Happy 100th birthday Poland

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My grandmother Irena passed away a few weeks ago, having recently, without much fanfare, turned 100. She was my grandfather’s second wife, after my mother’s mother passed away when my mother was only 2 years old. Babcia Irena was a warm, engaging woman who encouraged my love of reading as a child, and I was very fortunate to see her again on my trip to Poland last year, soon after she turned 99. The age has wearied her body somewhat but not her mind, which was as sharp and beautiful as I ever remember it being.

I was thinking about Irena Starzak this morning, because today, on the same day we celebrate the Armistice Day marking the end of World War One, we also celebrate the 100th anniversary of the rebirth of modern Poland. Irena was born in the dying months of the Great War and was an infant when Poland declared its independence on 11 November 1918. She lived through it all – growing up during the difficult inter-war years, a young woman during World War Two and the occupation, a wife, mother and grandmother during the 45 years of communist rule, the golden years and great-grandchildren during the nearly three decades of democratic, post-communist Poland. It’s hard for me not to think of Grandmother Irena as Poland.

Hitler called Poland “the bastard child of Versailles” and indeed she was. Once a great medieval and Renaissance kingdom stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth declined amid aristocratic anarchy at the same unfortunate time as her neighbours – Russia, Prussia and Austria – were modernising and becoming great European powers. The three have eventually swallowed up Poland in the course of three partitions, in 1772, 1793 and 1795. For all of the “long 19th century”, popularly stretching from the French Revolution to the outbreak of the Great War, Poland did not exist as an independent state. This state of affairs couldn’t last forever, as the national aspirations of the Polish people kept bubbling under the surface of the European politics, winning widespread sympathy in the liberal circles around the world, even if actions were circumscribed by the realities of the great power politics. World War One provided the breaker, as it pitted the partitioning states against each other. During the war all three tried to mobilise Polish patriotism to their cause with vague promises of post-war autonomy; by 1918, however, the fate made the military and political losers of all three; first Russia at the hands of Germany and Austro-Hungary and the the Central Powers at the hands of the Entente. While the Polish people and their nascent armed forces took matters into their own hands in October and November 1918, creating “realities on the ground”, the Versailles peace settlement (“the peace to end all peace” as it turned out to be) turned the de facto into the de jure state of affairs (the independence of Poland was one of President Wilson’s 14 Points and the only instance where a ethno-national group had been singled out in the document for a redress of historical injustices).

The century since then has not been an easy one, if you excuse the understatement. Most educated people know the outlines of Poland’s 20th century travails; I won’t try to summarise, but for those interested in learning more I recommend “God’s Playground” and “Heart of Europe” by Norman Davis and “The Polish Way” or its re-issue as “Poland: A History” by Adam Zamoyski, or indeed any number of other good works on particular periods or aspects of modern Polish history. In any case, all this makes the recent thirty years of change – independence, democracy, free market, integration with the rest of Europe and the world – perhaps the happiest period in Polish history, and certainly in a very long time. It has not been an idyll and many problems remain, but Poland and her people have done hell of a lot of catching up, to the extent that the country is now considered a “developed market” on par with the West; it is certainly one of the most successful post-communist countries and a significant European player.

The celebrations in Warsaw and around the country will alas be marred by political conflict and instability, as “Foreign Policy” reports:

An Independence Day parade might sound uncontroversial, but in Poland it has proven anything but. The parade in question is a nationalist march in Warsaw organized by far-right groups that was scheduled to take place on Sunday to mark 100 years of Polish independence. That was before it became a political football surrounded by confusion and uncertainty—and a useful window deep into the Polish psyche.

On Wednesday, Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz of the center-right Civic Platform party announced she would be canceling the march, citing as justification a history of previous Independence Day marches marred by xenophobia and violence. “This is not how the celebrations should look on the 100th anniversary of regaining our independence,” she said. “Warsaw has suffered enough because of aggressive nationalism.”

Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, a member of the ruling Law and Justice party, quickly declared he would now be organizing a state-sanctioned march along the same route the far-right groups had planned to take. “Everyone is invited, come only with red-and-white flags,” he wrote on Twitter, an allusion to the Polish national flag, and an indirect reference to the white-supremacist banners and slogans from last year’s Independence Day march.

But that was before a court overturned Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s ban. Sunday’s centennial events, which should ordinarily herald a day of national celebration, are now being awaited with dread—not least because many Poles believe their country’s president and prime minister, have done little or nothing in the past to discourage marchers calling for a “white Europe” and spouting anti-Semitic chants. In his announcement this week, Duda did not mention the reasons that Poles might doubt his sincerity—above all, Law and Justice’s long-running flirtation with Polish far-right groups.

The question is why, in Europe’s most economically successful post-communist country, has a ruling party ended up struggling to separate itself from openly extremist nationalists? In answering that question, and deciding what to do about it, it’s not enough to examine Law and Justice’s rise to power—one must also understand the peculiar culture of Polish nationalism that the party appeals to. In Poland, perhaps more than anywhere else in Europe, there is no necessary contradiction between a commitment to democracy and to the most extreme forms of nationalism.

Remi Adekoya, a “Polish-Nigerian journalist”, a combination that itself would have been unheard before 1989, titles his piece “Extreme nationalism is as Polish as pierogi”. With respect to Adekoya, it’s not. Patriotism certainly is and has been, as noted by many, for centuries. So has been nationalism during modern history, but no more pierogi-like than democratic socialism, which has been an equally prominent ideological trend. What can be termed “extreme nationalism” – flag-waving skinheads chanting against foreigners, Muslims and the Jews – is a marginal phenomenon, if well organised one and less marginal than in, say, the United States or France. Trying to make it sound bigger and more pervasive than it is does more service to the ultra-nationalism themselves than it does to political hygiene. It just ain’t pierogi. So next time you are thinking of having pierogi – and please do, to celebrate Poland’s 100 –  don’t hesitate, thinking “umm, pierogi, isn’t it the food equivalent of extreme nationalism?” Just do it.

P.S.

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