2011 Vol. 3 No. 1 — Spring / Commentary

Mathematics and Polish National Identity

mathPhilosophical thought in 19th century Europe inspired citizens of nation-states to develop a sense of nationalism. Poland existed as a nation but not as a state. As World War I came to an end and Poles fought against their Germanization and Russification, developments in mathematics helped establish Polish identity. During the interwar period of 1918-1939, Poland won its struggle for international recognition with the help of Zygmunt Janiszewski, a talented mathematician. Janiszewski’s politically informed proposal, with the help of various schools of mathematics within Poland, led to the creation of a specialized and internationally recognized journal: Fundamenta Mathematicae. The journal concentrated on set theory and functional analysis. The many research journals that currently encourage the submission of specialized articles, use the powerful branches of mathematics that were developed in Poland during the interwar period.

Zygmunt Janiszewski proposed the use of mathematics as a means for Poland to gain international recognition. In his 1918 publication “O Potrzebach Matematyki w Polsce” [“On the Needs of Mathematics in Poland”] in Nauka Polska, Janiszewski states his goals to the Polish mathematical community as follows: “to distinguish [itself] and to win an independence” (1). Janiszewski’s publication of Guidebooks for Self-Instruction, further supported his ideas. He produced these books in response to Russian restrictions on teaching mathematics in secondary schools (2). Janiszewski exemplified his main idea in the following statement: “it is necessary to transform strictly scholarly periodical literature into more specialized ones: for example, one journal would be devoted to number theory and algebra” (3). He foresaw Poland’s political success through specialization in fields of mathematics stating: “We must seize radical means, examine the basis of failure, we must create a research center in Poland! We can attain this only by concentrating the majority of our mathematicians into the work of a single branch of mathematics” (4). Revolutionary in nature, the publication of this article caused a commotion among the community of foreign scholars, since they likened specialization to a force that could ruin the reputation of Poland (5). In rejecting these warnings, Janiszewski asserted that Poland’s existence would continue through the ideas of talented Polish mathematicians.

The publication of Fundamenta Mathematicae in 1920 sent shockwaves through the international mathematical community. In a form slightly different from Janiszewski’s proposal, Stefan Mazurkiewicz and Wacław Sierpinski completed and published the first volume of Fundamenta Mathematicae with articles on set theory, written solely by Polish authors. This highly specialized journal gained immediate international acceptance. In September 1921 Raymond Clare Archibald, an editor for the American Mathematical Monthly, stated, “Of the ten mathematical periodicals started since January 1919, none are of such notable importance for mathematical research as Fundamenta Mathematicae” (6). Not only did subsequent volumes contribute to an increased number in articles from abroad, but they also included the development of two additional specialized branches of mathematics – topology and functional analysis (7). The mathematical community responded with caution to these developments in specialized mathematical concepts; nonetheless, Janiszewski’s plan proved to be successful in Poland.

Mathematicians outside the circle of Janiszewski, Mazurkiewicz and Sierpinski were skeptical of the longevity of highly specialized mathematics and journals. Henri Lebesgue, a French mathematician, doubted that the journal could attract specialized material over an extended period; however, prominent foreign schools of mathematics soon recognized the importance of Fundamenta Mathematicae. (Although Lebesgue had little faith in the future of the journal, he submitted an article for publication because he believed in the development of specialized mathematics.) By the twenty-fifth volume of Fundamenta Mathematicae, The Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society stated that the journal’s continuation represented “a notable event in the mathematical life of the whole world” (8).

Janiszewski proposed specialization of mathematics in “On the Needs of Mathematics in Poland” in response to the loss of national pride that Poland experienced through its century long occupation. His novel idea to push for international acclaim in mathematics as a way to gain independence required that Polish mathematicians master specialized fields in mathematics and eventually publish their ideas in an international journal. Fundamenta Mathematicae brought Polish mathematics to the international community. The works of Polish mathematicians in Fundamenta Mathematicae not only led to a phenomenon that is seen in most mathematical journals today but also led to a revival in Polish national culture.


  1. Zygmunt Janiszewski, “O Potrzebach Matematyki w Polsce,” Nauka Polska, Mianowski Foundation, 1918.
  2. Roman Duda, “On the Warsaw Interactions of Logic and Mathematics in the Years 1919-1939,” Volume 127, Annals of Pure and Applied Logic, 2004, p. 284.
  3. Janiszewski, “O Potrzebach.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Sister Mary Grace Kuzawa, CSFN, Modern Mathematics, College & University Press Services, 1968.
  6. Edward Marczewski, “Swieto Matematyki Polskiej,” Wiadomosci Literackie, 1936.
  7. Kuzawa, “Modern,” p. 93.
  8. Jacob Tamarkin, “Twenty-Five Volumes of Fundamenta Mathematicae,” Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, 1936.

This article is reprinted by permission from Good News magazine, a publication of the American Institute of Polish Culture.


Joseph Pomianowski
Joseph Pomianowski is an MA student in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. His research focuses on mathematics in twentieth-century Europe. He earned a BA in Mathematics and Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Connecticut (Spring 2009). Aside from academics, Joe likes to box and work on music. He helps with filming and web development.
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