Victims of Their Own Making

September 29, 2009

The Victim Complex

The Victim Complex

For a number of years now there has been a growing trend within right-wing Polish politics which is particularly perplexing. Right-wing politics is often equated with patriotic and nationalist sentiments, glorifying past (and present) achievements as well as demonstrating the greatness of one’s nation. However, attitudes within right-wing (and liberal) circles in Poland seem to be advocating a different approach. This approach reached its apex when Law and Justice (PiS) came to power in 2005.

Christ Nation

The Christ Nation

Together with the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR) and populist Self-Defence (Samoobrona), this approach became entrenched and particularly visible in Polish foreign policy during the PiS years. Polish politics (heavily influenced by the Catholic church at the time) embraced an almost ‘Christic’ and/or ‘martyrological’ approach to their own history. Poland was seen by these politicians to be both the saviour and martyr of Europe, the ‘Christ’ of European nations.

The German Invasion

The German Invasion

When arguing for Poland’s God-given right to have more votes in the EU’s then new system of voting, one of the Kaczyński brothers said that had it not been for World War II, Poland’s population would be greater and so they deserve more votes in the EU. This attitude continued throughout their term in office and continues today. Certain politicians feel Poland ‘deserves’ more because it suffered so much. This attitude of Poland being the ‘eternal victim’ is extremely dangerous for a number of reasons.

The Destruction of Self

The Destruction of Self

Firstly, with it comes a large whiff of misplaced arrogance which, to the outside world, is particularly irritating when the only arguments that can be heard coming from the Polish camp are that Poland deserves more because it had to live though both Nazism and Communism. Secondly, when such a victim complex becomes entrenched its proponents begin to genuinely believe it. So much so that extolling the virtues of being a victim turns into a form of flagellation or even historical and political self-mutilation.

The New History

The New History

Recently, there has been much talk about historical revisionism. Russia particularly has been found guilty of practising the re-writing of history. However, is Poland’s victim status also a form of revisionism? Believing that Poland is forever Europe’s martyr is useful as it absolves the nation of crimes previously committed, such as Jedwabne or Operation Wisła. How can the victim have ever been the tormentor?


The Creation of Genocide

September 14, 2009

Re-interpreting Mass Murder

The Great Rafał Lemkin

Rafał Lemkin (better known as Raphael Lemkin) was born in a country that did not exist. In 1900, the year of Lemkin’s birth, Poland had not yet regained its independence, yet Rafał Lemkin considered himself Polish. The village of Bezwodne (not too far from Grodno, now in Belarus), the birthplace of this great man, lay in what was then Imperial Russia. Being both Polish (with no Poland) and Jewish (with Anti-Semitism particularly strong in Imperial Russia), Lemkin knew exactly what it meant to be  part of an ostracised minority. He knew what it meant to be different. He was therefore also acutely aware of the importance and value of freedom.

NY Times Reports... (1915)

NY Times Reports... (1915)

Rafał Lemkin studied linguistics at the Jan Kazimierz University of Lwów. While at Lwów, he became interested and then began researching the Armenian massacre at the hands of the Turks in 1915-1916. He was later to continue his research into similar massacres of this kind with work on the Simele massacre in which the Iraqi government ordered the murder and forced exile of the Assyrians in 1933. Lemkin, through his research, became interested in crime and justice and, through his grounding in linguistics, was disturbed by the lack of definitions of various crimes, particularly those perpetrated by the Turks and the Iraqis.

Nuremberg Trials

Nuremberg Trials

When Hilter began his rampage through Poland killing Jews, Poles and many others in the Nazi death camps, Lemkin saw that the mistakes and atrocities of the past perpetrated on the Armenians and Assyrians were coming back to haunt humanity and in particular him – he was both Jewish and Polish. He felt the need to define these atrocities from a criminal (and linguistic) point of view. In 1943 Lemkin coined the word genocide from the Greek genos (tribe, race) and the Latin –cide (killing) to describe what Hitler and the Nazis were doing. Lemkin’s definition of genocide became a part of international law and one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials against Nazi war criminals.

