaped by this great sea, which many will call the Mediterranean of the North, and by the larger Baltic world. Of course not completely so and not exclusively so. Poland cuts deeply into Central Europe and feels European. Denmark reaches into the north, Europe is there, but tempered with a smell of Scandinavia and the Atlantic, a nonexistent phenomenon in Poland.


      Both countries emerge into written history at about the same time, around the year 1000, Denmark slightly before Poland. Denmark´s birth certificate, we often say, is the great runic stone in Jelling, put there towards the end of the 10th centuty by king Harold the Bluetooth, a son of Gorm the Old and his wife Tyra. Poland, if you will allow me a slightly hazardous guess, enters history with the dynasty of the Piasts, the first documented figure of this great house being Mieszko, who ruled at about the time of Harold the Bluetooth. Mieszko´s daughter, Swietoslawa, most probably was married to king Sven the Forkbeard, a son of Harold the Bluetooth.


      From this genealogy follows that the grandfather on the mother´s side of Canute the Great, one of the most prominent names in Danish-Anglo Saxon history, was the Piast Mieszko, who thus added a Polish or Slavic presence to the following centuries, during which time the North Sea Empire of Canute the Great was changed into the Baltic Empire of the Valdemarians.


      Of these, Valdemar the Great, the founder of that dynasty, was the son of a Russian princess and partly brought up at the court of his mother´s father at Novgorod. The son of this Valdemar, known as Valdemar the Victorious, half Danish, half Slavic, married a Slavic princess, the much beloved Dragomir or Dagmar of Bohemia. As Valdemar the Victorious in 1219 with his fleet crossed the Baltic to engage the heathen Estonians at the famous battle of Lyndanisse he surely must have felt that he was moving in home waters.


      The Danish-Polish connection became stronger than ever, when in 1387 the ruling Queen Margrete I brought her Pomeranian nephew Bugislav to Denmark to become king of not only Denmark, but Norway with Iceland and Sweden with Finland. She called him Erik, and he became one of our most dynamic medieval kings, so energetic and full of ideas that the Danes pushed him away. After a career as pirate, based on the island of Gothland, Erik or Bugislav returned to his native Darlowo to die there in 1459. His surprisingly small casket can still bee seen in the local church of Saint Mary.


      Erik the Pomeranian, as the Danes remember him, was not only energetic. He had fantasy, lots of it. One of his projects was to create, what his time considered the largest kingdom of earth. The plan was to marry his chosen successor, a Pole by the name of Vartislav, to a princess of the Jagiellonian dynasty, which had succeeded the Piasts and created the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, covering almost all land from the Baltic down to the Black Sea. Erik – as we already know – ruled the Nordic kingdoms, the end of which was furtherest Thule, and where that was nobody knew. This grandiose scheme, fortunately or unfortunately, failed as the Polish lady was married to a German.


      The already mentioned Margaret was the daughter of Valdemar Atterdag or Anotherday, so called because of his unshakable belief despite a host of problems that there would always be another day, in which to find or construct solutions. This Anotherday took a strong interest in foreign affairs, and he closely watched his neighbours to the south from the castle in Vordingborg, sitting almost on the shore of the Baltic Sea. In 1364 he sailed up the Wisla to participate in a European summit in Cracow, called because some ruling prince had termed the mother in law of the Hungarian king a whore. A European war was averted at the last moment and the peace then celebrated with a colossal dinner, given by the rich Cracowian burger, Mikolaj Wierzynek, who – as the festivity came to an end – asked his guests to please take with them the gold service on which they had eaten. He did not want, he said, to be bothered with doing the cleaning.


      Through the whole of the medieval period there was a lively trafik between Denmark and Poland. The Baltic Sea united the peoples, it did not part them. The Cisterciensian monks from the monastery of Esrom in northern Zealand after 1174 founded the great monasteries of Kolbatz in Szczecin and of Oliwa near Gdansk. Both institutions contributed to the civilization and prosperity of the Baltic coast. Only after the discovery of America did the Baltic connection weaken. Denmark began looking west and after 500 years broke with Rome to become a protestant country. Poland remained a Baltic and Central European power and one of the great cultural nations of the Renaissance, something that we in the west – with our customary mixture of arrogance and ignorance concerning Central and Eastern Europe – often forget.


