Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Oświęcim or Auschwitz?

Oswiecim castle

Earlier this month, I attended a conference in Poland on the Jagiellonians, a favourite national dynasty representing a lost golden age. The conference, jointly organised by the Universities of Warsaw and Katowice, was held in the medium-sized, southern town of Oświęcim – in the 15th century, the capital of a small Upper Silesian duchy on the tempestuous border between the Kingdoms of Poland and Hungary.

The conference took place in Oświęcim because the event was generously sponsored and hosted by the town council and mayor. It took place in the newly opened Oświęcim Museum, housed in a fine little castle above a river. The local authorities greeted this gathering of historians enthusiastically. The conference is part of their wider endeavour to reshape the image of their town, because Oświęcim is better known across by the world by its German name, Auschwitz.

Coming from the UK, with its strong tradition of national Holocaust education, the very idea of softening the image of a place called Auschwitz can sit very uncomfortably indeed: this network of camps, one of them right outside my hotel, is arguably the defining traumatic memory of the modern west. This is a place which can seem irredeemably bleak, historically radioactive, drowning out everything else around it for miles and miles; with its genocidal past, quite simply the darkest spot in all of Europe.

Town square
People who live in the town, most of whom were born long after the war, perhaps in order to be able to live here at all, have a different perspective. Oświęcim is simply their town: it has medieval churches, shops, schools, Italian restaurants, bars. They wish visitors would come not just to the camp, but also get a flavour of local history by visiting the castle museum, or perhaps the town synagogue mueum. The camp itself has simply become a fact of life: the town archives, for example, are housed in one of the blocks in Auschwitz 1.

Oświęcim’s attempt to rebrand itself, with EU funding for its new museum, will seem heretical and deeply disrespectful to many outside Poland, an implied minimisation of the Holocaust. For local Poles, for the energetic mayor, it’s an attempt to ask the world to see this 21C community on its own terms, in a broader context. It comes down to one question – to whom does Oświęcim- Auschwitz belong? To the world, to the 1,100,000 people who were murdered in this small place, or to the Polish population who call this pretty but scarred town their home? Is it, and should it always be, 1944 in this pocket of Europe? Are the locals allowed to move on, or is the existence of normal life here some kind of affront in itself? As a British citizen from the Polish diaspora, I can hear what is said in both languages and narratives, and I can hear that they are not hearing each other at all. And that is why there is no agreement - in guidebooks, on maps - on what to even call this place, (Polish) Oświęcim or (German) Auschwitz.

Town sign: two identities, Oswiecim castle & Auschwitz camp

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Composite Monarchies

A composite monarch? James VI and I, by Daniel Mytens
In 1992, John Elliott, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, published a seminal article which I ask all my students of early modern Europe read – ‘A Europe of Composite Monarchies’ (Past and Present, paywall). Perhaps, at this juncture, British politicians should read it too.

Elliott pointed out that late medieval Europe consisted of dozens of small states and statelets – e.g. the Duchy of Savoy, or Milan – but that in the sixteenth century there was a trend for political entities to coalesce into bigger units. The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1469 forged a union between the Iberian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon (‘Spain’). The French monarchy came to absorb the duchy of Brittany. Further east, the marriage of Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania to Queen Jadwiga of Poland in 1386 created a dynastic union between the two polities, which was cemented into a legal union in 1569. And, in 1603, with the extinction of the Tudor line, a Scottish monarch travelled south to claim his English throne, creating an enduring dynastic union in the British Isles. Elliott’s point was that such unions, or ‘composite states’ were a quintessential feature of European political life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a way of reconciling, as he so eloquently put it, ‘the competing aspirations towards diversity and unity that have remained a constant of European history’. Composite states were, he pointed out, both highly fruitful arrangements and inherently challenging to govern.

