Jerzy Topolski was a rare phenomenon in Polish and European historical science, having combined an analyst’s and and synthesiser’s qualifications and achievements in the social and economic history with a wide interest in the methodology and theory of historical science. He was born in Poznan and it was in his native town that he studied at the Department of Law and Economics. He took his doctor’s degree at the University of Torufi under Professor Stanistaw Hoszowski and then supplemented his studies at the Institute for Training Scientific Workers in Warsaw; he then returned to Poznan University and at the same time collaborated for several years with the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences. In the following years, he complemented his qualifications as a historian in France where he attended the Sixth Section of Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (seminar of J. Meuvret and F. Braudel), in the Federal Republic of Germany and in Italy […] His interpretations of what is known as the 17th century crisis and the way he divided the European countries not according to their socio-economic structure, i.e., the peasants’ serfdom east of the Elbe, but according to the rate of their economic growth also defied the prevailing views on the situation in 17th century Europe. He divided the European countries into three categories: the developing countries, i.e. England and the Netherlands; countries of moderate growth, that is, France, a part of Germany and of Italy; and countries with a stagnating economy: Spain, Poland, Portugal and Turkey. In addition to these syntheses of European economy, he also presented a brief outline of Poland’s economic history during the millennium of the country’s existence (1967) in an extensive article furbished with a diagram which showed Poland’s economic growth from the 10th to the 20th century on the basis of cereals and iron consumption. Though one could have argued with him over the exact shape of the curve, the general trend was presented correctly and very boldly. Jerzy Topolski combined this attempt at a general presentation of historical phenomena with a tendency to apply the method of models, the principle to seek the essential features of an historical phenomenon and observe how this model behaves when conditions and its elements change. He applied this method in his analyses of many past phenomena, both on the historical scale (e.g. the peasant farm before and at the beginning of the industrial revolution) and on the scale of economic regions, for instance, economy in Great Poland, especially in the 18th century. This research was linked with the studies conducted by Topolski and many of his disciples on the history of Poland, in particular Great Poland, studies which strengthened his optimistic view of Poland’s history. He did not agree with the theory that Poland had been re-feudalised and thrown into anarchy since the 17th century and that it had been a kind of colony of the developing West. He refused to regard the Saxon times as a dark period in Poland’s history and emphasized Great Poland’s economic development, particularly in the 18th century. In consequence he regarded Prussia’s rapaciousness as an aspiration of a militarized but rather primitive little state to annex richer and more developed territories, first Silesia and then Royal Prussia and Great Poland. In this respect he took over the views of his master, J. Rutkowski, who did not attribute the partitions to Poland’s economic decline. Topolski presented his opinions on this question in many studies and syntheses (e.g. studies concerning Poland’s history in modern times) and in his editions and interpretations of Rutkowski’s works. Studies in the Institute for Training Scientific Workers gave Topolski an opportunity to acquaint himself thoroughly with Marxist classics, first and foremost the works of Karl Marx. But Topolski’s attitude to Marxism was different from that of many of his colleagues. He did not regard Marx’s works as an infallible text to be interpreted dogmatically, but as a scientific theory applicable to a certain time and a certain area, a theory whose elements are more or less lasting and convincing. In this case Topolski joined those disciples of the Institute who subjected dogmatism to severe criticism and retained only those elements of Marxism which were intellectually inspiring and useful scientifically. His stance and his philosophical attitude were backed and fully understood by Andrzej Malewski with whom he wrote Studies in the Methodology of History, published in 1960. Topolski continued these studies after Malewski’s death and in 1968 published his principal work The Methodology of History. This book, reprinted in 1973, in an enlarged edition, met with a wide response all over the world and was translated into Italian, English, Spanish (two editions), Romanian, Chinese and probably also into Russian, although the translation was not published in the USSR. What attracted the world’s scholars was Topolski’s attitude to Marxism which he treated as one of scientific theories and not as a collection of dogmas, and the fact that he took account of the latest Western methodological achievements. Methodology was followed by other important studies in this field, including his book on the theory of historical knowledge (1983). While leaving the analysis of the works to experts in methodology and theory of history, it is worth recalling what the meant for us, Polish historians active at that time, The The Methodology of History was for us a shield protecting us from attacks by dogmatists and doctrinaires, for although it introduced Western research methods, it could not be declared to be contrary to rationally conceived Marxism. This assured Polish historians of a certain degree of freedom in research and ensured that we spoke the same language as Western scholars. Moreover, Topolski stressed the key role of human consciousness in the traditional patterns of the historical process, thus humanizing the process of social progress, which was previously conceived only from the economic point of view. He also introduced the principle of a conscious approach in research, in particular as regards the choice of subjects and the research questions, posed, which historians had applied rather intuitively, if they had applied it at all. He recalled the importance of extra-source knowledge accompanying the historian in his life and scholarly work, although this knowledge was not always fully realized. He also pointed out the benefits and limitations of the use of methods borrowed from other social sciences, such as the above-mentioned method of models and the quantification trend in historical research. To what extent is the advance of Polish historical science due to Topolski? It is difficult to reply to this question for this advance is due both to his achievements and the achievements of other scholars, for instance Witold Kula. They both broke the language barrier separating Polish historical science from the world and their studies were accessible in many languages and on many continents. Topolski also expressed his views in person, giving lectures in many countries, in the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Canada and Italy, to mention only his longer sojourns as visiting professor. For twenty years he was a member of the Board of the International Economic History Association, which not only introduced him to the world elite in this branch of knowledge but also made it possible for him to draw Polish historians into large-scale participations in international events and guaranteed that Polish scholars took a large part in international congresses devoted to economic history. Topolski helped other scholars because he understood other people, respected their work, ambitions and achievements, a rare quality in the world. Thanks to this quality he brought up many talented devoted disciples and perfectly directed team studies. He directed them in such a way that the research work brought good results, was free of unnecessary disputes and friction, and the planned studies appeared on time. He was very ambitious, which was why he worked so hard, but he never tried to outshine others and was never envious of other scholars’ successes. One might say that he believed that the resources of happiness in the world were inexhaustible and that from this he drew the conclusion that one could be happy without harming other people. The principle may have lightened his great creative work which was so unexpectedly interrupted by his premature death.
[Andrzej WYCZAŃSKI. “Jerzy Topolski 20.9.1928-21.12.1998”, in Acta Poloniae Historica, vol. LXXIX, 1999, pp. 287-289]