Poland: 1920 and all that

Even the most heroic and tragic moments of Poland’s modern history - the battle of Warsaw, the Katyn massacre, the Warsaw uprising - are subject to contentious political debate. A new cinematic epic is no exception, says Adam Szostkiewicz.
Adam Szostkiewicz
5 October 2011

As I write, TV trailers for an epic historical drama by the veteran Polish filmmaker Jerzy Hoffman are enticing me to go and see (and in 3D) how we crushed the Bolsheviks who dared to invade Poland just two years after our young state had risen from over a century of imperial partition. Make no mistake: 1920: The Battle of Warsaw is going to be a box-office hit, even though (or perhaps because) the times are hard. There is no doubt that in cinematic terms the Battle - in fact an almost two-week-long military confrontation near Warsaw, the capital of the restored (and thus second) Polish republic - is a major achievement that does justice to a historic national event. 

But what exactly was at stake in 1920: whose victory was it, and who today can best claim its mantle? The questions are more than ones of historical interest. For if the events of that moment are clear enough in Polish historiography, its high symbolic status has long ensured that it would be part of a contentious “battle of memory”. All the more so today, as the release of the film coincides with a divisive election campaign in which a political “battle of Warsaw” is currently underway.  

Many Polish historians regard 1920 - when the Polish army, under the command of the nation’s founding father Marshall Józef Piłsudski, defeated the Red Army led by generals Tukhachevsky and Budyonny - as a key victory in national, European and even global terms. For as well as guaranteeing Polish independence, it halted a Bolshevik advance that would otherwise have been able to continue the revolutionary crusade far to the west of a continent ravaged by the 1914-18 war. In this narration, 1920 is regarded as among the most decisive battles of both Polish and world history. 

But Catholic nationalists have long held a very different view. This was less Pilsudski’s triumph than that of Holy Mary, Mother of God, who intervened on behalf of the martyr-nation that for centuries had been the last bulwark against Russia: land of the Orthodox (and thus opposed to the papacy), and since 1917 of godless atheists. In this narration, 1920 is as it always was: “the miracle on the [river] Vistula’’.

These two ways of telling dominated Polish debate in the inter-war years, until the defeat (and again partition) of the second republic in 1939 by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union threw Poland into another catastrophe. But 1920 continued to be contested by the rival political-ideological camps: the piłsudczycy (followers of Piłsudski, who died in 1935) and the endecy (Catholic nationalists).

The new Polish elites who gained power after 1945 as allies of Moscow had a very different attitude to the battle of Warsaw: bury it. As a symbol of Poland’s struggle for freedom in the 20th century, it became one of communism’s many taboos: along with the partition of 1939, the Katyn forest massacre of Polish military and police officers by Stalin’s NKVD in 1940, and the Warsaw rising of 1944 (which happened a year after the rising of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, distinct events that are sometimes confused).

For the more than forty years of communist rule, these events were either consigned to oblivion (Katyn) or hugely disfigured. Indeed, the misrepresentation was so official and so systematic that it came to constitute another, third narration. In the third Polish republic, the good and the brave became the evil and ugly, and vice versa.    

It is in this context that, after the peaceful transition to democracy in 1989, Poland’s “history wars” were reborn. The exact moment is hard to pinpoint, but politicians - who, in Poland as elsewhere in Europe, are tempted to (mis)use historical symbols and emotive motifs in their struggle for votes - were quick to enter the fray. The result: a mess.

The uses of history

Did it have to be this way? The intention of Poland’s fourth republic after 1989 was to make history a resource for the reconstruction of national identity, by truthfully filling the empty spaces left by communist propaganda and censorship - not the substitution of one vision of history by an equally tendentious one that serves the interests of the new status quo.

And indeed, a consensus was reached in the 1990s about the need to restore full historical  memory to Polish society. Much positive work was done by the media, professional historians, public intellectuals, and some political leaders. But something went wrong with this project. Less was achieved than was hoped (or needed) in terms of healing the wounds of the Polish psyche. This has contributed to problems with our Lithuanian and Ukrainian neighbours, who (of course) have had their own issues of post-communist identity-reconstructions; comparable historical disputes also involve Hungarians and Slovaks, Romanians and Ukrainians, and the Baltic nations and Russia, though with unique aspects and triggers in each case.     

My impression is that the “politics of history” in post-communist nations tends to become most antagonistic (domestically and externally) when the subject is appropriated by nationalistic commentators. At that point, recollections of national suffering begin to predominate, and wounds are opened rather than healed.

There are many examples. Here are just three. First, the reinvention of the Warsaw rising as a founding myth of Poland’s modern struggles for freedom - but in such a way that dissenting voices might be rendered unpatriotic. The rising was lost, the capital city was destroyed, more than 200,000 people died. The Polish writer Tomasz Łubieński, one of the “dissenters” from the cult of the rising, asks: who really wants to live in a country that sees its lost insurrections as cornerstones of national tradition?             

Second, the fierce resistance to comprehensive discussion of anti-semitism in Poland during and after the second world war. True, we had an unprecedentedly open and instructive public debate on the Jedwabne tragedy (when 600 Jews were burned alive by their Polish neighbours in July 1941, weeks after the Nazis invaded the Soviet-controlled part of Poland). This was a real breakthrough; but today, profane and violent acts by unknown hate-mongers continue, as in recent weeks at Jedwabne or Ossów where a dozen Red Army soldiers from the battle of Warsaw were reburied under the Russian Orthodox cross.

Third, the Smolensk aircrash in April 2010 which killed Poland’s president, Lech Kaczyński, and almost a hundred members of the country’s state and political elite. After an intense period of national mourning and shared grief, this event began to be compared by elements of the Polish right to the Katyn massacre of 1940 (which the passengers were on their way to commemorate) with the suggestion that the tragedy was the result of a conspiracy involving prime ministers Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk. In this narration, the Polish prime minister Donald Tusk is portrayed as a traitor yielding to neo-imperial Russian pressures under the pretext of improving Polish-Russian relations.

That is a measure of how the deep patriotic sentiments that surround Katyń have been allowed to degenerate and to sow antagonism among Poles (and with Russians) in 2011. It and the preceding examples also show to me how futile and dangerous the “politics of history” can be when it seeks to inculcate national pride rather than encourage a mature national awareness of the good and the bad in the country’s history.

With that in mind, I am going to see 1920: The Battle of Warsaw. Whatever its impact, the need for a larger dimension of historical understanding than a regressive nationalist one - call it 4D - will remain.

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