Being Normal in Poland

Tr@nsit Online

The article discusses the situation of religious and ethnic minorities in Poland in the light of post-1989 historiography and history dissemination. Drawing on Bronisław Geremek’s work on “marginality”, it illustrates the processes that make the bond between Polishness and Catholicism an expected norm and which, simultaneously, lead to the symbolic exclusion of non-ethnic Poles and non-Catholics from the national community. However, the article’s aim goes beyond recognizing the mechanisms of the reproduction of dominant discourses. Presenting a study of a multi-religious and multi-ethnic community in rural Poland, it argues that there are multiple ways in which local people challenge the “Pole-Catholic” norm, demonstrating the arbitrariness of the “taken-for-granted” and their own ways of “being a Pole”.

Beginning in the 1960s, “social history” gained recognition as a valuable methodological and analytical approach to history. Recognizing the necessity of enriching grand historical narratives with the perspective of ordinary people, social historians became interested in family life, labor and education; commenced exploring urban and rural areas; embraced new methods of data collection; and began to consider the relationship between historical experiences – as well as the ways of narrating those experiences – and the factors such as gender, class or ethnicity. Though not free of limitations and drawbacks, the approach has had a profound influence on the discipline, indicating new sources of historical data, new protagonists of historical narratives, and new bases for dialogue with other social sciences.

All these concerns were at the core of the scholarship of Bronislaw Geremek (1932-2008) – a Polish intellectual, politician and long-term supporter of the IWM. Geremek’s books The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris and Poverty. A History have been praised for thorough analyzes and the universality of the concerns discussed. Not only did he draw vivid pictures of life in medieval towns, but he asked some fundamental questions regarding the processes of societal marginalization and exclusion. Geremek’s work constitutes the best proof for the validity of his own claim that the study of the past and observation of the present need to be mutually enriching.

For Geremek, “marginals” are those people who are regarded as “of no use to anyone”. They may not be completely excluded from the society, yet they live – whether they wish it or not – by transgressing the established standards of social life. Thus, an individual or group is considered “marginal” if s/he or they appear “abnormal” to current authorities and society. As a result, people at the margins are stigmatized and blamed for their own failures. Geremek gives examples of this process by demonstrating how in history poverty has been intrinsically connected with moral weakness and wrong-doing. Crucially, identifying such phenomena meant much more to Geremek than providing new insights into the societal life. He would observe that history “is a history of the ‘divites’ and ‘potentes’” and that only those who were in power survive in documents. Hence, the task of historians is to give voice to all sorts of “forgotten” people. As he argued in his lectures at the Collège de France, if social history involves the study of exclusion, it must also mean the restoration of solidarity. For all these reasons, he strongly advocated adopting an anthropological perspective in historical studies and encouraging dialogue between the two disciplines.


With these remarks in mind, I would like to propose a reflection on how an anthropological study of a rural locality may illuminate some broader processes of history making.

Between 2008-2009, I carried out one year of fieldwork in a rural region of Southern Poland inhabited by seven religious communities (Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostals, Jehovah‘s Witnesses, Seven Day Adventists, Buddhists) and two ethnic groups, Poles and Lemko-Ukrainians. Historically, the region was inhabited by the East Slavic population of Rusyns (Ruthenians), who practiced Eastern Christianity. After the 19 th c. national movements, some of them came to identify themselves as Ukrainians, while others retained their Rusyn identity, and since the first decades of the 20 th c. the latter group was referred to as “Lemkos”. During the Second World War and its aftermath, the region was subject to ethnic cleansing, conflicts and resettlements, which today result in the persistence of divergent memories and debates over the region’s history. The connection between ethnic and religious identities – Roman Catholicism in the case of Poles, and Eastern Christianity (Greek Catholicism/Eastern Orthodoxy) in the case of the Lemkos-Ukrainians – is strongly emphasized despite the presence of numerous religious communities and the fact that both Poles and Lemko have members in all of the religious communities.

The social composition of the area makes it particularly heterogeneous within the mostly homogeneous Polish context (98% of Polish citizens self-identify as Poles and 95% declare the Catholic faith). Although Roman Catholics and Poles constitute the majority in the studied area, diversity is not only experienced on an everyday basis but both acknowledged and emphasized by the inhabitants. A majority of settlements are mixed and people of different creeds interact of everyday basis – as neighbors, friends, work- and schoolmates. At the same time, the Roman Catholic and Polish majority determines the particular shape of the local configuration of diversity. The best way to characterize this configuration is by inquiring into how different religious communities refer to themselves and to the other communities.

