Poland's Historical Identity Crisis

by Melania Parzonka

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

As the rest of Europe was taking a breath from the coronavirus crisis, the summer in Poland provided no relief. The Polish government’s vicious anti-LGBT campaign and jailing of a prominent LGBT activist triggered a wave of protests that faced a brutal crackdown from the police. Almost simultaneously, nationalist marches bizarrely fetishising both the church and the military celebrated the 100th anniversary of Poland’s 1920 victory over the Bolsheviks. This pair of images could not be more exemplary of two conflicting Polish identities: the traditional and the modern.


With its soaring GDP, Poland is considered an economic miracle in Eastern Europe—the first ex-Soviet state to make it off the list of developing countries and join the “adult club” of the developed ones. But talking about a successful economy is the language of international politics—it’s hardly reflective of what lies at the heart of the nation. And therein exists a desire to make sense of post-communist Poland’s relatively new reality.


Poland hasn’t enjoyed much sovereignty or independence in the past three centuries. But since the 2015 election, in which the conservative Law and Justice party won the majority of the seats in the Parliament, Poland has been making a consistent U-turn towards authoritarian rule. Today, 40% of Poles support a president and a government that jeopardise the last 30 years of economic progress and successful foreign policy, which resulted in NATO and EU accession as well as close military cooperation with the US. Some towns are losing EU funds in the name of “Catholic values” as they declare themselves LGBT-free zones. The Parliament regularly tries to further restrict abortion laws, which are already the strictest in Europe. The state TV channels regularly engage in smear campaigns of the ruling party’s political opponents. Why then, as a relatively fresh democracy, is Poland so easily falling for the charm of the authoritarian right?


A young protester called Julia being brutally detained by a police officer during an LGBT rights protest. Photo by Rafał Milach

Mythmaking lies at the core of Law and Justice's political strategy. The myths address Poland’s own crisis of self-definition that came with its independence in 1989 when the communist regime came to an end. Today, Poland is trying to find continuity in its historical identity that was shaped through years of oppression and foreign occupation. But with a historical narrative that fixates heavily on martyrology and undeserved suffering comes a “righteous” set of traditional values that must be defended, with no respect for anything else.


And the president disappears


Once in a while, there comes a history-defining moment that turns everything on its head. If I had to pinpoint the transitional moment that shaped the political dominance of the Law and Justice party, it would be the plane crash of 2010 in which 88 state officials, including the president, the Chief of Staff, and 14 members of the Parliament were killed.


On the morning my family and I found out about the tragedy, my dad’s initial reaction was a joke: “were they all assassinated by the Russians?” The plane had crashed in Smolensk, Russia as Polish officials were flying to commemorate the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers in Katyn in 1940. Little did my dad know that his quip was a prophecy of what would come to be the official course of the investigation—a grudge held so deeply, it would become a founding myth of our national martyr, president Lech Kaczynski. His mourning twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, the shadow leader behind the successes of the ruling Law and Justice Party, turned his personal tragedy into political capital.

Commemoration of the plane crash in 2012. The banner says "God, Honour, Fatherland, Lech, Jarosław," referring to the Kaczyński brothers. Lech's name is in black, as he died in the crash. Photo by Michał Szlaga

Grief after the traumatic event was easily transformed into a political game of accusations against Russia and Kaczyński’s political opponents. The blame for the crash was shifted to his rival, the ex-prime minister Donald Tusk, whose negligence trial continues today. Law and Justice members have repeatedly said that Tusk and Putin had victims’ blood on their hands.


No wonder the perpetual fight for restitution for the harms that Poles have endured is one of the building blocks of Law and Justice’s success.


Siege mentality


Up until 1989, Poland's national identity was built in opposition to its oppressors, so it makes sense that politicians still thrive under a sense of threat today.