Composite states are a hallmark of early modern Europe, and yet, four centuries later, what is the United Kingdom, if not a composite state? With its union of three kingdoms (England, Scotland, and Ireland) and Wales, the Stuart composite monarchy was one of the more ambitious, or crowded, in Europe. Alongside Spain (a fusion of Aragon, Castile, Navarre), the UK is one of the great surviving composite monarchies of the Renaissance age. Others, such as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, broke down into competing nation-states long ago – as Timothy Snyder has traced so well, into modern Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Today, we are still dealing with some of the long-term consequences of that failed composite state. If the Scots vote yes tomorrow, we will be leaving early modern Europe a little further behind us, shaking off one of its powerful legacies.

And regardless of the referendum result, British politicians would also do well to read Conrad Russell’s The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637-42 (1991). In this classic work, Russell demonstrated how the English civil war was sparked by riots in Edinburgh – he charted how quickly different parts of a union can destabilise each other, and how bad policy in Scotland triggered a spiral of local reactions and events across the British Isles, which a London government proved quite unable to control. History can’t predict the future, but it can give us insightful and salutary models to think with – scholars, voters and politicians alike. Composite states are relatively easy to forge, messy to maintain, and messy to dismantle.

Sigismund Augustus, King of Poland & Grand Duke of Lithuania (d. 1572).

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Two Men From Gdansk

Donald Tusk
Photo by Alina Zienowicz.
Johannes Dantiscus (1485-1548)

Although it may not have made much of a splash in the British or US press, the selection of Donald Tusk as the new president of the European Council last night momentarily paralysed Polish media, commentators and political elites, as they tried to take in the significance of the moment. In domestic terms, it is a shock: Tusk has been Poland’s most electorally successful prime minister since the fall of Communism, in power since 2007. In Poland, it is now unclear whether Tusk’s sudden departure for Brussels will make it harder for his Citizens’ Platform party (PO) to defeat the right-wing Truth & Justice Party (PiS) at the 2015 parliamentary elections. If the price of Tusk’s recruitment is a victory for the highly nationalist PiS, the EU might yet find its eastern policy even more complicated, and the region more volatile.

But what of the historical significance? Last night, Polish journalists and academics wrote that ‘Poland has now returned to Europe’, that Tusk’s appointment amounted to ‘the recognition of Poland’, ‘proof, that Europe does not end at the Oder river’. The choice of Tusk by the EU’s leaders is seen domestically as a vindication of Poland’s journey since 1989. The historical novelty of a Polish politician taking a key role in European politics, and presiding over traditionally West European institutions in Brussels does seem striking. Yet in the Renaissance period, under the Jagiellonian kings, the Polish monarchy did produce diplomats of international calibre. Erazm Ciołek, the son of a Kraków tavern-keeper, rose to become the Crown’s top diplomat in the years circa 1500 – his fine Latin orations before the papal curia made a tremendous impression in Rome, to the extent that the Habsburg emperors engaged Ciołek to promote their own affairs in the city. Another celebrity diplomat of the Polish Crown (born, like Tusk, in Gdańsk), Johannes Dantiscus, in the 1520s and 1530s enjoyed the respect of statesmen in Spain, the Low Countries and Germany, building an important network around himself. And, in a less happy example, in the 18C, the exiled Polish king Stanisław Leszczyński was relocated to France to rule the duchy of Lorraine.

In the past two centuries, the Polish state has been a supplicant, military target, or very junior ally of Europe’s more westerly states – Tusk’s high profile international role in the EU is a major symbolic step in a different direction, where Central European politicians might exercise real agency in wider European politics, from the centre itself. The Economist recently carried a feature asking if Poland, with her geopolitical weight and economic successes, was entering ‘a new Jagiellonian [golden] age’. Exactly what the Jagiellonian age stood for in Europe (1386-1572) remains a subject of real debate: but it seems as if, in an echo of the sixteenth century, Poland is again creating politicians of international calibre. 

Wednesday, 30 July 2014


             A member of our household recently received a new passport from Her Majesty’s Passport Office, just in time for summer vacations. On the front cover is the familiar coat of arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the lion and the unicorn. Inside the back cover, the bearer’s photo and a chip. But it’s the pages inbetween which caught my attention – on each page, empty for future visas, there are different images of the British Isles. There are picturesque beach huts looking very much as if they are from Southwold Beach. There is a Durdle Door, the famous sea arch of Dorset. There are pictures of moorland, and of rolling hills much like the South Downs.

