Dressed-up Nationalism

Tr@nsit Online

Present-day Polish nationalist discourse intersects with and is sustained by the “elite” discourse: it is dressed up in elegant and stylish clothes, it is propagated with eloquence and diligence, and it is supported with scholarly evidence and academic titles. It draws on the noble past and uses as a weapon unresolved historical traumas and past grandeur. It finds its propagators among politicians one would not define as extremist but as moderate; as liberal rather than populist; and as a voice of “middle class” and urban intelligentsia.

Dressed-up Nationalism

In summer 2013, a group of undergraduate students and I carried out an ethnographic study in Southeastern Poland inquiring into the local historical narratives and the politics of diversity. Exploring the ethno-religious landscape of a small Polish town – in the past a home of Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians – we talked to a variety of people: not only local politicians, historians, pedagogues, and clergymen, but also vendors at a local market, farmers inhabiting neighboring villages, and bus drivers who took us around the region. To our (initial) surprise, our first group of interlocutors – people who not only are considered to represent local intelligentsia but who also are responsible for designing “multicultural policies” – was quite open in expressing xenophobic and discriminatory remarks against “Ukrainians” and “Jews” (or, in the blackest scenario: “Ukrainians of Jewish origins”) who they claimed rule through the regional government and are responsible for all Poland’s misfortunes. The “average” inhabitants, in turn, were more likely to recall the past “pragmatic coexistence” of people of different creeds and ethnicities, talk about Jews as “smart” and “laborious” and boast of contemporary relations with Ukrainians who are good business and trade partners. Where the first ones talked about national honor and pride as the key issues of the state’s politics today, the latter expressed their annoyance with the politicians’ incapacity to address emergent social and economic issues. Although this distinction was not always clear-cut, it captures an important point of departure for discussing contemporary politics and invites us to look critically at the common explanations offered for the growing popularity of radical right, nationalist, and populist movements across Eastern Europe. For whenever we talk about “unemployment,” “lack of security” or “social exclusion” as the key reasons behind this phenomenon, we tend to associate these experiences with inhabitants of peripheral areas, postindustrial settings, and “losers of transformation”; with people who are “simple”, “uneducated,” and prone to manipulation.

To complicate the picture, the xenophobic and discriminatory remarks my students and I were exposed to were far from homogenous. Various history enthusiasts we spoke to – members of historical reenactment groups, local history clubs, employees of the city hall – presented us with their readings of Polish history. They usually exposed the damage ethnic and religious others caused to the Polish nation, praised heroism of Polish people, and encouraged us not to trust ethnic and religious “others.” But we also talked to people who consider themselves and are considered to be local elites – professors, globetrotters, gentry descendants – who in a very eloquent and elegant way offered – in my view – a strikingly similar narrative of Polish suffering and Polish greatness. When I discussed it with my students, they would criticize the first set of narratives as prejudiced and grotesque, but they would be likely to define the latter one as objective and proper.

Present-day Polish nationalist discourse intersects with and is sustained by the “elite” discourse: it is dressed up in elegant and stylish clothes, it is propagated with eloquence and diligence, and it is supported with scholarly evidence and academic titles. It draws on the noble past and uses as a weapon unresolved historical traumas and past grandeur. It finds its propagators among politicians one would not define as extremist but as moderate; as liberal rather than populist; and as a voice of “middle class” and urban intelligentsia.

It perpetuates the idea of the Polish-Catholic connection as an essential element of the Polish identity, yet it does so in a veiled way: allying with the “liberal” wing of the Church and publicly deriding the so-called “closed” Church. For many, this kind of nationalist garb is undoubtedly more appealing than the one encapsulated by the figure of soccer fan and his baseball bat. It is a nationalism which can easily pass unnoticed amidst more extreme forms. What contributes to its invisibility?

