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Divisive memory

On November 11th, Poland commemorated regaining its statehood 100 years ago. The central Independence Day march in Warsaw highlighted deep social and political divisions between the government and opposition, who took issue with the involvement of far-right nationalist groups. The historian Andrzej Nowak talks about this year’s celebrations.

As one of the most important conservative voices in Polish public debate, the historian Andrzej Nowak gives an assessment of this year’s celebrations and explains what significance history has for Poland’s current domestic disputes and international relations.

Professor Nowak, how was the 11th of November, the day on which Poland regained its statehood 100 years ago, celebrated this year?

In a way that shows a deep divide in Polish society, unfortunately. There were large celebrations organised by the democratically elected government and the Polish President, Andrzej Duda. They found themselves in a rather embarrassing situation due to the fact that, as in recent years, the largest celebrations surrounding the 11th of November were to be organised by nationalist groups. This march was banned by the president of Warsaw, who belongs to the opposition party, in a move that lacked justification and was overruled by the courts. The march organised by President Duda in a last-minute effort was open to the general public and everybody was invited to join in the festive occasion, but the nationalist groups that usually organised the march also took part. It is important to note that a quarter of a million people took part in the largest celebration witnessed in Poland since 1989, which testifies to the fact that ordinary Poles showed great interest in commemorating the occasion happily and peacefully. On the other side, anti-government sentiments were brought forward by opposition parties. As an example, on the day before November 11th, Donald Tusk likened the current president and government to the Bolsheviks, while at the same time appealing to national unity. Such an invitation to demonstrate unity is not quite sincere, if it comes with the generalisation of millions of Poles who voted for the ruling party as Bolsheviks.

Why have the celebrations of Poland’s Independence Day become such a divisive issue?

Under the former government, President Komorowski tried to distance himself from traditional patriotism, which created a situation where the proposal of celebrations on Independence Day by national-minded groups was perceived as going against the government. The march was presented as a kind of clash between a new pan-European vision of the future and traditional patriotism. That situation over time became increasingly divisive and ultimately ended in the “hijacking” of the main celebrations in Warsaw by more radical, nationalist groups. The new Law and Justice government was therefore in a difficult position: on the one side, it holds sympathies for a more traditional patriotism, while on the other hand it has been and remains essentially pro-European. But because the Law and Justice party tries to incorporate traditional patriotism and a concept of national identity, it gains proximity to nationalistic perceptions of Polish identity. In order not to to be identified with the nationalist celebrations, the government used to organise separate celebrations of their own, not in Warsaw, but in Cracow in the last two years. Therefore, one could say that divisions have been apparent in the commemoration of national independence for some years now.

Apart from the central issue of patriotism, how important is the actual history of Poland regaining its independence 100 years ago in this year’s commemoration?

Especially this year, the official position was to remind Poles that it is important to overcome divisions – and that holds true even if there is reason to be critical of the government and the president for not completely achieving that aim. All interpretations of the historical developments surrounding Poland’s reinstatement in and after 1918 stress that overcoming ideological and political divisions was of key importance. The political camps surrounding Józef Piłsudski on the left-centre and Roman Dmowski on the right were able to overcome, even if only for the briefest but most important of moments in late 1918 and in 1919, their differences and work together for the benefit of Poland. Those critical of the current government, on the other hand, tried to expose that temporary union between the Piłsudski and Dmowski camps as superficial, presenting a more antagonistic interpretation of inevitable clashes between the ideological fractions.

The commemoration of the end of the First World War in Paris and Warsaw shows how differently the war and its end shaped Europe and, by extension, national memories. How is the question of European memory of the First World War viewed in a Polish perspective?

This year’s commemoration gives the opportunity to present different perspectives on the First World War and its end. One perspective is that of the empires and nation states that existed before 1914 and that engaged in that conflict at immeasurable and unprecedented human costs – that perception is absolutely justified and apparent in most of Europe, especially its Western part. Germany is in a distinct situation, as its remembrance of the First World War is strongly influenced by the memory of the Second World War. To many countries in Central Eastern Europe, and that includes Poland, the difficulty lies in the fortunate outcome of the war, which was perceived as a chance to accomplish own national ambitions on the ruins of the old imperial order. Unfortunately, the system of new or renewed national states in Central Eastern Europe could not survive in the face of new imperialistic interventions of the Soviet and Nazi German empires just 20 years later, symbolised by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. While this explains different perceptions, it is important to stress that Poles, as many other nationalities in Central Eastern Europe, also took part in World War One. Approximately 600.000 people of Polish origin died during that conflict, fighting for alien empires. And it is also worth remembering that the devastation on the eastern front affected Polish lands immensely. Both aspects are largely neglected in Western memory…

...as are many conflicts that came with the birth of nations throughout Central Eastern Europe, where the end of the Great War did not bring peace at once, but often a continuation of conflicts. Which challenges and which chances arise from the commemoration of these difficult beginnings of statehood in Central Eastern Europe during the early interwar period?

We are in a better situation now than thirty years ago, because countries such as Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine – however different they are – can now look back on an experience of independence and stable statehood. All have developed their own historiographies, sometimes also drawing on nationalistic points of view, but they have therefore confronted their own perceptions of the past with those of others. I perceive a natural and positive trend of pluralisation of perspectives on difficult parts of our shared history and our conflicts. I would say that challenges do not lie in the Polish-Lithuanian past, as our relations have probably never been better. Also with regard to Belarus I see no insurmountable problems being debated currently. Neither would Germany need to be mentioned here, as current historiography of the First World War and interwar period is very differentiated in both countries, even if that probably cannot be said of World War Two, which holds some unresolved issues. I see the greatest challenges in the Polish relations to their neighbours after World War One in the Ukrainian case. As with Germany, the conflicts of the interwar period – and the fight for Lwów/ L’viv/ Lemberg starting in November 1918 would be one such instance – are seen through the prism of later developments connected to World War Two, such as the Volhynia massacres.

How problematic is confounding the history and memory of World War One with that of World War Two?

In Eastern Europe that is exactly the case. One issue that makes this clear concerns Polish-Jewish relations: violence against Jews that occurred during the last stages of World War I and in 1919-1920, during the wars over the Polish state borders with Ukrainians and Soviet Russia, is coming to be seen in Western historiography as a prelude to the Holocaust, which insinuates a questionable correlation especially with regard to who perpetrated the latter in fact. In discussions on Eastern European history, such unjustifiable correlations are often brought forward: World War One and its aftershocks are seen from the perspective of World War Two, that – unlike in Western Europe – definitely overshadows the First World War.

With its focus topic »The Value of Europe«, the Körber Foundation contributes to the debate on the past, present, and future of the European project. In various activities with political decision-makers and societal actors, we recognise different points of view and values and identify common ground. 

Andrzej Nowak is a historian and public intellectual as well as Professor of Eastern European History at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. From 1980 to 1989 he was collaborator of several underground, anti-Communist periodicals in Poland and for 18 years (1995 to 2012) editor-in-chief of the conservative political-cultural bi-monthly ARCANA. Andrzej Nowak is the author of more than twenty books on Eastern European political and intellectual history. He was visiting professor and lecturer at many universities (Columbia, Rice, Duke, Harvard and the University of Virginia, as well as Cambridge, University of Toronto, Masaryk University in Brno, University of Tokyo, and others). He is currently a member of the National Development Council, as well as the President of the Advisory Council of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.
 

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