Before describing local ways of labeling others, I should emphasize that I spent – as most ethnographers do – most of my research engaging in conversations which ranged from formal recorded interviews and life stories to informal talks and gossip. Unsurprisingly, the issue of religious and ethnic diversity came up quite frequently. Local people would speak about diversity to demonstrate how special and unique their locality is; to present to me the complex history of the region; to describe to me the patterns and rules of interreligious coexistence; but also to complain of unequal treatment and uneven social relations. Hence, I quickly realized that there existed a certain hierarchy among religious communities and that this hierarchical order was changeable and highly contextual. For example, some people were laughed at for their “unusual” religious practices, yet at the same time were respected as honest and helpful co-inhabitants. The distance between different religious communities differed, enabling ecumenical practices in some cases and precluding them in others. Locals tended to confuse different creeds; they would present me with stories of Hindus and Muslims who apparently settled in the area or they would paint all non-Catholics with the same brush. First and foremost, however, there was a common trait in the description of Roman Catholics by other confessions, namely the fact that they were generally described as “normal”.

The notion of “normality” appeared in many different contexts, whether people spoke about their neighbors, places of worship, or religious teaching. For instance, non-Catholics would state that one of their neighbors is a Jehovah’s Witness and another one is “normal”; they would compare two churches, explaining me that one is Orthodox while the other is “normal”; or they would tell me that some children participate in additional religious classes (i.e., organized by their own congregation) and some attend only the “normal” ones. What followed after such comments was a discussion on what “normal” meant. My questions were usually received with surprise since my interlocutors considered it obvious what “normal” referred to. They would explain to me that to be “normal” means to be a Catholic Pole and that “it is normal to be Catholic in Poland”. And thus, the “normal” neighbor was a Catholic Pole and the “normal” church was described as “Catholic” or “Polish”. Some interlocutors would go further and ask: “What else can a Pole be if not a Catholic?” What is fundamental here is the fact that these were Poles – Polish Pentecostals, Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses – claiming that a “true”, a “good”, or simply a “normal” Pole, needs to be a Catholic, too. Similar comments were made by Lemkos-Ukrainians, who also stated the difficulty of recognizing themselves as “fully” Polish citizens.

Although over the course of my research I grew accustomed to these kinds of statements, it took me a while to understand their source. People’s observations on “normality” made me ask why non-Catholics, in describing Roman Catholic Poles as “normal”, situate themselves outside the “norm” and exclude themselves from the national community? Why do they take the connection between Polishness and Catholicism for granted, if they are the best evidence that a Pole does not need to be a Catholic? It is further problematic that these kinds of statements put into question many of the my observations of the everyday life of this multicultural community. As mentioned above, local people experience diversity on an daily basis and they are used to the fact that their co-inhabitants are people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Furthermore, despite the above mentioned (occasional) quarrels and disputes, both Catholics and non-Catholics value pluralism and state that what matters most is the “human being” and not his/her ethnic or religious identity. Last but not least, all of these people live in a democratic country the constitution of which guarantees equal rights to people of any religious or ethnic/national background and in which minorities are not only protected but are supported by the state in their attempts to preserve their language and traditions, establish cultural associations and practice their religion.

However, it is here that we get to the heart of the matter. Even the most far-reaching and minority-friendly laws remain dead and meaningless if not accompanied by proper education, well-thought-out cultural activities and historical politics. Present-day Poland constitutes a good example of a country which guarantees its citizens equal rights regardless of their ethnic background or religious beliefs, but excludes non-Poles and non-Catholics at the level of discourse. This exclusion is caused by the fact that the Polish mass media and the authority of the state and the Catholic Church promote more or less openly – and more or less deliberately – the idea of the “Pole-Catholic” as something natural and obvious. What’s worth highlighting here is precisely the often unconscious or rather unreflective aspect of such a promotion, the fact that many journalists, politicians or scholars take the ‘Polish-Catholic’ connection for granted, as do the inhabitants of my research site. All of this adds up to state and church policies which frequently violate church-state separation.

As a result, the idea of “Pole-Catholic” becomes an expected norm and is deeply internalized and referred to not only by the majority, but also by minority groups. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s vocabulary, it is possible to observe that the bond between Polishness and Catholicism becomes a ‘doxa’, a taken-for-granted view of the world which not only makes the social order appear natural but provides people with an understanding of what is proper for their position. In this way, the privileged position of the Catholic Church is perceived as “natural” as it is the idea that the Polish-Catholic Poland is a ‘natural’ outcome of historical processes or that Catholicism has always constituted the core of the Polish national culture. This phenomenon affects not only some “marginal” groups, such as inhabitants of the borderland areas, but it regards all those Polish citizens who do not recognize themselves in the narrative of “Catholic Poland” or who do not accept it as the only one.


