Being Polish: Myths and Reality Check
#lifestyle & opinion
small, Being Polish: Myths and Reality Check, Market place under the Palace of Culture and Science, 1992, photo: Aleksander Jałosiński / Forum, warszawa_1992_fot_aleksander_jalosinski_forum.jpg
Wherever we are born and raised, our national identity begins to be shaped by the myths we are told in our very childhood. While deconstructing our own myths may be painful, I believe that discovering the mythology of others is fascinating. This is why I – born and raised in Poland – decided to share the story of my personal uncovering of a few truths about being Polish.
I was born in the 1980s, the decade of the fall of communism, but also the decade of martial law, of many strikes and of the long walk to freedom that I don’t remember and which I studied at school and home. What I do, however, remember perfectly is Poland in the very early 1990s, a country that had been suffocating for years in the cage of a moribund communist regime, a country that was ready to welcome the outside world with open arms, but which had little to offer. I remember Polish people being unduly shy, Poland looking like a concrete-grey desert with everything temporary (soviet-style bazaars instead of shopping malls, buildings constructed in a few days from corrugated metal) and I remember the generalized post-revolution mess! Uncles who had used to lecture on quantum physics in university starting to sell butter or socks to earn their first real money, political and financial affairs being discussed every day, disorientation because of all the public services working on a totally new basis, the mafia becoming a factor in everyday life... madness, chaos! Even if there was a lot of energy and hope, nobody was satisfied with how the system worked back in 1990.
After forty-four years of communism, where it was propaganda’s exclusive prerogative to create a Polish (that is, a communist) mythology, suddenly the occupying power was gone and the country had to start once again from the very beginning. It became up to every single family to create their own sense of national pride. And that was not easy, believe me. Poland was in a miserable condition, so tales about its glorious past and bright future sounded as likely to me as One Thousand and One Nights.
Fortunately, kids do tend to believe what they are told, so I believed in many things my parents and grandparents told me about my country. As a result of their optimism and affection for our country, they created their own little propaganda, and having been an overly curious child, I entered early adulthood with very specific ideas about Polish history, the importance of Poland, the virtues of every Polish citizen, and so forth. Allow me to break those down for you.
1. Poland’s martyrdom will save all oppressed nations
This is the foundation of it all, and it certainly spreads beyond my own family circle. The myth of Polish suffering dates back at least to the 17th century, to the times of the rapid shrinking of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in contrast to our neighbours rapidly growing in power and methodically cutting off slices of Poland, so that it disappeared completely in 1795 and was nonexistent as an independent state until 1918. Indeed, from late 17th century till the times when I was born, the history of Poland was a truly dreadful thing. Three partitions, mass exiles of the intelligentsia, numerous unsuccessful uprisings, occupiers’ attempts to erase Polish culture and language, then the devastation of World War II which resulted in Poland being left on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain despite its military contribution to the Western powers’ victory... These caused the death, torture and betrayal of millions.
Thus, there isn’t much to deconstruct when discussing the myth of Poland’s suffering. This suffering is real, and it is our history. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that we take this suffering very far. For example, have a look at this little rhyme that children were mandatorily taught in the kindergarten I attended, and are taught to this day as far as I know:
Who are you? Little Pole
What’s your emblem? Eagle White
Where do you live? Amongst my kind
In which country? The Polish land
What’s this land? It’s my homeland
How was it won? By blood and scar
Do you love it? With my heart and soul.
What do you trust in? Poland – my home.
What are you? Her grateful child.
What do you owe her? My whole life.
Once again, this is a rhyme for children aged 5 or 6, and by that age they are already being taught that Polish freedom was won by ‘blood and scar’ and that they owe their lives to their homeland if she so requests. I remember this line with ‘blood and scar’ constantly reoccurring throughout my childhood, and I used to prepare myself mentally for a heroic death in an epic battle for my homeland. A horrifying vision for somebody raised in a country with a calmer history.
Moreover, the mythology of suffering appears in several of the finest pieces of Polish literature, for example, most obviously in Adam Mickiewicz’s richly symbolic drama Forefather’s Eve / Dziady. It is a book about the Polish fight for freedom in the 1830s (especially the November Uprising) and about Poles who were exiled en masse to Siberia by the Tsarist Russian powers. In the part of the drama known as A Vision of Priest Piotr, its protagonist claims in one of his monologues that Poland is ‘the Christ of Europe’, by which he means that Poland’s suffering is meant to redeem every other nations’ faults, and will result in the liberation of all persecuted nations. This conviction is one of the foundations of the messianic doctrine – the idea that long-suffering Poland will one day return in ultimate glory (like Jesus resurrected from death), not only to its due position as an Eastern European superpower but to rescue all nations in need.
For those who need further convincing that Poland has a messianic complex, let us quote Mickiewicz verbatim:
And Poland said, ‘Whosoever will come to me shall be free and equal for I am FREEDOM.’ But the Kings, when they heard it, were frightened in their hearts, and they crucified the Polish nation and laid it in its grave, crying out "We have slain and buried Freedom." But they cried out foolishly ...
