White Eagle, Black Madonna: One Thousand Years of the Polish Catholic Tradition
by robert e. alvis
fordham university press, 368 pages, $35.00
On August 31, 1980, in Gdansk, Poland, the nation’s communist leadership acceded to a list of demands of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in a communist country, whose ranks would swell to a third of the Polish working age population. Lech Wałęsa, the union’s charismatic chief, signed the agreement between Solidarity and the government with a giant pen, a souvenir from Rome bearing the likeness of Pope John Paul II. During the “Solidarity carnival,” the striking workers constantly had priests accompanying them, celebrating Mass or saying the rosary and hearing their confessions.
Solidarity showed the world the link between the Polish nation and Catholicism. However, few outside Poland know the history of this bond. By drawing on a plethora of Polish sources unavailable in English, as well as on fine English publications, Robert E. Alvis makes an ambitious, readable, and concise attempt at introducing this fascinating history to the English-speaking reader. As this year marks the 1,050th anniversary of the baptism of Mieszko I, Poland’s first ruler, an act that firmly aligned the ancient nation with Western Christendom, his timing is perfect.
Alvis avoids the trap of focusing excessively on recent history, and he presents a thorough yet engaging overview of Poland in medieval Christendom. The history of Christianity in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before its partitions by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1772, 1773, and 1795 constitutes half the book. The reader learns of the political consequences of Mieszko’s baptism, of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaus and Church-state relations in medieval Poland, and of the Church’s engagement in promoting works of charity.
A recurring theme in Alvis’s book is that of Poland as the bulwark of Christendom. Located on the edge of Western Christendom and historically bordering Orthodox Russia and Muslim Turkey, Poland often was a defender of Latin Christian civilization. Such was the case in 1241 at Legnica, when a Christian army led by Henry the Pious halted the Mongol advance on Europe; in 1683, when King John III Sobieski defeated the Turks at the gates of Vienna; and in 1920, when the Poles defeated the Soviets, frustrating Lenin’s dreams of bringing revolution to Western Europe.
Repeatedly, Alvis notes that Poland’s Christian culture has remained intact while other Europeans have abandoned their faith. He suggests that this is because when Poland experienced persecution at the hands of its neighbors—first the partitioning powers, then Nazi Germany and the USSR—the Church was the primary defender of Polish identity, empowering the captive nation.
Yet Alvis draws an inaccurate picture of certain aspects of Polish history—for instance, of the complex relations between Polish Christians and Jews. He acknowledges that, before the partitions, Poland was the most tolerant state in Europe toward the Jews, with its kings and nobility giving economic benefits and legal protections. He contrasts the tolerance of Poland’s secular rulers with the anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church. Certainly, Catholic-Jewish relations across the centuries have been difficult, and one cannot deny the long legacy of hostility towards Judaism within Catholicism. (The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, during which the Church decreed that Jews must wear special marks on their clothing to distinguish them from Christians, speaks volumes.) But Alvis presents this history very one-sidedly. He accuses the Church of promoting the myth that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to make matzos, but he fails to note that medieval popes, starting with Innocent IV, issued bulls protecting Jews against this slander.
Alvis’s lopsided view of Catholic-Jewish relations is apparent in his treatment of the Holocaust. For instance, while he correctly notes that hostility towards Jews increased in Catholic milieus in pre-war Poland, and that the responses of Polish Catholics to the Holocaust ranged widely from persecution to heroic acts of aid, he wrongfully accuses Cardinal Adam Sapieha, archbishop of Krakow, of intervening solely on behalf of “baptized Jews.” In his chronicle of the Holocaust in Krakow (unavailable in English), Aleksander Bieberstein, a survivor of the Krakow Ghetto, writes that three rabbis asked Sapieha to intervene on their behalf, and that the prelate consequently protested to the SS against the deportations of Krakow Jews. (The Germans then sent these three rabbis to Auschwitz.) Likewise, Alvis notes that the magazines published by St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan who voluntarily died in the place of another man in Auschwitz, featured anti-Semitic articles. This is true, but Alvis omits the fact that prior to his arrest by the Gestapo, Kolbe was hiding 2,000 Jews in his monastery.
Alvis’s treatment of the relations between Roman and Greek Catholics in Poland is no better. While he correctly notes that in prewar Poland the country’s Roman Catholic bishops took a condescending attitude towards the Ukrainian Greek Catholic minority, he does not mention that Lviv’s Greek Catholic Archbishop Andrey Sheptytskyi, whom Alvis praises for his “deft leadership,” sent a letter to Adolf Hitler thanking him for “liberating” Ukraine from the Soviets and Poles; delegated Greek Catholic chaplains to divisions of the Ukrainian SS-Galizien, which murdered many Poles and Jews; and failed to protest either the slaughter of 100,000 Poles by Ukrainian nationalists in Volhynia or the pogroms against thousands of Jews by Ukrainians in Lviv in 1941.
Nonetheless, Alvis has made an important contribution to the study of a relevant topic. Polish Catholicism still has an important role in the Church and the world. At the recent Vatican Synod on the Family, for instance, Polish bishops were among the most impassioned defenders of tradition. Though secularism has crept into Poland (Mass attendance has declined from 45.6 percent in 1994 to 39.1 percent in 2014), the country’s faith is still vibrant and may help reignite Christianity in Europe. This year’s successful World Youth Day in Krakow—attended by two-to-three million pilgrims—suggests that. Alvis’s book explains the story behind this dynamism well.
Filip Mazurczak is a journalist and translator and assistant editor of The European Conservative.