In order to shed light on the mechanisms behind the “Polish-Catholic” doxa, I would like to say a few words about contemporary historical politics, which accounts, in my view, for the most salient aspects of symbolic domination. The analysis of historical narratives demonstrates that while it is hard to deny that representatives of different ethnic, national and religious communities are today (made) present in historical discourse, the way they are presented is very problematic. Understanding this process requires saying a few words about post-1989 historiography and history dissemination.

The period of transformation following the collapse of communism meant in Poland, as elsewhere in Central-Eastern Europe, the re-writing of recent history, which sometimes involved radical changes in historical interpretation; it brought the re-evaluation of past events and bore witness to events which had been taboo subjects in the People’s Poland. In the case of minorities, this process translated into reminding about the multicultural legacy of the 1 st and the 2 nd Polish Republics – the political entities which at the time constituted one of most diverse countries in Europe – and challenging the Polish communists’ nationalist ideology. Besides , extensive researches on very complex and dramatic cards of recent history have been carried, such as the Polish-Ukrainian conflicts and the murders of Jews by Poles during and after the Second World War. Such studies fostered important debates and gave place for a more critical view of certain episodes in Polish history. Yet some scholarly and political circles see such debates as anomalous, as if the interpretation of Polish history was to be taken for granted. Again, this situation well illustrates Bourdieu’s observations on the tension between the doxa and the opinion. Bourdieu’s works on culture and education as means of “symbolic violence” are also helpful in understanding the processes that establish some convictions as doxa. The works of those historians who present a more complex and demanding vision of the past have a much smaller chance to reach a wider audience than the message which is spread through the channels of state education and culture. A short overview of both may be very informative for understanding some features of the contemporary historical discourse.

Starting with education, the analysis of secondary school textbooks for “history” and “knowledge of society” classes, carried out several years ago by the association “Open Republic” (Otwarta Rzeczpospolita) makes some recurring patterns evident. First, the textbooks emphasize the special connection between Polishness and Catholicism – that it is the ethnic majority which establishes the rules – and that minorities are presented as “guests” and “others” rather than as co-citizens. Secondly, national belonging, with the nation seen as a natural, live, and value-based community, is juxtaposed with artificial citizenship. Thirdly, the Polish struggles for independence and against oppression occupy such a prominent place that even the period of the People’s Poland is presented as a confrontation between society and state. Similar observations are made in a study of textbooks for “literature” lessons. The textbooks consolidate the idea of being Polish-Catholic, omitting the question of Poles of different religious backgrounds and the diversity of sources for what is perceived today as “Polish culture”. Furthermore they fail to pay due attention to the contribution of non-Catholics to the development of the Polish language, education, and literature. These observations could be complemented by many others including considerations of the destinations of school trips or examination topics.

Such a “knowledge package” cannot fail to influence people’s reception of cultural productions, and it does not equip them with the means to deconstruct and critically engage with dominant discourses. Obviously, the field of culture is much larger than the field of education, and contemporary cultural production accounts for a great variety of topics and approaches, including those which engage critically with the various national mythologies. Nevertheless, popular culture – mainly TV series and big cinema productions, often co-funded by the state – corresponds, in my view, with the above remarks about the reinforcement of the Polish-Catholic image and the idealization of the country’s history. Recent examples include TV series on the Second World War, biographies of John Paul II and other important clergymen, and expensive cinema productions about Polish-Ukrainian or Polish-Bolshevik conflicts, which rarely try to present a more nuanced view of described events. Further mechanisms that reproduce the image of “Catholic Poland” are various state policies regarding, for instance, the allocation of funds for cultural initiatives (e.g. churches’ construction), which clearly show what is considered the “Polish heritage”. Finally, it is rare that national and religious minorities have a presence in the media. Not only is the time for their broadcasts rationed, but they are usually represented as “cultural” and “folkloric” attractions which have contributed no more than some culinary specialties and folksongs to the country’s history.

The process of “othering” minorities and the promotion of “Pole-Catholic” dogma is reinforced by yet another fundamental aspect of contemporary historical discourse, namely a very elitist approach to history. This approach can be detected, for example, in the narratives on 19 th c. struggles for independence and maintenance of the national culture, which juxtapose illuminated nobles and intelligentsia with backward peasants. This interpretation is transplanted into the narratives on communist times, wherein rural inhabitants are presented as those who, contrary to the rest of the society, neither fought against nor suffered from the regime. Still, the best example is undoubtedly the “re-written” history of the 2 nd Republic, which in the communist times constituted a taboo and today is experiencing a renaissance. Not only is the prewar Poland idealized, but it is presented through the prism of the elites of the time, while the scale of social inequalities, the rigidity of class structure, discrimination against minorities, and the poverty in both the rural areas and the cities, are usually neglected. The “end” of the Second Republic and the Second World War are portrayed in a similar way; the elites are praised for their heroism, while the black deeds of that period – such as murders of Jews or the collaboration with occupants – are ascribed to the “social others”: the poor, the peasants, or the communists, who, when possible, are also identified as non-Poles.