At the end of World War I, Poland regained its independence after 123 years of being partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary—but the brief period of statehood between the First and Second World Wars was hardly peaceful and manifested itself with great political unrest. In the impoverished and mostly agrarian Poland of the 1920s, the poor did not share the intelligentsia’s enthusiasm for the newly reunited homeland. They often identified themselves locally within the partition, and the concept of an independent Poland brought memories of feudalism and oppression they faced from the Polish gentry. After all, they owed their freedom and abolition of serfdom to the Russian Tsar, King of Prussia, and the Austrian Emperor who ruled partitioned Poland in the 19th century.


After the re-establishment of the Polish state following World War I, villages where people of multiple ethnicities and religions coexisted were common. Approximately 65% of the population was Catholic, with 31% of the population in 1939 being of an ethnicity other than Polish. By 1950, following the Holocaust, border changes resulting in mass forced migration, and Stalinist ethnic purges, the percentage of ethnic minorities stood at 2%. Consequently, Poland is the most ethnically homogenous country in the EU today.


The Second World War uprooted the Polish nation in many ways that have still not been absorbed into the collective understanding of the occupation. Historian Jan Gross controversially stated, “The Poles, for example, were indeed rightfully proud of their society’s resistance against the Nazis, but in fact did kill more Jews than Germans during the war.” The fact that a nation is not a uniform body—and that its members can be both victims and perpetrators—has never been fully processed and integrated into Polish historical narrative. It means that Poles continue to blindly believe that they were the primary victims of oppression, never the perpetrators. The Law and Justice government has demanded war reparations from Germany in the past, seemingly oblivious that reparations claims were relinquished by the communist government in 1953. But when Israel demands reparations for Jewish property looted by individuals or nationalised by the communist government, it is perceived as an attack on Poland’s sovereignty—a punishment for crimes it did not commit.


It is important to remember that Catholic Poland, whose values Law and Justice is fervently fighting to bring back, is not reflective of the country's historically diverse identity. The archetype of a devout Catholic Pole lives on through school curricula, omitting the not-so-distant past that Poles shared predominantly with Jews, but also Polish Germans, Polish Belarusians, and Polish Ukrainians.


Polish Independence March, 2019. Photos by Michał Szlaga

Freedom at last


With liberation from communism came an identity crisis. In 1989, as the prolonged economic crisis fueled social unrest, the communist government agreed to give up some seats in the Parliament for a political contest. Suddenly, the nation had to make sense of their newly rediscovered freedom. The first step was to address the most urgent economic problems; the answer was capitalism.


The pro-Western, neoliberal course that Poland embarked upon in the early 1990s left behind a sizable portion of the country; the wonders of the transformation came at the cost of inflation and growing social inequalities. Poland managed to evade the Russian-style “oligarchisation,” but nevertheless, the process of privatisation created a political class comprised of a mix of ex-communists and new private investors who rapidly climbed to big money.


The 2004 accession to the EU, which was a much longed-for step towards becoming part of “the West,” failed to meet expectations and further consolidated social divisions. Qualified professionals, such as doctors and engineers who couldn’t count on decent compensation in Poland, were lured by the liveable wages of Western Europe. Many young people unable to find satisfactory employment opportunities moved abroad to join the cheap seasonal labour force, working on farms and in warehouses. Today, depending on the destination country, 28-36% of Polish migrants claim to be working below their qualification.


As Poland’s feeling of being a poorer, younger brother of the West became more apparent, the search for an identity intensified. Like in other countries, a rise in right-wing ideologies amongst younger generations is a response to disillusionment with the values that today’s world has to offer them. They long for the sense of belonging that comes with a turn to traditional values.


Martyrology


The understanding of Poland’s own history was primarily obscured by the communist agenda, which stifled discussion about defining moments of Polish history. Historical events censored by the communist government include the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact that divided Poland into Soviet and German spheres of influence in the wake of the World War II, the Katyn massacre of Polish soldiers conducted by the Soviets in 1940, and even the Warsaw Uprising—a bloody act of resistance resulting in the deaths of up to 200,000 civilians and the near-absolute destruction of the Polish capital.


This ubiquitous historical amnesia proved fertile ground for building a national myth.


