The Problem With Poland’s New Nationalism
Poland’s government rails against foreign oppression. But its vision for the country was born in Moscow.
Among the greatest misfortunes resulting from the election of the current Polish government is that it has given Polish nationalism a bad name. “Nationalistic” has joined the epithets used by Western commentators to describe the Law and Justice party, alongside “xenophobic” and “populist.”
It’s easy to understand why the term has been applied. But it’s important to understand that the Polish government, in trying to pose as the defender of Polish sovereignty, has abused and distorted Polish nationalism. That this has happened is a shame for many reasons — not least because nationalism was once widely recognized as one of Poland’s greatest virtues. One of the oldest political units in Europe, Poland had long cultivated a highly idiosyncratic sense of nationhood, one that over its thousand-year existence earned admiration far beyond its borders.
The current Polish government, however, has abandoned that tradition in favor of a legacy far more recent and far less deserving of emulation. Perversely, it has embraced the values and worldview of the communist regime whose influence it claims to most want to eradicate.
In the medieval era, Polish nationalism was based on loyalty to a royal dynasty and, in that sense, differed little from that of any other nation in Christendom. But with the coming of the Renaissance, Polish nationalism developed in tune with the rapid political changes taking place in the country, which had resulted in a republic with an elected constitutional monarchy and a remarkably pluralistic society. The Poles became patriots for a way of life — republican, multicultural, and multi-religious. Like Roman citizens in the glory days of Rome, the Polish gentry believed themselves to be members of an elite club. They looked with pity on their counterparts in neighboring countries obliged to put up with tyrannical rulers, high levels of taxation, enforced religious orthodoxy, and censorship. They also welcomed those of any nationality who wished to settle in Poland and share their blessings.
The 18th century saw Polish society divided between those who embraced Western European manners and taste along with the new secularist and rationalist zeitgeist, and a conservative backbone that clung to an increasingly beleaguered and xenophobic belief that everything traditional and “Polish” was best. By the end of the century, however, these divisions were transcended by the partition and abolition of the country under a combined assault by Poland’s three neighbors: Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
The loss of Polish statehood meant that “Poland” ceased being a country and instead became a cause — the cause of liberation. The cause aimed to subvert the conservative states that had assaulted it, and for ideological as well as practical reasons, it became revolutionary in character. National insurrections aimed at throwing off the foreign yoke — in 1794, 1830, 1846, and 1863 — involved ever-greater numbers of the peasantry. The 1905 uprising sprouted from working-class action.
Polish nationalists agreed that the only hope for liberation lay in engaging foreign support, but they disagreed over how to cultivate it: The more conservative sought to persuade powers such as Britain and France to intervene in favor of re-creating a Polish state, while the more radical encouraged revolution in other countries, believing that revolutionary governments would prove more likely allies. To this end, Polish patriots fought in the ranks of every single revolutionary movement in Europe and in both North and South America, often in dedicated units fighting under banners inscribed with the motto: “For Our Freedom and Yours.” The Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz gave this missionary zeal a religious twist by proclaiming that through its martyrdom Poland would redeem the world and in 1848 personally led a company of volunteers, clad in tunics adorned with a large white cross, fighting for the liberation of Italy.
Polish nationalism of this period was generous, inclusive, internationalist, exalted, almost metaphysical. It was also utterly ineffectual. All the heroics resulted only in the deaths of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of young men and in the prison, exile, and suffering for tens of thousands of others. Yet they did succeed in creating a legend, enhanced in the poetry, prose, and painting of the Romantic era and, indeed, in the music of such composers as Frederic Chopin. And this legend became deeply implanted in the Polish psyche.
In the second half of the 19th century, most of Polish society recognized the futility of armed action against oppressors who had grown into powerful empires underpinned by huge industrial and military might. Idealists armed with hunting rifles, old swords, and scythes were useless against machine guns and heavy artillery. Those still committed to armed struggle resorted to conspiracy and terrorism, but many patriots channeled their aspirations into more organic politics.
