November 11, 1918 marks the day of Polish independence from Austrian, Prussian and Russian Empires. Every year, Poles take to the streets to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty. This year was no different. Over 100,000 Poles took to the streets of Poland’s capital, Warsaw – men, women and children alike – in order to honour the anniversary of Poland’s independence after World War I (numbers vary, some news sources report numbers upwards of 200,000 participants). These celebrations generated a wide array of opinions and emotions and I was quite perplexed to hear about the general “take-away” message most news outlets attempted to leave their audience with. As a first-generation Polish-Canadian, I feel compelled to write a piece in response to the criticism my ancestral homeland received.
Thanks to my father’s deep interest in Polish history and politics, I myself follow Poland’s current events very closely. My parents grew up in communist Poland and immigrated to Canada in their early 20s and my grandparents and great grandparents lived through both World Wars (1914-1918, 1939-1945). Thanks to their experiences and personal stories, I have been able to better understand the turbulences and struggles Poland faced for much of the 20th century. In university, a lot of my work focused on European politics, and more specifically, how Poland’s deep and complicated history influences its policies and attitudes within the context of the European Union and in global politics. It is this love and passion for politics (and Poland) that drove me to write this piece.
Poland is a country in the heart of central Europe, with a population of approximately 38 million people. It has always been rather quiet in the news, never drawing too much attention to itself. The 2015 election was a pivotal moment in Polish politics: the electorate voted out the centrist Platforma Obywatelska (PO/Civic Platform) and brought into power the more nationalist, conservative and staunchly catholic Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS/Law and Justice). Under new leadership, Poland’s stances and policies have been making waves in Europe and ruffling some feathers on the global stage, especially with Poland’s refusal to adhere to the European Union’s migrant quota.
Following these recent November 11 Independence Day celebrations, Poland finds itself in the cross hairs of misinformed leftist pundits. After reading a few of these articles, I conclude that many of them are comical at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. Some of these headlines read: “In Poland this weekend 60,000 neo-Nazis staged a march celebrating the country’s independence day, chanting “Refugees out!” and carrying banners calling for an “Islamic holocaust” – The Guardian, “White Nationalist March Overwhelms Polish Independence Day” – Yahoo News, “Poland’s Day of Independence is marred as thousands of Far-Right supporters chant anti-Jewish slogans and call for a “white Europe” during protest” – Daily Mail UK.
I have examined some of the captured footage, and I am unable to find any strong visual or auditory evidence proving that these outlandish slogans and chants are the belief of the majority. In fact, I would argue that many of these assertions are either misconstrued or entirely false. For example, yes, Poles have openly expressed their fear of the “Islamisation of Europe” due to uncontrolled mass migration, but to say the entire country is “praying for an Islamic holocaust” is a complete distortion of facts. To put it briefly, many take the November 11 celebrations as day to honour their heritage and identity, as well as the sacrifices made by their heroes. Unfortunately, such sentiments seem to be revered less and less by other European countries, as it is often conflated with white hegemony and superiority. The overall theme of these demonstrations is not at all what is being reported by the mainstream media. The media wants you to believe that racism, bigotry and xenophobia were the primary driving forces behind this demonstration. Do not let them manipulate you in this way.
“Typical Polish Fascists”
Yes, apparently there were some “far-right” fringe groups that showed up in small numbers. Unfortunately, such displays and celebrations will always attract extremist factions – both the far-left and far-right alike – and I condemn those fully. Polish President Andrzej Duda has also vehemently denounced this anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric. Are there far-right extremists in Poland? Yes, but no more than in any other country. Rather than reacting with violence and/or silencing these groups we should give them a platform. As Ben Shapiro, American political commentator said in one of his speeches: “…the best response to bigotry is the opposite of censorship: it is exposure and shaming in the court of public opinion”. Give these people a platform and shame them out of existence, as we would with any other opportunistic group comprised of repugnant individuals.