An example of this mythmaking would be the elevation of the Cursed Soldiers to the public discourse. “Cursed Soldiers” is an umbrella term for the anti-communist military underground, operating in the early post-war years. In 2011, almost unanimously, the Polish government adopted a law introducing a national day celebrating the Cursed Soldiers. The term has been dismissed by some historians as misleading, as the underground consisted of a multitude of sub-groups varying in their political affiliations. Celebrations of these entities produce a false image of the significance of the Cursed Soldiers in the post-war era. The scale of armed resistance was relatively small, and the support for the movement in the war-weary society varied.


Behind the image of courageous resistance fighters promoted by the government lies a darker truth. The term “Cursed Soldiers” includes the National Armed Forces, whose antisemitic brigade collaborated with the Nazis in the extermination of Jews. Some of the Cursed Soldiers were responsible for war crimes—assassinations of Jewish communists and purges of Polish citizens of Belarusian, Jewish, Lithuanian, Slovak, and Ukrainian descent. But with the shift of Polish policy, the narrative has changed—since the communists were evil, and the Poles were oppressed, Cursed Soldiers must therefore be unequivocally perceived as national heroes.


Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki honouring soldiers from the Holy Cross Mountains Brigade that collaborated with the Nazis, February 2017. Chancellery of the Prime Minister

30 years after independence, the communist era is still omnipresent in political discourse—embodied in the paranoia about secret domination by “old communist elites,” sometimes voiced by the very members of the former communist system that have since found new, more convenient political affiliations. For newer generations, the perception of the communist era lacks nuance. The historical narrative of totalitarian oppression is as shallow as it is false: it does not recognise de-Stalinisation, the relative prosperity of the 1970s and, most importantly, the lack of resistance from the general society that only protested in response to economic disturbances.


There is a certain cognitive dissonance in positive social change taking place under oppression. Philosopher Andrzej Leder describes the emergence of the Polish middle class as “sleepwalking the revolution.” Following the Second World War, communism gave dignity to the peasant majority of poor and non-industrialised Poland. The communists redistributed nationalised land and properties that were left behind by the murdered Jews or relocated Germans. They educated the rural community, built factories, and pushed for modernisation. It is the history of Polish families that gets lost when Poles focus on martyrology and resistance to oppression.


Every year on 11 November, Warsaw is host to an ultra-nationalistic March of Independence. Taking place on Polish Independence Day, which commemorates the 1918 restoration of sovereignty following the partition, it confuses all of Poland’s historical tropes. At the event , you can hear chants like “On the trees, instead of leaves, we will hang the communists,” playing into the idea that there still exists a communist elite that can be blamed for the country's failures.


View of the Independence March from Novotel hotel in Warsaw. Photo by Ada Zielinska

The revolution has eaten its own tail. In Law and Justice’s rhetoric, the bloodless revolution of 1989 wasn’t enough, and those who sat at the same table with the communists to discuss the transition are now dismissed as communists themselves, virtually equal to perpetrators of Stalinist crimes.


The martyrology and glorification of the endless Polish struggle against foreign influence reflects the void in identity that Poland faced after 1989. But if a society can’t look beyond its own victimhood, it becomes blind to the suffering of others. Amongst boisterous slogans of the courageous fight against political oppression of the past, Law and Justice has delineated a limited set of values that merit defence —but these are limited to one’s Catholic faith and traditional heteronormative family.


Law and Justice managed to create a political discourse where there is no space for acknowledging other people’s struggles: those faced by women, sexual minorities, trans people, people with disabilities, or migrants. President Andrzej Duda plays into that dynamic by proudly proclaiming that “LGBT ideology is more destructive than communism.” On the streets, LGBT flags are burned, and their presence in public spaces dismissed as “insulting to religious feelings.” It’s as if the last bastion of illusory safety—traditional Catholic values—is in jeopardy. For Law and Justice, past suffering is more sacred than present.



Melania Parzonka is Web Editor at INTERZINE. She specializes in the modern history of the post-Soviet region. In the past, she has published articles with VICE Poland and The Calvert Journal.

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INTERZINE | 2020