Old Fears and New Challenges


The course of history has left Poles on the outside of reflections about the shape of political processes in Western Europe after the Second World War. Nevertheless, the origins of various Polish concepts and visions of the country’s place in Europe can be traced back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the Jagiellonian Commonwealth, spreading from the Baltic almost to the Black Sea. This period was characterized by a wide, multi‐ethnic and multi‐religious composition of the state, ruled by a strong and vast gentry mostly identifying with Polishness and then transmitting further the crucial elements of the political culture. The most important element was the identification with Western European civilization versus that of the East. The idea of the ante‐murale – presented in religious terms – is based on the conviction that Poland as a Christian (Catholic) country defended other Christians from barbaric, Islamic, and other threats (Tazbir 2004).

It is worth mentioning that the founding period of European modernity, the Enlightenment, put a visible yet rather shallow imprint on Polish political culture. The period of the eighteenth‐century state reforms initiated by Enlightenment politicians and reformers did not secure the country from internal devastation due to its inefficient political institutions and external threats. The significant changes – crucial as regards time and scope – were brought on by the difficult years for Polish statehood and Poles following the three partitions, starting from the end of the eighteenth century, made by three local powers: Tsarist Russia, the Habsburg Monarchy, and Prussia. In Europe, this was a crucial time for the creation and consolidation of modern nation‐states and the modern version of national identification. This process did not pass over Polish soil, yet it took on a different form and, due to the lack of state institutions, it (p.222) referred to the structures already available to Poles, such as the Catholic Church. It is often stressed, and is evident even today, that Polish national identification was developed not based on state institutions but in opposition to them, due to the fact that they were imposed on rather than supported by the Polish people (Mach 1993).

One of the crucial elements compensating for the lack of state structures was the intelligentsia. This distinct social stratum – urban, educated, and made up largely of professional categories such as teachers or doctors – developed in Poland in the eighteenth century, and was for a long time responsible for the well‐being of Polish society and the preservation of national identity challenged by the partition powers. Moreover, in Polish political culture the role of this social stratum, in terms of cultural authority, has arguably been more significant than that of individual public intellectuals. During the difficult years Polish elites, especially the intelligentsia, referred to Western Europe as an important cultural source and civilization. It was clear for Poles that ‘Europe existed not as a community of customs and traditions but as a common civilization. And the Polish intellectual elite has always belonged to this latter community since the Middle Ages’ (Tazbir 1999: 59).1

Another characteristic element, since early times, was a strong political self‐identification – albeit mostly among the Polish gentry – in relation to neighbouring Germany and Russia. The construction of Polish national identity was dominated by the interpretation of history as a process of continuous struggle against these two neighbours. Other neighbouring countries and peoples were mentioned only marginally, while the meaning of relations between Poles and their two large ‘significant others’, and the respective images of these countries in relation to Poland, dominated Polish national history as it was presented in literature, art, and school education as well as in numerous myths and certain elements of the public landscape such as historic buildings, monuments, or street names. The concept of history constructed around the dichotomy of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ made the development of the Polish nation meaningful, justified past victories, and gave hope for the future.

The years of the partitions, with frequent uprisings against the foreign powers, invested Polish political culture with another interesting notion, that of messianism. The messianic rhetoric depicted the suffering of the divided – yet chosen – nation thrown apart by powerful countries as a sacrifice for the well‐being of other Western nations. This mythical concept, still present in the Polish national‐historical memory, strengthens the image of Poland as a country always threatened and attacked by others. This implies an image in which defeat and suffering are elevated to the status of virtue and give to the nation a moral, if not practical, superiority over its enemies. This myth was, and still is, (p.223) very useful to Poles, offering a sense of self‐importance and moral superiority even in times of political loss and economic failure. It is also often used as a justification for the claim of compensation which other nations allegedly owe to Poles for their historic suffering.