For the Polish Nation did not die. Its body lieth in the grave; but its spirit has descended into the abyss, that is, into the private lives of people who suffer slavery in their own country ... For on the Third Day, the Soul shall return to the Body; and the Nation shall arise and free all the peoples of Europe from Slavery.
The Polish messianic doctrine was always a theory from outer space for me. Even though it was discussed a lot in high school Polish literature lessons, I could never go down the path of its creators’ thinking. Its defenders claim that it made entire generations passively accept their hardship in the hope that by suffering themselves they would somehow earn a better future for their descendants. Quite delusional, isn’t it?
Incidentally – did you know that according to the results of a poll taken at the turn of the 20th century, 78% of Poles regarded their nation as the number one victim of fate and history?
2. Poland is the nation destined to defend Catholic Western Europe from the attacks of Mongols, Turks and Russians.
In Polish historiography, the phenomenon is usually described by the Latin name of Antemurale Christianitatis (Bulwark of Christianity). Believe it or not, but this myth has been present for ages, and it echoes in the identity of some Poles to date. In recent years, it has become ‘we bring you democracy and human rights, and we are the easternmost border of Europe’ (which may seem to be modelled after American Messianism, but is rooted in Solidarność’s role in toppling the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe). This is a diluted, and possibly less harmful, version of the Antemurale Christianitatis, yet every version has the same historical roots. The latter can be broken down into three sources:
The 1683 Battle of Vienna
King Jan II Sobieski won a massive victory in the Battle of Vienna against a colossal Turkish invasion. Reportedly, the role of the Kingdom of Poland was decisive, as they breached the two-month long siege of Vienna and enabled the Holy Roman Empire to counter-attack and win the battle. It is often suggested by some historians that this victory was a turning point in the long-lasting war against the Ottoman Empire. In Polish historiography, it is known as Odsiecz Wiedeńska (Rescue of Vienna), which already suggests how the Poles assess their own contribution.
Tying in nicely with our above-mentioned argument, there is a touch of martyrdom added by the fact that hundred years later, descendants of The Holy Roman Empire partitioned Poland, along with Tsarist Russia. By now, the pattern should start to form before your eyes. Exactly like Christ, Poland-the-Saviour was crucified as its only reward. It may sound amusing on paper, but pray believe that this mentality still has a tangible influence on the speech and actions of several politicians and historians to this day.
1920-1921 – The Polish-Soviet War
Even though the war was partially ignited by Józef Piłsudski, the Polish Chief of State of the time, the counter-offensive of the Soviet powers was so powerful that it threatened the existence of Poland as an independent state (remember, independence had only just been regained in 1918 after 123 years of occupation!). It required a miraculous victory in the Battle of Warsaw of 1920 (henceforth referred to as the Miracle on the Vistula) to sign an armistice. It cannot be claimed that the war was unambiguously won, but it was nonetheless a turning point in the history of Eastern Europe. Popular British historian A. J. P Taylor wrote of it:
[the Polish–Soviet War] largely determined the course of European history for the next twenty years or more. [...] Unavowedly and almost unconsciously, Soviet leaders abandoned the cause of international revolution.
One again, Poland generously shed its blood to ‘save’ all of Europe from the brutal spread of communism. And once again, when we desperately needed help in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Western Europe turned its back on us, in obvious breach of the treaties of reciprocal cooperation that had been signed after WWI. Again, myths of martyrdom and Messianism were legitimized.
1981 - 1989 Solidarność
The heroic fight for freedom by the Polish democratic opposition is by far the most obvious proof for those convinced that Poland is the Messiah of nations. This is often seen as the ultimate confirmation that we are the chosen nation and that our mission is to guide others through hard times while spreading freedom and democracy all over the world. Thanks to Solidarność – the largest civil movement Europe has ever seen – Poland was the first to hold (partially) free elections and to get rid of communism and Russian interference in national affairs. The historical event known in European historiography as the Revolutions of 1989 or the Fall of Communism begins with the wave of strikes in Poland in 1988.
You may wonder why these myths are so deeply rooted in Catholic belief. During periods of foreign occupation, the Catholic Church has traditionally served as a bastion of Polish national identity and language. It used to organise clandestine schools, give shelter to political prisoners, and bravely oppose unjust regimes. As a result, affairs of Church and State in Poland have long overlapped.
3. Poland is a righteous land which wouldn’t hurt a fly unless absolutely necessary.
This myth is probably the most harmful of all. We are taught history in a way that emphasises Poland’s guiltless suffering and excludes everything else. It wasn’t until I started to read foreign articles and books about Polish history that I realised that Poland and the Polish people also had shameful moments of disregarding ethnic minorities, attacking weaker countries, occupying their territories or trying to incorporate them into our own. When I unveiled the sad truth, I was incredulous – showing how successful the national propaganda had been on me.