This is in accord with Geremek’s observations on mechanisms of marginalization, how low status and poverty tend to be connected with immorality and how the marginalized are deprived of their voice and represented as wrong-doers. No less important here are his insightful remarks on the construction of “ab-normality”; the fact that certain dominant ways of living, believing, or performing one’s identity become something “natural” and “correct”, leading to the exclusion of everything which does not fit into the normative frame (and also to the process of self-exclusion, as the aforementioned examples show). Finally, it is important to add that his ideal of social history seems not to have much impact in Poland yet. Despite many remarkable works and research in the field, social history as an approach does not seem to be powerful enough to counter, or even problematize, the mainstream discourse.


Summing up, the way history is recounted, (re)interpreted, taught, and disseminated is fundamental for understanding people’s opinions and beliefs, and the role of the mass media seems to be increasingly prominent in this process. Various public representations of nationhood and religion undoubtedly play a very important role in reinforcing the “normalcy” of the Polish-Catholic connection and the “othering” of all kinds of “minorities” – be it Protestants, Lemkos, Vietnamese, or atheists. It would be hard to disregard the connection between the public image of minorities and the majority’s knowledge about them, the relation between the media representations of the Polish-Ukrainian conflicts and the persistence of negative stereotypes of Ukrainians, or the link between the idea of Poles as history’s victims and society’s denial of the Polish share of responsibility for the Holocaust. Such knowledge is also crucial for understanding minorities’ internalization of the dominant discourse.

The point is that outcomes of “symbolic violence” are hard to measure. It is usually possible to count the victims of an ethnic conflict or prove certain law paragraphs to be discriminatory. But how to carry out such an operation in the case of “culture” or “history”, which, as we well know, tend to be interpreted in completely opposite ways by different groups? The very same movie or a book chapter may be regarded as “patriotic” by some and “xenophobic” by others. I am aware that some people may find the comparison between symbolic and physical violence too daring as I am aware that some people reading this article might be surprised to hear that many Polish citizens experience exclusion. Some representatives of the majority may never realize what it means to live in a society permeated by certain doxa. Some may do so by chance once they decide to marry a non-Catholic, become annoyed with the Church’s influence on political life, or discover after years of acquaintance that their best friend is Ukrainian but s/he never dared to reveal it. Some – including the author of this article – needed to undertake a year of research in order to realize what it means to be a minority in contemporary Poland.

And yet my fieldwork was such an enlightening and rewarding experience due not to the study of the reproduction of the dominant discourse, but due to the recognition of multiple ways in which local people challenge it, demonstrating the arbitrariness of the “taken-for-granted” and their own ways of “being a Pole”. They do so by means of oral histories in which they present themselves as history’s actors and authors. Recalling the complex past of the region, they complement the “Polish-Catholic” narrative. Greek Catholics tell their villages’ prewar history and Protestant communities recount the stories of persecutions under Nazi and communist regimes. Catholics and non-Catholics alike share their own experiences of the communist times; these narratives cut across ethnic/religious divisions and problematize the dominant discourse on “passive” peasants.

As noted above, the configuration of diversity in my research site is changeable, contextual, and often contradictory. People stress their Catholic or Protestant belonging in one context, they identify themselves as a village’s inhabitants in another, and they foreground the importance of neighborly bonds in yet different one. The awareness of the “Pole-Catholic” norm coexists with the appreciation of diversity. T he anthropologist Glen Baumann describes such a process by highlighting the tension between “demotic” and “dominant” discourses, that is between grassroots practices of “diversity management” and authorities’ attempts to enclose diversity into given frames and ethnic/religious categories. People’s lives are shaped by both, by their everyday experiences and encounters, which teach them to see a human behind an ethnic costume and religious label, and by various political, educational, and cultural narratives which – ideally – should teach the same. Building an open and pluralistic society means enacting thoughtful policies which do not lead to “folklorization” and “exoticization” of minorities, but enable all to build dialogue and respect on the base on differences and commonalities alike. What is undoubtedly needed in drawing such policies is more criticism of one’s country’s heritage, more social history, and more attention to what the “margins” may tell us about the “center”.

Agnieszka Pasieka is Assistant Professor in the Institute of Slavic Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences and a former Bronislaw Geremek Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM.