BY NATALIA KOPYTNIK
After over a year of a Law and Justice (PiS) government in Poland, two buzz words have infiltrated almost every area of public discussion. “Nationalism” and “patriotism” are omnipresent themes in rhetoric across all levels of government. Of course, the reconstruction and construction of national myths is nothing new; these strategies were equally omnipresent when PiS last controlled the government ten years ago. These same strategies are now experiencing something of a renaissance.
The PiS parliamentary campaigns of 2015 happened to coincide with a particularly unique moment in Polish cultural awareness, especially among young Poles. Polish teenagers today view their country from a significantly different vantage point than their parents and grandparents. The allure of the brand of globalization and multiculturalism marketed by the European Union is not quite what it was in 1989. While Western youth are supportive of environmental protections, equal rights, inclusion, and diversity, Polish youth have experienced a radical shift from the attitudes of the first decade of integration. The second decade of “freedom” has propelled the younger generation to reject widespread multiculturalism and embrace homogeneity as a source of national pride.
When Poland joined the “free world” in 1989, there was an abject fascination with everything and everyone that represented the Technicolor West. During the 1990s Polish culture was more or less developed along the lines of consumer demand, resulting in a popular culture inundated with Western goods, food, music, etc. Thus, the first decade of “freedom” placed a disproportionate emphasis on Poland’s degree of “Europeanness” and connection to Western culture. By the early 2010s there was a sense that perhaps the process of Europeanization had gone a bit too far, sacrificing tradition and obfuscating true Polish identity along the way. It was this push-back against an arguably artificial Westernized culture that boosted interest in Polish identity and history.
PiS recognized this burgeoning cultural shift and ran its campaigns accordingly, distancing itself from the ostensibly pro-European narrative of the past administration. By identifying the EU as either a proxy for German ambitions, or as a cosmopolitan entity completely devoid of patriotic values, PiS played right into the complicated historical and spiritual sensibilities that a large portion of the population still harbor. According to a CBOS (Polish Public Opinion) poll conducted in November 2016, 88 percent of Poles consider themselves to be patriotic and 74 percent say that their national origin is a source of pride. Since 2010 the number of Poles who say that they are “very proud” of their heritage has increased from 24 percent to 38 percent in 2016. The majority of Poles also believe that the most important aspects of patriotism involve the cultivation of Polish traditions (60 percent) and knowledge of the nation’s history (72 percent).
The battle over Polish history is perhaps most evocative of the stronghold that victimhood retains in PiS ideology. Specifically, the events of WWII and the communist period hold a particularly important role in the narrative of memory. For example, we know that Prime Minister Beata Szydło openly stated she was not a fan of Paweł Pawlikowski’s Academy Award winning film “Ida.” The film caused a lot of commotion in Poland as it purportedly showed Christian Poles as Anti-Semitic and insinuated their collaboration with occupying Nazi forces. This of course is a gross misrepresentation of PiS’ established view of WWII events and the rejection of collaboration claims.
President Andrzej Duda considered stripping Jan Gross, the Holocaust scholar and author of the controversial book Neighbors (which describes the WWII massacre of Jews by Poles in the town of Jedwabne) of his Order of Merit. Gross recently came under fire again after stating in an interview with Die Welt that “Poles who are very proud of their society’s resistance to Nazi rule, actually killed more Jews than Germans in during their war.” Such statements are clearly outside the lines of the preferred PiS narrative, which emphasizes Poland’s victimization by Nazi rule.
The PiS government is also determined to stop the ongoing construction of the planned WWII museum in Gdansk, on the grounds that it does not appropriately address the “Polish point of view.” Conversely, a memorial museum dedicated to Poles killed for helping Jews during the war was given the green light, and opened in March 2016. Both sites serve to commemorate tragedy and bravery, but it is clear that PiS prefers a carefully curated version of WWII that decisively supports its narrative of victimization.
These historical narratives have also embedded themselves in pop culture. For example, the Polish rock band “Contra Mundum” released an album this year titled “In Poem and In Battle” focused on the experiences of Polish soldiers and resistance fighters. Their previous record, “Glory and Honor to the Heroes,” focused on popular uprisings, the national army, and, of course, the Warsaw Uprising. The band’s website explains that “rock music does not have to stand against patriotism and national history but can respect for our heroes and the memory of the blood they split.” In fact, the band’s Facebook page reads like a commemorative timeline of Poland’s military history. Others are following suit, including “Forteca” (Fortess) who use the symbol of the Warsaw Uprising as their own, and describe themselves as a “historically and patriotically focused band.” The five young band members’ motto is “we look to the past, but also to the future. The future of our fatherland is up to the young people so we will not forget, we will not lie, we won’t let it happen again.”
PiS rhetoric uses the word “nation” in one of two ways: First, as an imagined or loyal mass of people, and second, as a symbol of unity created and bound by a common tribal background, mythology, and political history. The use of the word in the manner in which PiS has, aims to tie national identity to partisan objectives. The word “nation” is a key tool in propaganda because it aims to convince the audience that if they are against the party, they are in the same way, against the nation itself. Despite this rhetoric, PiS has been reluctant to explicitly define what constitutes “anti-national” culture, though Polish artists already express concern about the ways in which such ideology is damaging to artistic freedom.
In an interview with Polish outlet Polityka, actress Krystyna Janda explained “I am a Polish artist, not a national artists…will those who fund the arts care about making truly good art that tells our true history, or will it be made to glorify our leaders? Right now the atmosphere suggests that art projects that contain the word “patriotism” or “national” are becoming suspicious in their goals.” For artists such as Janda, the reality of a politically motivated definition of art used for propaganda is a worrisome perspective.
Support for PiS has been rising in the past few months, and it seems unlikely the party will fall from favor before the next scheduled elections in November 2019. The party’s heavily curated view of history, patriotism, and nationalism will only serve to alienate those whose views do not align perfectly with PiS’ narrative. It remains to be seen how party leaders will define and address what they perceive as the “anti-culture.”
“CBOS Public Opinion 11/2016.” CBOS. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2017. <http://www.cbos.pl/PL/publikacje/public_opinion/2016/11_2016.pdf>.
“Contra Mundum.” Contra Mundum Facebook Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2017.
“Forteca Home Page.” Fronteca . N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2017.
“Holocaust scholar questioned on claim Poles killed more Jews than Germans in War.” The Guardian. N.p., 16 Apr. 2016. Web. 4 Mar. 2017.
Peczak, Miroslaw. “Boze Chron Fanatykow.” Polityka. N.p., Feb. 2016. Web. Feb. 2017.
Snyder, Timothy. “Poland vs. History.” The New York Review of Books . N.p., 16 Apr. 2016. Web. 2 Feb. 2017.
Image source: The Guardian (Natalia Kabanow)
About the Author
Natalia Kopytnik holds an M.A in Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies from Georgetown University. Her specific areas of interest are identity politics, civil society, and far-right nationalism in Central Europe.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.