Who is cursed nowadays? Historical lessons from Poland

April 16, 2019

Polish boy carrying the logo of the ruling PiS party at a demonstration (source: http://publici.ucimc.org/2018/12/democratic-backsliding-in-eastern-europe/)

 

It is quite hard to imagine somebody who having at least minimum contact with the surrounding reality of international politics hasn’t heard yet about the Law and Justice government’s (or PiS in its Polish abbreviation) achievements. From time to time headlines plangently howl about the demolition of democracy, the rise of fascism, violations of women’s rights. All of these are neatly arranged under a colourful “populism” tag, which recently became one of the main points of one’s morning agenda; making a daily cup of coffee a way more fascinating experience. Kaczyński, together with Orbán and occasional performances of Erdoğan, Salvini or Putin, resemble nowadays a flamboyant punk band shocking from time to time the liberal audience of Western Europe which clicks the "populism" tag as often as it gets tired of Brexit or yellow vests.

 

Any student of political theory would probably get lost in his or her research while struggling to classify PiS’s policies under any specific ideological concept. Even pages from an absolute classic of any political degree, Heywood's Political Ideologies, seem to be as useful as notes of the Transnistrian rouble outside Tiraspol. The peculiar mixture of populism with conservative, Catholic, radical, patriotic, far-right, traditionalist, nationalistic epithets sounds like a perfect recipe for political goulash. Even though it is quite likely (and even Heywood would agree with this) that these vague adjectives on Ideological Spectrum Str. can have very similar postcodes, by the same token it is quite likely that calling a conservative friend far-right nationalist would impair a friendly relationship. This vagueness finds its origins in the sort of politics PiS has been making in recent months. After Andrzej Duda gave an official speech in November 2018 during the de facto co-organised Independence March to the members of the ONR (National Radical Camp), whose discrepancy with Heywood's fascism is sometimes thinner than the thickness of an ice sheet atop the wintry Thames, the government said that Poland is the stronghold of tolerance and that it is the West who shall learn from PiS on how to deal with tolerance within political life. Fine. Another example. Some time ago, the Minister of Justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, in revenge for the European Court of Justice’s decision which criticised PiS’s efforts of removing judges from the Polish Supreme Court, directed entire article 267 of Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to Polish Constitutional Tribunal (subordinated already by PiS in case somebody is wondering about the verdict). It was received by the European Commission as the attempt of undermining acquis communautaire, but governmental national media informed dear viewers then that Polish cooperation with Brussels is more than great, there is no Poland without EU and there is no EU without Poland. Let this affection last forever.

 

Beyond this vagueness however, a more astute person can notice that since elections in 2015 the PiS has attempted to create an ideal Polish citizenry which is proud of its identity. For the purpose of this article, this person in his block of flats is generally recognised as a homo-PiSus – usually a strong man wearing a patriotic tracksuit, a notorious attendee at church masses, the one who loves his wife bringing up plenty of children (who will hopefully help in mending the demographic crisis and state deficit), the one who finally possesses adequate historical knowledge which makes him mindful of the fact that any Swede or Turk who dared to hurt holy independence of the Polish fatherland in the seventeenth century actually deprived himself of any trust for the consecutive millennium.

 

History is going to be the main issue the article will now focus on, especially the aspect beloved by various governments of Central Europe (though increasingly Eastern in its distancing from Western Europe): the so-called ‘historical policy’. What is this interesting phenomenon, though? History, as one can easily notice from a linguistic point of view, is definitely some sort of a story which must be explained in a particular way. The inevitability of subjectivity makes history special in the perspective of ruling politicians, who are aware that rewriting or just omitting certain information enables them to mould a fertile ground for reproducing homo-PiSuses. What is key at this point is the existence of a plethora of national heroes - those which a homo-PiSus can be proud of and tell everyone about to those who do not have the privilege of a Polish passport holder. Let the international community be jealous of Polish heritage, established through arduous efforts of our forefathers! Everyone who can be converted to the God, honour, and fatherland concept is more than welcome here. In order to be great, a laudable galaxy of pristine and flawless national titans must be broad. Any societal criticism reported by hostile individuals insidiously collaborating with foreign (Jewish!) organisations must be immediately purified by ideological consuls to secure the homo-PiSus from the effects of callous manipulation. The bodies responsible for fulfilling these tasks is the Ministry of Education for those galavanting insidiously at home, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for those abroad, together with the illustrious Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) for those located on both sides of state border.

 