Such a belief, however, also means that Poles find it very difficult to see themselves as guilty of causing the suffering of others, of committing any historical injustice. Polish historical memory does not contain aggression against others. This mentality persists in spite of the fact that Poles may be seen differently from the outside (especially by their Eastern neighbours), and the historical experience of domination by others stands in paradoxical contrast to Polish attempts to dominate its own (less developed) neighbours. Poles read their history in such a way that all events which may be seen as aggressive or dominating are either eliminated or marginalized, or seen in a very particular, biased interpretation. This traditional self‐perception, developed mostly during the romantic era – the founding period of Polish modern nationalism – is still recalled by Poles when justifying political decisions (Janion 2007).

‘The East of the West or the West of the East’

Since the end of the nineteenth century, two major camps – although neither was internally unified or in possession of a monopoly of political choices – were clarified as regards the future of the projected independent state. After more than a hundred years of partitions, the fundamental questions were how Poland was to be built, on which territory, and with a citizenry made up of whom; and finally, how to secure its existence. Ideas therefore developed within these two groups – the first right‐wing and the second more left‐leaning – at least until the 1920s, determining the future shape of identity formation in the country as well as political decisions (before and after independence).

The first camp grouped around the ideas and thoughts of Roman Dmowski, a political writer and politician, favouring the ethnic Polish basis for the creation of the state with an essentialist vision of the nation and national identity. For this leader and his movement – National Democracy – the future independent state should be for and composed predominantly of Poles. This was followed by sceptical opinions on the possibility of coexisting with other peoples living in the same territory, especially Jews, and later contributed to the anti‐Semitic rhetoric promoted by Dmowski’s political movement (Dmowski 1903 [1996]; Kawalec and Kulak 1992: 125; Walicki2000: 324–5). As Wandycz noted (1990: 454), ‘Just as the state was subordinate to the nation, so was the individual transcended by it. In that sense one can call Dmowski the father of integral Polish nationalism.’ The second camp, connected with the activities and ideas of another founding father of independent Poland – the politician and activist Józef Piłsudski – tended towards a multi‐ethnic composition of the country (p.224)referring to the heritage of the Jagiellonian Commonwealth, and merged the tradition of the Polish gentry with elements of social justice (Wandycz 1990: 453).

We can find most elements of Polish political culture in these two contrasting visions. One may stress Piłsudski’s activism and realism in foreign policy, orientation towards the West coupled with a cautious position towards Germany, and the strongly anti‐Russian stance (initially perceiving Tsarist Russia as the greatest threat, and later seeing the Bolshevik regime as an even larger threat). On the other hand, Dmowski emphasized the necessity of a more homogeneous ethnic composition of the state, with ethnic Poles predominating; he was aware of the geopolitics of Poland’s location in Europe, but perceived threats as coming more from the German side than from Slavic countries (Longhurst and Zaborowski 2007; Wandycz 1990). The threat from both Germany and the Soviet Union proved both of them right as regards the outcome of Polish geopolitics. Finally one can say that their ideas flourished in Polish political life in the decades after their lifetimes (Kuźniar 2008; Longhurst and Zaborowski 2007; Michnik 1985).

One of the major topics of the intellectuals’ reflection for centuries in Poland – closely interrelated with Europe – was the modernization of the country. For both groups mentioned above, the source of modernity lay in Western Europe. It is somewhat paradoxical that imperial tendencies, especially in Germany, made the absorption of this country’s cultural influence difficult for Poles in practice. This resulted in ‘the glorification of distant civilizations, treated as a political chance and ally. For a long period of time, this referred to the high perception of French culture, and, beginning with World War II – the American one’ (Dobroczyński 2003: 133). It is visible too in the political choices of Piłsudski, who once said: ‘the bright side of our external relations is our particularly close relations with the states of the Entente. Deep sympathy linked Poland even earlier with the world of democratic countries of Europe and America, which did not seek glory in conquering and oppressing other nations, but were willing to organize these relations according to the rules of justice and rightness’ (Piłsudski 1919 [1999]: 185).

