PAWEŁ LISICKI “Polish Innocence in Interesting Times”


Paweł Lisicki
Editor in chief of “Rzeczpospolita”

According to the Chinese, it is a curse to live in interesting times. The logic is obvious. Interesting times mean big changes, revolutions, wars, sudden and unpredictable turns of the wheel of fortune. These are times when history runs faster, new countries emerge, old powers fall, passions break loose, people’s lust for power and domination prevails over the slow and ordered stream of life. These are times when ordinary people have hard lives. Great historical issues require victims. It seems that history of Poland and of the Poles in the period between 1939 and 1989 is the best example of that. Before Poles could fully enjoy their new independence, they experienced the most interesting, but at the same time, the most tragic, especially for everyday people, events of the 20th century: first, the German occupation, and soon after, a long Soviet domination. Should we learn a lesson from that and try and avoid interesting times by all means? If not, why is living in such times worthwhile, after all? What was the point of all the sacrifices made by Poles during the war and later under Soviet domination?

First of all, there was a point in survival. This is hard to understand nowadays. Today, with Poland as a member state of the European Union, when the overall effort of the state and of society is focused on insuring greater security and higher standards of living, one can hardly imagine that in the quite recent past, Poland was to be wiped off the map of Europe, and Poles were to be either exterminated or degraded to the role of cheap labor. In the plans of both Hitler and Stalin, Poland was an obstacle, a dispensable state and a dispensable nation. Both dictators knew they could never win Poles over to their causes, which made matters even worse. It therefore seems that aside from the Jews, no other nation was threatened to such an extent with annihilation. The six years of World War II were a unique experience for Poland, incomparable with anything that had happened before. It is of course true that Poland had disappeared from the map of Europe once before, and that the czarist regime kept extinguishing Poland’s attempts to regain independence while Bismark’s Germany carried out a policy of aggressive Germanization against Poles. The partitioners did not, however, use methods as brutal as those of the 20th century dictators. They lacked well-prepared and meticulously executed plans for complete extermination. Their actions were less methodical and were not executed with the conviction that mass crimes could be justified, and were a historical necessity.

I believe there are three symbolic words that are key to understanding what the years 1939-1945 meant for Poland. In chronological order, these are: Katyń, Wołyń and Warsaw. Only these three events together show the tragic fate of Poles. First, the cold-blooded murder of thousands of Polish officers at Katyń, Miednoje and Charków, committed on the order of the Bolshevik Party Politburo. The murder of POWs on the scale unknown in modern history, and then an attempt to conceal the perpetrators and frame another party, in line with rules of totalitarian propaganda. Next, genocide committed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) on at least fifty thousand Poles living in the formerly Polish Wołyń voivodeship. I consciously use the term ‘genocide’, as Poles were being murdered simply for being Poles. In those times, to be a Pole in Wołyń was to be sentenced to death. And finally, after years of executions and terror, the German pacification of the Warsaw uprising, and the accompanying massacre of Warsaw’s civilian population.

Once again, uniquely, the order from Hitler himself to raze Warsaw to the ground. What do these three crimes have in common? Certainly not their method. There is hardly any comparison between the meticulous, faultless precision of the NKVD and the wild, at times unimaginable, cruelty of the Ukrainians during the Wołyń massacres or the German terror. And yet, regardless of their methods and regardless of the ideologies that allowed them to murder with no remorse, these murders were convinced that the Polish lords MUST be eliminated for the sake of the working class, that Polish sub-humans must be exterminated to make room for Aryans, or finally, the conviction that the new Ukraine will be created by ethnically cleansing it from its former inhabitants, the Poles. In each case, they goal was to physically destroy everything that was Polish. No wonder Polish literature the period is marked by death, tragedy and defeat.

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, the most outstanding Polish wartime poet, who died as a soldier during first days of the Warsaw uprising, wrote:

“Wołam cię, obcy człowieku,
co kości odkopiesz białe:
Kiedy wystygną już boje,
szkielet mój będzie miał w ręku
sztandar ojczyzny mojej”.

“I call to you, oh stranger,
who digs up my white bones:
Once the battles are over,
my skeleton will hold in its hand
the flag of my homeland”.