Everyone who believes that the Instrument of Unconditional Surrender of Germany in May 1945 terminated any further acts of violence on the European continent shall read this paragraph twice and contemplate for a while. The decision taken in in January 1945 by the Polish Home Army (AK) – decimated and exhausted by Nazis and Soviets - to dissolve their ranks and cease military activity was not well received by the around one-hundred thousand guerrilla soldiers still eager to challenge Soviet troops. Having fought for six years, being utterly deprived of any sort of hope and sense, being mercilessly deceived by everyone they had so far trusted, they decided to continue their existence in complete despair, which inevitably pushed them towards death. It’s not my objective here to deny or mock the heroism which these so-called ‘cursed soldiers’ (cursed by communists; the closest translation from Polish wyklęci) definitely possessed. It was an enormous act of devotion to donate one’s whole life for the sake of making Poland independent from the brute strength of communism. What is crucial to mention in this article, however, is the way in which the current government benefits substantially from the cost of the rational assessment of the cursed soldiers’ overall activity. Thanks to many philosophers, taking Hannah Arendt as an example, everyone knows (or shall know) that war deprives human beings of any sense of their morality and humanity. As it is impossible to find the politicians’ stainless soul during peaceful, democratic times, it is an even more demanding challenge to pull anyone from the period when supposed respect is being gained with the use of rifles and grenades. This argument obviously does not fit the theory of historical policy and has to be challenged as soon as somebody starts even thinking about it. Imagined heroes pictured by romantic poetry of the XIX century, a time when Poland was banging its head against a stone wall raised by Russia, Prussia and Austria by igniting infinite upheavals, ideally prolong the historical legend of national honour and devotion to the state through the imagery of the cursed soldiers. This evidently proves the fact that Poland has been heroic not for a couple of exceptionally demanding years but actually for numerous generations. It’s not hard to guess who is going to win the upcoming European championships in national suffering, even though the competition for receiving the cup of the most fateful victim is startlingly in vogue. Nevertheless, there are some (if not to say a lot of) diversified factors which can spoil this idyllic vision in the eyes of homo-PiSus, which simultaneously provide a hard nut to crack for governmental emissaries who cannot afford to lose a huge manipulative potential contained in historical facts of cursed soldiers’ stories.

 

The PiS government’s approach to education finds inspiration in teaching philosophy described by Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke. Cursed soldiers were great soldiers. They did great things. They were heroic patriots. De-curse the cursed and curse the ones who dared to curse seventy years ago! Remember. Full stop. No questions? Next topic! Discourse on cursed soldiers shows a deep social ditch excavated between polarised apologists and adversaries who discuss historical occurrences from the aftermath of the Second World War. The debate on cursed soldiers engulfed almost everyone who was brave enough to glance at their smartphone, being devoured by the widespread politicisation in the process. Believing in the heroism of cursed soldiers became identical to sharing conservative values, and opposing abortion, refugees, veganism, and cyclists. Therefore, it was very interesting when one historical journalist, Piotr Zychowicz, who normally works for homo-PiSus-friendly newspapers, last year published a revisionist book illustrating achievements made by cursed soldiers from quite unexpected perspectives. It is not too hard to imagine the vigour with which Zychowicz was tossed out from the patriotic boat by some national swordsmen defending the sole historical truth. On the other hand, the storm which was invoked on the correct side of the political debate with emergence of Zychowicz’s book on majority of mainstream bookstore shelves provides some sort of a hope that not everyone yet has forgotten how to discuss, use basic principles of logic and exchange arguments. As society tends to possess some sort of rationality, the PiS has had to unleash cursed soldiers from books and university debates to mystify historical facts. The cult of the cursed soldiers is quite successful. Buy yourself a stylish sweatshirt with wyklęci, stick a fist-full of stickers on your Volkswagen's bumper letting know the others that you #respect and #remember, prepare yourself for changing documents, and your address will become more patriotic sooner than you think! Be proud, enjoy and don't ask unnecessary questions.

 

Cursed soldiers and widespread symbolism divide everything and everyone quite deeply. The most divisive effect, however, can be found – albeit not exclusively -  around Polish borderlands where cursed soldiers identified members of national minorities with communists, and did not abstain from pulling the trigger even when ordinary civilians realised the existence of new authorities in Warsaw five minutes before being killed. Cursed soldiers were not fighting on behalf of a now dissolved Home Army anymore. They were completely free and according to many historians it was this freedom that removed the burden of any responsibility and encouraged them to commit callous atrocities. The more frustration accumulated under uniforms of exhausted partisans, the more pleasure from wiping the ground from alleged communists, so goes the simple psychological equation. One such hero, Romuald Rajs "Bury" decided to hunt for communists in February 1946 around villages of orthodox (usually Belorussian) peasants in Eastern Poland. His score? 79 civilians killed, neighbourhoods burnt to the ground, and a vivid tear in the collective social consciousness that remains until today. A relatively impartial Institute of National Remembrance at that time, following three years of investigation, published a judgement in 2005 saying that Bury's activity in Hajnowszczyzna in 1946 can be recognised as a crime, with clear signs of ethnic cleansing as it was directly aimed against the members of a national minority.

 

For some, this information is not enough. Witness testimonies won't help. Documents and photographs won't help. Official government investigation and judgement won't help. Zychowicz's book won't help. For four years members of the nationalist ONR have already been organising an annual manifestation in Hajnówka which commemorates the cursed, on top of extolling the portrait of the most cursed one: Bury. Despite clear objection from the local community and the authorities, the court in Białystok (where prosecutors don’t see anything bad in a swastika, since it is just a symbol of happiness) always twists the resolution letting the group of pugnacious and aggressive patriots walk with flares in hands and shout with hate in their mouths – a supposed enlightened future generation of this nation.

 

PiS, being proud of bringing up a new generation of homo-PiSuses, recently decided to show more clearly the way how they appreciate the activity being performed by ONR. In order to facilitate inconvenient discussions with opponents over the government’s historical policy IPN was ordered to change its approach. One month ago, at an IPN press conference, they said that somebody made a mistake in 2005, it wasn't like it was supposed to be. Was it just 5 villages? Why not more? It could have been 50. Nothing bad happened, actually. Bury was a great guy. Once with a hammer, once with a sickle against the red rabble. Who's up for a new T-shirt?

 

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