Józef Mackiewicz is one of the most important historical writers of the 20th century. In his prose and journalism, he has dealt with issues related to war and politics as well as Eastern European society – primarily concerning Polish-Russian relations. He was a strong anti-communist and opponent of all kinds of nationalism – he proclaimed the idea of equality of all nations.
He was born on April 1st (March 19th according to the Eastern calendar) 1902 in St. Petersburg. He grew up in a house where the Polish tradition was very carefully nurtured, mainly by his mother, Maria née Pietraszkiewicz, who came from Cracow. His father, Antoni Mackiewicz of the Bożawola coat of arms, nicknamed Jańcza, came from an old Lithuanian family. He was the owner of several tenement houses, as well as a director and co-owner of a wine importing company. Both Joseph and his older siblings – brother Stanislaw (later known as Cat) and sister Seweryna – were taught Polish history and respect for their homeland from an early age.
In 1907, due to Joseph’s illness, the family decided to leave St. Petersburg and moved to Vilnius. The boys started their education at the renowned private Vilnius classical grammar school Winogradowa. The school had a unique, for those days, atmosphere of liberalism and respect for students’ national feelings, regardless of their background.
Seven years later, Józef’s father, Antoni, died. After his death, and due to the outbreak of World War I, the family’s financial situation deteriorated significantly. In 1916, the Mackiewicz family moved to an estate in Bejnarów, belonging to their friend Wiktoria Malinska. Only Stanisław stayed in Vilnius, who was preparing for his Matura exam. In this estate, Józef studied under the supervision of a private tutor, going to school in Vilnius from time to time to pass external exams.
At the end of 1918, Józef Mackiewicz joined the 10th Uhlan Cavalry Regiment of the Lithuanian-Belarusian Division of the Polish Army as a volunteer. During a skirmish, he was injured and his health also deteriorated due to poor nutrition and difficult conditions. After leaving the hospital, he asked for a transfer to the 13th Uhlan Regiment – a semi-partisan formation of the cavalry captain Jerzy Dąbrowski „Łupaszka”. Józef’s brother, Stanisław, also served in this division earlier. After a few months, Józef Mackiewicz released himself from the regiment and returned to Bejnarów, from where, he and his mother went to Vilnius. He rejoined the 13th Regiment in July 1920. He miraculously managed to escape the ambush of the Bolsheviks, who carried out the slaughter of Polish soldiers resting at night. After escaping, he was detained by a Lithuanian patrol and was sent to prison in Vilnius. He was released after a friend bailed him out. Until October, he stayed in his family home in Vilnius, then he rejoined the Dąbrowski regiment. After the demobilisation, which took place a few weeks later, he started working in a museum in Bialowieża. At that time, he wrote his first text – never found and never printed – a description of the Bialowieża Forest.
In June 1921, he moved to Warsaw with his aunt and was employed as an assistant at the National Museum of Nature. In the same year, he started studying biology at the University of Warsaw. He dropped out of university shortly afterwards, starting work as a telephone correspondent from Vilnius for Warsaw’s daily „Kurier Poranny”. He delivered news from Soviet newspapers to the journal. He also wrote theatrical reviews and book discussions for „Dziennik Wileński”. In 1923, he started working in the editorial office of „Słowo” (“The Word”), a Vilnius conservative daily newspaper, edited by his brother Stanisław. He wrote short notes on Soviet domestic and foreign politics, as well as the politics of the Baltic States, especially Lithuania.
A year later, he married Antonina Kopańska. The news of this wedding did not reach his family until a year later, when his daughter was born. However, the marriage soon ended in separation.
In 1931, Józef Mackiewicz made his first literary attempt – it was a drama, Pan poseł i Julia (“Mr Envoy and Julia”), written together with Kazimierz Leczycki and staged the same year at the Lutnia Theatre in Vilnius. Mackiewicz’s independent book debut was published in 1936 by „Słowo” – it was a volume of novellas entitled 16-go między trzecią a siódmą (“On 16th, between 3 and 7”). Two years later, his next book was published, which brought him fame – Bunt rojstów (“The Rebellion of Marshes“) a reportage collection on the Eastern Borderlands printed earlier in „Słowo”.
In 1939, Józef Mackiewicz married Barbara Toporska. The same year, he left Vilnius, and left with his wife to Kaunas to return to Vilnius two months later. Józef Mackiewicz engaged in publishing the „Gazeta Codzienna” (“Daily Paper”) there, which refers to the tradition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1940, after the Red Army entered Vilnius, Mackiewicz withdrew from journalistic life and, together with his wife, settled in Czarny Bór (Juodšiliai), a dozen or so kilometres from Vilnius, where he worked as a lumberjack and a coachman.
During the German-Soviet War in 1941, Mackiewicz received a proposal to edit a newspaper in German, which he rejected. A little later, he published several texts relating to the Soviet occupation, which has led to him being accused of collaborating with the Germans and a death sentence placed on him by the Vilnius Home Army court. The sentence was cancelled due to numerous protests, but Mackiewicz’s political opponents repeated their accusations until his death.
