The mutilated world: 9/11 in Poland

The intense Polish empathy with America of the days after 11 September 2001 drew on an enduring connection. But there are signs of change, says Adam Szostkiewicz.
Adam Szostkiewicz
7 September 2011

I will never forget the poems on 9/11 written by two Polish poets, the Nobel-winning Wislawa Szymborska, and Adam Zagajewski. Each was an expression of solidarity with America in horror, mourning and grief.
Szymborska’s “Photograph from September 11’’ evokes the image of the people jumping from the Twin Towers. “They jumped from the burning floors / one, two, a few more / higher, lower …I can only do two things for them / describe this flight / and not add a last line’’ (translation: Clare Kavanagh & Stanislaw Baranczak). Zagajewski’s was entitled “Try to Praise the Mutilated World’’.

Both poems were widely circulated in Polish and foreign media after the attacks. The Americans found them very moving and empathetic, which they are. But it was not just the poets. All sorts of Poles expressed their sympathy with the victims, their families, the whole nation. Hundreds of candles were lit in front of the United States embassy in Warsaw. Polish Muslims ( a small community here, but dating back to the times of “old Poland”) also offered their condolences.

There was nothing unique in these Polish reactions during the days and weeks after the shock. Such empathy and solidarity prevailed throughout and beyond the western world.

Poles’ attitude to the US changed little in subsequent years, even as the depth of immediate sentiment modulated with the passing of time. There was overwhelming public support for the Polish military contribution to wars in Afghanistan (where we still have 2,600 troops) and in Iraq (whence Polish forces withdrew only in 2010); these deployments were not accompanied by major peace marches or anti-war campaigns by intellectuals and artists, let alone political leaders.

The belief that radical Islam does pose a threat to western and Polish interests was and is widely shared. The alleged CIA prison in Poland has not been a matter of serious public debate or investigation - though a Jerzy Skolimowski film about a fugitive from such a prison was well received by critics and audiences.

Poland’s close ties with the United States have many dimensions, including the familial and personal (there are 10 million people of Polish extraction in the US). American support for Polish independence (one of the points of Woodrow Wilson’s peace plan in 1918) is still recalled. Even the post-1945 twists of American foreign policy (such as Franklin Roosevelt’s agreement at Yalta which sanctioned Poland’s domination by the Soviets) did not ruin the country’s reputation among Poles. All this helps explain why Poland is perhaps also the most pro-American one nation in today’s Europe (it is already the most pro-European Union one).

Poland’s solidarity with America after 9/11 was also that of a country that has been familiar with wars and turbulence over the centuries. At the end of the 18th century, she was partitioned by hostile surrounding empires. During the 120 years that followed, Poles launched many armed risings as a way to seek freedom and sovereignty. The country regained her independence in 1918, and faced more war in the years ahead.

Before the partitions, the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth - whose king was elected - had fought many wars with the Ottoman Turks. King John Sobieski III defeated them to lift the siege of Vienna in 1683, which is still a living memory here. The Ottomans were the only major European power not to acknowledge the partitions; the official gatherings of the imperial court in Istanbul kept an empty seat for a Polish ambassador. Today, Poland supports Turkey’s European aspirations, while having very good relations with Israel.

A decade after the 9/11 attacks - and as Poland for the first time occupies the EU presidency since it joined the union in 2004 - there are signs that sentiment towards the US is changing among a young Polish generation that focuses on Europe rather than “the land of the free’’.

After all, freedom is now in huge supply, and the risks of losing it seem (rightly or wrongly) not very high to many young Poles. From the intense feeling of September 2001, the 9/11 attacks now appear more a sign of how things may always go awry, and an indication of America’s vulnerability as well her culpability in the postmodern world.

Many Poles are not happy with the results of 9/11: political fragmentation of a community of democracies, the rise of xenophobia, a crisis of multiculturalism, the rise of radical rightwing and confrontational nationalisms. Ten years on, it is sometimes hard to try to “praise the mutilated world’’.

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