The three imperial powers that occupied the area that had been the Polish state were bent on more or less aggressive assimilation of the indigenous population. This ranged from not allowing use of the Polish language in schools to banning its use in public and, in the case of Russia, of forced conversions to Orthodoxy. The Poles responded by setting up parallel educational programs, developing cultural activity of every kind, recording Polish history, but also encouraging better economic practices and a stronger work ethic. Polish nationalism had now morphed into a program of self-improvement — physical, intellectual, and economic. It also acquired a new religious connection. For most of the 19th century, when Polish elites were routinely persecuted or in exile, the humble parish priest was often the only educated person in rural areas, the only one able to give advice or provide education, and the church was often the only place where Polish could be spoken and sung. The Catholic Church had become both Trojan horse and buttress of the Polish resistance, functions it was to fulfill again from 1939 to 1945 and 1945 to 1989.
But ethnic Poles were not the only ones to inhabit the area. Before the country had been dismantled, it was home to large minorities of Lithuanians, Byelorussians, Germans, and Jews, to mention only the more important groups. And many members of these minorities responded to the threat of assimilation by Russia, Prussia, or Austria by rallying to their own national causes. This had the effect of making Poland’s various nationalisms increasingly defensive and competitive, which greatly complicated the nation’s life when Poland regained its independence in 1918.
Once again, outside events, this time in the shape of World War II, transformed the face of Polish nationalism, this time in insidious ways. Having only recently recovered their sovereignty, the Poles were determined to defend it. Poland was the first to fight Nazi Germany, and, unlike so many European states that either changed sides or submitted to German rule under pressure, Poles fought loyally alongside the victorious allies to the very end. This entailed a cost most people outside the country will have difficulty comprehending: selective genocide by both the Nazis and the Soviets, the death of more than 20 percent of the population, the destruction of some 75 percent of the country’s infrastructure, and a similar proportion of its cultural heritage. Worst of all, Poland was treated as one of the war’s losers: It lost a third of its territory and remained under foreign domination for another 45 years, until 1989.
Poles felt deeply wronged by this outcome — even more so by the fact that few in the world felt sympathy for their plight. This was because the real victors had written history. In order to disguise its own alliance with the Nazis and its subsequent attack on Poland, Soviet Russia, together with its puppet regime in Warsaw, produced a version of events between 1939 and 1945 that essentially placed the blame for everything that had happened at the door of the pre-war Polish state. They represented it as a “feudal” and crypto-fascist dictatorship that needed liberation by the Soviets.
All those who had fought on behalf of Poland, including the heroic Armia Krajowa, or Home Army, were labeled as fascists in disguise and Nazi collaborators. Tens of thousands of war heroes were executed and many more thrown into jail for long terms. The surviving prewar elites, artistic and intellectual as well as social and economic, were viciously persecuted. And in the West, where Soviet prestige soared on heroic tales of Stalingrad and wartime propaganda, many accepted Moscow’s version of events, to which was added the tag of Polish anti-Semitism, magnified out of all proportion by the fact that all the German death camps were situated on Polish territory.
The communist regime in Poland created its own mongrel form of Polish nationalism out of various strands from the past. In order to deflect resentment from the Soviet Union, it built up a legend of Germany as the eternal aggressor and vital enemy of Poland, encouraging historians to identify and magnify evidence of this dating back more than a thousand years. Coming at the end of six years of bestial German occupation, this fell on fertile soil and flourished in several generations of Poles as a fundamental grudge that is still detectable in the behavior of some politicians today. In parallel, the regime actively nourished the Poles’ sense of wrong at having been let down by their Western allies.
The postwar regime tried to channel Poland’s old Romantic legend of internationalist liberation to a supposed brotherhood of communist nations including members of the Warsaw Pact and countries like Cuba struggling in the revolutionary cause. But these propaganda efforts did not arouse much emotion among Poles, most of whom were cynical to say the least about their country’s supposed friendship with Russia. The more educated had access to Western sources of information and even the humblest had seen the barbarism of the Red Army and the Soviet secret police firsthand. Despite an attempt to pin the crime on the Nazis and a subsequent blanket ban on any mention of it in public, the murder of thousands of Polish officers at Katyn in 1940 was talked about widely, not just by the families of those who had perished.