Whenever one reads about Polish right-wingers and nationalist movements, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Right and Justice Party, youth movements drawing on prewar National Democrats’ ideology, and bustling Catholic mass media come to the forefront. Due to their moral conservatism and ethnonationalist ideology, from an outsider’s perspective they might be easily discarded as a likely candidates to die out, since no truly modern “European” society, as Poland aspires to be, can long support this sort of political and social integrism. Recent debates on “gender ideology” as a new imagined enemy of the Polish right and the Catholic hierarchy, lack of evidence for the “assassination theory” which purported to explain the Polish president’s plane’s crash in Smolensk, as well as the Polish bishops’ difficulties with accepting the new Pope’s “revolutionary” message lead many to draw such conclusions. However, these scenarios do not take into consideration one factor: apart from addressing “existential needs” of some strata of Polish population which continue to support this line of politics, the right-wing of the Polish political-cultural landscape serves other political parties. In the main, it serves the governing (in theory: liberal and centrist) party, which, by contrasting itself with “ultra-right,” likes to present itself as diametrically different. Once the focus of attention is directed on the right-wing parties’ bizarre statements and political proposals, it is easy to overlook that the liberal party’s leading ministers happen to be the ones who promote patriarchal ideology and vote in favor of limiting women’s rights; defend Catholic hierarches despite the evidence of pedophilia and abuses; and are as obsessed with Poland’s image in the world as much as their colleagues on the right are. Their opinions often match those one can find on facebook pages of nationalist groups and right-wing press – but they are dressed up in a stylish tie and eloquent words.

Similar observations regarding the “blurring” of political divisions can be made in reference to the mass media which not only look for the guilty ones in accordance to the among the poor, excluded, the uneducated, but which also are, despite purported differences, quite similar to each other in both promoting Polish nationalism and spurring conflicts. The first phenomenon is familiar to anyone who reads Polish newspapers and tries in vain to find information which would not regard Poland. “New American president? Let’s hope he’ll waive the visas”; “Bomb explosion and fifty wounded in Iraq? But what about the Polish contingent?”; “Dramatic situation on the Kiev streets? Ukrainians are grateful to Poles for their support!”; “New movie about the second world war? How little about Poland’s role!” Paradoxically, no matter how critical or supportive of the Polish nationalist narrative the media are, they tend to promote a view of the world through the nationalist lens, often at odds with the critical, liberal stand they supposedly take. Certainly, it would be unfair to equate a Poland-centered discourse with an openly xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic ideology which runs across webpages of Polish right-wing organizations and press titles. But it needs to be stressed that they both bring about a similar outcome, namely less sensitivity, less interest in what goes beyond the “Polish cause” and “Polish interest.”

In a similar vein, while accusing “others” of promoting an exclusivist view of the nation, journalists and intellectuals tend to disregard that they often fight unwelcome ideas and opinions with the same weapon they see in “others’” hands. The public discourse in Poland is extremely combative and rather than attempting to have a dialogue or a discussion, opponents fight against each other ideas for the very sake of opposing. A perfect example of this tendency, worth-quoting, is a 2013 celebration of May 2 (Flag Day), organized under the label “The Eagle can.” The event was conceived of as an opportunity to reflect on Polish successes, positive developments and achievements, about what should unite Polish people and be a source of pride. It included, among others, a joyful march and a presentation of a huge chocolate eagle, prepared by a chocolate factory. Strongly supported by the Polish president and some Warsaw media, it was criticized from right to left and spurred weeks-long debates. Personally, I was less surprised by the criticism from the right which disliked the joyful form of the event; for there’s no place for humor and fun in the celebration of patriotism and nation. But when I read voices from the opposite side, stating that investing money in a chocolate eagle is simply inappropriate in a country in which some children do not know the taste of chocolate, I realized that any “uniting” event was damned to fail. Whether one continuously recalls Polish martyrdom or cynically exaggerates present-day problems, the result is similar: they both hinder the possibility of a constructive, more inclusive and pluralistic (pluralistic meaning the acceptance of a wide spectrum of voices and viewpoints) vision of “nation” and “society,” which could be an antidote to an exclusive, closed nationalist thinking.

