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Poland at 100 Years of Independence

The hundredth anniversary of the reclamation of Polish independence is cause to celebrate. Poles will celebrate. Yet national and international responses will also be colored by the nation’s recent political controversies, and the tensions of international liberalism. I suspect that words and phrases like “troubled,” “dark turn,” and “the rising threat of” will occur and reoccur throughout Western discourse. And while I do not intend to claim that there is no cause for concern, I do think Western journalists interpret Polish politics through blinkered, ideological frames of reference.

Between Messianism and Mimesis

When I first moved to Poland, five years ago, I was continually surprised by how much was familiar from my homeland, the UK. Poland is a democratic state, with liberal institutions. Most people speak some English and many speak it fluently. I can shop in Tesco, and Aldi, and Lidl. I hear English and American music every day. Such common features are often welcome though they can be a source of English embarrassment. Passing a bookshop, weeks after I had moved, I glimpsed a book cover that seemed familiar and was sorry to discover that it was a Polish translation of Fifty Shades of Grey.

In a recent essay, “Imitation and Its Discontents,” Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes posit that Central and Eastern European illiberalism, embodied by Polish and Hungarian populists, is the product of “inadequacy, inferiority, dependency, lost identity, and involuntary insincerity” engendered by attempts to imitate Western norms:

What makes imitation so irksome is not only the implicit assumption that the mimic is somehow morally and humanly inferior to the model. It also entails the assumption that Central and Eastern Europe’s copycat nations accept the West’s right to evaluate their success or failure at living up to Western standards. In this sense, imitation comes to feel like a loss of sovereignty.

There is something to this, though such statements can easily slide into condescension disguised as analysis. In addition, Krastev and Holmes reveal a more significant shortcoming of their thesis when they correctly observe that “imitation” is not just potentially degrading but potentially destructive, insofar as Western models of society are flawed:

Central and East Europeans turned against liberalism not so much because it was failing at home as because in their view it was failing in the West. It was as if they had been told to imitate the globally dominant West just as the West was losing that very dominance.

How to align these points? Krastev and Holmes make little effort to do so, but I believe it can be done by acknowledging that the stable base of cultural, economic, and political institutions in the West has enabled both economic success and relative harmony as well as cultural complacency and extremes of hubris. Western Europe and the United States, then, are both imitable and intimidating—coasting on their own achievements in a manner that strikes Central and East Europeans, quite reasonably, as reckless.

Irritatingly, Krastev and Holmes make ham-fisted attempts to pathologize this aversion to aspects of liberalism. They insist that Central and Eastern European concern regarding non-European immigration, for example, is a strange phenomenon that requires deep psychological analysis. More obvious causes are evident in what they suggestively refer to as “sensationalized television reporting [of] immigration problems that plague Western Europe.” As I have written before, in the perception of many people both inside and outside the West, the most obvious consequences of non-European immigration are bombings, killing sprees, and crime. Granted, political opportunists overstate the scale of these phenomena, which have involved only a small number of migrants, but even liberal Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs look at those events and think, “Not here, please.” Opponents of the ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland, for example, might deplore what they perceive as disingenuous attempts by the government to use fears of immigration to rally partisan support, but that does mean they are much more receptive to immigration. Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of the Civic Platform party, first opposed accepting refugees and then decided to support accepting “around fifty.”

Krastev and Holmes are more interesting when they explain the phenomenon of “reverse imitation”:

The players in the post-1989 “imitation game” are, at least in some respects, changing places. In a few cases, the mimics have become the models and vice versa. The ultimate revenge of the Central and East European populists against Western liberalism is not merely to reject the “imitation imperative,” but to invert it. We are the real Europeans, Orbán and Kaczyński claim, and if the West wants to save itself, it will have to imitate the East.

This is a real trend, but not a wholly recent one. In Poland, its roots stretch back to the nineteenth century, when, during the age of Polish partition, exiled romantic poets nurtured the national flame. Poland was, in verses such as those of Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady, portrayed as Christ among the nations—brutally oppressed yet destined to rise again, roll back the stone of its subjection, and inspire the persecuted with its glorious rebirth. Kazimierz Brodziński wrote:

Hail O’ Christ, Though Lord of Men!
Poland, in Thy footsteps treading
Like Thee suffers at thy bidding;
Like Thee, too, shall rise again!

As Waldemar Chrostowski has noted, “suffering has been a constant historical determinant of Poland.” Shortly after Poles had regained independence the nation was plunged into the slaughter of the Second World War. Once that war had ended the country was overtaken by Stalin. Even as the collapse of the Soviet Union enabled political and economic progress, Poland was afflicted by disaster. In 2010 a plane carrying dozens of Polish officials crashed near Smolensk in Russia. Ninety-six people were killed, including President Lech Kaczynski.