Situating this act of homage in a historical context is imperative in understanding the meaning and importance of these “nationalist” demonstrations. For the sake of consistency and clarity, allow me to introduce some important terminology. The textbook definition of nationalism reads “patriotic feelings, principles or efforts” and “advocacy of political independence for a particular country”. An extreme variant of this is “marked by a feeling of superiority over other counties”. That being said, sentiments of patriotism and nationalism are not new to Poland. The 11/11 demonstrations have always been characterized by displays of Polish flags and patriotic slogans, such as “Bóg, Honor, Ojczyzna” (God, Honour, Homeland). Throughout this article, I will not use the terms “nationalism” and “patriotism” pejoratively. While nationalism has yielded precarious outcomes in the past, in the case of Poland, nationalism is (and historically has been) a link, one that unifies a group of people who share similar experiences, sentiments and feelings of pride. Such unity has allowed for Poland to persevere against the forces of globalism and political correctness that have divided other Western European nations in the wake of the current migration crisis. Nationalism, in my opinion, in a uniting force in Polish society, not a crusade aimed at demonstrating superiority. Historically speaking, such patriotism, unity and civil engagement are what brought Poland out of its darkest times which I will explain in greater detail below.
Poland briefly remerged as a sovereign state on 11 November 1918 after having been wiped off the map for 123 years. This fate was short-lived and Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany from the west on 1 September 1939 and by the Soviet Union from the east two weeks later on 17 September. The other Allied Powers – Britain and France – did not come to the aid of Poland, and she was carved up between both the German and the Soviet forces. These events comprise what is unofficially known as the Fourth Partition of Poland. The years that followed culminated in irreparable losses and debilitated the nation from the inside out. The Stalinist regime sought to strip Poland of its intelligentsia, most notably through the Katyń Massacre of 1941, whereby over 20,000 high-ranking military officials, doctors, lawyers, professors (among others) were murdered with a single gunshot to the head and thrown into mass graves. While never formally declared as such by the international elite, this massacre was nothing short of a genocide: targeted and deliberate. These men murdered because they were regarded as a potential obstacle to the consolidation of communism in post-war Poland.
At the Nuremburg Trails of 1945-46 the Allied Powers had the opportunity to bring the true perpetrators to justice, but instead, they laid blame on the Germans. To this day, no one has been held responsible for the crimes at Katyń or its concealment. The families of these men have never received any compensation or, even worse, closure.
Depiction of German and Soviet troops meeting on the Polish frontier
The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 was arguably one of the most distinguished operations Poland fought in. This 63-day long operation was the Home Army’s attempt at liberating Poland from Nazi Germany. Poland waited for the help of her allies, but no one came. Once all was said and done, hundreds of thousand perished in this effort and this is regarded as “the single largest military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II” (Duraczyński 1974). Although this is one of the most difficult and tragic chapters of Polish history, the legacy of the uprising lives on. The prevalence of Warsaw Uprising (Powastanie Warszawskie – PW) symbols at the 11/11 marches are indicative of this. After 1944, the capital was levelled and forced the country to rebuild from the ashes. Poland is a nation proud of its fight and revival. The uprising’s impact has forever left a mark on Polish culture and history, and its people will (unapologetically) continue to demonstrate it.
Aerial view of the devastation Warsaw saw after 1944
Millions of Poles perished at the hands of the Soviets and Nazis. They were deported to concentration camps and Gulags, many of which never returned home. Those who died in captivity or exile lay in unmarked graves. A total of six million Poles died during the Second World War, nearly one fifth of Poland’s pre-war population.
The betrayal of Poland did not stop here. She was later sold out by her allies at the Yalta conference in 1945, and was left to the subsequent fate of Soviet domination and communist rule for the next 45 years.
The post-WW2 era which followed was no different. Poland was repressed. State corruption was rampant. Dissidents were “dealt with”. People lived off of food stamps and food shortages were widespread. It was not uncommon for one to wait in line at the local food store for 12 hours for a carton of milk or a roll of toilet paper. The only item readily available was vinegar. The imposition of Russian language was established in all schools. Those who managed to escape to the West were defamed and labelled “dumb Polaks” and “little Poles”. Many took menial jobs in Western European Countries and North America just to make ends meet. By virtue of their dedication and hard work, many of these immigrants were able to learn the language of their host nation and went on to become successful professionals.
The collapse of communism is often attributed to the influence of the Solidarity Labour Movement (Solidarność, 1980) and the strong support it received from the Roman Catholic Church. This particular chapter of Polish history is complex and multifaceted. There were several other actors and events which contributed to the weakening (and eventual demise) of communism in Poland, however, for the sake of conciseness, I have summarized these events to the best of my ability.
