2019 Kulczycki Book Prize

The 2019 Kulczycki Book Prize Co-Winner was Jochen Böhler for Civil War in Central Europe, 1918-1921: The Reconstruction of Poland (Oxford University Press)

Jochen Böhler’s book title captures the author’s core insight: that we need to shift our perspective on the years immediately following World War I, moving away from triumphant teleologies about national state-building and towards a much messier picture of confusion and violence. This vantage point reminds us that descriptions of “Polish-Lithuanian” or “Polish-Ukrainian” conflicts presuppose the existence of distinct historical agents called “Poland,” “Lithuania,” and “Ukraine.” In the midst of the postwar chaos, it was by no means foreordained that these polities would consolidate beyond the declarations of a handful of national activists in the major cities. Poles might celebrate November 11, 1918, as the moment when independence was restored, but it would take several years before even the most rudimentary state structures would be instituted. During this time of indeterminacy (and this is Böhler’s second major contribution), life in northeastern Europe was characterized by extraordinary levels of violence, often carried out by groups with unclear, overlapping, or shifting allegiances. The civil war paradigm can be seen in many different territories in the region where the borders shifted after the Treaty of Versailles, often stemming from pockets of a newly minoritized ethnicities. Antisemitic pogroms were widespread, but other communities also endured brutal attacks (and then often became agents of retribution). Böhler’s account of the atrocities carried out during these years is shocking. As he points out, these stories were hiding in plain sight, rendered either invisible or tangential by getting framed by overly-coherent narratives of war and nation-building. By placing all the tales of brutality alongside each other, Böhler allows us to sense for the first time what it must have been like to actually live through that horrible time.

The 2019 Kulczycki Book Prize Co-Winner was Natalia Nowakowska for King Sigismund of Poland and Martin Luther: The Reformation before Confessionalization (Oxford University Press)

The famous historian Janusz Tazbir published a book in 1973 entitled A State without Stakes: Polish Religious Toleration in the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Centuries (a translation of the 1967 original, Państwo bez stosów. Szkice z dziejów tolerancji w Polsce w XVI-XVII w.) That volume both captured and consolidated an image of the earlymodern Polish-Lithuanian Republic as a land that celebrated diversity and welcomed religious heterodoxy. Scholars have been chipping away at this rosy portrait, but Natalia Nowakowska has laid it to rest. She does so by completely reframing the genuine absence of persecution in the realm of King Sigismund I. Nowakowska points out that Sigismund was more than willing to suppress those whose ideas challenged what he took to be religious orthodoxy. His ecclesiology, however, was rooted in a conviction that the Church was by definition unified, so that a great deal of debate and discussion was possible. Lutherans, in Sigismund’s eyes, were not outside the Church, so they did not need to be suppressed. Moreover, Nowakowska argues, it makes little sense to try to distinguish between Sigismund I’s political and religious policies. Older arguments suggesting that he placed political considerations above doctrinal ones fails to capture the commonly-held understanding that Church and State were always intertwined. With a wide range of sophisticated tools, including both the careful exploration of individual texts and a very insightful discursive analysis of a whole corpus of sixteenth century documents, Nowakowska has transformed our understanding of the Reformation in Eastern Europe (and beyond).