Poland, Independence and the National Psyche

This article is based on generalisations and observations and therefore doesn’t apply across the board, however the author maintains that it largely represents a truthful perspective.  Although not the focus of this article Polish people have a lot of positive qualities too.

As the rest of the world commemorated the centenary of the end of World War I on 11th November 2018 another significant centenary was celebrated in a quiet corner of Europe.  The 11th November 2018 also marked 100 years since the re-emergence of Poland as a central European country 123 years since its disappearance.  This was also recognised elsewhere through the projection of the Polish flag on international landmarks (see images – courtesy of Facebook).

Polish Independence Day has become a controversial and frequently confrontational event in recent years.  Polish nationalists, egged on by populist politicians have hijacked celebrations and slogans like ‘Poland for Polish People’ and fighting has become a hallmark of the day, particularly in Warsaw.

However, before trying to understand how this has happened, it is important to provide some essential background that will also offer some keys to understanding Polish thinking.

Let’s start with this.

Polish people are often considered to be stubborn and proud and find it difficult to trust.  It is not uncommon to come across an attitude of ‘I will trust once it has been earned’.

This is contrary to how most people usually behave, as on the whole people trust until it is betrayed.  This trust is not a naïve blind faith, but can be considered in a similar way to a financial transaction.  I would happily lend an acquaintance £10-00, but think twice if I wasn’t paid back, but I would hesitate to lend the same person £100-00 until they established a track record.  All relationships start with a bit of trust, that grows incrementally as the relationship develops.  Can you imagine starting a romantic relationship with an attitude of ‘I will trust my partner once it is earned!’

Poles are fighters who will unite against a common enemy, but in the absence of such an adversary they will often turn on each other.  Although disappearing to some extent now, Polish people were often suspicious of others and success was considered only to be the result of corruption, criminality or some kind of unfair favour; the right connections or money.

Somebody once said to me, ‘Polish people are okay, once you accept they are basically rude’.  This may seem unfair but it is often borne out in real life.  At the risk of being unintentionally offensive, to generalise (and remember this is not in all cases – nor is it a purely Polish thing) Polish people seem to have a lack of awareness of others and a blinkered view that is focussed only on what they want.  Being walked into, or pushed aside by a supermarket trolley is not an uncommon occurrence nor is the incredulity that accompanies any challenge to any behaviours that demonstrate this lack of a wider awareness.

While this seems to be very biased and painting an unfair view of Polish people it is true enough to require greater understanding.  To do this we must understand something of how modern Poland came about.

Poland was reborn out of national trauma.  The 1795 partition of Poland had resulted in it disappearing completely from the map.  Consequently when World War I broke out in 1914 Polish soldiers found themselves fighting on both sides – some with Russia and others with Germany and Austria.  The interwar period saw Poland struggle to establish its national identity, and in doing so it bloodied Russia’s nose with an outstanding defeat and a moment of deliverance which is widely known as the Miracle on the Vistula.  Then just as the fledgling nation began to find its feet, its father, the hero Marshall Pilsudski, died.

In 1939 Poland was overrun initially by the German invasion and then finished off by the Russian attack on the east that destroyed any last hope of Polish survival.  In terms of percentages no country suffered more than Poland during World War II and in particular Warsaw suffered the consequences of two failed uprisings and the ensuing reprisals that left the city essentially destroyed and depopulated.

Poland then was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army and a Communist regime, tightly controlled by Moscow, was installed.  This regime remained in place until the winds of change swept through Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Communist Bloc collapsed like a house of cards.

So now let’s re-examine the Polish national and individual psyche in the light of this understanding.

Is it possible that Polish people have a problem with trust because historically they have been trapped in a vice by their neighbours?  Neither Russia nor Germany showed any regard to Poland or Polish self-determination.  Hitler actively sought to destroy Versailles which among other things re-established Poland and Russia was still smarting from its bloody nose in 1920.  Russia more or less reinvaded territories it lost during the 1920 campaign and never returned them – even to this day!  Even the partition of 1795 saw Prussia, Russia and the Hapsburg Empire cut up Poland with as much consideration as you would give to sharing a cake.

The Communist era would only have added to this breakdown of trust.  In non-totalitarian circumstances neighbours build (or don’t build) relationships with each other based on individual circumstances and there is freedom to build friendships or have disputes however it may be.

The Communist regime attacked the fabric of Polish society in two ways.  Firstly people were encouraged to watch their neighbours and the Milicja (the Polish Secret Police answerable to Moscow) were ever present.  How much informing went on, the author cannot comment on, but the risk of informing made people suspicious and unable to form normalised relationships.  Secondly the very nature of Communism that in reality meant some people were more equal than others meant that any success had to have come about as a result of ‘being in bed with the Communists’ or being part of the underground criminal fraternity– hence connections with success and corruption.

One of the great ironies of World War II is that Britain declared war on Germany in order to save Poland, but in the end Poland contributed greatly to saving Britain!  The truth is that nobody helped Poland in 1939 or provided any meaningful help in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.  No wonder Poland (and Polish people) have trust issues!  Yet Poland contributed significantly to the RAF, most notably in the Battle of Britain and their troops bravery is still a matter of national pride with the outstanding victory at Monte Cassino.

And what about this lack of awareness of others?  Maybe this is not so much a lack of awareness, rather it is a very focussed self-awareness.  In other words ‘I will concentrate on what I need and that is my only concern.’  The older generation are at times the strongest example of such behaviours.  Imagine living in Poland – and particularly in Warsaw – during 1939-1945.  This was probably almost the worst place to live in the world during this time and if you were a teenager or a young mother at the time and went out to get bread jostling and fighting was the only way to ensure getting food to put on the table.  We would all agree that our immediate families come above others.

It is hard to change ingrained habits once established and when the war finished and the fight for necessities came to an end (bear in mind Communist era shortages too) the need to be combative didn’t.

Logically, Poland would seem to be the last place in the world for fascist views to emerge (remember Poland’s suffering).  However, there is little wonder that the far right in Poland use it as an opportunity to assert Polish self-dependence and national pride because they feel like they are standing up for Poland because no one else will.  Independence Day in particular provides such a platform.  While the author fundamentally disagrees with this nationalist stance it has come about as a result of the cauldron of national and personal experience that has defined Poland over the last 100 years. Stoked by politicians who are using nationalism for their own political gains (again sadly there is nothing unusual in this in the present day – consider both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin) many of these people are unwitting pawns in a bigger game.

So to understand Poland and its people it is the author’s view that the individual psyche of many has been marked by the trauma of the nation.  We are all the product of our experience and this is reflected both on an individual level and national level.

© Richard Horton, Omega Support Services 2018