            On this quintessential identity document – there to confirm individual identity, but also a statement of national identity and statehood –  Great Britain is presented therefore as a set of diverse, striking and unpopulated landscapes, mostly coastal. Checking my own older passport, I found that its pages are adorned with images of British birds: waders, eagles, herons. This is a striking way of representing British identity, to its own citizens/subjects and to foreign border officials the world over. It is reminiscent of the soft-focus images of the United Kingdom adopted by British Airways on its in-flight crockery, on the paper ties which adorn its plastic crockery, and on posters displayed in its planes… misty, blue depictions of the Oxford skyline, or Brighton pier. The British Airways images are at least of places of human habitation, references to a human heritage. But the Passport Office offers us just landscape.

            When the euro was being launched in 2001-2, there was much debate as to which symbols to put on coins and notes, national or European. Coins retained national symbols, but the notes carried famous bridges, as a neutral image, and a helpful metaphor perhaps for the European project. Bridges were clearly the compromise option. It’s a sign, then, of how contested British identity is today that the Passport Office judged that national identity was best expressed without any reference to, e.g., famous British individuals, or buildings, or cities, but to something as abstract and seemingly timeless as landscape. I once heard a folk singer in concert perform a song about British identity – the basic jist was that, no matter what your race, or place of origin, what united inhabitants of this island was ultimately (only?) the landscape itself, which we could all agree to love. For historians and nation-builders, nationalists and patriots in the 19th and 20th centuries, national identity was all about history. Now that we, in multicultural 21st century Britain can’t agree on a universally palatable narrative of British history, the Passport office at least has junked history altogether in exchange for geography, or even geology. As historians, on some level we are clearly failing to offer our fellow citizens a useable narrative of their past.

This is the United Kingdom...
Durdle Door, Wikipedia Commons

Thursday, 12 June 2014


Academic dress: your examiner might look like this...
Photo by Matthias Rosenkranz
This term, I’ve been invigilating Oxford History Finals for the first time. Invigilating isn’t perhaps the right word – the setting up, distribution of papers, handing out of booklets and general military-precision oversight is carried out by the Examination Schools staff. Academics attend in the role of ‘examiners’: if you sit on a Finals Exam Board for your subject, you have to don full academic dress and be present for the first half hour of an examination. Examiners stand at the front of the hall, and are there in order to answer any queries which might arise about the academic content of the papers. Half an hour in, they process out of the examination hall in semi-stately procession (clutching mortar boards, rucksacks, cycle helmets), and leave everyone else to it for another 2.5 hours.

I’ve found invigilating a deeply strange experience. This is in part because I haven’t witnessed a formal, large-scale University examination since I sat my own Finals, over 15 years ago. But it was also strange because the contrast between the Victorian world of the Exam Schools and the busy world outside seems to have become sharper; the dissonance has grown.

Oxford is famed for the formality of its exams. Students have to arrive in ‘sub fusc’ academic dress, or else they are ineligible to sit their papers. Tourists are keen to take photos of students in their gowns, black ribbons and carnations, or of examiners in their billowing red hoods. Exams here are highly ritualised, and perhaps fetishized. The papers the students sit are still a gold standard, in terms of academic rigour and challenge. The contents of the papers reflect the very latest trends in scholarship and research. Yet the external trappings of our exams culture are very obviously Victorian, and from another era: the vast 19C Examination Schools designed by Thomas Jackson (‘an exam palace’, as a Polish visitor once described it), the archaising dress, and 300 students sat writing by hand for 3 hours at a time. This scene feels rather weirder to me now than it did in the 1990s; in a world of digital, ubiquitous and increasingly socially penetrating technology, the frozen-in-time staging of Oxford exams risks looking anachronistic, and bizarre rather than quaintly traditional. I have a lot of affection for these Oxford traditions, but I do wonder if – when invigilating in, say, 2019 – I will, dressed in black gown and red hood, be surveying a room full of laptops, rather than pale students clutching fountain pens.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Memory Castle?