      However, Poland slowly sank into political chaos, a memory which is, I think, very much present on the Polish mind in these for Europe so troubled days. The outcome of the Polish inability to reform and streamline its politics we all know. A late triumph was achieved in 1668 with king Jan Sobieski´s magnificent victory over the Turks, besieging Vienna. Less than a 100 years later the leading powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria, thanked the Poles by simply parting the now ailing country. By 1795 Poland was gone from the geographical and political map, though not from the hearts of the Poles.


      While Denmark in the 19th century lost all its wars to the point, where many had their doubts as to the ability of the kingdom to survive, the Poles fiercely believed in the resurrection of their lost fatherland. This patriotism – not to be confused with the often aggressive and petty nationalism, exhibited these days by several European countries – inspired various Danish poets and authors, among them, most prominently, Georg Brandes, who visited Poland again and again, writing enthusiastically about Polish literature and even more enthusiastically about the beautiful Polish ladies, who eagerly threw themselves into his always open arms. His analysis of the Poles´ thirst for freedom and hatred, especially of the tyranny of tsarist Russia, published under the title “Impressions from Poland”, I used as a regular reference right up to the fall of Communism in 1989. One of his observations remains unforgettable. Brandes was taken from one ball to the next by his Polish friends - they were many and often quite rich. One night, exhausted, he asked a young lady how the Poles, considering their not exactly happy state of affairs, could dance with such gusto. “I do not see,” answered the beauty, “how not dancing could help our country.”


      Another great Dane, who travelled in Poland, probably not quite realizing where he was, because politics did not engage him, was the neoclassical sculpturer Bertel Thorvaldsen. He created the impressive and elegant equestrian statue of Poniatowski in front of the Presidential Palace of Warsaw, the somewhat heavier statue of Kopernikus in front of the Palace of Sciences and another statue, at Wawel in Cracow, of Potocki.


      In those days, so desperate for the Poles, only very few travelled to Denmark. Those who did mainly came to visit Brandes, himself of Lithuanian-Polish-Jewish extraction, and one of the most energetic reformers of the then deeply reactionary and provincial Danish kingdom.  Brandes was one of the few Danes, who took an active and intense interest in Europe, introducing great and wonderful poets such as Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Norwid and the later Nobel laureate, Henryk Sienkiewicz, to Danish readers and to a certain degree to the larger European public, thereby creating an awareness of other great Polish names, including Chopin and Szymanowski, Maria Sklodowska Curie, Roman Polanski and Andrej Wajda plus a new generation of poets around Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska.


      To this incomplete list of strong, very Polish and therefore very European figures let me add the name of general Pilsudski, who managed after 1918 to recreate independent Poland, and who in 1920 – with his decisive victory over communist Russia´s armed forces on their way to Berlin and the hoped for world revolution – saved Europe, repeating the triumph 300 years earlier of Jan Sobieski outside Vienna and fortifying the traditional role of Poland as a shield of freedom vis a vis Asian tyranny, this tradition being honoured to the full by the sufferings of the Poles during the Second World War and the following years of communist rule. As a reporter in Poland after 1986, I was surprised by the courage of the Poles I met. One young lady, early on, gave me a quote as memorable as that of the dancing partner of Brandes. As we walked down Nowy Swiat she complained loudly about the decrepit state of Poland, the awful Russians etc. I tried to caution her and got the following answer: “Me afraid? The only ones afraid here are the communists.” I then sensed that times were changing, that a new 1918 was approaching, this sense being strengthened as I met or studied the Polish heroes of my generation: pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and my friend Bronislaw Geremek, now tragically dead.


      They left us all, I believe, with a political and intellectual heritage, which very clearly says that Poland always was, through the 1000 years it shared with Denmark, very European. So European that Europe cannot be thought of with out Poland. 



      Per Nyholm is a Danish writer and journalist, based in Vienna. His book, "Europæerne" ("The Europeans"), was shortlisted for the European Book Prize 2009. His latest book "Byen, Havet, Bjergene" ("The City, The Sea, The Mountains") was published in 2011.

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