Katolicyzm / Catholicism
Black Madonna of Częstochowa, church mosaic
Poland is a Catholic country. The foundation of the Polish state was laid in the tenth century, at the Baptism of the ruling elite in A.D. 966. Unlike Eastern Slavs, Bohemia and Poland chose Latin Christianity and this fact ensured their Western orientation. As Russia was Christianised by missionaries from Byzantium, it is often said that Poles and Russians belong to two different civilisations.
Samuel P. Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilisations have been criticised as simplistic but there is ample historical evidence that Poles and Russians have indeed been engaged in a struggle, often posing existential threat to each other. It seems that the initial choice of confession by their forefathers had the consequence of turning them into enemies despite their ethnic and linguistic kinship as Slavs.
Poland’s other enemies were also non-Catholics. When Poland formed a union with Lithuania as the Commonwealth of Both Nations, it became exposed to the threat from the Ottoman Empire and Islam. Poland styled itself as the Antemurale Christianitatis or the bulwark against Islam.
The enmity of Poland and Prussia also had a religious aspect. Bismarck’s policy of Kulturkampf was directed against he Roman Catholic Church. Poles were targeted both as Catholics and members of a national minority, suspected of disloyalty to the state. In 1901, Polish children in Września went on strike when the German authorities ordered German to be the language of instruction at religious lessons.
Maria Konopnicka wrote in Rota:
Nie będzie Niemiec pluł nam w twarz
Ni dzieci nam germanił,
Orężny wstanie hufiec nasz,
Duch będzie nam hetmanił.
Pójdziem, gdy zabrzmi złoty róg.
Tak nam dopomóż Bóg!
Tak nam dopomóż Bóg!
The German won’t spit in our face,
Nor Germanise our children,
Our band will arise in arms,
Spirit will lead the way.
We will go when the golden horn sounds.
So help us God!!!
So help us God!
Poland has always looked to Rome as the centre of Christianity. In the sixteenth century, many Polish noblemen switched to various forms of Protestantism but Counter-Reformation was ultimately victorious. The impact of Counter-Reformation was so strong that it permeated Polish culture for centuries. Most churches in Poland are Baroque edifices – over-decorated, exuberant and somewhat kitschy. One could argue that Polish religious life has similar characteristics – it perhaps ossified four centuries ago. It emphasises rituals and simple religiosity while theological depth and intellectualism are rather distrusted. In Poland, Catholicism is primarily a religion of simple folk.
Polish Catholicism has a feminine character because of the Poles’ devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. Marian cult has a long tradition in Poland, with Bogurodzica (Mother of God) being the oldest Polish hymn. In Poland, Zdrowaś Maryjo (Heil Mary) vies for prominence with Ojcze Nasz (Lord’sPrayer). If it’s true, as someone observed, that Protestantism is the religion of the Father, Catholicism is the religion of the Son, and the Easter Orthodox Church is the religion of the Holy Spirit, Poland seems to have its own form of Christianity – the religion of the Virgin Mary.
Catholicism is more than a religion in Poland. When the country was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century, the Church was the only institution uniting Poles as members of one nation. The Church was instrumental in the survival of Poles as a nation. This process had a negative consequence of excluding Jews and other ethnic and religious groups from the Polish nation. To be a Pole meant to be a Catholic and to be a Catholic in Poland meant to be a Pole.
Although history weights heavily on Poland’s religious life, there are signs that the role of the Church in society is about to be re-evaluated. It is not uncommon for Polish Catholics to be anticlerical. The church is under pressure to reduce its presence in public life, to curb its material appetite, and to accept responsibility for the cases of child abuse by priests. If no change is affected the process of secularisation may accelerate.
Flucht und Vertreibung / Flight and expulsion
The flight and expulsion of Germans from Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia at the end and after the II World War is yet to be tackled by Polish historians. Most Poles are preoccupied with the martyrdom of their own nation during the German occupation and they are indifferent to the suffering of German civilians after the war. The Poles either ignore it or see it as a case of historic justice. More than six million Germans fled or were forcibly removed from the German territories incorporated into Poland. Hundreds of thousands died or were murdered in the process of ethnic cleansing of gigantic proportions.
Between 1945 a 1950, there were more than 200 internment camps in Poland where German inmates were treated with utmost brutality. Often, their only crime was that of being German. The most notorious camp was located at a former German concentration camp at Świętochłowice-Zgoda. In total, up to 60,000 inmates of Polish internment camps died or were murdered in the first post-war years.
R.W.F. Bashford wrote in a report to the Foreign Office:
The concentration camps were not dismantled, but rather taken over by new owners. Mostly they are run by Polish militia. In Świętochłowice, prisoners who are not starved or whipped to death are made to stand, night after night, in cold water up to their necks, until they perish. In Breslau there are cellars from which, day and night, the screams of victims can be heard.
