top of page

Why are we afraid of our history?

Szymon Olejniczak, University College London

The ideological void created by the collapse of communism laid foundations for the rebirth of national mythology in Central and Eastern Europe. National narcissism has affected almost all countries in the region. Historical narratives became dominated by the beautiful stories of national grandeur and uniqueness. The society, confused by the political and economic instability, eagerly listened.


Until 2015, it might have seemed that Poland remained free of this phenomenon. However, just like the current conservative government, the former ‘liberal’ authorities specialised in the politics of memory. For the past 30 years, step by step, the romantic vision of Polish history was being restored; the mainstream returned to the rhetoric of the ‘Messiah among the nations’, suffering for the sins of the ‘vicious others.’ Realism and objectivity have passed into oblivion. Enough to say that when in 2013 German Generation War was entering the cinemas, the controversial scene of Home Army soldiers leaving Jews for certain death in the transportation wagons made Poland's largest daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza publish a review under the title ‘Who can explain to the Germans that the Home Army was not the SS?’ The three-minute ‘outrage’ managed to bring together the leaders of all political fractions. It seemed as if a levée en masse was called in order to prevent the affront from causing the Eagle’s crown from falling. Liberals occupied with renouncing reality about transformations and praising privatisation, conservatives who were fiercely defending the clergy from their victims and nationalists who did not stop looking for treason in Magdalenka all stood up for the national pride and asserted that the scene is nothing but lies.


Clearly, the multinational approach, aiming at collation of different perspectives is not experiencing a renaissance. Attempts to reverse the trend, albeit presumably ineffective, were made. This year we will witness a historic moment — the publication of a Polish-German history textbook. Hats off to the authors. However, knowing the Polish government’s love for tinkering with history and towards our western neighbours, the textbook might get magically lost in the bottomless pit of archives in the Ministry of National Education and find itself next to the likes of Tokarczuk and Tuwim.


Why are we so afraid of our own history that we renounce it?

National mythology and historical narratives are deeply intertwined with the concept of ontological security. In political studies, this term can be defined as the possession, on the level of the unconscious and practical consciousness, of answers to fundamental questions that all polities in some way need to address such as existence and their autobiography. Just like each person seeks a sense of order and continuity in regard to an individual's experiences, states do too. Thus, upholding myths of national prodigiousness and impeccability seems to be of utmost importance, when it comes to providing autobiographical continuity, a sense of routine, familiarity, and calm. Historical narratives give people a sense of belonging to a community, as via knowledge a priori they can identify with it.


Although one may think that it is impossible to escape the narrative straitjacket that the country has created itself, we can observe that political actors strategically activate some elements of the narrative, while deactivating others. On the one hand, the Polish People’s Republic was denounced by a law which reduced pensions of former employees of the ‘totalitarian state.’ On the other, a prosecutor from the time of martial law became a judge at the Constitutional Court. The historical narrative that 'they', the Communist Party members, are 'bad' and that 'we', the legacy of the Solidarity movement, are 'good' was evidently breached. This discrepancy is then masked with an elaborate explanation, that he was actually one of the 'good' ones, while in fact, he is just one of 'ours' or 'theirs'. The additional depth to the narrative justifies regime’s action and creates an idea of legitimacy, which is sought by every entity. The regime created a discourse, which aims at putting the blame for PRL’s cruelty on their 'collaborators', 'vicious others', nimbly separating them from the rest of the society. It allows the later to function and exist without experiencing the feeling of guilt.


Guilt and justification serve as a crucial ethical framework in the politics of memory. According to Andrzej Leder, the goal of all national identities is to offer an experience of pride and legitimacy to individual and collective entities, which blur the feeling of guilt. Essentially, the historical narrative allows for guilt negotiations. The scholar states that while the experience of guilt is so unbearable that it evokes hatred, anxiety and other destructive emotions, the experience of justification brings relief and pride. Thus, the objective of guilt negotiations is to give your own community a guarantee of righteousness and blame the others. As an example of guilt negotiations, Leder recalls the words of Polish Prime Minister who suggested in Auschwitz that German nationality is the source of their guilt and not the ideology of national socialism. Guilt negotiations explain why Jeremi Winsniowiecki’s impalements, Żeligowski's Mutiny, the massacres of Lviv in 1918, reporting Jews to Nazi authorities, omitting the role of women in national politics, not accepting refugees and harassment of LGBTQ+ community figure as almost forbidden topics. However, do they have to be? Isn’t there a different way of securing the country’s ontological security than via distorting history?


On July 10, 2001, during the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Jedwabne pogrom, the President of the Republic of Poland Aleksander Kwaśniewski, in the presence of the Israeli ambassador Szewach Weiss, officially, on behalf of himself and those Poles whose conscience is moved by that crime, apologised for it. Despite the fact that he violated Poland’s image of an unstained country, the eagle's crown has not fallen as only in possession of a realistic view of history, important decisions can be made. However, this sort of approach did not please the majority and since 2005 the sovereign advocates for bending historical truth to his comfort. While France accepts the blame for Vichy, Germany acknowledges the fact that Hitler had popular support and Spain does not hide Franco’s terror, Jakub Szela’s actions still remain a taboo. In the memory of the aforementioned states, these events are an experience which constitutes a part of their democratic identity.


Polish fear of looking into the abyss of the past should not come as a surprise. Today’s national identity is entirely based on erroneous stories about being victimised. It would not survive the clash with the truth about the actual course of the events. The guilt and shame would overwhelm. The only way to avoid being absorbed by them is to accept them. In order to do so, we would have to step out of our comfort zone, put aside our national pride, for once try to understand 'the other' and see beyond the tip of our own noses.

bottom of page