After discovering the graves of Polish officers murdered by the Soviets in May 1943, Józef Mackiewicz went there as an exhumation observer at German invitation and with the consent of the Polish authorities. Upon his return to Vilnius, he gave an interview to a daily Goniec Codzienny (“Daily Runner”) as an eyewitness. The same year, Mackiewicz and his wife left Vilnius for Warsaw, where they stayed for several months, publishing, among other things, an underground magazine „Alarm” and distributing a patriotic brochure. From Warsaw, they made their way to Milan, and from there, after six months, to Rome. There, they both joined the Polish II Corps of General Władysław Anders. At that time, Józef Mackiewicz prepared a work entitled Zbrodnia katyńska w świetle dokumentów (“The Katyn Murder in Light of New Evidence”, 1945-1946). He also published memorial reportage – in one of them, he included a description of the massacre of Jews in Ponary near Vilnius.
In 1947, he moved to London with Barbara Toporska. He started working with the London „News”, and, in 1951, also with the Parisian „Kultura” (“Culture” – a leading Polish-émigré literary-political magazine). The same year, an English translation of his work on the Katyn Crimes The Katyn Wood Murders was published. The following year, a special committee of the American Congress to investigate the Katyn crime appointed him as a witness and expert.
The proposal to work in the Munich section of the Polish Voice of America made to Barbara Toporska was the reason for their moving to Munich, where they lived until their deaths. Mackiewicz’s next books were published, inter alia, Droga donikąd (“The Road to Nowhere”, 1955), Karierowicz (“Careerist”, 1955), Kontra (“Contra”, 1957), Sprawa pułkownika Miasojedowa (“Colonel Miasoyedov’s Case”, 1962).
Józef Mackiewicz died on 31 January 1985 as a result of a stroke. He was buried in London. He was repeatedly awarded for his work, among others in 1955 in the poll „The Most Loved Writer of „News” readers”, he was also awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta by the Polish Government in Exile in 1971. Since 2002, the Józef Mackiewicz Literary Award has been awarded in Poland.
“I can say about myself that I know that just as there are no »bad« or »good« species of animals, there are no, and cannot be, »bad« or »good« nations. There can only be individuals.”
[J. Mackiewicz, Moje credo pisarskie?… Prawda. Rozmowa B. Mamonia z J. Mackiewiczem („My Writing Credo?…The Truth. B. Mamoń Talking to J. Mackiewicz”]
“Mackiewicz was the first Polish writer to describe the consequences of the twentieth-century instrumentalisation of the national idea, i.e. the different varieties of nationalism, e.g. as a party ideology, state or colloquial social mentality. He showed nationalism both as an instrument of destruction of historical national communities, as well as an instrument with which the Bolsheviks prevented the emergence of solidarity between countries and nations.”
Józef Mackiewicz is primarily the author of great historical novels about the 20th century. He described and analysed what he experienced himself and knew best – Polish-Russian affairs. They revolve around warfare: World War I (Colonel Miasoyedov’s Case), the Polish-Bolshevik war in 1920 (Lewa wolna [Clear on the Left”]), the fall of the Second Polish Republic and the outbreak of the German-Soviet war (The Road to Nowhere), the German occupation of the East (Nie trzeba głośno mówić [“One Is Not Supposed to Speak Aloud”]), and World War II and Russian soldiers fighting the Red Army on the side of the Wehrmacht (Contra). These novels are complemented by numerous short stories and journalism, but always dealing with the same socio-historical area.
He showed in his work the cruelty and pointlessness of war. He described its absurdity and brutality, using both irony and realistic descriptions of bestial practices used by Bolsheviks. However, he spoke of war not only on a military level, but also on an ideological level. Mackiewicz condemned nationalistic tendencies to exacerbate the divisions between ethnically different inhabitants of one country and closing within one nation only. He believed the unit must be more important than the mass. This subject was deeply touched upon in his novel Colonel Miasoyedov’s Case, in which he described the problem of a man wrongly accused of collaboration, left almost on his own. In his work, he also drew a picture of the borderland society, multi-ethnic, as well as Russian society.
Józef Mackiewicz’s oeuvre is largely autobiographical – it was based primarily on his own experiences and observations, complemented by accounts and memories of other witnesses and documents. These include a report on the extermination of Jews in Ponary, of which Mackiewicz was an eyewitness, as well as one of the most important accounts of the Katyn Crime. He proclaimed the motto that „only the truth is interesting”, and he himself strived for such a message. Moreover, Mackiewicz did not shy away from questioning people considered to be legends and events considered to be momentous – among other things, he questioned Józef Piłsudski’s victory in the Polish-Bolshevik war in 1920. In his novel Watykan w cieniu czerwonej gwiazdy (“The Vatican in the Shadow of the Red Star”), he also touched upon the problem of the Catholic Church’s attitude towards communism. As a writer, he combined different literary genres as well as fiction with facts in one novel. He also drew attention to how language can deform reality by misusing words and simplifying concepts.
Mackiewicz was an uncompromising anti-communist, for which he was repeatedly accused of collaborating with the Germans during the war. He opposed all manifestations of nationalism. In conflicts arising from an extreme sense of national pride, he saw the cause of the disintegration of the world before the two world wars. He was a supporter of the idea of a multinational and multi-ethnic community of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and wished to restore it.
“The society of a mature nation should be like an open fan. Undoubtedly so. I would add from myself that the more often the fan swings open more than 180 degrees, the better it demonstrates the maturity, dynamism, and thus richness of society’s thoughts. However, a fan twisted into a tight fist gives the impression of being a short cudgel.”
[J. Mackiewicz, Kompleks niemiecki („German Complex”), „Kultura” 1956]