After the fall of communism, the public was confronted with many painful aspects of recent Polish history. No stone was left unturned during the examination of Polish antisemitism during the war and the participation of some Poles in the Holocaust. It’s now time to examine the last untold chapter in Poland’s post-war history.
Okupacja / German occupation
Andrzej Wróblewski Execution VIII, 1949
The German occupation of Poland is considered by the Poles to be the most traumatic period in the history of their nation. During the II World War, Poland was gobbled by two dictators consumed by imperial ambitions of global proportions. Hitler and Stalin were fanatical idealists who wanted to reshape the world according to their genocidal visions. Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states were the borderlands where both dictators conducted their political experiments (vide Timothy Snyder Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin). What Radom Polizeidirektor Dr. Heinz Doering wrote about Hitler, “Er war nur ein Genie, ein Staatsmann, ein idealist”, Communists could write about Stalin. What was meant, respectively, to become a paradise for Germans and a promised land for the working class, became a hell for the Poles and a slaughterhouse for the Jews.
Polish doctor Zygmunt Klukowski wrote in his Dziennik (Diary):
We are totally exhausted by our nervous lives, the restlessness and insecurity, not knowing what will happen to us in a month or a week, but even what an hour will bring forth. We live in constant fear of searches, arrests, beatings, imprisonment or internment in some remote camp, deportation, expulsion from our homes and, of course, torture and executions that take place in prisons and camps. It may be easier to die than to live in such inhumane conditions.
Poland in its current form was shaped by the war – geographically, politically and culturally. The war caused its borders to move westwards. Because of the war, Poland lost its sizeable ethnic minorities (the Jews, Ukrainians, Belarussians and Germans). Because of the war, Poland became a satellite of the Soviet Union and had a communist form of government imposed on it.
For the Jews, Poland is a giant cemetery. There are now almost no Jews in Poland but synagogues (turned into shops and libraries) and kirkuts (devastated or neglected) are still there. People were murdered 70 years ago but the material signs of their culture still exist as silent witnesses of the Gehenna of Jewish shtetls.
The historic centres of Warsaw, Poznan, Gdansk (Danzig) and Wroclaw (Breslau) are relatively new, post-war constructions because the original Old Towns were destroyed during the war. The Royal Castle in Warsaw was rebuilt only in the 1970s. Today’s Warsaw is a modern city with skyscrapers and wide avenues only because Hitler ordered its total destruction at the end of the war. Warsaw is a war child, scarred physically and mentally, and so is Poland.
And yet Poland is emerging from the shadow of the war as Phoenix from the ashes. Her former enemy, Germany, is now her stronger supporter within the European Union. Freed from the Communist yoke, Poland is modernising itself with astounding rapidity. The awareness of history is very strong among the Poles but so is their confidence in Poland’s future development.
Litwa / Lithuania
The coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! (Lithuania, my country!) writes Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s greatest poet, in the invocation opening the Polish national epic poem, Pan Tadeusz. Polish school children learn the Invocation by heart without understanding its meaning. For modern readers, too, it is indeed puzzling that Mickiewicz considers Lithuania to be his fatherland, the land of his forefathers. To make the matter even more complicated, Mickiewicz was born in or near Nowogródek which is now in Belarus.
Modern Poland is very different from the country described in Pan Tadeusz. Until the end of the eighteenth century, Poland was composed of two “nations” and known as Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów (the Commonwealth of Both Nations). Lithuania was a political term and encompassed the lands which today form Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. A Lithuanian szlachcic (nobleman) could be ethnically a Pole, Lithuanian or Ruthenian, but he always spoke Polish. His confession could be either Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Uniate or Calvinist.
The vagaries of history turned Poland and Lithuania into independent countries. Lithuania itself, which once extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, is now one of the three small Baltic countries. Poland moved westwards. It lost its Kresy Wschodnie (Eastern Borderlands ) which are now in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine but gained large swaths of Germany, namely Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia.
A student of Polish history may conclude that there is little continuity in the history of Poland. For this reason, one must not see the past of Poland through the prism of modern times; one must also be aware that there have been at least two Polands (and two Lithuanias for that matter).
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” (L. P. Hartley).
Poezja / Poetry
Jacek Malczewski Melancholy 1890-1894
Modern Polish poetry is preoccupied with ontology in its personal dimension. Poems of Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert are an invitation to the examination of “the metaphysical feeling of the strangeness of existence” and questions such as “Why am I exactly this and not that being? at this point of unlimited space and in this moment of infinite time? in this group of beings, on this planet? Why do I exist if I could have been without existence?” (Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz).
Życie na poczekaniu.
Przedstawienie bez próby.
Ciało bez przymiarki.
Głowa bez namysłu.
Nie znam roli, którą gram.
Wiem tylko, że jest moja, niewymienna.
O czym jest sztuka,
zgadywać muszę wprost na scenie.
Kiepsko przygotowana do zaszczytu życia,
narzucone mi tempo akcji znoszę z trudem.
Improwizuję, choć brzydzę się improwizacją.
