Understanding Poland

Poland is located roughly in between Germany and Russia, which pretty much sums up most of the political history of this peculiar country. Lack of geographical obstacles except for the Carpathian mountains in the south and the Baltic in the north had it’s role in turning Poland into a battlefield, but what is arguably more relevant to understanding Poland, is the age old cultural contrast between what can roughly be named the Roman-Germanic and Greek-Slavic parts of the continent. I would even go so far as to suggest that Europe should be in fact understood as a number of territories: the Mediterranean world, Scandinavia, the British Isles, the Balkans, “Europe proper” (France, Germany, Belgium etc.) and the Intermarium: what lies between the Baltic, the Black Sea and reaches out to the Adriatic. It is in that last subdivision that Poland lies, influenced heavily by the East and the West:

 

The Turk supplied the loom, The German his workshop and craft,

The Lithuanian underpinned Polish carefree with his pertinancy,

The Cossack added his wild heart’s yearning, the Jew- sadness,

The Italian embroidered Latin motto into the patient garment

Creating an aesthetic contrast to the Cyrillic verse.

– Jacek Kaczmarski

 

These words were written by Jacek Kaczmarski as a paraphrase of Gombrowicz describing the genealogy of Polishness, but may be accurately used to describe the Intermarium, at the heart of which Poland lies.

The Polish coat of arms.
The Polish coat of arms.

While a complex matter like the description of a nation’s mentality requires presenting a backdrop that I have neither the space nor rhetorical capacity to accurately describe I will attempt to provide a general introduction. In it’s golden age (roughly 1525-1620) the Most Serene Republic (a combination of monarchic, republican and oligarchic government) was a tolerant and “stake-less state” which exported wheat to any nation with a shortfall. The money from this procedure gave rise to a prosperous, freedom-loving nobility and an ambitious, wonderfully rich magnatery, both of which opposed strong monarchic rule, taxation, religious discrimination, standing armies and central government. The Golden age developed a strong sense of pride, the classical education received by noble youth in Italian universities made Latin the standard language of nobility, the elite Winged Hussars kept the Ottomans, Muscovites and Swedes at bay and religious tolerance attracted Jews and Protestants to settle and develop trade. While in times of prosperity a nobleman from the “Rzeczpospolita” could boast that: “They only breach Her borders so that She may prop herself upon their corpses” this was not always the case. After a long decline caused by political instability, a changing economic situation, wars with Sweden, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Cossack rebellions and diplomatic impotency, the Commonwealth finally was partitioned between the years of 1772 of 1795 by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Thus Poland descended into 123 years of statelessness periodically interrupted by rebellions and uprisings. A clampdown on Polish landowners by each of the three occupiers caused a slow growth of the major cities (Poland was always rural and decentralized country) and to some extent emigration, mostly to France but as far as Australia and the Americas. Any form of collaboration with Russia or Germany was, and is still sometimes today seen as treason and frequently politicians with only best intentions and peaceful aims towards autonomy and reform became deeply despised. The nations fortunes changed with the coming of the First World War, where Poles fought on all sides, but never directly against each other. A conflict between all three occupiers, previously working in concert to subdue the Polish had been eagerly awaited and when the Great War finally ended, Poland regained its independence. With beaten and resentful Germany on one side and revolutionary Russia on the other, the interwar period was far from peaceful. The young state was plagued with serious ethnic, political and ideological problems, but nevertheless made great progress. The Second World War cut this dream short with its indescribable horrors and subjected Poland to Soviet domination.

The decline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth brought about intolerance, as Protestants would often aid the Lutheran Swedes and the Orthodox nobility of the East was eyed suspiciously for pro-Moscow sentiment. Increasing fear of tyranny lead to democratization, which brought about political instability. The actions of neighboring absolutist and well-organized states, eg. paying off impoverished nobles to veto procedures, worsened matters. The mental legacy of the Commonwealth is that of pride and glory but also bitter disappointment. From the Swedish Deluge in the XVIIth century onwards Catholicism became a synonym of patriotism. Religion was the only consolation for the Polish under occupation so it is no surprise the Prussian ban on religious education in Polish caused the Września children’s strike to gain international attention. The most notable example of this process is that of the brilliant logician Alfred Tarski, an atheist of Jewish descent who attended mass every Sunday to manifest his patriotism.

Interestingly the political situation in Poland strongly influenced the reception of pan-European cultural movements. While romanticism in the West was concerned with orientalism, nature, folk legends and such, Polish poets, usually abroad, primarily lamented the loss of their homeland and delved into dilemmas like the morality of regicide or Christianity versus rebellion. Adam Mickiewicz wrote from Paris: “Lithuania, my fatherland, you are like health, how much to value you is only clear upon loss of thee” while Juliusz Słowacki, travelling though Greece thundered:

 

“Poland! So long as your angelic soul

Is cased within a jovial skull,

So long will the executioner chop your body,

Nor will your vengeful sword cause terror,

So long will you have a hyena prowling over you

And a grave to seize you, open-eyed!“

– Juliusz Słowacki

 

The partitions greatly deepened the dislike for central government and life under Nazi occupation and in the Soviet protectorate that was the Peoples Republic of Poland concluded the process. Poles have become accustomed to creating „underground states” aimed at the present tyrant, with a functioning administration, army and judiciary. When confronted by a common enemy the Polish unite in a counter-state and resist, but when it comes to self government Poles have a critical attitude to law and will apply common sense rather than uncritical legalism when confronted with absurd legislation. The past has created a deep resentment towards the political classes, who are almost universally regarded as thieves, liars and traitors, perhaps even more so than in any other country. The numerous atrocities perpetrated by Germans and Russians, both during the Second World War and during the long period of occupation after the Partitions have made the Polish deeply suspicious of their neighbours, except perhaps the Hungarians with whom they share many of their enemies.

Contemporary Poland can boast a rich and enchanting culture of great complexity, vibrant with tropes borrowed from all across Europe, adapted in a wonderful manner, together with a mentality that defies definition. At present the Polish state faces many challenges and the future is by no means politically bright, but that is merely a superficial aspect of Poland, a country which, to quote the national anthem: “has not yet perished, so long as we still live”.

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