It can be difficult to deal with these questions now, amid the whizzing bullets and spurting blood. But the stakes of these decisions are high. Modern Polish history illustrates why. Focusing on international aggression and the martyrdom of a country can divert attention from internal problems and the need to focus on growth.
There are similarities between the Ukrainian tragedies of 2022 and Poland’s historical experiences. The Poles struggled against Imperial Russian rule from the late 18th century, when Catherine the Great called on the Prussian and Austrian rulers to divide the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth into their own empires, erasing it from the European map.
In the 19th century, the Poles rose up against Russia twice, and each time the Tsar brutally suppressed the uprisings. More repression followed during the 20th century, beginning in 1939, when the Soviets invaded Poland, falsely claiming to liberate Ukrainians from Polish rule. Then they murdered the country’s elites and deported hundreds of thousands of Poles to the depths of the USSR. They also Sovietized Polish institutions, including the infamous Soviet murder of 22,000 Polish officers, prisoners of war, in the Katyn Forest in 1940.
After the war, the Kremlin used Red Army troops and secret police to establish a communist government in Poland through violence and deception. In the decades that followed, those who opposed the Polish communist regime saw their fight as a fight against the USSR.
How Poles came to understand the cycle of struggle and repression mattered. To make sense of these historical patterns, they retreated to tropes of Christlike martyrdom born in the era of 19th-century romantic nationalism, emphasizing a history of selfless battles on behalf of others. , including the United States. “For your freedom and ours,” proclaimed Polish soldiers ready to shed their blood to help Russians and Hungarians fight autocracy and imperial rule in the 19th century.
This focus on struggle and sacrifice was helpful in mobilizing the nation during the war. But in times of peace, this type of national identity has proven counterproductive.
For example, during the decades when Poland was independent and sovereign, the emphasis on heroic struggle and victimization sidelined discussions of how to overcome the effects of imperial oppression through innovation, hard work and strengthening the country’s economy. Marshal Jozef Pilsudski successfully challenged the imperial powers that divided his country in World War I, defeated the Bolsheviks in 1920, and led the resurrected Polish state between the two world wars. But in the romantic nationalist tradition, he cultivated memories of national struggle and sacrifice, while focusing on future threats from Poland’s neighbours, particularly Soviet Russia. Pilsudski’s favorite song (and the unofficial anthem of Poland between the two wars), entitled “The March of the First Brigade”, told the story of young men ready to throw their lives at the “pyre” while fighting against the superior forces of the Russian Empire for the sacred. cause of Polish independence.
But Pilsudski showed little interest in economic issues. When the western Polish city of Poznan hosted the Polish World’s Fair in 1929, showing the world the growing economic prowess of the newly independent country, Pilsudski opted not to appear at the five-month event once. In doing so, he lost opportunities to increase the international visibility of the event, to attract foreign investment and to promote among his Polish compatriots the idea that in times of peace, force could be obtained by force. diligence and hard work.
Over the following decades, the historical focus on anti-Polish repressions and Polish victimization allowed politicians to divert attention from abuses of power, mistakes, and the erosion of democratic standards. For example, in the second half of the 20th century, Polish communists loudly commemorated historic German atrocities, while censoring discussion of the many crimes against Poles committed by the Soviets.
Polish politicians have continued to use such a framing to the present day. High-ranking members of Poland’s right-wing ruling Law and Justice party have used the suffering of Poles at the hands of the Germans, Russians and (more recently) the West to deflect criticism of its own economic policies and consolidate a quasi-authoritarian regime.
For example, without evidence, they accused Russia of causing the 2010 crash of the Polish government plane that killed 96 people, mostly government officials, on their way to the commemoration of the massacre. from Katyn in 1941. Playing up the familiar national narrative of age-old Polish martyrology made it harder to publicly discuss the mistakes Poles made by putting dozens of high-ranking politicians on a single plane. Pointing the finger at Russia has made it harder to talk about the probable reasons for the disaster, i.e. the pilot’s decision to land in dangerous weather conditions and the pressure to do so from politically powerful passengers .
Poles have always suffered at the hands of others, especially Russia and the USSR. But these tragic experiences, often written in quasi-religious language, have also made it easier for Poles to see themselves as victims of the world. This interpretation of history enabled political manipulation in the country and isolated Poland internationally, weakening Poland and paving the way for further historical tragedies.
One can only be humbled by the courage and tenacity with which the Ukrainians are defending themselves against the cruel Russian attacks. But once the war is over, a follow-up discussion will take place on how Ukraine’s difficult past can lift the spirits of future generations without weighing them down.
For this reason, how they approach the commemoration of their profound long-term tragedy will matter to Ukraine. Naturally, now victimhood and messianism set the tone. In an impassioned speech to Congress on March 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says that his people “not only defend Ukraine, we fight for the values of Europe and the world”.
Planning for memorials is underway. “We are going to establish the memorial museum of the Battle of Azovstal there when it is finished”, tweeted Ukrainian journalist Ilya Ponomarenko on May 20, adding a photo of the destroyed industrial complex in Mariupol where calculated Russian attacks were aimed at sheltering Ukrainian civilians. The current World War II Museum in Kyiv recently organized an exhibition titled “The Crucified Ukraine”.
Thinking back to this familiar Polish past, Ukrainians can avoid mistakes in the future. For, as the case of Poland shows, in the long run, dwelling on past struggles and victimization can easily thwart more constructive efforts to rebuild a society ravaged by repeated tragedies.