“The nation that does not know how to exist without suffering, has to make itself suffer.”
The first half of 1989 in Poland was amazing — delivering early and decisive blows to the Berlin wall, which fell later that year. From February to April 4th, the representatives of the Polish government negotiated with the Solidarity oppositional groups; in June, in partially free elections, the communist government was voted out of power. On July 19, as a compromise, the figurehead presidency was left to a communist general, while real power resided in the Solidarity side. All of these moves, open and unofficial, were made with the stabilizing support of the Catholic Church. A year later, in the early summer of 1990, six months before the communist general was replaced by the new president Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity’s prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, moved religious instruction from the parishes into all Polish schools suddenly and without social negotiations. That was just one of the concessions to the institution of the Church with very negative consequences for democracy in Poland.
A few words of introduction — in the history of Poland, the Catholic Church played a more critical role than in the Catholic European countries with continuous state existence. During the period of statelessness of Poland (1772 – 1918), the Church became conflated with Polishness itself. Between the two world wars, in newly independent Poland, a fierce conflict raged between the nationalist majority on the one hand, and the left and numerous minorities on the other. The Second World War and its aftermath produced an ethnically cleansed country with one religion and no minorities. Once again, it was the Church that worked to preserve Polishness. The historical moment of 1989 found Poland with an ascendant Church and a ruined tradition of laicity.
The privileging of the Catholic Church after Poland’s democratic transition indicated the direction the post-dissident establishment had chosen for the future of its new regime. Not only it was a repayment of an ally but a decisive reach back to a particular vision of the Polish past. In the founding moment of the new republic, the Mazowiecki government opened the country to the “normalcy” of Western-style democracies and capitalist liberalism. But at the same time, it emphatically chose the Polish Catholic past as a common binding. I am not sure whether and how this decision could have been avoided, but the non-negotiated executive form it took was shocking: It obediently delivered all Polish children to the embrace of the parish and was a step towards the de facto annulling of the separation between Church and state.
There were, of course, other important decisions taken at that formative moment of 1989 and in the following years. I need to especially underline the new government’s decision to reject the punishment of the former establishment for crimes against the people. The new authorities respected their adversaries’ peaceful relinquishing of force — after all, the communists had full control of the military and police, and a history of turning these forces against their own society. More importantly, as the negotiations were happening, the Soviet Union was believed to be as strong as ever. Once in power, Mazowiecki called for a policy of non-retribution, of placing a “thick line” between the recent past and the new dawn. This policy, though supported by the Catholic Church, caused a lot of bitterness. Secret clauses and conspiracies were suspected: the liberation did not satisfy the demand for justice.
Would violent retribution and revolutionary justice serve the new regime? At the moment, there was no appetite for it. The opposition, now in power, did not adequately judge its own strength and was not prepared to take over the reins of the state. The government then, while radically changing everything, stuck to the idea of continuity, reform, and improvement. In line with previous tactics of dissidents, there was a firm avoidance of violence. Few wanted to start the new political chapter with trials, sentences, and hangings. Instantly, cracks within the new governing class developed, and with time, these crevasses turned into an abyss.
Today, thirty years later, the year of 1989 has been turned into an annus horribilis. It is endlessly denounced by the new authorities, which proclaim the bloodless ending of a vicious regime a victory kidnapped by the post-communist elites (if not simply a Moscow plot). Even the liberal side, the side of the then-enthusiasts of the changes, sounds uncertain how to describe the results of that year. Serious mistakes certainly were made, especially the ruthless privatization of large industrial plants, which formed the backbone of the Solidarity movement. The now-deposed post-dissident elites wonder about their own responsibilities. “We were stupid,” one of the most striking analyses proclaimed. These self-flagellations are similar to the doubts that torment liberals in all other regimes taken over by right-wing nationalists, and the Polish turn to the nationalistic right is certainly part of a worldwide phenomenon. But it has a very specific local flavor. There the shameful end of the supposedly left-wing regime brought back the pre-war right-wing tradition of nationalistic fervor tinted by Catholic fundamentalism.
The country is, as I already said, unusually for its part of the world (or perhaps anywhere) monoethnic and monoreligious. It has no minorities to speak of, but for the fluctuating and well-tolerated Ukrainian immigrant workforce of over one million (out of a population of 38,5 million). Poland is incomparably more prosperous than ever before, technologically advanced, with a highly educated population, a set of new networks of roads, rebuilt cities, and an affluent farmer class. Its strong economy barely registered, if at all, the financial crisis of 2008. A member of the European Union, the country owes in great part its development to the EU investment into its development for years; NATO guarantees its security; it managed to block the possible influx of non-European immigrants successfully. Such a monolithic nation, wealthier than ever, and in very good post-World War II frontiers, should feel at least mildly content.