Haut-Koenigsbourg, Alsace
Photo by Francisco Antunes
Before the challenges of an Oxford Trinity term started, I spent a week in Alsace, one of Europe’s great borderlands. Alsace occupies a plain between the Vosges and Black Forest mountains, full of vineyards, medieval villages and ruined castles. Perhaps the most famous of the Alsatian castles is Haut-Koenigsbourg, which makes for a rather unsettling visit, raising questions about memory, identity and heritage.

On a windswept hill above the Alsace plain, Haut-Koenigsbourg was first built in 1147 by the Hohenstaufen of the Holy Roman Empire. Its fortifications were extended in the fifteenth century, by the various disreputable families to whom the Holy Roman Emperors leased the castle. Attacked by the Swedes during the Thirty Years War, the castle was badly damaged and abandoned in 1633, becoming just another Alsatian hilltop ruin.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, castle enthusiast
All this changed with the annexation of Alsace by a newly unified Germany in 1871, part of the price France paid for its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Presented as a gift to Kaiser Wilhelm II, from 1900 to 1906 Hochkoenigsburg became the subject of one of the most ambitious restoration projects of the long nineteenth century, as an army of artisans, architects and engineers descended on the castle. The rebuilt fortress was to function as a celebration, and proclamation, of German imperial rule over Alsace. This ideological agenda is present in the very fabric of Haut-Koenigsbourg – in the Hohenstaufen and Habsburg family trees inscribed in multiple rooms, the massive imperial eagle mounted on the highest turret, the frescos in the great hall showing military victories, and the sheer triumphant scale of the building itself. Here, Kaiser Wilhelm’s ambitions in 20C Europe are expressed in, and legitimised through, medieval fantasy. Here, in a bizarre fusion, Game of Thrones meets Prussian militarism.

It was interesting, then, to see how people interpret and move through this building today. There were tourists from Germany, admiring the quality of the craftsmanship. There were tourists from Poland, looking uncomfortable. There were teams of local Alsatians, erecting scaffolding and diligently maintaining Kaiser Wilhelm’s great edifice. The French authorities, in their guidebooks and information boards, present Haut-Koenigsbourg chiefly as an exceptional early attempt at heritage restoration – we are encouraged to note how carefully medieval door handles were reproduced, for example. I had the impression that the current custodians of Haut-Koenigsbourg tacitly play down the fact that the castle is blatantly a monument to 20C nationalism. The local Alsace narrative, painfully forged, is after all one of reconciliation and Franco-German harmony; Strasbourg, and the European Parliament, are just down the road. Alsace has positioned itself as being at the heart of the European project, and Haut-Koenigsbourg doesn’t sit comfortably with that story. Particularly this year, as we remember the First World War, the challenge for borderlands like Alsace is to find ways of living in peace, and forgiving, and moving on; without in the process forgetting, or remaining too silent about, what historic sites such as this really represent.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Beyond El Dorado, Beyond History?

Lost in time?
Jaguar  lime flask, Calima-Malagena, 200 BC- AD 1300. 
One of the British Museum’s big exhibitions this spring was Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Columbia. Jointly organised with Bogota’s Museo del Oro, it showcased gold artefacts produced by the indigenous peoples of the mountains and coastal plains of modern-day Columbia – from Zenu, Tairona, Quimbaya, Tolima, Muisca, Calima-Malagana, Tierradentro and San Augustin. The exhibition took its title from a legend which haunted the sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadores, the story of ‘El Dorado’, a king whose body was permanently coated in gold-dust, and whose people would throw pure gold offerings into Lake Guatavita.

For a historian – even one who teaches a specialist course on the Spanish conquest of the Americas – Beyond El Dorado was strangely disorientating. Peering into the display cases of tiny gold jaguars, earrings and nose-plates, the dating labels were disconcerting: AD 200-900, AD 900-1600, 200 BC-AD 1300. Gold is apparently impossible to carbon date, hence the extreme range of possible dates in which a given object might have been made. As a historian, there is a limited amount one can do with an object made in one corner of South America, at some point between the collapse of the Carolingian Empire and the death of Elizabeth I of England. In these terms, even the exhibition title ‘ancient Columbia’ seems a bit of a guess, an approximation.