Katyń - War Crime or Genocide?

Katyń - War Crime or Genocide?

In his own words, Lemkin said, “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group… Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor”. The word “genocide” has been in the news in recent weeks. Many Polish politicians declare the Katyń massacre of 1940 by the Soviets on Polish military officers and intellectuals to be genocide. The Russians, of course, do not agree. Several days ago, the Deputy Speaker of the House Stefan Niesiołowski hit the headlines by stating that Katyń was a war crime, not genocide.

Legacy of Katyń

Legacy of Katyń

This comment has not only outraged members of the opposition, particularly Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jarosław Kaczyński, but also members of Niesiołowski’s own party Civic Platform (PO). Kaczyński claims that Niesiołowski has gone too far and is being disloyal to his country. The Polish parlimanent wishes to pass a resolution this week regarding the atrocities of WWII. The PiS resolution talks about genocide, rape, murder perpertrated on the Polish nation by two totalitarian governments. PO prefers a milder resolution. However, the question of whether Katyń is “genocide” (as Lemkin defined it) or not still seems unresolved.


When East Becomes West

July 27, 2009

The Heart of Europe

The Heart of Europe

Are we witnessing a gradual westward cultural shift in Europe? Are we facing a post-modern crisis where identities increasingly overlap and blur? Is the definition of Western Europe the same now as it was in 1945?

Mitteleuropa Revisited
An even trickier question is what (or where) is Central Europe? The geographical centre of Europe (not the European Union) is laid claim to by at least five towns, all of which lie in what is conventionally not thought of as Western Europe, but rather Eastern Europe. These towns are: Purnuškės, Lithuania; Polotsk, Belarus; Suchowola, Poland; Rakhiv, Ukraine; and Krahule, Slovakia. Interestingly, these places form an area partly overlapping Poland’s semi-mythical Kresy (more info here). If this is the case then our definitions of Central Europe need to be redefined. Central Europe is Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Slovakia, and perhaps also Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. To the west of this area, Western Europe begins: Germany, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. However, as we are all aware, calling Serbia a part of Western Europe is odd. There is more to west and east than points on a compass.

Neither East Nor West

Neither East Nor West

Europe Redefined
The chief problem with defining what is central, east and west is our notions of these terms and the connotations they all carry. Most people think of Western Europe as the UK, France, Germany, Benelux, Spain and Italy. But what about Greece? What of Finland? Most of the territory of Poland, all of the Czech Republic, and the afore-mentioned Serbia lie in Europe’s western half yet most Europeans would not call them ‘western’.

Culture Remade
Most recently, communism helped delimit Europe into two halves but with communism gone it can be argued that Europe has shifted west. Russians often claim Poles are westernised traitors to the Slav cause. Poles and Slovaks believe Czechs are no more than Germans speaking a Slavonic language. Perspective is key to our interpretation of east and west. We cannot deny the fact that ‘western’ culture (whatever that means) has permeated the new EU states. Popular urban culture is something familiar to people both in Warsaw and Walsall; you can get a Starbucks in Bucharest and Buckingham, a Big Mac in Bratislava and Bradford and a Burger King Whopper in Burgas and Burnley. The so-called ‘eastern’ countries have increasingly more in common with the ‘western’ ones to such an extent that any discussion of Eastern and Western Europe is little more than academic. So where is this mythical West?


Who actually Won the War?

May 27, 2009

GERMAN Nazis

GERMAN Nazis

The events of the last few days have led me to ask the question: “Who actually won World War II?” Noises from the political elite in Germany and an even greater hoohah in Poland have got me thinking about two issues: (1) the necessity for Germany to feel responsible for the Holocaust and the slaughter of so many innocent lives in World War II, and (2) the growing rise of negationism, or rather historical relativism.

