Society, Media and Culture

Polish and European Ghosts of the Past

Walking around the streets of Przemyśl, a small town in south-eastern Poland near the border with Ukraine, one can feel a blast from the past. Huge parts of the city, rebuilt after World War II, are a reminder of the last “golden age” of the town during the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

This nostalgia for the times of its formal glory is a sort of a local phenomenon, quite rare in contemporary Poland and to a similar extent felt maybe only in the second largest city of the country, Kraków. It is nostalgia towards times when Poland wasn’t an independent country and therefore hard to understand even for Poles from other parts of the country.

The visible symbol of this nostalgia is the remembrance of the Przemyśl Fortress – a military compound created in the second part of the 19th century by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its aim was to shield the country from a potential invasion of Russian forces – a role which it played during World War I. The scale of these fortifications was huge, as it was the third biggest fortress in Europe at that time, just after Antwerp and Verdun.

The remnants of the fortress, which turned into ruins thanks to heavy fighting during the second Russian assault in 1914/1915 by the Austro-Hungarian forces defending the town, are one of the biggest tourist attractions of Przemyśl. They also give a sense of pride to those of the inhabitants who have remained in a town with very high unemployment (17.7% in November 2013).

This pride is seen in events such as so called “Szwejk Manouvers” honouring a popular, fictional character from the novels of a Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek, or the restoration of the main railway station of the town, which history dates back to the times of power of the Habsburg Empire.

Forgotten stories

I started the article with this lengthy story because it probably is a best shot one can give when answering the question of the Polish memory of World War I. When thinking about the war’s centenary it looks like Poland won’t be much involved in the commemorations, even if it was an important event for both the nation and its future prospects.

The most obvious answer to the question “why is it so?” is the fact that Poland wasn’t an independent country at that time. It has a profound impact on the view of events of 1914-1918 – even regarding the end date of the war. November 11th is celebrated not as a day of a ceasefire on the Western front, but as a day of Polish independence. It is therefore not a day of mourning or remembering about the effects of militarism or imperialism but as a day in which Poland (symbolically) returned to the global stage as an independent state.

Any connection between these two events is met with scepticism, if not outright disapproval. When Maciej Gdula wrote on the webpage of the left-wing “Krytyka Polityczna” (“Political Critique”) about the need to remember the wider context of regaining independence in 1918 – a European bloodbath that created the environment for another World War in just over 20 years’ time – the comments below the article denounced him as a person that wishes to make yet another Polish holiday a day of mourning.

This opinion, when confronted with the way history is shaped in the official, public discourse (school curriculum, narratives in the media, work of institutions such as museums) has a point. Polish history is shaped today by remembering the failed attempts in regaining independence – from the Bar confederacy, fighting with Russian influence on the country in 1768-1772 up until the Warsaw uprising against Nazi Germany in 1944. Especially this last event – once a source of historical controversy regarding its military sense, is being changed now into a celebration of “the Polish desire of freedom”. It commemorations each year are becoming more and more visible, also on the national sphere, especially in comparison with the only successful Polish uprising in the Wielkopolska (Greater Poland) region in 1918/1919.

Conflicting narratives

This trend leaves us with less and less space not only to discuss Polish history, but also to tell different, more nuanced stories. The Polish history and therefore its memory is becoming more and more Warsaw-centric and uprising-centric. This leaves little space for alternative narratives, i.e. focuses on social struggles such as the peasant uprising in the Galicja region in 1846 (reduced to a slaughter of the Polish nobility by the peasants encouraged by the Austrian authorities) or the workers’ revolution in 1905 in the part of the country under Russian rule.

This narrative leaves little room also for remembering alternative views on the ways of improving the situation of Poles during the 19th century, which still haunts the Polish public sphere as a ghost of “national interest”. Alternatives to military combat, such as the autonomy of Galicja region as a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire are being side-lined and a negative view of these efforts (such as the famous “Galician poverty”, which forced people to emigrate to the Americas) is being emphasised.

Martyrs of the uprising are being remembered more than the experiment, which led to two universities teaching in Polish (in Kraków and Lwów) during times of russification and germanisation in other parts of the country, a blossoming of schools in the countryside and the spread of local social activity in all sorts of associations.

