The desire for innocence

Why is every attempt to critically revisit Polish history stigmatised as anti-Polish?

by Andrzej Stasiuk

 

We're becoming children again. For a quarter of a century, it looked like we were growing up after all those years of not being allowed to. Russia didn't allow it, the Communists didn't allow it, the Germans didn't allow it. The chain of occupiers, our enemies condemned us to immaturity, to eternal childhood, to secondary status, to irresponsibility. When communism fell in 1989 we hoped that this era would be consigned to the past. In 2004, when we joined the EU, it seemed to be buried for good. Finally, we had signed up of our own volition; there was no annexation, no raid, no occupation. We were long determined by our own history and our risky geopolitical situation. Now it looked like we were finally shedding our status of eternal victim.

But no. It came back: That irresistible desire for innocence. Any attempt to critically confront our history or our present crisis is considered anti-Polish. The most important politicians in our country argue that the blacker aspects of our history haven't been written by Poland, but rather by the communists. It is as if these "communists" ditched their nationality and citizenship as soon as they adopted the communist ideology. So speaks our Prime Minister, a historian with a master's degree - one bid to keep people innocent and untainted. He says it in connection with March 1968 when the last Jews were expelled from Poland, several tens of thousands of them. After surviving the Holocaust, they still opted to remain in the country. The then communist government expelled them, but it would not have done so if it had not counted on broad support. It was no longer the time of Stalinist terror. The Communists tried to avoid unpopular decisions.

So it boils down to innocence, which is, by its very nature, open to violent attack. Exposed innocence calls for violence. It does not appear alone, but needs to appear with violence in order to be innocent. The victim is married to the executioner, that's an indissoluble bond. There's something perverse about trying to be the victim all the time. Its attempt robs strength and faith, it leads to self-humiliation. According to those in power, as a people, we are a victim of the past and also the present. We are surrounded by enemies who are after our innocence, our identity, our values, our existence and our pride.

The latest spectacular demonstration of this (took place in 2018: editor’s update) wasn't a government imitative but perfectly reflects its politics:  it entailed a fleet of lorries driven from Poland over EU territory, in particular Germany, bearing the message: "#Respect Us. During WW2 Poles Saved Over 100,000 Jews". It is hard to say where that number came from, as historians still debate the figure. Similarly disputed is the number of Jews killed by the Poles during the German occupation. Some also put the number at 100,000.

Innocence and sacrifice must be linked to heroism and pride to earn respect. Nationalist organisations, mainly made up of young people who can neither remember the German occupation nor the Holocaust nor communism, march through the streets of Polish cities and chant: "Pride! Pride! National pride!" But in fact, no one knows what this pride is supposed to refer to. Is it the consequence of defeat, the misfortune of being a victim nation for 300 years? Or maybe the 100,000 Jews we supposedly saved during WW2? With the second reason there is a certain problem: in the nationalist ideology, especially the pre-war ideology, which forms a direct line to today's thinking, the Jews were seen as the sworn enemies of Polishness. That attitude continues today. So what does that tell us? Are we Christian enough that we turn the other cheek?

But the nationalists of all people? They are the last political force suspected of turning the other cheek. Not least because on their protests you hear as often people shouting "Pride!" as "Death to the enemies of our fatherland".

To move away from this contradiction and steer out of this cognitive cul-de-sac, we have chosen so-called "outcast soldiers" as our national heroes. Among them were partisan groupings that, after the end of the war, refused to lay down their weapons and took up the fight against the new occupiers - who also freed us - that is, against the Soviet and Polish communists. A civil war began. After all, whatever, mental games you play, the Polish communists were still Poles. Society was not an anti-Communist monolith either. People were tired of the war and yearned above all for peace.

The communists carried out agricultural reform and divided the country among the poor peasants. Poland gradually emerged from the ruins. The new rulers promised the underprivileged strata of society where you could rapidly improve your social standing. The situation of the "Outcast Soldiers" was dramatic. They didn't have the slightest chance of winning, not even of surviving. They were a kind of desperados. Trapped in the woods, surrounded from all sides, they waited for the outbreak of a third world war between the Soviets and the West, a completely irrational hope. Civil war is the worst form of war. These were the heroes of a lost cause. Many of them did not find their way in peace. Some became bandits. Others were guilty of murdering civilians; Jews and prisoners. Others had a former collaboration with the German occupants weighing on their conscience, which seemed to them to be the lesser evil in the face of the threat of the communist East.

One of the most famous units, the Brygada Swietokrzyska (Holy Cross Brigade), withdrew westwards alongside the German army. Their soldiers perished in battle or were captured, tortured, brought before communist courts, shot and buried in unknown places. The troop must have suffered the worst fate of any in the war. But their role was far from clear. They saw their model of patriotism as the only valid one. They wanted to drag the population into the abyss of self-destruction and self-sacrifice. Given the West's indifference and the East's power, no one with any common sense could hope for success, let alone victory. The few individuals who survived hid like hunted game. The last one was killed in 1963.

Today, young men wear T-shirts with pictures of them. They march with torches and scream: "National pride" and "Death to the enemies of the Fatherland!" But they are too young to remember the death of a real enemy. They probably haven't yet witnessed death. But it is not to be ruled out that they are prepared to pay for these slogans with their own lives.

The Polish soul is strange. It longs to die young. It is as if it is afraid to mature, afraid to grow a little older. It is in a hurry to die, fearing it will loose its innocence. 

 

Translated by Jess Smee

 

Andrzej Stasiuk, born in 1960 in Warsaw, is an author and literature critic. In his youth he was involved in the Polish pacifist opposition movement. Due to his desertion, he spent one and a half years in prison, where he wrote his debut work. Since then Stasiuk has published more than 15 literary works and was awarded the Polish annual Nikeprize. He lives in Volovec.