The new Poland

At the crossroads

How history contributes to the consolidation of a nation - and its division.

Two young women are standing on the railing of a bridge. They are looking into the water. In the background are three modern buildings in red and orange, with the Polish flag in front of them.

World War II Museum in Gdansk

Poland is a country where history means a lot, possibly too much. Its role in society and public life stands out as among the most noticeable differences between Poland and most Western European countries. In Poland, ideas often draw on history, as does politics. Parties make ample use of the past to shape their identity, mobilise supporters and also to project images of the enemy.

These discrepancies between Poland and the rest of Europe are largely due to historical experience. In the 19th century, when modern nations emerged within state structures in the western part of the continent, the Poles did not have a state of their own. They lost it in the second half of the 18th century, because in the course of three partitions, Russia, Prussia and Austria had divided the territory of the Polish state among themselves. This split a state that had been a great power in the 16th and 17th centuries, but then found itself in steady decline as a result of devastating wars, internal weakness and increasing economic backwardness. In 1795, the three neighbours put a definite end to its existence. For the next hundred years, Poles lived under foreign rule and were exposed to recurring waves of Russification and Germanisation that threatened their national culture. They responded to subjugation with conspiratorial attempts at freedom and failed attempts at armed uprisings. Two uprisings against Russia in 1830/31 and 1863/64 had the greatest reach. Despite their failure, they became part of the national mythology that inspired subsequent generations. While in Western Europe, nation states were consolidating, modern bureaucracy was expanding and industrialisation was taking hold, Poles had no state of their own to guide their efforts. In its place, the most patriotic part of the nation strove to maintain national identity; one means to this end was the memory of the splendour of earlier centuries of Polish history.

“After 1945, the victorious powers shifted Poland hundreds of kilometres to the west.”

The First World War brought the collapse of the great empires which had ruled generations of Poles: the German Empire, the Russian Tsarist Empire and Austria-Hungary. In 1918, an independent Polish state was re-established, but first wars had to be fought: against the Germans (in Greater Poland and Silesia), the Ukrainians (in Eastern Galicia) and above all against Bolshevik Russia. The latter threatened the existence of the newly re-created Polish state. In 1920, the Red Army was brought to a halt outside Warsaw.

Until the Second World War, Poland's independence from East and West remained threatened by two powerful neighbours who were dissatisfied with the Treaty of Versailles. After Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov signed the pact between the German Reich and the Soviet Union in Moscow in 1939, the two states attacked Poland and divided it up again. But this time the foreign rule was much more brutal. Around six million Polish citizens died in the war, including three million Polish Jews and over two million ethnic Poles. Most of them fell victim to the National Socialist terror. The German occupation in Poland was much crueler than in Western Europe and was characterised by mass executions of the civilian population and the planned extermination of the elites. A particular trauma is the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when German troops murdered over one hundred thousand civilians. My family's memory includes the story of my mother who, along with her parents and brothers, was taken from her home by the Germans in September 1944. Aged just four, she was driven to a nearby square, where the shooting of the assembled civilians began - and was then halted a little later for unknown reasons. The number of Soviet casualties was also considerable (over one hundred thousand), and the murder of captured Polish officers at Katyn was all the more traumatic because Moscow continued to deny the crime almost up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

When the war ended in 1945, Poland was formally in the victors' camp, but - despite retaining its statehood - it lost its independence and remained under the rule of Moscow and the government of the Communists until 1989. It also lost the eastern half of its territory and gained areas in the west that had previously belonged to Germany as compensation. Millions of Germans were resettled, sharing the same fate as the Poles who had to leave their homes in the East. The victorious powers decided to move Poland several hundred kilometres to the west. The recurrent, democratising revolt against the communist rulers (especially in 1956, 1970 and 1980) created a new national myth. The circles of democratic opposition, which had been increasingly active since the 1970s, picked up on earlier revolts and recalled historical events that had been misrepresented by the communists, such as the Katyn massacre or the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. It was not only the democratic opposition that made use of history, but also the ruling communists. Their reading was designed to stir up the anti-German resentment still alive in society, which the war had left in almost every Polish family.