Ziven Chinburg has written of how the horrors of the Second World War attracted Poles to the idea of their people as “glorious victims.” This remains the basis of Poland’s enduring Messianism. In her book Being and Becoming European in Poland, Marysia H. Galbraith interviewed ordinary Polish citizens:

A few participants invoked Messianism in their comments about historical relations between Poland and Europe. Jurek commented, “Historically we always defended Europe. And the funny thing is that we always end up losing. For hundreds of years we have defended Europe against Islam, against communism, and we’re always the nation that gets kicked in the butt.”

Poles have defended Europe, at least twice. King Jan III Sobieski led his forces to Vienna to defeat the invading Turks in the 1600s. In 1920, Jozef Piłsudski’s Poles resisted Soviet invasion in a triumph the English diplomat Edgar Vincent D’Abernon called the “eighteenth decisive battle in world history.” “Had Piłsudski failed to arrest the advance of the Soviet Bolshevik Army at the Battle of Warsaw,” he wrote, “Not only would Christianity have experienced a dangerous reverse, but the very existence of Western civilisation would have been imperilled.”

Poland was the first nation to be occupied after the start of World War II, but its cryptologists were integral to the Allied understanding of the German Enigma codes and its pilots played an enormous role in the Battle of Britain. On the hundredth anniversary of Polish independence, Poles can and will take pride in these accomplishments, but it is sometimes accompanied by a sense of grievance. “We helped other countries fight against their enemies,” said another interviewee in Galbraith’s book, “But Europe somehow forgot how much they owe Poland.”

Thus, what Krastev and Holmes call “reverse imitation” could also be seen as a kind of “Messianism in One Country.” Poland keeps the flames of European and Christian tradition alive on a dark continent. One vivid illustration of this perspective was last year’s observance of the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, when a million Poles gathered across the nation to pray.

Westerners who think that this is merely paranoid populism should be more introspective. Poles look at Western Europe and see not just the most violent effects of migrant populations but the steep decline of faith, the rise of single parent families, the vast scale of abortion, and the sweeping, energetic efforts to undermine traditional attitudes on a range of issues. From the perspective of conservatives and Christians who make up the majority—though by no means the entirety—of Poles, it is obvious that these are symptoms of social and cultural decline, and this attitude encourages Polish exceptionalism. Poles do form a sense of themselves as the real Europeans, and liberalism starts to resemble yet another oppressive force and yet another betrayal. The Polish philosopher and politician Ryszard Legutko offers perhaps the most comprehensive articulation of this view in his book The Demon in Democracy. No conservative could be unsympathetic.

For all I empathize, however, there is some danger that the rejection of present-day European progressivism might curdle into a wholesale rejection of modernity. Contrasts between Western European liberals and Central and Eastern European national conservatives, both hostile and sympathetic, bear the misleading implication that they must be antithetical.

For all the talk of “imitation,” Poland does not have to look west to discover parliamentary democracy, diversity of opinion, inclusion of women, and tolerance of minorities. All these features have been present in its history, from the constitution of 1791, which Edmund Burke called “the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time,” to the workplace democracy that mobilized Solidarność.

Poland does not have to look west to appreciate scientific discovery and artistic accomplishment. Its cryptologists cracked Soviet codes in 1920 and did more than anyone to understand the Enigma machine in the 1930s. Three of its writers have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Thus Poland does not have to be a pale imitation of Western powers. It can find much of what it needs in its own past.

“Imitation” narratives are profoundly unhelpful when they confuse contemporary Western European preferences with absolute, universal truths. Poland can learn from aspects of Western societies, and Western societies can learn from aspects of Poland. One can learn from countries without being their imitators, and, moreover, Europe has no need of an inflexible hierarchy of students and teachers. There are lessons that its nation states can learn from one another without the necessity of subordination. This demands a certain level of humility, of course, but a humility that every nation—East and West—would benefit from having.

Poland, Past and Future

Another recent account of Poland’s national and international tensions is Elisabeth Zerofsky’s New Yorker essay, “Is Poland Retreating From Democracy?” Since the 2015 electoral triumph of the Law and Justice party, Zerofksy writes:

. . . liberal leaders and intellectuals in Western Europe have begun to fear that the country, after two decades as the model student of European liberalism, is retreating from democracy. Critics point to the loyalists at the heads of public media, the increasing harassment of opposition politicians and judges, the country’s refusal to accept its European Union-mandated quota of refugees, and, especially, a series of dramatic reforms to the court system that may consolidate Law and Justice’s control.