The concepts of leading personalities of the right‐wing National Democracy demonstrate acknowledgement of patterns of modernization in the West, even (in one sense) in the ways in which they were imitated. At the same time, they betray a parallel fear of the effects of modernization in the sphere of morality and tradition (Kawalec2006: 70; Koryś 2006: 83). The second group of modernizers came from leftist circles, including writer and philosopher Stanisław Brzozowski, philosopher and socialist politician Edward Abramowski, thinker and socialist politician Bolesław Limanowski, and others (Cywiński 1985; Kawalec 2000; Michnik 1985). Their major concern was to condemn the romantic tradition and promote modernism, concentrating on progress and spreading socialist ideals in the country. The reflection of the entire group of leftist (p.225) intellectuals on the necessity of modernizing the country from the beginning of the twentieth century was based on European ideas coming to the country from outside.

Post‐Second World War Poland was different, in almost all dimensions, from the country invaded by the Third Reich and the Soviet Union in September 1939. The new borders of the country decided at Yalta and Potsdam decreased the territory and shifted the country to the west. As a result, the population structure changed. From the pre‐war multinational society with an almost 30 per cent minority population, post‐war Polish society was composed almost entirely of ethnic Poles. Germans were expelled to the west, Ukrainians and Byelorussians stayed in the eastern territories attached to the USSR, and, last but not least, the Jews constituted approximately 10 per cent of the population of Poland before the war, which declined to 0.4 per cent after 1945 due to the horrors of the Holocaust (Hurwic‐Nowakowska 1996: 25). Finally, a new communist regime settled in the country, establishing a non‐democratic, socialist system in Poland with a state monopoly in almost all areas of social activities.

The communist regime, enforced by the Soviet Army and lacking public support, tried to obtain at least partial support from the public via a brutal ideologization (even falsification) of collective memory and social and political life. The desire to legitimate the new regime in Poland incited communists to nationalize wider communist rhetoric (Zaremba 2001). In explaining these processes, historian Krystyna Kersten (1993: 11) stresses that the war brought national divisions to the surface and strengthened the nation as the dominant category. It was thus useful after the war to refer to these structures in justifying the communist regime. The peak of this approach was reached during the anti‐Semitic campaign of 1968 followed by the purge of the remnants of the Jewish population from the country, and the nationalization – in contrast to the ‘cosmopolitan’ Jewish communists – of the regime in Poland (Eisler 1991; Zaremba 2001). Paradoxically, the period of communism in Poland contributed to the development of forms of national ideology based on anti‐German, anti‐Semitic feelings skilfully fuelled to maintain control over society.

Cold War rhetoric and communist control over the country set a crucial mark in relations with Europe. The initial intention (blocked by Moscow) to participate in the Paris Conference (which debated the generous offer of the USA presented by Secretary of State George Marshall) was the last attempt made by Poles to participate actively in the course of events (Borodziej 1990). The Western part was subsequently left on the other side of the Iron Curtain, on the enemy side. However, the perception of Western Europe during communism must be nuanced, and not presented in black and white categories. There was no single option within the communist movement in the country: opinions on Europe varied, and the ‘openness’ – even if partial – towards the West was different in the various periods of the communist era in Poland. Not all countries were perceived as equally ‘hostile’, and specifically France and Italy (p.226) received (especially after the 1956 thaw) the status of semi‐friendly countries. The major propagandist effort was directed against the Federal Republic of Germany – mostly to play on negative Polish sentiments from the partition years and the still fresh memories of the horrendous Nazi occupation. The nationalization of communist rhetoric from the 1960s onwards brought with it the concept of ‘rotten West’ used by communist leader Władysław Gomułka, referring to the moral inferiority of Western liberal systems in comparison to the high moral stance represented by the working and peasant class – using socialist categories.

