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What American Conservatives Can Learn From This Polish Novelist
September 1 marked the eightieth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Sixteen days later, on September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland’s eastern flank. Within a few weeks, the two totalitarian states had carved up the Polish state.
The Poles were desperately outnumbered by the combined Nazi and Soviet armies: by more than two-to-one in manpower and by far worse odds in tanks and aircraft. And yet the overwhelmed, outgunned, and obsolete Polish military was able to destroy a disproportionate amount of Nazi military machinery, bravely suffering tremendous losses on the battlefield. Miraculously, enough Polish soldiers escaped to reform their military in exile and contribute to many later Allied military operations—including the Battle of Britain—presenting a remarkable legacy of Polish courage and resilience.
Though national pride and Christian convictions certainly served as strong motivators for those Polish men-at-arms, there was another source of inspiration: the literature of Polish writer and Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916).
Many a Polish schoolboy had been catechized in Sienkiewicz’s literary epics, most notably the historical fiction of Quo Vadis and the trilogy With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Sir Michael. Such novels, as well as his full literary corpus, offered (and continue to offer) the Polish people an invigorating vision of the good life, one defined by valor, virtue, and faith. It was also a vision—cultivated at a time when the Polish people were ruled by the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires—that was uniquely Polish.
Yet Sienkiewicz’s lessons have broader applications that transcend both geography and history, ones that are distinctly suited to contemporary conservative thought.
Penman, Patriot, Philanthropist
Sienkiewicz was born in what is now eastern Poland to a family of impoverished nobles.
Though a lackluster student, he achieved notoriety as a journalist, columnist, editor, and fiction writer. He traveled widely in Europe and then the United States, visiting attractions across the West Coast. After returning to Poland, he married and had two children, and then lost his wife Maria to tuberculosis on their four-year anniversary.
Between 1883 and 1887 he wrote his legendary trilogy, a fictional recounting of the glories and trials of the seventeenth-century Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Among many historical events, the novels cover the Khmelnytsky Uprising of Ukrainian Cossacks, the Swedish invasion of Poland, and wars between Poland and the Ottoman Empire. The books both secured Sienkiewicz fame in Poland and abroad, and reinforced Polish nationalism and international sympathy for the Poles’ cause.
As his fame grew, Sienkiewicz became more involved in Polish nationalism and philanthropy, founding or supporting projects for starvation relief, schools, and the construction of tuberculosis sanatoriums. In 1896 he published his most celebrated novel, Quo Vadis, set amid the persecution of the early Church in Nero’s Rome. The work sold 800,000 copies in the United States in eighteen months. In 1905 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
Speaking of Poland in his acceptance speech, Sienkiewicz declared: “She was pronounced dead—yet here is proof that she lives on. . . . She was pronounced defeated—and here is proof that she is victorious.”
He did not live to see her independent; Sienkiewicz died from ischemic heart disease in November 1916. An address penned by Pope Benedict XV was read at his funeral.
A Critic of Relativism and Decadence
Sienkiewicz’s overwhelming popularity as a conservative member of the literati is somewhat anomalous given the opinions of many of his Polish literary contemporaries, who were usually more liberal and radical.
This divergence is perhaps most visible in his pointed critiques of the Polish intelligentsia’s fascination with the late nineteenth-century decadent movement, which promoted excess and artificiality and was identified with self-disgust, perversion, vulgarity, and skepticism toward logic and objective morality. His novel Without Dogma is the story of a wealthy aristocratic struggling to find meaning amid failed romantic relationships. The protagonist ultimately commits suicide. Told through diary entries, the novel aimed to lampoon the profligacy of the fin de siècle generation.
Contrary to Sienkiewicz’s intentions, Without Dogma became popular among the very Polish youth he sought to censure, akin to those who read Tom Wolfe for the sexual gratuity, seemingly ignorant of the conservative Virginia gentleman’s social commentary. One such reviewer declared his appreciation to Sienkiewicz for “describing his soul so perfectly.”
Yet Sienkiewicz, who argued that novels “should strengthen life, not undermine it; ennoble, not defile it; bring good tidings, not evil,” would not be easily deterred by this gross misinterpretation.
In Quo Vadis, Sienkiewicz succeeded, describing in disgusting detail the debauchery of late first-century Rome under the licentious tyrant Nero.
“What a society! To such a society, such a Caesar,” argues Sienkiewicz. The compulsive and corrupt Nero, Roman historian Tacitus tells us, unjustifiably blamed Christians for a devastating fire in Rome.
