This article in a Czech publication, featured on a couple of other forums, may be of interest to members here who feel passionately about the importance of remembering our history.
Sault Ste Marie, Canadahttp://www.tol. cz/look/TOL/ article.tpl? IdLanguage= 1&IdPublication= 4&NrIssue=340&NrSection=4&NrArticle=20850History as Crucible
Poland's fixation with the past is inevitable in a country that has had to forge its identity over centuries of being torn to pieces.
Poland’s political arena is frequently dominated by historical issues that in the West would receive fleeting attention from politicians or be relegated to university seminar rooms and late-night news review shows. Currently debates are raging, initiated by the conservative Law and Justice Party, over whether or not 17 September 1939, the date of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland, should be added to the country’s official commemoration calendar and whether the Katyn massacre should be officially termed genocide or merely a war crime. Long-standing Russo-Polish historical controversies, going back to the early 17th century, are particularly able to stir up emotions.
For instance, in response to continued Russian historical revisionism, from a recent cinematic treatment of Nikolai
Gogol’s Taras Bulba
to responsibility for the Katyn massacre, Poland’s National Security Bureau released this month a dossier of documents that outlined the pernicious nature of Russia’s anti-Polish propaganda from 2004 to 2009, claiming that Russia is “creating a biased picture of the past, based on fiction and a manipulation of historical facts.” Even the more liberal Civic Platform, usually more cautious in entering historical controversy, has, on occasion, fiercely defended Poland’s historical ethos. When a Russian television channel recently aired a documentary that partly blamed Poland for causing World War II, Poland’s Foreign Ministry issued an official protest to the Russian government. Looking in the other direction, Warsaw agreed to the creation in Berlin of a “center against expulsions
” – to chronicle the experience of displaced Europeans in the 20th century, especially Germans evicted from neighboring lands after World War II – only after Chancellor Angela Merkel assured Poland’s government that the museum would not be triumphalist or try to equate German wartime suffering to that of Poland.
The past few months have also witnessed several important commemorations of events in the country’s recent history, most notably the 65th anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Uprising and the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. Poland’s culture is more replete with commemorations and historical festivals than any other in Europe. They not only emphasize the country’s great accomplishments but also its heroic failures. Among them: 966 (Poland’s Christianization) , 1410 (the Battle of Grunwald), 1569 (the Union of Lublin), 1683 (Battle of Vienna), 1772 (the First
Partition), 1830-31 and 1863 (national risings against the occupiers), 1918 (the restoration of the Polish state), 1920 (the Miracle on the Vistula
, 1940 (the Katyn Massacre) 1956, 1968, 1970, 1981, and 1989 (risings against communist forces). What’s astonishing and frequently incomprehensible to outsiders is that the failures are honored more passionately than the successes. This is not only because history has offered Poland few opportunities for success (at least not of the kind afforded to the great imperial powers of the West) but because the failures, like the Warsaw Uprising, have been so spectacular that the line between what is conventionally viewed as success and failure has become blurred.
Many, however, have begun to view such a fixation on history as an obstacle not
only to Poland’s modern cultural development but also to its ability to relate to other countries, either because it persists in keeping old wounds open or because other countries simply find it difficult to relate to Poland’s excessive “history worship.” Is this a fair assessment or is Poland simply affording the numerous historical traumas that have shaped its national identity proper and dignified recognition?
NATION VERSUS STATE
To understand Poland’s somewhat quirky national culture it is essential to consult the nation’s history. The historian Andrzej Walicki aptly noted that Poland “is a country where everything has a historical dimension.” Central to Poland’s nationhood – and this is something that may appear extreme to many in the West – is a clear differentiation between the concepts of nation and state. Whereas in the West the concepts are virtually indistinguishable, fused into one entity, the idea of the
modern nation-state in Poland has much weaker foundations. The main cause of this historical anomaly was a widespread suspicion and cynicism toward state authorities, an understandable attitude given that statehood was so often associated with either foreign domination or incompetent native rule. National subjugation in turn generated frequent, almost ritualistic revolts, as well as passive resistance against state authorities that was manifested in the formation of an underground state, overseen by the Catholic Church and dissident groups. With the disappearance of the Polish state in the late 18th century, Polish culture became inward-looking, which, although incompatible with developments in Western Europe, was the only alternative to enforced Germanization and Russification.
Adversity, in effect failure in the conventional sense, became a source of great strength for Poles. Conditions were ripe for a national cult of martyrdom to develop. By
utilizing traditional cultural traits Poland’s intellectuals, notably its national bard, Adam Mickiewicz, managed to foster an enduring allegoric archetype of a martyred Poland, a “Christ of nations,” having endured crucifixion and burial, in readiness for a glorious resurrection.