The communists did not, however, manage to achieve complete domination and control over Polish political thought. The important contribution to the contemporary development of the Polish visions of Europe came from émigré circles in Paris, London, and the USA. The most important and novel ideas were drafted and later also spread in the country, via democratic opposition circles in Poland, in Jerzy Giedroyc’s Kultura – a literary and political journal published from 1947 in Paris. The major ideas developed by Giedroyc and his main political publicist – Juliusz Mieroszewski – contained several core elements. Their stance was predominantly pro‐European in the sense that the only future for post‐Cold War, independent Poland could be imagined with a democratic Germany on the western border. Both Giedroyc and Mieroszewski noticed very early on that the only escape from the geopolitical trap, lethal for Poles, was via a democratic and pro‐European Germany deeply embedded in European structures of political, economic, and cultural integration. They bravely stood for the position of reconciliation with the democratic German government and participated in various initiatives (Giedroyc and Mieroszewski 1999). In their political journalism they supported the Polish gestures initiating Polish–German reconciliation (Pomian 1999; Terry 2000). The second crucial element of Kultura‘s influence is actually a continuation of the debate on the shape of the country that the Poles were already witnessing at the beginning of the twentieth century. This was the position that a return to the pre‐war Polish borders was not only impossible, but also undesirable for Poles, who stood up for and were again actively involved in the support of the Ukrainian independence movement. These two concepts of a democratic, friendly Germany and strong, independent Slavic nation‐states to the east of Poland were connected with the third element – a strong concentration on Europe and its integration project, starting in the 1940s with special emphasis on federal concepts (Wolański 1996). This was also due to the fact that democratic Germany, located in the centre of strong European institutions, brought Europe closer to Poland (Giedroyc and Mieroszewski 1999).

The ideas developed in Paris had a significant impact on the major intellectuals of the democratic opposition in Poland. They also contributed to the redefinition of ideas regarding the future foreign policy of the independent country in the Solidarity circles of the 1980s (Rotfeld 2008). Thus Polish (p.227) opposition circles, who took power in the country after the Round Table discussions, faced tremendous challenges resulting from the recreation of the entire international system after the Cold War as well as from the dramatic internal situation and the collapse of the domestic economic and political system. They were, however, equipped with various concepts as regards possible post‐Cold War scenarios. In this pivotal moment in the course of Polish history the overarching, general question was what could be expected from Europe during transformation. The legacy of the intellectuals who dominated the debate in this formative period is crucial for understanding the framework in which the contemporary debate on Europe is located.

‘We return to where we belong’

The initial years of Polish statehood after 1989 witnessed a multitude of challenges. The international system went through fundamental changes, pushing Poland into the ‘security vacuum’ which emerged in Central and Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 1990s (Kuźniar 2008). While the Soviet sphere of influence and polity itself was undergoing dissolution and decomposition, Western Europe – to some extent as a reaction to what was going on in the East – was enforcing integration and heading towards a new stage of integration, introduced in the Maastricht Treaty, namely the European Union. On the other hand, the internal situation in Poland was also dramatically unknown, with a ruined and rapidly deteriorating economic situation, devastated societal institutions, lack of local self‐government, and the malfunctioning of centralized over‐bureaucratic institutions. In this context, the new political order was recreated with reference to previous historical experience, culture, and dominant identity discourse.

The major – and hardly contested – decision of most elites was to integrate with the Western European structures. Generally speaking this pro‐Western shift was motivated by the strong conviction that Poland had always belonged to Western civilization. What is important here is that elites and leaders in Poland – and many other countries in the region – stressed that ‘they are not conforming to but rather re‐adopting practices and values that they share but to which they historically contributed’ (Fawn 2003: 32). This perspective was also helpful in justifying the high costs of compliance with the norms and standards imposed during the EU enlargement process. The Western structures, and especially the EU and NATO, were treated as the institutional design helping to strengthen the Polish nation‐state. The final fulfilment of these goals was reached in 1999, when Poland entered NATO, and five years later, when in May 2004 the country finally became a member of the EU.

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