The last point brings us back to the question of poverty and exclusion as the reasons of support for nationalist movements and right-wing extremism. It is beyond question that unemployment, unfulfilled aspirations, or economic crises have been historically a cause of massive upheavals and led extremist politicians to power – the case of the coming to power of Adolf Hitler and collapse of the Weimar Republic being the most obvious example. This argument notwithstanding, it is fundamental to take under scrutiny the category of “the poor” and “the excluded” and to recognize many misconceptions. Once again, a recent event – a right-wingers’ march on the occasion of the Independence Day (November 11), which involved vandalism, destructions of property and the attack on the Russian embassy – offers a good example. Mass media images from the event focused on the masked youngsters dressed in military jackets and heavy boots throwing stones and shouting racist slogans; some of these images could bring to mind the 18th and 19th century depictions of exotic tribes and “savages”, studied by travellers and first anthropologists. The Polish “savages” supposedly epitomize the worst societal vices: anti-Semitism, chauvinism, backwardness, obscurantism. Why do they march? It is because they are poor, excluded, and uneducated… It is certainly much easier to provide this kind of explanation than to recognize that among marching right-wingers there are people with three master diplomas who march because they do not find a place in the current economic model which cannot fulfill their aspirations; people from “good families” who are attached to the patriarchal order and conservative values; people for whom the cult of partisans and soldiers is a hobby and a collective activity; and, people who simply buy into the national narrative of strong Poland because this is the narrative most young Polish people are likely to be saturated with in the Polish school system. Whatever they reasons to march – and I aim to neither equate them nor question the strength of racist, xenophobic, anti-democratic trends – it must be emphasized that these people differ and are far from a homogenous “black mass.” As a matter of fact, both right-wing extremists and their critics are trying to build an idealized version of Poland by arguing that Poland’s various faults are to blamed on a group they are implicitly excluding from this national idea; and both expose a tendency to demonize “the other.”

Being an anthropologist, I spent a good deal of my studies and academic work moving between university milieus and various Polish “fieldsites,” usually rural and small urban centers. Looking back, I can ascertain that I heard many more anti-Semitic jokes (“it’s only a joke”) and xenophobic statements (“let’s state the facts”) on the occasion of conference lunches and discussions in university classrooms than I did while talking with “the excluded” and “the poor.” Once again, it is not my aim to idealize and romanticize marginalized people on the expense of well-off urban counterpart (Even though I am frequently struck by the lack of a simple recognition that the excluded, poor people are too busy fighting exclusion and making ends meet to participate in marches and play at para-military movements). Rather, I aim to underline the damaging effects of the simplistic presumption that a certain life style, income level and education equate with openness, liberalism, and progressiveness. Although the meaninglessness of this presumption seems obvious, it continues to be repeated and reproduced.

The reason why this kind of thinking is perpetuated is quite simple: it is safer and easier to imagine “savages” as so different from us. It is easier to buy a flat in a guarded house estate, separate oneself from the “poor crowd,” and provide diagnoses about the society from that perspective. It is also easier to speak of “lack of education” instead of trying to reform the educational system and reflecting on what kind of knowledge young citizens and future electors receive in schools – and to what extent this education prepares the ground for nationalist thinking, and is later reinforced by Polish-centric media and an increasing populization of the liberal thought. And it is no doubt much easier to see Polish nationalists in angry youngsters marching on the capital streets: instead of discerning that a workmate sitting at the nearby desk (the one who has such a good memory for jokes), a “moderate” politician, a respected professor and the neighbor from the guarded house estate may also be a – dressed-up – “savage.”


Agnieszka Pasieka has a PhD in ethnology and is an Adjunct in the Nationalities Research unit at the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. She was a Bronisław Geremek Junior Visiting Fellow in 2011/2012. More information about Dr Pasieka’s research can be found here.