Kersten's Foundation

Fundacja Kerstenów

Krystyna Kersten

The Kersten Foundation was established in 2011 with the aim of celebrating and commemorating the life and work of Krystyna and Adam Kersten.

My Adventure with Contemporary History

 Krystyna Kersten
  Translated by M.J. Kersten

Page 4

The language that we use in contemporary history is extremely important. That is why I would like to say a few words about it, even if they are platitudes. The language of the official discourse, the newspeak, although eliminated from historical science a long time ago is still used in contemporary history. It is not easy to eliminate it as it contains notions and terminology that we are used to and which are difficult to replace. When, in 1981, I was writing a brief outline of the political history of Poland in the years 1945-1956, language was one of the most difficult issues. How to leave behind the ideological propaganda of newspeak without digging myself out of the hole only to replace it with a similar ideological propaganda - the language of anticommunism. I remember struggling with this, looking for words and phrases free of ideological and political content, words that reflected reality in the best possible way. There was another extreme to be avoided – fencing with academic language. 

However, language is only one element of communication between historians and those who they address in their talks, books and articles. Of much greater importance is tuning the wavelength between two attitudes, that of the historian (the sender) and that of the reader or listener (the receiver). When there is a dissonance, the chances that the audience will receive and accept what a historian communicates diminish. Approval is easier to gain if one says what others want to hear, particularly when the topics touch upon complexes and sentiments deeply rooted in social awareness.

That is a rather pessimistic statement but it should not be seen as conclusive. Experience shows that at least some of our audiences will accept even very unpleasant truths, as long as they feel that historians respect them and understand their views and sentiments; that a historian will not assume a posture of a judge, and will not show arrogance, coming from the heights of either pure science, unclear of the doctrine he believes in. I do not share the view of many of my colleagues who claim that when we speak against the perceptions and desires of society we are no longer heard. I maintain that we can and should touch on sensitive areas and that we can, and often should, inflict pain.

The question is why we do it and how we do it. Revealing what was shameful in the past and criticising history does not have to threaten national identity and does not need to lead to spiritual disarmament. It can, as not so remote experiences show us, but it does not have to. We are not facing the devil’s alternative: either giving up conveying the truth or yielding to the pressure of society’s expectations. Speaking in full voice but with high regard for sensitivities and the psychological needs of the people I speak to is what I imagine my role to be. I am not afraid of inflicting injuries as long as it really leads to widening of the scope of collective self-knowledge and self-understanding, and to effective treatment of national complexes, frustrations and neurosis.

Most probably it is not easy. I have been struggling with these issues for years and I am probably not the only one. In a speech twenty years ago, for the tenth anniversary of “Centuries Speak” (“Mowia wieki”) devoted to the popularization of contemporary history, I was talking about the interest in the historical circles after 1956, in the social perception of research, and in the context of the observed crisis of trust in historical studies after the period of Stalinism. I said then:

Historical content, partly true, partly false, which, with the help from researchers, was used par force and with no regard for reality, to reconstruct social awareness, has simply been rejected a limine in most cases.  Moreover, the patient who was treated with these concoctions totally lost trust in the doctor who administered them.


Page: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Source: Transcript of a lecture "Moja przygoda z historia najnowsza" given at the meeting of the History and Culture Section of the Fans of History Society (Towarzystwo Miłośników Historii), which took place on October 27th, 1986.