German Revisionism
The surprising news that has come out of Germany is that the two political powerhouses, the CDU and CSU, have called for the European Parliament to back a decision to condemn all forms of forced
repatriation. Without such a joint EU declaration, Germany has intimated that it will not agree to further expansion of the European Union. This is all well and good and indeed forced repatriating should be condemned but this issue deflects away from the causes of the last forced exodus in Europe. As we all know, the forced repatriation of millions of European citizens was a direct result of the Nazi attack on Poland in 1945. The CDU and CSU have also added that all laws and rights violated through repatriation need to be reversed. This appears to be a call to give compensation to those Germans who were forced out of Poland after the war, a war the Germans began!

Polish Oversensitiveness
This has caused an almighty explosion of outrage in Poland. The first to respond to Germany’s call was Jarosław Kaczyński who has called upon PM Donald Tusk for his Civic Platform (PO) to leave the the European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) political group, the group to which both PO and the CDU and CSU belong in a mark of protest against this German revisionism. He has also called the PO “weak” in the face of German brute force and expansionism. Germany has also stated that it wishes the German language to be stronger within the EU. There’s no getting away from the fact that Jarosław Kaczyński made these statements for political gain but he’s not all that wrong about Germany trying to deflect away from the cause of Europe’s most recent forced bout of repatriations.

European Problems
Yes, Poland is oversensitive. But wouldn’t you be a little touchy if you had experienced what the inhabitants of Poland experienced during the war. Not only was Poland’s Jewish population wiped out but its other citizens also faced humiliation, torture and death at the hands of the German Nazis. Any calls for a re-evaluation of the facts will unsurprisingly cause a stir. Two things need to happen for Europe to take a good look at itself and grow up. Firstly, not only Germany and Poland but ALL of the EU’s member states need to sit down and talk, not only at the ministerial level but at the level of local communities to see how these issues still affect us all today. Secondly, Europe needs to learn the true meaning of solidarity and the meaning of ‘being European’, whatever that means.


Pole Running for Lithuanian Presidency

May 15, 2009

Pole or Lithuanian?

Pole or Lithuanian?

In a bizarre twist of political fate and for the first time ever in the history of a free Lithuania, a Lithuanian citizen of Polish descent is running for the office of President of the Republic of Lithuania. Valdemar Tomaševski (better known as Waldemar Tomaszewski), will audaciously be trying to convince Lithuanians that he is the right man for Lithuania’s top job. Audacious because, not only is Tomaszewski openly pro-Polish (he is head of the minority party Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (AWPL)) but he holds a Polish Card which is an official document issued by the Polish authorities to foreign nationals confirming their ‘connection’ to Poland.

Tomaszewski or Tomaševski
Not only is Tomaszewski’s political nous being questioned but also the formal requirements for him to be allowed to be a presidential candidate. Several Lithuanian parliamentarians have questioned his loyalty to Lithuania due to the fact that he possesses the afore-mentioned Polish Card and the fact that he represents a minority ethnic group within the country. This issue was so controversial that it was put to Lithuania’s Central Election Committee who, in the end, decided, nine votes to four, that Tomaszewski/Tomaševski can be a presidential candidate.

Unity or Division
Although Tomaszewski/Tomaševski stands no chance of winning Lithuania’s presidential elections (which begin on May 17th), he has once again touched upon the problem of identity in an ever-homogeneous European Union. What is the definition of nationality? Tomaszewski/Tomaševski holds a Lithuanian passport but he also holds a Polish Card and is of Polish descent. He speaks Polish and has a Polish name. Perhaps, the way forward is to accept these differences and use the distinction that is often used in Poland, that of obywatelstwo and narodowość (citizenship and nationality/ethnicity). Vive la différence?


Right-Wing Strikes Back

April 18, 2009

Eating Cake

Eating Pie?

PiS head Jarosław Kaczyński has announced that the European Parliament will bear witness to a revolutionary change following the upcoming European elections. During a meeting of the party’s political council, the Law and Justice (PiS) leader announced that it had been decided that PiS will take part in a  project to create a new conservative grouping in the European Parliament.