For many, Katyn became the overarching symbol of the great wrong that had been done to Poland — by the Soviet Union but also by the West, whose officials pretended to accept the Soviet version of events. For some, the desire to expose the massacre at Katyn, and other crimes perpetrated against the country, became a fetish, a desire uncoupled from restraint and responsibility. This became especially apparent beginning in 1989, when Poland regained its independence, and its new ruling circles, which could still barely believe in the miracle that had brought them to power, were unwilling to prosecute, or draw attention to, the entire litany of Soviet crimes for fear of provoking a backlash by its larger neighbor.
This initiated the deep rift in Polish society evident today. On one side stand those who themselves or whose parents had participated in the running of postwar Poland to a greater or lesser extent; those who had managed to reach a modus vivendi with a system they did not particularly like; those who subliminally imbibed much of the communist regime’s propaganda about the prewar “feudal” and “fascist” regime; and those, including many of the educated youth, who have achieved professional or economic success in the past 25 years and who believe Poland should embrace the future, by means of the European Union, and treat the past as history.
On the other are those who either cannot or will not forget the sense that Poland has been wronged, who feel, like so many on the left, that victimhood equates with the moral high ground. A great many people have either not tried or not been able to build a place for themselves in the post-1989 world and hark back to supposedly less wicked times, even to the days of communist rule, when everybody had a job, when everyone was subject to the same hardships, and when, because of the way the media functioned, unpleasant aspects of life were unknown.
The two main parties that contested the last elections are not political parties in any meaningful sense of the word. They do not have identifiably different economic or social policies and are both heavily marked by communist-inspired hatred of the prewar Polish state. The principal difference between them lies in their outlook and sense of Polish nationhood. The Civic Platform party, which lost the elections, is dominated by people who tend to be uncomfortable with Poland’s past and aspire above all to be “good Europeans.” The victorious Law and Justice party attracts people who cannot or will not forget the wrongs of World War II; people who find the idea of the secular, liberal Western world too challenging and seek comfort in a sort of provincialism that wraps itself in religious and patriotic slogans; and also a great many who simply cannot stand the other party and its ostentatiously pro-European and cosmopolitan mindset — much the same electorate, in other words, as that which supports UKIP in Britain or the National Front in France. Needless to say, they have been greatly reinforced in their prejudices by the sallies of Western, and particularly German, journalists and commentators, which fit perfectly into the communist scenario anyone over the age of 35 was brought up with.
Polish nationalism has had dark moments, times when it was dominated by aggression. But it is no accident that Polish nationalism has primarily been more about the defense of a set of values than about blood or soil: Over the centuries, it was primarily Poland’s liberal political values and way of life that came under attack, because neighboring states felt threatened by them. It was so during the Reformation and the counter-Reformation, and it was so in all conflicts with the Soviet Union and Germany. During World War II, Hitler and Stalin did their utmost to annihilate the nation, because they feared its freethinking individualism and knew it would never march in lockstep with their totalitarian ideologies.
The country’s present governing circles have skillfully deployed the symbols and slogans of mission, martyrdom, and sovereignty to attract that part of the public which feels betrayed and left behind by history. Enlisting the Catholic hierarchy in what they portray as a defense of the Polish way of life and Polish values turned out to have been a brilliant electoral ploy. They will probably go on beating the drum of sovereignty in order to maintain their momentum. But it’s important to recognize how tenuous the government’s claim to authentic Polish nationalism really is. It has little sense of its own country’s long history and an impoverished notion of national mission. And in a bitter irony, the key elements of its political program, to control the life of the nation and to keep the outside world at arm’s length, derive less from the wellsprings of Polish nationhood than from the mindset of the postwar communist regime it says it most despises.
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