Led by Lech Wałęnsa, Solidarność was a force to be reckoned with. With what initially started as a labour movement protesting sky-rocketing food prices, Solidarność eventually became an unprecedented movement comprised of labour workers, intellectuals and the church. Over time, the communist government felt like it was losing control over the citizenry. As a result, Solidarity was barred in 1982 with the imposition of Martial Law and all leaders were temporarily imprisoned.
Lech Wałęsa speaking to a large crowd of labour union workers
Source: https://www.britannica.com/place/Poland/Communist-Poland-A large degree of the Solidarity movements success can be ascribed to the compelling support it received from the Roman Catholic Church. In his iconic inaugural speech, Polish-born Pope John Paul II encouraged Poles and told them to “not be afraid” of demanding change. In light of Poland’s deep Roman Catholic roots, the advice to stand up to the oppressive regime resonated with the populace. It uplifted, inspired and resurrected the lost sentiments of pride that were suppressed by communism. Together, the Solidarity movement and the church induced a peaceful revolution within Polish society. Ordinary Poles knew that they could not fight the government with guns, so they took to a different approach, hoping the government would eventually make some concessions. With time, the people realized they were more powerful in numbers than the regime that sought to suppress them. The BBC too cites strong Patriotism as a key agent in the fight against communism (Repa, 2005). Poles rejected communism from the get-go and Stalin himself said that “establishing communism in Poland was like trying to saddle a cow”. He was absolutely right, and with enough pressure exerted by Solidarność, they became the unofficial opposition to the communist government. By August 1989, the parliament elected a Solidarity member as its first Prime Minister and communism in Poland eventually collapsed that same year.
“Thank you for [the] freedom”
While the Solidarity movement is often credited with successfully inducing this change, they couldn’t have done it without the support of a strong civil society. It is this kind of civil engagement that brought together a shattered nation. It is this kind of civil engagement that unified people together in hopes of achieving one common goal: freedom. This kind of patriotism and unity enabled Poland to persevere and conquer the odds.
Poland is a nation that understands what it is like to have its freedom ripped from underneath its feet. The people understand what it is like to feel at odds with their identity. Poland’s freedom has never come without cost. It came from people’s relentless fight as well as their blood, sweat and tears. For pundits to shame Poland for honouring and acknowledging her history is, quite frankly, a slap in the face. Calling Pole’s Nazi’s is intellectually dishonest given the country’s devastating and grueling history with Nazi Germany. I would argue that promulgating such distorted statements only speaks to the ignorance of those who wish to loudly signal a superior virtue. American “writer” and “civil rights activist” Shaun King tweeted: “Again, you may not be familiar with Poland, but what happened there today, has EVERYTHING to do with Trump, Bannon, Breitbart and the American embrace of bigotry”. No. It literally has nothing to do with any of that; please reflect on these unfounded, ill-considered remarks. These celebrations have everything to do with a proud nation, comprised of resilient, passionate people who honour their history and their roots. They acknowledge their sombre history and the courage displayed by their ancestors who perished in hopes of a free Poland.
Finally, present-day Poland remains a strong, assertive nation. It exists as a country that refuses to succumb to the political correctness and cognitive dissonance espoused by its Western neighbours.
To all of those who speak before they think: Before you go posturing on social media, I encourage you to educate yourself. Pick up a history book. Read an article. Do your research before spewing empty platitudes and false generalizations because it fits your politics and your narrative.
I am a proud Polish-Canadian. I am proud of everything Poland has fought for. I am immeasurably grateful for the sacrifices made by my parents, grandparents and great grandparents.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where people are shamed for celebrating their heritage, like we saw in the case of Poland. In an era of rampant political correctness, this is especially true if you’re a descendant of white Europeans.
Poland, continue to honour your history and freedom, which was costly. Do not let anyone misinterpret and defame your manifestations of pride and sacrifices, as those who denigrate and manipulate your joy into something wicked will not prevail. Continue to fight those who exploit you politically to promulgate their agendas.
Live on Poland. Kocham cię Polsko.
- “Analysis: Solidarity’s Legacy” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4142268.stm
- Cover Picture: http://ultraseurope.net/2016/11/13/poland-independence-day-111116
- Duraczyński, Eugeniusz; Terej, Jerzy Janusz (1974). Europa podziemna: 1939-1945 [Europe underground: 1939-1945] (in Polish). Warszawa: Wiedza Powszechna.
- “Solidarity and the fall of communism in Poland”:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnXdFK4sPIY&index=3&list=LLeYRahKoD-hbWRinqEXW3LA