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Askenazy, Szymon

(1866–1935), Polish historian and diplomat. Szymon Askenazy was born in Zawichost, southwest of Lublin, to a wealthy Orthodox family. He was a descendant of Tsevi Hirsh ben Ya‘akov Ashkenazi (1660–1718), known as Ḥakham Tsevi, who had held positions as a rabbi in Altona, Hamburg, Amsterdam, and Lwów. Askenazy studied law at Warsaw University, graduating in 1887, and subsequently took up history at the University of Göttingen, where he received his doctorate.

As a Jew, Askenazy could not hold a professorial position at the Russian-controlled University of Warsaw; accordingly, he transferred to the University of Lwów, where he obtained his accreditation and lectured on modern and Polish history. Although he directed the chair of modern history, he refused to convert to Christianity and thus was not formally given the title of professor. He supported Jewish assimilation and was a member of the Assimilationist Party. With Hipolit Wawelberg, he established a foundation to provide academic scholarships for Jews.

Askenazy’s chief area of expertise was the political history of Poland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He was also interested in Jewish history and wrote a series of articles about Jews in the Duchy of Warsaw and the Kingdom of Poland; it was published in Kwartalnik poświęconym badaniu przeszłości Żydów w Polsce (Quarterly for Research on the Past of the Jews in Poland), which he cofounded. He taught many historians (including Yankev Shatzky, a historian of Warsaw Jewry) and created a theory of history that stressed the importance of diplomatic documents and the history of international situations. In 1909, he was made a member of the Academy of Sciences in Galicia.

Askenazy spent World War I in Switzerland, where he advocated Polish independence in Moniteur Polonais; revue économique et politique, a monthly established in Lausanne in December 1916 of which he was coeditor, while also serving as a member of the Polish National Council in Switzerland. Between 1920 and 1923 he was Polish representative at the League of Nations in Geneva, but was dismissed by the National Democratic foreign minister, Marian Seyda. Askenazy was subsequently denied a professorship at the University of Warsaw, but in 1928 he was made an honorary professor and was allowed to lecture there.

In his writings, Askenazy opposed the positivist historiography identified with such scholars as Władysław Smoleński, and established a neoromantic and modernist trend in Polish historical writing. His early work was strongly influenced by French historiography, particularly by the writings of Albert Sorel, from whom he took his idealization of Napoleon, the interpretation of the 1789 Revolution as a French national and patriotic revival, and his belief in the importance of the historian serving the cause of national regeneration. It was this factor that led Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, one of the leading Polish literary critics of the interwar period, to describe him as sprytny dostawca optimyzmu narodowego, “an adroit [ingenious] supplier of national optimism.” This judgment is probably too harsh; the historian Piotr Wróbel takes a more positive view, arguing that Askenazy “rejected a Polish inferiority complex, emphasized Polish vitality, fought against provincialism in Polish thinking, and constantly showed Poland as an irremovable part of Europe. Most of his writings constituted a defense of an armed struggle for independence” (Wróbel, 2006, pp. 289–290).

Among Askenazy’s most important works are Książę Józef Poniatowski, 1763–1813 (Prince Józef Poniatowski, 1763–1813; 1913), which has been translated into English, French, and German; Napoleon a Polska (Napoleon and Poland; 1918–1919), Gdańsk a Polska (Danzig and Poland; 1921), and a collection of documents that he discovered and edited under the title Rękopisy Napoleona. 1793–1795 w Polsce (Napoleonic Manuscripts: 1793–1795 in Poland; 1929). In addition, Askenazy wrote the chapters on Russia and Poland in the early nineteenth century for second edition of the Cambridge Modern History (1934). He was also a passionate chess player. His political career may have begun when he played against Józef Piłsudski in the Sans Souci café in Lwów in 1912. He died in Warsaw.

Suggested Reading

Jozef Dutkiewicz, Szymon Askenazy i jego szkola (Warsaw, 1958); Emil Kipa, “Szymon Askenazy,” in Studia i szkice historyczne, pp. 183–197 (Wrocław, 1959); Piotr Wróbel, “Szymon Askenazy,” in Nation and History: Polish Historians from the Enlightenment to the Second World War, ed. Peter Brock, John D. Stanley, and Piotr Wróbel (Toronto, 2006).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 348, Lucien Wolf and David Mowshowitch, Papers, 1865-1957.