((Wislawa Szymborska Życie na poczekaniu)
Life while you wait.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without fitting.
Head without reflection.
I don’t know the role I’m playing.
I only know it’s mine, non-convertible.
What the play is about
I must guess only after it’s begun.
Poorly prepared for the dignity of life,
I barely keep up with the pace of the action imposed.
I improvise, though I loathe improvisation.
(Wislawa Szymborska Life While You Wait )
Polish poets are particularly sensitive to the fragility of individual existence. Human life is precious because it is constantly exposed to threats from Nature and History.
Melancholy of modern Polish poets is nothing new. Poland’s first great poet, Jan Kochanowski, is now mainly known for his Treny (Laments), written after the death of his daughter. His despair precludes any consolation.
Nieszczęsne ochędóstwo, żałosne ubiory
Mojej namilszej cory!
Po co me smutne oczy za sobą ciągniecie,
Żalu mi przydajecie?
Już ona członeczków swych wami nie odzieje –
Nie masz, nie masz nadzieje!
Pathetic garments that my girl once wore
But cannot anymore!
The sight of them still haunts me everywhere
And feeds my great despair.
They miss her body’s warmth; and so do I:
All I can do is cry.
(translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Seamus Heaney)
Melancholy seems to be a permanent trait of the Polish character. Classicism, with its tendency to see harmony in the world and to restraint and discipline in personal behaviour, has been supressed in Polish culture due to Poland’s turbulent history. The Enlightenment didn’t have the chance to permeate Polish psyche because it was cut short by the loss of independence at the end of the eighteenth century.
The Polish culture is to a large extent the creation of Romantic poets or national bards – Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński. Cyprian Kmil Norwid is sometimes considered to be the fourth bard but his poetry is too intellectual and hermetic to gain wider recognition.
Polish romantic poets were scarred by the loss of independence of their motherland when the country was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Most of them lived in exile which made them bitter and unhappy. They could escape the painful reality only by sentimental journeys into the land of their childhood (see Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz) or by creating fantastic visions of Poland’s fate (Mickiewicz’s Dziady Forefathers‘ Eve). They validated Poland’s martyrdom by seeing in their country a Christ among nations whose suffering will cleanse the world.
Romantic poetry is a staple of Polish education, making the Poles prone to see their country as a God’s playground (the title of Norman Davies’ history of Poland). Romanticism made the Poles brave when faced with adversity but also quite self-centred.
Maybe, at last, Poland can now free itself from the yoke of History. A free and prosperous nation would be ill served by Romantic excesses. Jan Lechoń, wrote in 1920, somewhat prematurely, that it was time to stop thinking about Poland as “a parrot of all nations – in a crown of thorns” and “in the spring – to see spring, and not Poland.”
It remains to be seen whether Poland’s accession (return?) to the West means indeed the end of history.
Ziemie Odzyskane / Recovered Territories
The Polish authorities treated the German lands incorporated into Poland after the II World War as Ziemie Odzyskane (Recovered Territories) on the grounds that these lands were once inhabited by Slavic tribes. In popular culture, Ziemie Odzyskane were terra nullius or the Wild West, ready to be settled and developed by the Poles expelled from the Eastern Borderlands (Kresy) which were incorporated into the Soviet Union.
The public awareness of the expulsion of Germans from their ancestral lands was, and still is, non-existent. Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia were to be plundered by some (szabrownicy) and settled by the others (osadnicy). The authorities appealed to people’s spirit of adventure. The settlers were supposedly to be like pioneers, and they were portrayed as such in official propaganda and popular culture. In a 1964 film, Prawo i pięść (The Law and the Fist), a lone hero imposes law and order on a few inhabitants of an almost deserted town. The viewer can only guess that the town was depopulated through the expulsion of Germans. In a comedy Sami swoi (Our Folks – 1974), the colonisers are themselves the expelees from the Eastern Borderlands into Soviet Union. In a popular song Nim wstanie dzień (Before the day breaks), Edmund Fetting sings “We will grow grain again in the earth heavy with blood”.
For the Polish authorities, the removal of people was not enough – the acquired lands had to be de-Germanised through the destruction of all signs of German material cultures. Even cemeteries were not spared – they were often demolished and turned into parks. In Wroclaw (Breslau), all pre-war cemeteries were systematically demolished except the Old Jewish Cemetery.
Post-war toponymy was also used to raise nationalistic feelings. In Wroclaw, Kaiserbrücke (Freiheitsbrücke) was renamed as Most Grunwaldzki to celebrate the victory of Poland and Lithuania over the Teutonic Knights. In Szczecin (Stettin), Hakenterrasse were renamed as Wały Chrobrego to stress Poland’s claim to the Baltic coast.
In recent years, the German past of Poland’s western regions is being rediscovered and even celebrated to stimulate regional pride. Villages in which German is spoken have bilingual road signs. Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia may play a role in reconciliation between Poles and Germans.