But if liberal leaders and intellectuals have seen Poland as “the model student of European liberalism,” it only reveals the hubris at the heart of their ideology. Poland has never displayed a national inclination towards being liberal in the manner of its Western cousins. Zerofsky references a scotched 2016 plan for a “near-total ban on abortion,” for example, without mentioning that Poland has long had a near-total ban on abortion. The new abortion ban, which was vociferously opposed by the “Black Monday” protests, would have removed exemptions in cases of rape or where the fetus is seriously malformed.

Much of Zerofsky’s piece discusses Law and Justice’s controversial attempt to prohibit accusations of national complicity in the Holocaust. This was not intended to prohibit accusations against individual Poles—as no one denies that many of them were complicit and, indeed, sometimes murderous—but only accusations that Poland as a country bears the stain of guilt. I have argued that the ban was a mistake, both on liberal grounds and for practical reasons. In the years before its introduction, Poles had more success refuting sloppy slanders like President Obama’s careless and swiftly retracted reference to “Polish death camps.” Previously, Poland had also received more recognition of its wartime suffering in the form of books like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands.

Snyder himself is quoted in Zerofsky’s New Yorker piece as saying that some Poles want to think they “were the greatest victims.” And while it is doubtless true that the scale and systematic nature of the Holocaust were unparalleled, most would agree that the suffering endured by the Poles was also immense, and on the whole worse than the experiences of other occupied nations in Europe. Incidents like the Katyn Massacre or the Wola Massacre, for example, were at least quasi-genocidal. In other occupied nations, like Norway and France, there was a lot less suffering and a lot more collaboration.

Most Poles emphasize these facts, and the achievements of their ancestors who helped Jews during the war, without denying that many Poles were indifferent or hostile towards Jewish people. And there is an understandable exasperation at the world’s ignorance of Polish pain as well as Polish accomplishments. This ignorance is real—a recent example being the Jersey City, New Jersey, mayor’s ludicrous attempt to claim that the removal of a statue commemorating the Katyn Massacre was part of a struggle against anti-Semitism. But Poland’s recently enacted legislation was viewed internationally as an aggressive response to criticism and not a defensive response to slander. It did not restore the honor of the brave majority of Polish men and women but focused attention on the far smaller, cowardly, and vindictive elements of Polish society.

I hope that the hundredth anniversary of Polish independence will be cause for optimism, and in saying this I do not mean that Poles should forget their suffering at the hands of Nazis and communists. But they should take pride in knowing they have outlived them. Their oppressors are dead, and their tyrannical ambitions died with them. Poland, on the other hand, has not just survived but soared in strength and prosperity. Its economy is growing. Foreign investment has increased. Cities like Krakow and Gdansk have become tourist hubs. To be sure, Poland faces economic and demographic problems, but its potential is enormous.

Perhaps the anniversary of regaining independence can serve as an inspiration for Poles to settle their internal disputes. The recent Holocaust legislation debate received worldwide attention, but the reform of the courts has been more divisive in Poland. Supporters of the government believe that these measures, such as establishing an age limit on Supreme Court judges, are essential means of reforming outdated, stultifying institutions. They argue that introducing some electoral accountability over the judicial branch would make Poland’s judiciary more like that of other democracies, such as the United States. Opponents of the government, meanwhile, believe that these reforms represent an opportunistic, anti-democratic means of imposing government control on what should be an independent judiciary.

As a guest in Poland I would feel uncomfortable issuing my own judgments on the matter. Nonetheless, I hope that Poles will not become as divided as their Western cousins. For the most part, Poland has been spared from the most fractious, post-1960s debates that have polarized Western societies. No nation is free of internal disputes, but I urge Poles not to inflame theirs without necessity. The independence and integrity of a justice system, for example, is essential to a nation’s social trust. Whatever changes are made (or not made) to the courts, it is important that those qualities be upheld.

When I walked in my birthplace of Bath, in southern England, I often felt a sense of peace that came from being surrounded by buildings that had stood for centuries before me, indifferent to the march of time and its implications. Without insulting the memory of my ancestors who fought to protect England, it must be said that simple geographic privilege played a role in preserving these places. In Poland, even in the old towns, buildings are more likely to have been ruined, rebuilt, restored, and renovated. What permeates the air—if one takes the time to breathe it—is a sense of resilience, joined, in recent years, by a bold, creative optimism. One senses that hope is finally becoming a larger part of the Polish national character than pain.

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