In the absence of a clear chronological framework on which to hang the exhibits, Beyond El Dorado presented them, firstly, as abstract beautiful objects which 21C visitors could respond to on a purely aesthetic level – admiring their craftsmanship, for example. In the main, however, the curators took the problematic ‘datelessness’ of these pieces and turned it into an attractive timelessness. This was a heavily anthropological picture of the Colombian societies which produced these gold masks, nose-rings and dipping sticks. We were invited into a timeless present: in the very dark exhibition rooms, giant and shadowy images of jaguars, bats and other South American fauna hung on the walls, to create the impression of being in the Columbian jungle. The information boards talked of rituals, shamans and burials, painting a colourful but static picture of 1,800 years of local history. Beyond El Dorado was atmospheric, but sometimes it is important to be able to admit that an object remains mysterious - who made it and why, exactly how it was used or what it meant to that society. There is a scholarly virtue in saying, simply and honestly, 'we do not know'. Historical imagination can start with that admission, and does not need to be deployed discreetly as a substitute for fact.

Chest ornament, Tairona, AD 900-1600

Monday, 10 March 2014

Borderland Stories?

Ukraine: which narrative?
How do current events in Ukraine look to historians? Historians are often reluctant to commenting on fast-moving crises, because we are trained to sit back, ponder, cogitate and reach conclusions slowly and carefully; it’s not a natural reflex to offer instant verdicts. So far, Timothy Snyder – author of the seminal Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus, 1569-1999 – has appeared on BBC’s Newsnight, and he’ll be talking in Oxford next week on ‘Poland, Ukraine and the Politics of History’. Tarik Cyril Amar, from Columbia’s History Department, has written a column on the crisis in the Guardian.

How do events in Ukraine and Crimea look to a historian of early modern Central Europe? If you want to tell a story of Ukraine as a long-standing, contested borderland, there is plenty of material at your disposal. At the end of the 14C, Poland’s last Piast monarch, Kazimierz the Great, conquered (annexed) the Orthodox principality of Halych (a chunk of present-day Ukraine) and made it part of the Polish kingdom. In the 15C, when Ottoman janissaries and Tartar forces molested Poland with increasing regularity, it was this area which felt the full force of their raids – Polish nobles saw what we call western Ukraine as a useful buffer, which might absorb the military shocks coming from the south-east, and keep raiders far from Cracow and Poznań. In 1494, Grand Duke Ivan III of Muscovy invaded the Grand Duchy of Lithuania without warning, and he gave as his reason the alleged mistreatment of Orthodox believers in that polity, presenting himself as their protector and saviour.

There are many competing narratives on offer about current events in Ukraine. A narrative of democracy versus autocracy; narratives of a greater Russia, or of a greater EU. In these grand narratives, Ukraine itself tends to be portrayed as a passive subject – as a borderland, a buffer zone, a geopolitical frontier, a place to be rescued, a place characterised above all by the very fact that it is endlessly contested, and thereby endlessly destabilising. Anna Reid, for example, gives her history of Ukraine the title 'Borderland'. Perhaps that is just a reflection of historical reality itself since the 14C. There is, however, a risk that at this juncture we look back into Central European history and find the stories we expect to find – that the persistent tropes of Ukraine as a doomed, fought-over borderland risk becoming self-fulfilling. There is nothing inevitable about what happens next in Ukraine, bordered by EU Poland and Putin’s Russia: there is everything to play for. If European history tells us anything, it is surely not that the same pre-ordained stories will play themselves out time after time, but that anything can happen.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Teaching-led research?

Not just the students who are learning...
This term, I’ve been teaching courses and giving lectures which I’ve not offered for a couple of years – a lecture series on ‘Renaissance and Reformation in Central Europe’, and first-year introductory papers on art history and historical anthropology. After even a brief interval, it is always disorientating how unfamiliar once familiar material can seem; and also how different it can start to look, in light of one’s own on-going reading and research.

