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

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.