Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Poland's Tragedy: Nationalism

Political junkies may remember the behavior of the Polish government that so many found difficult to comprehend after the country became a member of the European Union. Quoting from Wikipedia:

“In 2003 the European Union produced a draft of a proposed Constitution for Europe. .... It was to be a document that captured the central vision and identity of “Europe” as rights-based, democratic and humanist... Negotiations over the content ....from 2003 through 2006 revealed a number of areas on which EU members disagreed. However, Poland challenged the document most directly and most vehemently. Both its president and its main bishop had already argued for the incorporation of the word “God” in the preamble during enlargement negotiations in 2002. Poland also objected to proposed voting formulas which would have entailed a substantial decrease in its influence in the Council of Ministers. While the Treaty of Nice gave Poland (and Spain) almost as many votes as Germany has (27 to Germany’s 29), but taking into account population size, Germany’s weight vis-à-vis Poland would increase substantially . It seemed as if underlying Poland’s concern was its ability to wield power within the EU specifically in regard to Germany.
Having lived in Poland for a year during the sixties, I was not sur-prised at the vehemence of its protest so soon after becoming a member of the European Community, which the countries of Eastern Europe had been so anxious to join during Europe’s half century division into East and West. The outbursts of the Polish president were consistent with the extreme nationalism I had experienced so long ago.

Polish nationalism has deep roots in history. As any Pole will tell you within five minutes of arriving in the country, Poland was partitioned three times during the eighteenth century, and twice after that. Not until the 1919 Treaty of Versailles did Poland become a sovereign nation again.
While living in in that country, I wondered whether the reasons for its unique history inherent were related to the Polish character. The thing that struck me most was a penchant for intrigue and a frequent blurring of the line between truth and falsehood. Comments about that invariably resulted in heart-felt references to Poland’s tragic history. One can assume that the national ethos of any country that had been repeatedly carved up among its neighbors (Prussia, Russia and Austria), would be affected for generations to come.

The assassination in 1939 of 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviet Union after it shared out Poland with Hitler’s Germany as part of a Soviet-German pact, was the bloodiest in a long series of dismemberments. Until 1990, the Soviet government had insisted the Nazis were responsible. It was not until Gorbachev instituted glasnost that the truth was acknowledged. After the demise of the Soviet regime, the Katyn massacre, as it has been known, has stood as the single greatest reason for enmity between Russia and Poland.

Now, it would appear that the compassionate and competent way in which the Russian government, and in particular Prime Minister Putin, handled the Smolensk plane crash, could pave the way for improved relations between the two Slavic neighbors after three centuries of suspicion and resentment. But my guess is that Poland’s exalted nationalism will endure, unless the people realize that it was this sentiment that led one hundred of its leaders to get into an old airplane bound for a remote forest to commemorate an event that took place seventy years ago.


  1. Once again, your first-hand experience gives you that eye on history that informs your writing in such splendid ways. Your observations about the Polish character, your usage of "dismemberment," the information about Gorbachev that I did not know...all wonderful. I read about the "thaw" between the Poles and Russia in a BBC article. Your final paragraph is telling.

  2. Hello Lydia,

    This post received about 50 comments on Daily Kos, most of them positive. I was surprised, expecting to be excoriated.

    I'm trying to find ways to increase readership.

    Hope you're well.