The Polish Paradox


Poland presents a challenge to Western political commentators, especially in light of the recent rise to power of the conservative Law and Justice Party. While most outside observers were happy to see a post-Communist party seize power, many were unnerved that it was the political Right which assumed leadership of the Polish government in 2005. Much of that nervousness on the part of Western critics can be attributed to ignorance of Polish history and to the tendency of liberals to look with suspicion on any changes they have not triggered themselves. Those traits were also prominent in the reaction in the West to “the explosion of Catholicism” that followed the abolition of Communist restrictions in the 1990s. Some commentators worried that Poland would become a confessional state. Ironically, among those concerned about the influence of Polish Catholicism were people from countries where arrangements similar to those adopted in Poland (for instance, noncompulsory religious education in public schools) had been functioning for decades.

The loud patriotism of current Polish politics may be a reaction to several years of adjustments that were required before the Poles could enter the EU and NATO. A long period of copying alien political models can often fuel a patriotic backlash. No nation wants to be a parrot. Membership in NATO and the EU has long been a strategic objective of Poland’s foreign policy. The Poles see their prospects for economic success as dependent on membership in the EU, and most link their hopes for Poland’s security with NATO and the United States. Most feel sympathetic toward America, remembering the assistance offered to them in the Reagan era. But sympathy and gratitude cannot be taken for granted. Reciprocal respect needs to be shown. (The current, stringent American visa policy seems to be a test of that respect.) Sandwiched between great powers, historically the target of partition and occupation, Poles become nervous when arrangements are made over their heads. To some extent, the relative popularity of the Law and Justice Party reflects these concerns.

It is the West’s unfamiliarity with Polish history and culture that deserves a longer comment, however. Generally, Poland is perceived as an ethnically and religiously homogenous state. But this perception does not fit the history of the country. One has to see the origins of modern Poland in a Central European context. The Jagiellonian royal dynasty, originating in Lithuania during the Middle Ages, reigned over a territory that includes today’s Baltic countries and parts of Russia and Hungary, as well as Poland, and ultimately sponsored the Polish-Lithuanian Union of the sixteenth century. The political system in that state was democratic, with constitutionally safeguarded rights for the nobility who made up 12 to 20 percent of the country’s population. Owing to the country’s multiethnic and multiconfessional structure, tolerance was a sine qua non of its survival, and its cities resembled the modern multicultural metropolises of the West. This tolerant cosmopolitanism informed such deliberative bodies as the Council of Constance (1415), where the rector of the Cracow Academy demanded that the Teutonic Order abandon its methods of converting pagans with sword and fire, and the Warsaw Confederation of 1573, which safeguarded equal rights to all citizens regardless of their nationality and religion.

A characteristic Polish trait is the longing for freedom and the readiness to pay a high price for it, eloquently illustrated by a series of uprisings over the generations. (The best known is the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. During the sixty-three days of insurgency, two hundred thousand citizens of Warsaw were killed.) What makes the Polish conception of freedom different from the liberal individualism of the West is its collective character. The term Rzeczpospolita, like the old-English “commonwealth,” is a precise rendition of the Latin term res publica, the community of free citizens. Over the course of Poland’s perplexed history, “freedom” has always been associated with the national fight for independence. Preservation of national identity was seen in terms of passing down a heritage carefully protected in the memory of parents, relatives, and friends. Individual freedom, in other words, was always gained collectively, in a community. This tradition was particularly visible at the birth of the Solidarity movement in 1980. It also reverberated in the days following the death of Pope John Paul II.

In his recent manifesto, Demokracja peryferii (“Democracy of the Peripheries”), Zdzislaw Krasnod?ebski, a visiting professor of international affairs at Columbia, asserts that the Polish tradition is republican, not liberal. While both political outlooks agree that “the state’s primary object should be to maintain and preserve freedom of individual citizens,” their conceptions of freedom differ. “Under republican tradition,” Krasnode?bski writes, “freedom is more than a negative freedom, that is, noninterference from the outside. It is an independence from alien rule which enslaves even without interfering with the subject’s individual freedoms.” In other words, before individuals can enjoy genuine freedom, the whole country must gain liberty as a free res publica. Without public and civic liberty, there is no private freedom and hence no freedom in individual life. Therefore, in speaking about the Polish longing for freedom, one should use the term liberty (derived from the Latin libertas) rather than freedom.