This situation, exacerbated by the lowering of standards of history education in schools, leaves lots of difficult stories of the Polish road to modernity unheard. Enforcing of this mythical discourse of “Poland as a Messiah of nations” excludes stories from different parts of the country (i.e. Wielkopolska region, which was part of the German Empire), and creates loads of “blank pages”, such as the stories of Poles forced to serve in the Russian army during its conquest of the Caucasus or the November Uprising of 1863-1864, when, according to historian Marian P?achecki, two thirds of Russian forces crushing the rebellion were ethnic Poles.

The most serious proof that such a narrative doesn’t represent the complex nuances of Polish history is the situation in the Upper Silesia region, where the Ruch Autonomii ?l?ska (Movement for the Autonomy of Silesia) is gaining popularity. The Movement not only wants the region to have more powers than the government in Warsaw, but also focuses on the “Silesian identity” – national and linguistic – that in their opinion differs from the Polish one.

While Poles focus on stories about the conquests of the Polish nobility on Ukraine in the 17th century, Silesians – they argue – have a more down-to-earth history, organised along the lines of hard work and respect for the industrial past of the region and the people which built its prosperity in the 19th and 20th century – be it self-defined Poles or Germans.

Let our ghosts in!

This vast landscape of Polish histories (as opposed to a dominant history) is crucial to both understanding and changing the dominant narrative of the past in contemporary Poland. Strengthening these histories (and many more others, such as the stories of the Polish women’s’ movement or the ethnic minorities, that lived here and were an important part of the social and cultural reality in this part of Europe until World War II) may be crucial in opening Poland to stories linking the country and its inhabitants to wider, European history.

These “histories”, showing that even people from one family made different, historical choices under different, political circumstances, may also be linked to the wider history. For example serving in the Russian or German army was considered differently than pursuing a military carrier in the Austrian forces, as the former empires were much more hostile towards Polish national self-preservation. Remembering these stories can make us remember once again about human deaths and material destruction, not connected with the dominant “uprising narrative”.

This doesn’t mean however that it is just the Poles that need a sort of national psychoanalysis. It is also Europe that needs to recognise the complexity of the history of its central and eastern part, that cannot be reduced to just pursuing narratives from 19th and 20th century Western Europe. The historical context of the whole region – and therefore the perspectives in each nation-state – are quite different from each other.

To show just a part of this huge complexity, compare Poland to Hungary. While in Poland World War I is a non-issue as there was no independent, nation-state of Poles at the time, Hungarians still struggle with its effects. The Trianon Treaty, which reduced the territory of the country and put lots of ethnic Hungarians outside of its new borders, still haunts the politics and social imagination of large parts of the citizens of the country.

For an pan-European historical dialogue

In Budapest you can find maps of pre-WWI Hungary, encompassing much of today’s Central Europe. Even if the pre-1772 (the time of the first of the three partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) borders were for a long time an important part of the national imagination, their status is incomparable to the status of the historical borders of the Kingdom of Hungary.

The answer lies in another solution – “letting our deceased in to Europe” as Polish feminist, specialising in analysing the national imagination and its romantic roots, Maria Janion, once wrote. This means not only remembering about the forgotten histories of Poland and Central Europe, but also actively entering into dialogue with the dominant narratives in each country.

Painting them just as “reactionary” or “un-European” will just be a repetition of a top-down enforcement of one, dominant view of our common past. It will also fuel political forces, that are fuelled by such narratives (i.e. Hungarian Jobbik), or – at best – alienate people, who are connected to them but don’t become fierce nationalists.

What we need is a pan-European dialogue – not only about our future, but also the past. It’s the past that holds the key to understanding the present, especially in central Europe – and it’s not just a “Captain Obvious” statement. Just as Poles don’t think about the victims of World War I (even their ethnic kin) as worth much remembrance, they now may not think that i.e. the country needs to fight climate change “because it’s not their war”. The lack of emotional connection to the victims (as opposed to Polish victims of World War II, when Poland was being invaded by Nazi Germany and a clear-cut distinction between the good and the bad could be drawn) doesn’t help here either.

So – in short – if Western Europe wants Poland to feel like an active participant of the European community and not just as a country interested in getting as much money from the EU budget as possible – it needs to listen to its stories, be it the dominant one or the ones that are now put to the side-lines. Only when the “Polish ghosts” will become “European ghosts” we will see the country as a part of a broader stream of the European past, present and future.

Newsletter

Sign up to the newsletter for handpicked highlights of articles, interviews and translations published each month.

Select the language(s) for which you would like to receive notification :

Select the theme(s) for which you would like to receive notification :

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.