By Leszek Jazdzewski, Europe’s Futures Alumnus,
13 August 2020
Milan Kundera in his seminal essay „Tragedy of Central Europe” wrote: By virtue of its political
system, Central Europe is the East by virtue of its cultural history, it is the West. But since Europe
itself is in the process of losing its own cultural identity, it perceives in Central Europe nothing but a
political regime, put another way it sees in Central Europe only Eastern Europe. (…)
Central Europe therefore, should fight not only against its big oppressive neighbour but also
against the subtle, relentless pressure of time, which is leaving the era of culture in its wake. That
is why in Central European revolts there is something conservative, nearly anachronistic: they are
desperately trying to restore the past, the past of culture, the past of the modern era. It is only in
that period, only in a world that maintains a cultural dimension, that Central Europe can still defend
its identity, still be seen for what it is.
Elitist Kundera’s vision of culture and its role in the communist Central Europe may be, but there is
certainly still more than just a grain of truth in the observation, that from the western perspective a
journey into Central Europe could be in fact, a task for the cultural palaeontologist.
Historical obligation is the flesh and blood of the bond that holds together the nation. Nation might
be an imagined community (Anderson) but it is more real than any state institution or other (class,
race, gender and so on) distinctions. It is more real because a lot of sense-creation was invested in
it. Myth-making activities almost solely concentrate on the imagined past of the nation that didn’t
necessarily existed at the time.
The Treason. The Uneven Fight. The Brave. The Tolerant. The Defenders of the Faith. All these
scripts are written through the surprisingly anachronistic education, resembling XIX century school
not just in the form but also in the forming - of young minds. The music is written, it is a question
who can play tunes right. For a foreign observer the level of nationalism in Poland could be quite
stunning, also among seemingly liberal, cosmopolitan middle-class. The late-night discussions
about 1939 and what the country could do between Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union
could last forever, even among the young, the third generation after the War.
Marcin Napiórkowski in the „Turbopatriotyzm” shows how the past functions as a validation for the
present. Because the so called „cursed soldiers” (żołnierze wyklęci) fought a desperate
underground fight against the communist occupation after 1944/45, government’s fight against the
„post-communist courts” is well justified. No matter that just 10% of active judges started their
careers before 1989, and none of them in the supreme court - it is the myth that one is evoking for
the justification of the action here and now.
Communist propaganda effectively discredited any class language, to the extent that the left never
really made a splash in Poland after 1989, with the pragmatic post-communists dominating this
flank, until 2005 when the support for them collapsed. The anti-capitalist rebellion was effectively
staunched by the corset of neoliberal notion of economy being best left outside the hands of the
politicians, shared by almost all the members of the political and media elite, at least until
2007/2008 crisis. At the same time, the transition mostly touched upon the framework - the law, the
economics, the rules - not the subject of the transition (the nation itself and its self-perception) and
its inner motivations. The technocratic language of the 1990s and early 2000s seemed particularly
mismatched when it came to the analysis of cultural complexes. The whole body of the Polish
national cannon seems in a way to compensate, elevate and even sanctify the victimhood to the
levels in which only national tragedies seem to strike a right note when it comes to unify and
mobilise the nation around a common cause. The mourning.
The mirror that nation holds for itself to see has been broken. At least from the perspective of „the
modern” the term „politics of history” (polityka historyczna) - meaning simply how the state and its
representatives decide to approach the history, what kind of activities, initiatives, museums and so
on it supports - was an anathema. The mainstream left the myth-making to the right. And their
used their time well. Today, historical supplements are offered with almost every significant journal
and newspaper, books about „the women of the resistance” or the „birth of Polish state” are filling
the shelves of the bookshops. Individualism of the transition called for emancipatory stories: about
the Jews and the untold history of their pogroms during the German occupation and after the
liberation by the Red Army. Stories of the intellectuals that after „the Hegelian bite” (Czeslaw
Milosz’s expression for those who believed in communism) converted to actively support the
opposition. They weren’t stories that could connect - and allow to identify - the wider public to its
own past. Quite the opposite. The past was to be disenchanted.
The fact that the nation is a group built upon the shared illusions (lies, some would say) of the
common history led to the impossible task of getting rid of those illusions once and for all. Where it
is only this history that bounds people together such an effort could not succeed. Exorcising
potentially precarious national spirit from the soul of the young Polish democracy by well-meaning
pro-Westerners backfired when the linear goal of the transition - anchoring the country in the
Occident and its institutions - was achieved.
When the present is validated by the perceived compliance with the imagined past, the stronger
myth wins. Since the very beginning the right-wing dominated the internet, for the lack of almost
any traditional media, which occurred to be the most profitable political investment of the last 30
years. Niche publications spread like a bushfire once the distribution powers of the social media
were employed. Conspiracy theories, personal attacks, discoveries of wrong (communist related)
ancestors, „real” histories of secret police involved with the former president plagiarised from the
famous thrillers (true story). Once the gloves are off, no tool is ill-suited to smack the enemy in the
Calling upon the myth of „cursed soldiers” makes perfect sense to discredit the reality in which one
competes for power as a „road to serfdom”, a kind of post-communist Matrix, where secret
connections explain everything: from making fortunes in 1989/1990 to collapse of the socialist
economy and its elephantine plants and most importantly, serve as a psychological relief to those
who can ascribe their real or imagined failures to nepotism and unscrupulousness of their fellow
citizens. Liberalism with the individual story of success, with gains and punishments for one’s own
actions, could not provide a remedy of even comparable power.
Photo credits: @Agencia Gazeta and wyborcza.pl
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of ‘Europe’s Futures
Ideas for Action’ project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).