When the communist system collapsed in 1989, Poles not only had to rebuild a democratic state and the collapsed economy, but also face their history, which had been distorted in the post-war period. In the first decade of democratic Poland, historians focused on eliminating the “white spots”, taking up topics that had been concealed or falsified. This primarily concerned communist and Soviet crimes. But already from the beginning of the new century, other topics became the focus of attention: German-Polish relations and the Holocaust. In the case of the former, this was due to the fact that people in Germany returned to the subject of expulsions and the suffering of the German civilian population. The activities of the Federation of Expellees and its then chairwoman Erika Steinbach, were perceived as an attempt to revise history: portraying the Germans as victims and the Poles as the cause of their suffering, arousing particular unease in Poland.

“Today's rulers intimidate historians and journalists in many ways.”

In addition, there was the shock of the Jedwabne massacre in the year 2000: In 1941, Poles had murdered hundreds of Jewish neighbours in this small town in north-eastern Poland. Historians showed that Poles had been deeply involved in the persecution of Jews during the war. They participated in the murders or killed on their own initiative. This shocked the public, which in large parts mainly believed in Polish heroism and suffering during the war. Neither the one nor the other was to be doubted, but now new facts came to light that also showed Poles to be henchmen of the National Socialists. If one considers the widely discussed expulsions of the Germans, the defensive reaction of Polish society becomes understandable.

These fears were captured by the political right, especially by the Law and Justice Party (PiS). It created the concept of historical politics, i.e. the obligation of the state to actively defend the heroic image of Polish history. There was talk of a “history of glory” that should once again take precedence instead of the “history of shame” allegedly propagated by liberal elites.

In this way, history became an important political vehicle for mobilising supporters and at the same time for stigmatising and excluding those who allegedly threatened this image. In the years that followed, references to history became a key theme in the politics and ideology of right-wing populists. For the reasons mentioned above, Poland's history is more entangled than that of other countries. In Poland, national self-understanding and sense of belonging is not predominantly state-based. Instead, patriotism and belonging to the community are largely defined by references to the past, to historical symbols, which are associated with feelings like pride, but also fears.

The PiS, which has been in power since 2015, exploits these anxieties when it argues that Polish identity is in danger as a result of Poland's accession to the European Union due to the adoption of cultural patterns there that threaten native traditions. This should be countered by defending Polish Catholicism and the traditional image of the family, by strengthening the church, closing the state border to refugees, fighting LGBT people and banning abortion. But an equally important arena of contestation is history. Those in power are keen to keep the public sphere free of topics that do not fit a historical image of Poles as heroes and victims. In 2018, a law was passed which made statements about Polish involvement in the extermination of the Jews during the Second World War punishable by three years in prison. Amid international pressure, the prison sentence was withdrawn, but the powers-that-be continue to intimidate in many ways, pressurising historians and journalists who have the courage to take up the subject.

Meanwhile, the government has purged the public space of interpretations of the past that do not match the official party line. This primarily concerns museums which are visited en masse in Poland.

The most famous controversy revolved around Poland's largest historical museum: the World War II Museum in Gdansk, which I envisioned and founded. It was opened to the public in 2017, de facto against the government, which tried to thwart this. The PiS thought the museum was not Polish enough and presented a view of the war that was too European, showing the fate of Poles and also of other nationalities. The museum was accused of “pacifism” because the war was shown as a tragedy. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the ruling party, accused the museum makers and supporting politicians of acting in foreign interests. In a television interview he said: “The World War II Museum in Gdansk, a peculiar gift from Donald Tusk to Angela Merkel, is nothing more than a contribution to German historical policy.” This was no idle remark; the same view found its way into the PiS party programme. After the government took control of the museum following a court battle, it began to make changes to the exhibition in keeping with the ruling party's line.

Today, history continues to dominate the public sphere in Poland. However, it no longer forms the common ground on which people with different views come together, but above all provides material for conflict and polarisation. Looking ahead, restoring history as a pluralistic space for dialogue will be just as important a challenge as rebuilding the democratic constitutional state, whose foundations have been systematically undermined in Poland for some years.

Translated by Hans Gregor Njemz and Jess Smee