However, it wasn’t only school syllabuses that censored disgraceful behaviour. In my case, we never used to speak of these things at home. I can easily remember the fury of my relatives who lived through the thirties when the crimes committed by Polish citizens during World War II (mostly the Jedwabne Massacre) were brought up in early 2000. The debate in Poland was huge and engaged every major newspaper and magazine as well as all of the father figures. So far, despite the unambiguous results of the investigation of the Institute of National Remembrance, the public eye remains very much unanimous, as was easily perceivable in the controversy surrounding Władysław Pasikowski’s film Aftermath / Pokłosie. Knowing the facts, it profoundly shocked me that speaking of Polish anti-Semitism, war crimes, or wartime looting still offends some people nowadays.
Stanisław Musiał, a venerable pioneer of Catholic-Jewish dialogue and Polish-Jewish after-war reconciliation, and deputy editor-in-chief of Tygodnik Powszechny – the leading Catholic newspaper, put it as simply as that:
We have a mythology of ourselves as martyr nation. We are always good. The others are bad. With this national image, it was absolutely impossible that Polish people could do bad things to others.
If there is a silver lining to this, it would be that this martyr mythology is slowly dying out. The younger generation prefers to identify with our country’s recent achievements and modern history, leaving times of constant suffering behind.
4. Poland is a sporting superpower
Didn’t you know? Shame on you! Actually, we aren’t. Yet – at least in the mind of Polish men – memories of glorious sporting successes are kept on a most sacred altar, and are frequently and abundantly discussed.
As I wrote before, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was still a child, I used to spend a lot of time with my loving grandparents. My grandfathers would tell me endless stories about Polish teams and sport stars winning almost effortlessly in every discipline. I truly loved to listen to those stories, but every time we watched sports on the telly, the overwhelming power of Polish sportsmanship didn’t seem to live up to my and my grandfathers’ expectations. Actually, despite some individual successes, the 1990s was a period during which we did atrociously at all major sporting disciplines. When, after another losing streak for our national football team, I would ask my grandfather what’s going on, he would always reassure me that we’d soon be back on top in every discipline.
I’ve been waiting almost thirty years now and, even though it has improved a lot, Poland will probably never be the sports superpower of which my grandfathers (and millions of males in Poland) dream. In recent years, we have achieved occasional victories: the volleyball team are currently world champions, the handball team have had some unexpectedly fruitful years. Poles have even started to appear in elite luxury sports such as F1 Racing (Robert Kubica), and tennis (the Radwańskie sisters and Jerzy Janowicz). We had a few uncontested champions in less popular disciplines (Olympic multi-medallists Justyna Kowalczyk in cross country skiing, Adam Małysz in ski jumping as well as Kamil Stoch, and Robert Korzeniowski, four time gold medallist racewalker) but still our expectations are always higher than reality.
The most painful issue for Polish sports fan is the national football team. Football is the most celebrated national sport. Almost every boy wants to be a footballer, physical exercises in school mostly consist of playing football, sport media are focused on football etc. Meanwhile our national football team is outstandingly poor, even now when Robert Lewandowski’s star is shining bright (and a few other players like Błaszczykowski, Piszczek and Krychowiak are doing exceptionally well). The scariest consequence of it is a constant reminiscing of 1974 (remember this date if you want to talk football in Poland) when somehow our team managed to rank third in the World Cup in West Germany. Even though I wasn’t even born at the time, I know the whole game by heart. It is a sports legend that will live as long as we don’t achieve any comparable successes in football, which could mean a long while.
*But wait… just before publishing this article we beat the German football team (reigning world champion), so maybe those times of football misery are coming to an end? Or did I just start believing prematurely once again?
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5. Poland plays a special role in the Catholic Church
Besides the idea of Poland as the Antemurale Christianitatis and the Christ of Nations, there exists a third related belief – this one concerning the position of the Polish Catholic Church. As a historical stronghold of independent thinking and the preservation of Polish culture, it used to be extremely strong, especially since John Paul II substantially contributed to getting rid of communism.
In the early 1990s, when John Paul II was still healthy and very active, the Catholic Church’s impact on everyday life was huge, especially on the lives of children like me – born in Catholic families. The omnipresent subject of the Polish Pope and Polish Catholicism led me to believe that Popes had always been Polish, and Poland was some sort of greater Vatican. And it went even further than this! My parents often took me to the mountains, inhabited by highlanders who are true zealots of Catholicism. One of their folklore mantra-myth is that Jesus Christ was born at the feet of a mountain in the Tatras. Having been told this at the age of 5, I had my doubts about Jesus’ place of birth until I was able to read the bible on my own.
The Reality Check
Then I grew up and developed a more critical sense of my own national identity. Even though I realised that myths are myths, rooted in history but exaggerated, unreal or even pathetic, on the other hand, I found out that there is something ultimately lovely in this ‘burden of Polishness’. If we are able to keep a healthy and rational perspective while learning about our forefathers’ suffering, then we can contribute a very mature outlook on the history of Europe and its present politics. Listening to our grandparents who survived the war and the most severe times of communism and post-war poverty makes us much more capable of appreciating what we have. Golda Meir (the fourth Prime Minister of Israel) said it best:
Those who do not know how to weep with their whole heart don't know how to laugh either.
So this is my own description, including both my hopes and my criticism, of Polish identity in the 21st century. A blend of awareness of the past, remembering what was good and what was not, and a constant effort to build on that, to forgive rather than forget.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak