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 7

Understandably, we were not always effective, a consequence of human conditioning.  Let me quote (from) Erich Fromm. In his book To Have or to Be he wrote: “Human desire for relationships with others is rooted in the specific conditions of the existence that characterises humankind and is one of the strongest motivators of behaviour”. Then, giving the example of the First World War, he said: “Suddenly, from day to day, people were renouncing their beliefs: pacifism, antimilitarism, socialism; scientists were discarding years of training in objectivity, critical thinking and impartiality in order to join the big We”.

These sentences resonated with my reflections about my own behaviour and that of those close to me. I must admit that I am attracted to parades, marches, collective euphoria and songs. I react to these a bit like an Uhlan horse reacts to the sound of trumpet. But I am also afraid of it, possibly because of my youth experiences and awareness of the dangers of melting into a collective “we” to a degree that one loses critical thinking and renounces individual moral responsibility. I am not alone in my fears. This is one of the major problems of the 20th century, a century of totalitarian regimes. This was one of Milan Kundera’s (one of my favourite writers) obsessions. Since this talk is very personal, let me bring up an excerpt from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

Dancing in a circle is magical and it speaks to us from a thousand year-old abyss of our memory. Professor Rafael cut out a photograph from a magazine and she is dreaming. She longs to dance in such a circle.  All her life she has been looking for a circle of people with whom she could hold hands and dance; first, she looked for it the Methodist Church (her father was a mystic), then in the communist party, then in the Trotsky party, then in the fight against abortion (child has the right to live), then in the fight for abortion (woman has the right to her body); she looked for it among Marxists, psychoanalysts, structuralists; she looked for it in Lenin and in Zen Buddhism and among yoga adopters, in the school of new novel and in Brecht theatre, in the theatre of panic, and finally she longed to become a whole with her students, that is, she was forcing them to speak and think like she thought and spoke, so that they become one body and one soul, one circle and one dance.

I am mentioning affiliations, the need to experience bonds and the dangers of marching in parades, but I know that parades differ, circles do not look alike, and a march or a dance does not appear the same to everyone. I am talking about it to emphasize, once again, the fact that, in my opinion, the conditioning of the researcher of the past, particularly of the recent past, is determined by the dynamic character of two types of predispositions: those originating in the rigor of the field of research and those determined by participation in historical events; it is determined by more or less strong ties; ties that differ in character and intensity.

Naturally, participation in historical events is not only a problem of affiliation. I am not forgetting about the everyday, prosaic issues like censorship and decisions regarding book publications that depend on whether or not the book meets political requirements. Whether or not one satisfied the requirements, which, depending on the period, were either weaker or tougher, and had influence on promotions, careers, travel abroad – all of it hanging on the thread of political righteousness.  Hide text removed by censorship.

These conditions are clear and transparent, at least “on the surface”. There is even something like a corporate conspiracy regarding what at the moment is possible, what is impossible, what can and should be fought for and what should be given up willy-nilly. My generation and the one before us are trained in these accommodation games. The majority accepted the situation, believing that nothing can be done. We differ only in the degree to which we are prepared to take personal risk and the price that we are prepared to pay for acting according to our preferences, our personal sense of good and evil, of right and wrong and of moral responsibility. I emphasize it very strongly – personal sense because, in many cases, choices are morally and socially ambiguous. We historians of contemporary history, and not only we, are constantly facing the decision of how far we can push concessions and compromises so that it does not turn out that we achieved nothing by giving up essential values. Those adaptation processes, although vital for building up attitudes resistant to the distress caused by the world around us, can lead to indifference and cynicism that threaten us with the degradation of individuals and entire circles. Admittedly, they are often the only chance for biological and cultural survival. And when we talk about the cost of actions, I think that the price list is highly individualized as it depends on the brutality of life's circumstances.

 

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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.