The Polish nation itself-contradicting the conventional dichotomy between political entities and ethnic communities that prevails in Western textbooks-is primarily perceived as a cultural community open to people from different ethnic communities. John Paul II advocated such a concept of the nation. “A nation exists ‘out of culture’ and ‘for culture,’’’ he said in a 1980 address to UNESCO. “I am a son of a nation that went through the most trying experiences in history, a nation many times condemned to death by its neighbors who yet stayed alive and remained itself. It maintained its identity and preserved its sovereignty amidst partitions and occupation as a nation, and not resorting to any other means of physical power, but based on its own culture which proved to be stronger than those powers.” As noted, the culture on which the existence of the nation depends is passed on to posterity in the family circle. A nation is not understood as a community of individuals established by a social contract. It is a natural community composed of families. Such a concept has much in common with Western communitarianism. Indeed, the present Western interest in rethinking the importance of community may well indicate the influence of Polish developments from the late 1970s and the 1980s.

This cultural concept of a nation resists the political temptation of xenophobic nationalism. Sandwiched between the great powers of Germany and Russia, Central Europe is a zone inhabited by smaller nations accustomed to living under a continuous state of threat, nations whose existence can be called into question at any time. The English, French, Germans, or Russians do not ask themselves whether their nation is going to survive. Their national anthems speak of greatness and eternity, whereas the Polish national anthem begins with the words “Poland is not yet dead.” The small nations of Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland in the last two centuries, are mistrustful of history, having seen it mostly through the eyes not of victors but of victims. Most often, such nations dream not about new conquests but about their own survival.

Among European countries, Poland is unusual in another way: its history is largely free of fratricidal religious wars. It would be hard to overestimate the social significance of the Catholic Church in Poland over recent centuries-the only institution able to represent the Polish people during partitions, the German occupation of World War II, and the subsequent subordination to the Soviet empire. How high a price has the church paid for assuming this role? Suffice it to say that in the wake of the crushed uprising of 1863, all convents and monasteries were abolished in the Russian partition zone. Or that one-third of all clergy died a martyr’s death under the Nazi occupation. Or that church property was seized, the Primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski imprisoned, and Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko murdered. Almost one hundred Polish clergymen were slain under communism.

The presence of religion in public life is much stronger in Poland than in other European countries. Stigmatized with religious conflicts of the past, religion in France is treated with suspicion as a potential threat to individual freedom and public peace, and it remains under close supervision. In Poland, by contrast, religion is associated with freedom and the peaceful resolution of conflicts-a productive fusion of religion and politics that the world viewed with admiration when Solidarity was born. In some European countries, such as Germany, religion remains present in public life through institutionalized relations between the state and the churches. In Poland, it is not legal safeguards but rather social expectations that ensure religion’s impact on public life. These expectations are high. And yet, while people expect that the representatives of the Catholic Church will participate in the public discourse, they do not give their public consent to any excessive institutional assertion of the church’s power. There is an allergic reaction to any abuse of religion in the world of politics.

Some wonder how the Polish church will fare after the fall of communism. Will it avoid a rapid decline in priestly and monastic vocations? Will its voice still bear on the public discourse, its churches still attract the faithful? Or is the Catholic Church in Poland destined to experience changes like those that swept through Western Europe in the 1970s and ’80s? Confidence in the Polish church may be affected by the revelation that many priests collaborated with Communist special forces (perhaps 10 percent of the whole clergy), or by the more liberal attitudes of young people regarding sexual morality, the increasing number of divorces, or a substantial fall in the number of births. The wave of job migration after 2004-within a year and a half, approximately 1.5 million people left Poland-may deplete congregations.

Still, there are grounds for optimism. José Casanova, author of Public Religions in the Modern World, observes that Europeans tend to view developments on their continent as the natural unfolding of modernity itself; the notion that secularization and the decline of religion follow spontaneously from modernization is accepted without criticism in Europe, but a global perspective suggests other possibilities. It is conceivable that Poland will not follow the same path of change as, say, France, but instead come to resemble America, a far more robustly religious society. Indeed, evidence so far would seem to support the notion that the intensity of Polish religious practice remains undiminished. In the seventeen years since the onset of the Polish transformation, the number of priestly vocations has remained stable. And currently the country is experiencing a conservative conversion which surfaced after the death of John Paul II. Large numbers of people of all ages and from all walks of life now identify with “the JP2 generation.” This conversion was still reverberating in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2005 and is also felt in individual political initiatives, including the attempt to add a provision to the Polish Constitution protecting human life from the moment of conception.

Will the JP2 effect mark a permanent change in the country’s social and political life? Even if it doesn’t, it is fair to say that the special integration of religion and national life in Poland is different from that found in other communities in Western Europe, where secularization seems to confine religion to the private domain. The preeminent role played by faith and the church, tempered by a tradition of tolerance, may constitute a Polish model for other countries interested in restoring religion to the public square.

Published in the 2007-01-12 issue: 

Piotr Mazurkiewicz, director of the Institute of Political Science at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University, is the author of The Catholic Church on the Eve of the Polish Accession to the EU, among other books.

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