I’m coming to realise how deeply courses which I’ve taught in the past have shaped my current thinking and research – especially those which were not in my own core areas of expertise, and (it must be said) those which I least enjoyed teaching when I first came to Somerville. These papers have powerfully insinuated themselves into something like an intellectual subconscious, and exerted a real influence even while seemingly lying dormant.

In particular, I’m now aware of just how deeply indebted my new European Research Council Research project is to the courses I teach in a typical Oxford Hilary term. In the ‘Renaissance and Reformation’ lectures, I’ve found very early versions of the questions which frame the project, about Renaissance dynasticism, elective monarchy, etc. – reading the original lecture notes is a form of intellectual archaeology. The ‘Approaches to History’ course, which is meant to showcase interdisciplinary ways of studying the past, has shaped the ERC project just as much. Many colleges make ‘Approaches’ compulsory for first years, so that students get a panoramic sense of how art history, anthropology, gender studies and sociology have influenced historical research. The project applies these all at once to an early modern dynasty, to see what emerges.

At Oxford, as the University continues to defend its tutorial teaching model, one often hears of the virtues of ‘research-led teaching’: the idea that students benefit from being taught by scholars at the cutting edge of their fields. However, the reverse is also surely true – that the experience of teaching a broad range of Oxford undergraduate courses can inform and shape our research agendas in surprising and fruitful ways. It forces you to look for the bigger picture. When I first started (with a certain trepidation) to teach historical anthropology, the then Regius Professor Robert Evans said: ‘It will be good for you’. More recently, I heard an eminent Oxford historian say that nothing you do in your career – no task, no matter how frustrating or seemingly fruitless at the time - is ever wasted. This term has been about realising how right they were.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014


A field that is forever England?
Photo by Charlotte90t, under Creative Commons Licence

As usual at Christmas, I received a gratifying pile of historical novels. Top of the pile, with its blazing yellow cover, was Jim Crace’s Harvest, short-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize. Reviewers have had mixed feelings: some heaped lavish praise in Harvest, while others grumbled at its lumpy plot. I will nonetheless be strongly recommending Harvest to my early modern British History students because it is such a bold – though problematic - act of historical imagination.

Harvest tells the story of the last barley harvest in an English village about to be obliterated by enclosure – the controversial practice whereby landowners converted arable land into sheep pasture, displacing people from the land, because there was far more money to be made in wool than in wheat and barley. Throughout the 20C historians tried to recover the experiences of pre-modern English villagers (the ‘common man and woman’), using anthropology, folkore, archaeology and through fresh readings of sources produced by social elites. For me, none of these academic publications has conjured up early modern English village life as vividly as Crace does in Harvest. He shows us Walter Thirsk, the narrator, and his fellow villagers weaving baskets and mending tools on winter nights, making mischief with ale and magic mushrooms, electing their Gleaning Queen, living in fear constantly that the land might fail to provide. Crace gives us a community which is self-policing, supportive, claustrophobic and deeply suspicious of the world beyond the parish bounds.

However, like a lot of academic writing on early modern English rural life – books on ‘merrie Englande’ – Harvest heavily mythologies and idealises its subject matter. This book is not just an attempt to explore how ‘ordinary people’ (whoever they were) lived in the early modern period, but a novel which implies that barley-farming by a village-kingroup, tied to the land, is a particularly authentic form of human experience; humans in their ‘natural’ and prelapsarian state. Crace’s village is timeless. Whereas many historical novelists labour to convey minute period detail, Crace does not tell us where or when this enclosure novel is set, which could be at any point between the 16th and 19th centuries. Harvest is a historical novel which, with its picture of an ancient and timeless village culture, tries to keep history at the margins. This is also a pre-modern rural England as refracted through the prism of very modern concerns – the environment, national identity, refugees & immigration, and belonging. Villages like those of Jim Crace / Walter Thirsk seem to be a world we need to believe in – no coincidence, perhaps, that Harvest was published in the same year that the BBC broadcast its successful historical-reality TV series, Tudor Monastery Farm. As one of its presenters said ‘it’s a bit of fantasy, really’. Perhaps historical imagination alone (however vivid) is not enough to see the past; we also need highly self-reflective, self-aware, and critical forms of historical imagination.