Source image: Institute of National Remembrance, Poland. / Wikimedia Commons.
Was it only my generation—people born shortly after World War II—that believed fascism had been defeated? We were convinced that lessons had been learned and linear progress was ahead of us; it was unimaginable that anyone would defend such an ideology any longer. All European regimes (but for Franco’s) were antifascist; even former fascists were pretending to have been somebody else. If this was hypocritical, it was sincere hypocrisy. The rebirth of fascism seemed inconceivable, yet today we see the resurgence of fascism in its national variations all throughout Europe. Moreover, the resurgence is open and unabashed, as if the Second World War never happened.
After the war, “native” forms of fascism or Nazism were smoldering in Italy and Germany, but not in the East European countries destroyed in the years 1939–1945 by Nazi occupation. Of course, these countries were under Soviet influence, and antifascism was de rigueur. Today in at least one of them, Poland, there are groups of people restoring the Nazi salute and celebrating Hitler’s birthday. These forms of allegiance are minoritarian and their nature paradoxical: adoration of Polish nationhood goes hand in hand with affiliation to international xenophobic networks that despise not only Jews, “Gypsies,” and Muslims, but also Slavs. Under the guise of anticommunism, their adherents attack minorities and democrats and revive, “true patriots” that they are, the tradition of prewar Polish fascist symbols and organizations. Revived too is the pact with the Catholic Church. The annual blessing of Polish xenophobes by Pauline priests at the most holy of Catholic places in Poland, Jasna Góra—a solemn pledge to defend Mary, mother of God and her son, Jesus Christ, enthroned as the king of Poland—is a sight to behold.
Another great ally of the extreme Right is the present Polish government. Though it does not directly support the groups that celebrate Hitler, it has effectively abandoned antifascism. On February 17, 2018, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, on a trip to Munich, paid a solemn visit to the collective grave of the members of a Polish military unit, Brygada Świętokrzyska, that collaborated with the Nazis and fled with them to Germany at the end of the war. The current administration in Poland was formed by the populist, nationalistic Law and Justice party (PiS), in power from 2005 to 2007 and again since 2015. Following the example of the Hungarian illiberal remodeling of society, PiS is undermining the Polish legal and constitutional system, “Christianizing” all domains of public life, and trying to “Polonize” the media (i.e., make them financially dependent on exclusively Polish sources). Both the Hungarian and Polish regimes financially support the already fabulously rich Catholic Church. The deputy prime minister of Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, like the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, is testing the limits of the European Union’s patience, demanding that the federation give Poland its allocated funding (“we are owed them”), despite the country’s flouting EU regulations. Polish sovereignty is the paramount goal.
The alliance with the Catholic Church makes the government’s case of Polish exceptionalism especially strong: historically, being Polish has meant being Catholic as well. Adoration of the Polish nation is a public modus operandi, and it is practiced by both the authorities and the Church. It permeates social life, especially schooling, where teaching of Catholicism is obligatory. (Students can take ethics instead of religion, but even there they are taught Catholicism as the supreme source of morals.) This political alliance with the Church dates back to the 1930s. Indeed, today we have a wholesale resurrection of the virulent nationalism of the 1930s.
Of course, the Poland of today is different from the Poland of before the Second World War. That Poland was multinational, with one-third of its population composed of minorities. It was also located within different borders: as a result of previous wars, it now contains what was German territory, and its former eastern parts have been lopped off. Today’s Poland is a country of one ethnicity and one religion, with minorities comprising less than 1 percent of the population, fulfilling the dream of the prewar right-wing National Democracy Party. This dream was realized through the enormous violence of the Second World War and postwar ethnic cleansings—a violence that has been inscribed onto the map of Poland and may be one of the reasons the country today lacks a feeling of stability. Indeed, the vocabulary of Polish political life would lead one to believe that Poland is besieged by internal and external enemies. The government actively mobilizes its supporters against the threat of invading Muslims, LGBT+ people who corrupt the youth, feminists who do not want to have more children, unpatriotic intellectuals, and let’s not forget the Jews, who take away Polish property and blacken the name of Poland throughout the world.
What the Poland of the 1930s and the Poland of today do share is an effort by the governing class to mold the identity of the nation, to make nationhood superior to citizenship, ethnic community superior to civic commitment. Prioritizing nation and church over civic engagement leaves democracy vulnerable: democracy has no foundation outside of itself. No nation, god, or king will guarantee it; only the equality of a citizenry that is willing to govern and be governed can do so. In Poland today, the adoration of the nation and the alliance of the state with the Church are systematically undermining what remains of the political and institutional structures introduced by the accession to the European Union.
The current ideological turn cannot be blamed only on the present government. The 1989 collapse of the communist regime liberated Poles to build a new Poland, and the nationalistic mode only gradually prevailed. Accession to the European Union in 2004 had a two-sided result. On one hand, Poland seemed to have become an equal member of a federation of democracies. On the other, the issue of sovereignty, a sore point from at least communist times, became important again: having to follow directives issued by EU leadership is compared to the pre-1989 submission to the Soviet Union. The EU’s funding was structured to fortify the state and to allow it a main role in building political, cultural, and educational bodies. All the European funds—rich and generous—were therefore delivered through state institutions, enlarging, strengthening, and emboldening them as never before. In Poland, this meant the revival of patriotic pride.
It is quite unfortunate that what East-Central European countries truly compete over is the level of historical trauma they experienced. Polish exceptionalism is based on historical defeat. One of the most consistent policies of all Polish governments since 2004 (whatever their political affiliation) has been to stress the uniqueness of Polish suffering—for internal and external audiences. Poland is always declared (erroneously) the most afflicted victim of the Second World War, having suffered the greatest material destruction and population loss. (That distinction in fact belongs to the Soviet Union.) Poland also claims the most heroic, though hopeless, resistance movement. This victimized Poland projects itself as a powerful state that will not allow anyone to mess with it again. The tension between weakness and strength, defeat and invincibility, is responsible for a unique tone of aggressive instability.
This article is excerpted from an essay that first appeared in Social Research. It is part of the journal’s issue The Global Rise of Xenophobia.
Irena Grudzińska-Gross is a literary critic, historian of ideas, a 1968 émigré from Poland.