MEPs Unite
Jarosław Kaczyński announced that MEPs of Law and Justice will be joined by Czech and British conservative MEPs to create this new right-wing organisation. The conservative group will come into being after the June elections to the European Parliament. Is this the start of something new? Of a change in national and European politics? Will we witness a shift to the right in some sections of the Euro-parliament? Does it matter?

Defenders Defend
The Law and Justice leader believes that in order to defend the national interests of one’s country within the EU, politicians need to be independent and be free of any outside pressure. He feels that the creation of a new conservative group will give these ‘defenders of national interests’ this much-needed independence. He also believes that this new group will not only be a significant player in Brussels but will be also keep a beady eye on what MEPs are really doing.

Eurosceptics Divide
Eurosceptics can perhaps be put into two groups. Those that will do anything to stop Brussels having a greater say in local matters and block any erosion of sovereignty, and those that will do anything to get as greater slice of the European pie as is possible. In Poland, the greatest Eurosceptics were members of Andrzej Lepper’s Self-Defence, who appeared to belong to the first group but once in power magically turned into the second. We all know that PiS advocates Euroscepticism; the question is whether this party (and the new conservative grouping) will advocate the first or second kind of Euroscepticism.


Round Table Anniversary

February 6, 2009

Mazowiecki, Kuroń, Wałęsa, Kwaśniewski...

Foreground (l-r): Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Lech Wałęsa. Background (l-r): Kuroń, Geremek, Kwaśniewski.

Today is a wonderful day. The 6th February 2009 is the 20th anniversary of one of the most important moments in European history. On the 6th February 1989, twenty years ago, the so-called ‘Round Table’ talks kicked off in Warsaw and so began the dismantling of the totalitarian regime in Poland.

Good vs. Evil
The Round Table talks were pretty amazing as they saw the communist government invite representatives of Solidarity (the anti-government, anti-communist, pro-democratic semi-legal opposition) as well as members of the Catholic Church (sworn enemies of communism) to the table in order to discuss the future. The very fact that all of these people were able, and wanted, to sit down and together discuss the future of their country was unprecedented on a European, and perhaps even global, scale.

Forces of Good
The members of the Solidarity opposition who sat at the Round Table (and in later years became key figures in Polish politics) included: Lech Wałęsa (leader of Solidarity), Bronisław Geremek (chief consultant to Lech Wałęsa), Tadeusz Mazowiecki (editor-in-chief of the weekly Solidarność), Jacek Kuroń (Solidarity advisor and founder of the Workers’ Defence Committee), Adam Michnik (Solidarity advisor and Workers’ Defence Committee member) and Lech Kaczyński (Solidarity advisor).

Forces of Evil
The governmental side at the Round Table included: General Czesław Kiszczak (member of the Politbiuro and Minister of Internal Affairs), Leszek Miller (member of the Central Committee of the Party) and Aleksander Kwaśniewski (Minister for Young People).  The infamous General Kiszczak is said to have played a fundamentally positive role in the talks. Leszek Miller and Aleksander Kwaśniewski, perhaps not huge players at the time, were set for dazzling careers in Polish politics in the years to come.

Wałęsa at the Table

Wałęsa at the Table

Repercussions
The talks were pivotal in the fact that they saw the bitterest of enemies sit down and constructively discuss the future of a nation on the brink of economic and social collapse. As a result, Solidarity gained a tangible foothold in Eastern European politics and led to the disintegration of communism throughout Europe. The Round Table not only began the erosion of communism within Europe, but the participants (including the much-maligned communists) actively worked towards the dismantling of a totalitarian regime that they realised no longer had a future.

Round Table Careers
The political legacy of the talks can still be felt today. Beginning with the Solidarity side, Lech Wałęsa went on to become President of Poland, Bronisław Geremek was Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tadeusz Mazowiecki was Poland’s first post-war democratically-elected Prime Minister, Jacek Kuroń became Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Adam Michnik founded Poland’s first post-war free newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and Lech Kaczyński is currently President of Poland. As for the communists, Leszek Miller became Polish Prime Minster whereas Aleksander Kwaśniewski was President of Poland. Three Presidents, two Prime Ministers and a host of ministers is quite a legacy.