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 6

Referring to history for self-assurance is a manipulation as old as humanity - an immanent need of individuals and communities. One should realize, however, that this need is not devoid of dangers. They occur when the overwhelming longing for the hope and for confirmation of one’s own stance leads unnoticeably, but sometimes consciously, to giving up search for the truth. Knowledge of history is essential for rational thinking and understanding of the world around us. When will we recognize this? It is understandable that emotions, particularly in times of turmoil, can dominate the mind but they should not supersede it. If we do not want to wake up phantoms, the mind must control exceedingly heated emotions, moderating them in a timely fashion. After all, this does not mean suppressing sensitivities.

The great call for the truth about the past, for filling in the blanks and unmasking falsehoods is, to a great extent, based on the conviction that the truth will disclose the guilt of those who we hate or condemn and will put laurels on the heads of those that we love or approve of, and we will be seen the way we see ourselves. Many readers and listeners will accept bona fide information that the murders committed on the population of the Ukrainian village in 1945 was—as the underground press at the time maintained—the action of the Security Services. They will be less likely to believe a historian who will maintain that, in fact, the killers were a military arm of NZS, in particular PAS.

There is a multitude of similar examples. It is important to realize that the general feeling was that de-falsification of history and disclosure of the facts that had been silenced and which were accusations of the communists and the authorities, were not meant to lead to a better understanding of historical processes but to “exposing the enemy” and to the glorification of our own people. This is just a statement of facts, not a reproach. The idea was to change spotlights, so to say. What up until now, in the official teachings of contemporary history, had been shining brightly, was engulfed in darkness; what was black was changing into white. I am simplifying, but only a little. I believe that many people will agree with me that the black and white film that dominated the official presentation of events of the last half-century is seldom substituted by shades of grey. Neither is it substituted by equally black and white or, shall we say, red and white or white and red and red colours used in fairy tales and westerns.

When historians were marching in the post-August national procession, they were put under pressure to turn around the signposts that had values written on them. They were under pressure to use their professional authority to sweepingly condemn some and to glorify others. A change was to take place on the benches with the accused and on the pantheon of heroes. The psychological need for such an operation and its social meaning are understandable. However, if they are to bring us closer to the truth, we must not forget that, on the scale of plus 5 to minus 5, there are ten markers.  Between, according to some, heroic Freedom and Independence (Wolność i Niezawislość) partisans and, according to others, reactionary Freedom and Independence bandits is a territory that most accurately describes the character and the dynamics of this organization’ activity. Secondly, an equally important stipulation: restoring de-falsified history for Polish society cannot be limited to the rehabilitation of some stories or condemnation of other stories and actors in the historical drama. What I find essential is the necessity to limit the use of epithets and focus on a reflection of political concepts and their realization.  Moving between the two poles, we—the historians and we, the society—obscure the sight of the political playing field — which is nothing new. Admittedly, the history we lived untaught us to think in these categories.

So let us consider the lesson or rather the lessons of history. I am wondering to what extent I myself and people around me succumbed to the pressures of the events. I have in mind mostly the '80s but not only this particularly heated and dramatic period. I was asking myself a question, to what extent we were speaking in our own voice and to what extent we were responding to the expectations of those with whom we were tied by mind and heart. We were responding at the cost of abandoning professional values, i.e. objectivity and critical thinking. Here is how I see it now, from the perspective of a few years that have passed since then. It seems to me that because of the intensity of those sixteen months of “Solidarity”, and, in particular, because of the prevailing atmosphere, we were trying not to be passive and not to let the current carry us; we were trying to influence its character and its route; we even tried to swim against the current, particularly when the professional cannons were at stake—broadly speaking, but more to the point, when the ethos of us, the intellectuals, was threatened.

 

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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.