The enduring side effect of Poland’s subjugation to the imperial rule of its erstwhile enemies was a national bonding, which though not exactly abrogating Poland’s class divisions, nevertheless transcended them much more so than in countries where such conditions were absent. The partitioning powers, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, were to create the conditions for nationalism where none had existed before. And the harsher the repression of national sentiment, the greater sense of national exclusivity it generated among Poles. The cultural arena offered an escape from the oppressive climate of partition. It is to this period that Poland owes some of its
greatest cultural accomplishments. Krasicki, Slowacki, Chopin, Sienkiewicz, Matejko, Mickiewicz were all products of the partition who established the unique link between national adversity and outstanding cultural achievement. “The heart began to rule the mind,” the historian Adam Zamoyski wrote, engendering a religiously inspired romantic nationalism that provided the basis for the revival of the Polish state in 1918.
History has certainly steered Poland onto a particular path of cultural development from which it has found it difficult to deviate. So dominated was Poland’s history by the cause of national survival that exploration of other cultural avenues became extraneous. The decades of partition, the bleakness of the war years and the grim reality of socialist rule made for little experimentation with cosmopolitanism. However, since the fall of the Soviet bloc and the growth of globalization, Poland’s
traditional national identity may have taken somewhat of a knock. During the Soviet period, as in the past, the presence in Warsaw of a foreign-backed regime served to strengthen the feeling of nationhood. But with the disappearance of these unique circumstances cultural homogeneity was no longer politically essential nor for many Poles, particularly the young, socially desirable. As Poland increasingly opened up to external influences cultural heterogeneity became increasingly widespread, evidenced, for instance, by the adoption by many Poles, especially the young, of multiple identities, rooted to external modern influences. Yet underpinning much of Poland’s flirtation with globalization was not primarily a desire to expose the country to cosmopolitanism but rather to safeguard national independence against real or perceived threats, particularly from a resurgent imperialist Russia. Indeed, as successive opinion polls demonstrated, a considerable
degree of Russophobia, as well as other nation-centric motives, were largely responsible for the enthusiasm behind Poland’s membership of the EU and NATO. The EU is well aware of the dangers of embarking on an explicit “post-modernist” cultural crusade in Poland and has been careful about opening up a Pandora’s box over such issues as abortion and gay rights.
This paradox makes it difficult to gauge the effects of globalization on Poland’s national identity. The loosening of traditional cultural ties happened once before in Poland in living memory. The new cultural avenues that were opened after Poland regained its independence in 1918 likewise pointed westward. Freed from the duties of strict national service, the cultural intelligentsia ventured to experiment with avant-gardism. The West’s influence over Polish culture was so great that it was perhaps inevitable that Poland would experience an internal reaction from many quarters
against the high level of cultural import that was to re-create the 19th-century polemic between Slavophiles and Westerners, the former regarding the West as a permissive influence over Poland’s cultural purity, the latter considering interaction with the West as essential to avoid cultural introversion. It was a polemic that came to dominate Polish politics, fought out bitterly during the 1920s and 1930s between the Slavophile National Democrat Roman Dmowski and his “Westerner” adversary, Jozef Pilsudski. From the mid-1940s onward, Russia’s coercion of Poland resolved the conflict outright, ensuring the ascendancy of the Slavophile pole, albeit one interpreted almost exclusively by Moscow. Only after the collapse of the Soviet order did the pendulum swing in the other direction, but in spite of recent political developments, it is still very much in motion. Recent election results clearly demonstrate the continued presence of this phenomenon,
repeatedly reflecting a national divide between the east, which consistently expresses a more conservative position, and the west. This division in turn is broadly reflected in Poland’s parliament between the liberal conservative Civic Platform, the present governing party, and the social conservative Law and Justice Party, lead party in government from 2005 to 2007.
Party political initiatives in Poland, therefore, must not be seen as mere political opportunism. When President Lech Kaczynski, a co-founder of Law and Justice, declared at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II that the Soviets had “stabbed Poland in the back” by invading it, he was speaking not merely to his political constituency but to an audience that had personal experience of the traumas that ensued. Those who a few days later assembled to remember the invasion were certainly in no doubt, reports the Polish newspaper **Nasz Dziennik,**
that the “long-standing enemy had attacked Poland without a declaration of war, obliterated its independence, and broken all international laws.” Evidence of the full scope of the subsequent atrocities, it adds, “is still hidden in the Moscow archives.”
Is it fair to demand of the political class to downplay such commemorations for the sake of better relations with a country that not only refuses to fully acknowledge its guilt but also blatantly fabricates history? A Western journalist, Seumas Milne, writing in the Guardian
, may feel justified in siding with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s denouncement of attempts to equate Nazism with Soviet Communism, but those countless millions who endured the latter’s actions during, before, and after the war surely are fully entitled to have their voices heard. We should be loath to forget that the Nazi-Soviet pact was not
an act of defense on the part of the Soviet Union but a
deliberate act of wanton aggression and savagery that also allowed Hitler to wage war in the West with impunity; the consequences of the pact are still very much with us, particularly with those who continue to endure them personally.
Polish national identity may be fraying around the edges somewhat but its essential features remain intact. Many Poles have indeed adopted multiple identities but there is little evidence to suggest that any new loyalties have superseded old ones. Of course historical commemorations and festivals should not be allowed to jeopardize national development but equally they should not be relegated to society’s fringe. Because Poland has been at the center of so much of history and so frequently been its victim, to escape its past it would have to deny its present.Gregory Slysz is head of history at DLD Independent College in London