And yet, try to talk to Poles and what you’ll hear are mostly complaints. The nation feels unappreciated and under attack. It feels a lack of foreign recognition. Its wartime suffering is rated lower than the Holocaust; its contribution to the allies’ victory is underestimated; its unique Christian culture undervalued. Even more, the majority of Poles feel victimized. In one recent opinion poll, 74 percent of Poles declared that the Polish nation had suffered more than any other nation in the world. Only 4 percent thought other nations were victimized more than Poles. Respondents between 40 and 49 years of age are among the least convinced that Poland went through the worst suffering: interestingly, it is they who remember 1989 and consider the transformation of the regime a success. But people younger than 40 years of age have been educated in the post-1989 school with religious instruction: 70 percent of them are convinced of Poland’s world-record in martyrdom.
This year’s state commemorations of the beginning of the second world war have shown that the war did not end in 1945; its aftershocks are felt even today. According to the Polish authorities’ historical timetable, the official end of the war in 1945 marked the beginning of another occupation which morphed into the post-communist rule in 1989 and, later, “German condominium,” i.e., the dominance of the European Union. True liberation came only in 2015 when the now governing party won a parliamentary majority and the presidency (it had both in 2005, but lost the government in 2007). This party, Law and Justice, reigns with the strong support and even collaboration of the Catholic Church and shares with it the belief that Polishness equals Catholicism. Modeling itself on the Hungarian example, the party has reformed the media, civil society institutions, education, and the judiciary. Though it doesn’t seem to have plans for a “Polexit,” its deputies to the European Parliament present themselves as insurgents against EU oppression. On September 6, 2019, Polish Euro-deputy Beata Kępa screamed at Vice-President of European Commission Frans Timmermans: “We survived the Soviet commissars, we will survive you as well, I assure you.”
And yet, 1989 was a glorious year. The bright future seemed to be right behind the corner. For me, it opened the possibility of coming back to the Poland I left twenty years before and was barred from visiting ever since. When I came back, in the early summer of 1990, everything looked the same: Warsaw streets were gray as usual, at the café I used to frequent, the very same waitress served the same dry cake with her teased-up hairdo. But a few months later, the waitress was gone, and the café became an up-to-date French restaurant. When I was leaving for the US a year later, the city was unrecognizable. Private businesses, new newspapers, foreign investors, shocking advertisements for feminine hygiene products on television – everything was new and unexpected. Everything seemed possible.
I left nevertheless, and one of the many reasons for this decision was the surprising introduction of religious instruction to the elementary school I sent my children to. It was not the history of religion but a preparation for rites; one could opt out of it choosing “ethical instruction” instead, a kind of remedial religion. There were the already mentioned free presidential elections in which the electorate turned — already — against the “liberal” opposition, favoring an unknown shady businessman over Tadeusz Mazowiecki (the election had to go into a second-round won by Lech Wałęsa). That was definitely not the end of history.
Today, this non-ending of history looks like a loopback not to the communist past, but to the pre-war Polish traditions; the fascist parties of the 1930s are roaming Polish streets again. They use the same symbols, just a bit modernized. On my most recent visit this summer, I was struck by the changes in the language used in public life. It became difficult to understand Polish without knowing English — English terms adorn pronouncements on the economy, politics, science, and human relations. Yet that very same Polish is full of antiquated expressions reflecting the pious language of the Church, reaching back to the vocabulary of the 1920s, if not of the nineteenth century. That language brings to the fore the lachrymose and resentful image of a wounded Poland, with her greatness unappreciated by the world. It is a strange coexistence, a kind of Dr. Doolittle Push Me-Pull You
of the present moment that seems to take Poles both to the globalized world and to the past of their history. Not any past, but the past of suffering. If a nation is to distinguish itself in the globalized world that does not differentiate between Greek and Jew, it needs to point to its own specificity. The Polish choice of their sign of distinction is martyrdom. The miracle of 1989 — of a content liberal country — was too good to be true.
Irena Grudzińska-Gross is a literary critic, historian of ideas, a 1968 émigré from Poland