Among his many retributive acts of cruelty, Nero fed Christians to the lions of the Coliseum, and lit his garden parties with the burning carcasses of the faithful. Peter Ustinov—apparently the quintessential actor for roles as libidinous royalty, given his portrayals of Herod the Great in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 Jesus of Nazareth and the wicked King John in the 1973 animated film Robin Hood—convincingly plays Nero in the 1951 Hollywood adaptation of Quo Vadis.
Faith and Charity: An Antidote for Cultural Degradation
Sienkiewicz does not leave us only with a searing indictment of hedonism and its destructiveness. In Quo Vadis he writes:
It seemed that out of every tear of a martyr new confessors were born, and that every groan on the arena found an echo in thousands of breasts. Caesar was swimming in blood, Rome and the whole pagan world was mad.
But those who had had enough of transgression and madness, those who were trampled upon, those whose lives were misery and oppression, all the weighed down, all the sad, all the unfortunate, came to hear the wonderful tidings of God, who out of love for men had given Himself to be crucified and redeem their sins.
When they found a God whom they could love, they had found that which the society of the time could not give any one—happiness and love.
Indeed, Quo Vadis is also a tale of redemption, in which a pagan Roman soldier is won over to Christ by the humble, loving witness of other Christians and willingly accepts the fate of a martyr. Sienkiewicz’s exacting historical research of ancient Rome also provides thoughtful, creative insights into the nature and character of the nascent Roman Church.
Religious faith, in fact, is an absolute necessity for a robust good life as depicted in Sienkiewicz’s trilogy about the greatest crises to confront the premodern Polish state. The protagonists of With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Sir Michael—men like Jan Skrzetuski, Andrzej Kmicic, and Michał Wołodyjowski—all evince a Christian piety that serves as an impetus, rather than an accessory, to their bravery and virtuous deeds. Such fictional characters orient us toward true historical figures like Polish king Jan III Sobieski, whose hussars repelled the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683, saving Christian Europe. Alternatively, evil characters are typically portrayed as not only scheming and immoral but also lacking Christian charity.
Moreover, a consistent motif across Sienkiewicz’s corpus is the plight of the powerless—including impoverished peasants, children, and immigrants—and the need for conscientious, religiously devout heroes to protect and advocate for them.
Promoter of Patriotism
Sienkiewicz’s depiction of the ideal hero represents both an anthropomorphized vision of Poland and the kinds of Polish men and women that were required to secure and maintain a sovereign, independent Polish nation. Sienkiewicz’s Poland is a glorious nation with a profound martial and religious legacy, but one suffering internal intrigues at the hands of vain, selfish Polish nobility who leave the nation vulnerable to external assaults from Germans, Russians, Cossacks, and Turks. This mirrored the Poland of his own day, which ceased to exist after its eighteenth-century partition by the competing powers of Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Russia. These not only oppressed the Polish people but also often actively sought to suppress their culture and language.
Poland required the kinds of citizens who drank deeply from their heritage and who refused to be cowed by tyrannical powers. They, says Sienkiewicz, must avoid the extremes of merciless, utilitarian violence so common among their subjugators and the apathy and sensual nihilism that enticed the disaffected youth. They must instead pursue a purity and righteousness that would appeal to foreign sympathizers and prove essential to building a soon-to-be-realized flourishing Polish civic society. In contrast to the old Poland, which disastrously catered to the interests of the landed nobility, the new Poland would exemplify the Christian virtues of charity and self-sacrifice.
Sienkiewicz’s vision for the good life represents a pedagogical lesson for both Poles and Americans. It repudiates moral decadence in favor of restrained, pious virtue and civic obligation, one that is fiercely patriotic and proud of its heritage. These qualities were clearly evident in the Polish citizens who resisted the Nazis and Soviets. Indeed, these traits enabled two generations of Poles to endure—and overcome—Soviet domination.
Sienkiewicz poses the challenge anew not only for Poland, which now resists a different type of anti-Christian European hegemony, but also for an America tempted by the same materialism, hedonism, and nihilism that enticed Polish youth. Will we find ourselves debilitated before degenerate tyranny like the Romans of Quo Vadis, or galvanized and emboldened like the persecuted Christians who condemned and resisted Nero’s persecutions?
Such a choice belonged to the valiant Poles of the Second World War. And now the choice is ours.
Casey Chalk is senior writer for Crisis magazine and a contributor at the American Conservative and New Oxford Review. Several of his Polish ancestors—including soldiers and clerics—were killed by the Nazis in World War II.
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