These verses still express hope. A hope that the sacrifice of the 20 and 30 year-olds who went to their death as “stones thrown by God onto a rampant” has meaning, that they will leave behind a legacy, that “the flag of my homeland” will survive and that the physical, literal and tangible death of thousands will not destroy it. Perhaps the tragic fate of Poles is expressed better yet by another Polish wartime poet, Tadeusz Borowski:

„Zostanie po nas złom żelazny
i głuchy, drwiący śmiech pokoleń”.

“Our legacy will be iron scrap
and the dull, mocking laughter of generations.”

It could have been like that, back in 1944. So it could have seemed. At first glance, Poles had no chances against historical necessity, against those ‘interesting times’.A victorious war that brought about fifty years of communist slavery; millions were killed, and Polish culture in the Poland’s Eastern Territories was completely destroyed. Is this not worthy of mocking laughter? Nevertheless, at that very moment, at the failure and utter despair, Poles passed their greatest historical exam. To use the words of a Polish romantic poet, Krasiński, its was “a trial of the grave”. Polishness survived, not just in sense of an ethnic group. Polishness survived as a value, as an attachment to freedom, to a common fate, to a heritage and to Christianity – even it is not necessarily accompanied by faith and personal practice. A certain German critic, writing about Polish wartime and post-war poetry, noticed its “innocence” as a common feature. All else aside, Polishness also encompasses this historical innocence, a result of the fact that Poles were the victims, and that they, as a nation, took the side of good. They fought for dignity, for independence and did not take part in the crimes of 1939–1945 (I refer to the nation and its representatives, and not to a few depraved and dissolute individuals). As a result, in spite of the destruction of the elites and the lack of hope for change, Polish society resisted the communist system from the very beginning. It had enough strength and power to resist a system imported from the USSR.

What is utterly moving is the fate of soldiers from the anticommunist underground. They went through the pains of five or six years of battle with the Germans and the Soviets during the war, only to continue their hopeless fight against Soviet-supported secret police. Imagine the willpower and conscience it takes to keep from giving in, complying, recognizing, deciding that resistance is futile and aimless, and to reject the thought of returning and adjusting. I can hardly recall other examples of such heroism, where one chooses death to remain loyal to oneself, knowing nearly for certain that there is no chance to win. It was, in fact, even worse, because they chose death, knowing that their story might never see the light of day, would never be truly told and that apart from their physical death, they would go to their deaths once more, this time in the minds of people, their lives and the meaning of their sacrifice falsified and mocked and doctored – with no right to defend themselves.

The resistance of Poles, most clearly and most radically expressed by those who fought armed, was of course extended to much broader circles. First, there was an attempt to restart PSL (a political party of Polish farmers), then activities undertaken by some Catholic groups, such as Znak. In Poland, after the war had ended, the Church became the most important institutional guardian of freedom. It was thanks to the Church that communists never gained such control over the Polish society as they did in the other states of the Soviet bloc.

I doubt one could understand the meaning of Poland’s fate without noticing the fundamental experience given to Poles by the war. It was thanks to that experience that each social riot or workers’ strike in the People’s Republic of Poland, e.g. 1956 in Poznań or 1970 in Gdańsk, was immediately transformed into a fight for freedom and independence. Poland was in a way like a volcano that regularly, time after time, kept erupting lava. A history of Poland in the years 1939-1989 must be based on those moments of eruption, protest and resistance: June and October 1956, March 1968, December 1970, June 1976 and at last, the big carnival of Solidarity that started in August 1980. The simple lesson is: life for life’s sake, vegetation and duration are unremarkable without freedom and sovereignty. Poles turned out to be genetically immune to a system in which man is reduced to a small cog in the big machine of production. A system where in order to survive, one must accept his role as a slave.

This aspect of Poland’s history is present not only in great events, but also in the actions and attitudes of witnesses. One can hardly understand John Paul II, his reflexions on the dignity of the person, his involvement in the field of human and civil rights, if one does not see the whole tradition behind him: Polish armed resistance during the war, the tradition of independence of the Polish Church, represented by cardinal Sapieha and primate Wyszyński, and the tradition of other opposition movements. Sometimes it was the protest of intellectuals, other times it was political action. One way or another, the greatness of Polish heroes is not the greatness of organizers and administrators, nor the greatness of commanders and strategists, nor even the greatness of thinkers and philosophers, but the greatness of witnesses. It was a greatness founded on the defense of heritage, to the death.

I do not mean to say, of course, that all Poles thought and behaved thusly. There is no point in listing all the examples of weakness, collaboration and betrayal. These certainly existed, and are worth writing if at least in the name of justice. It is a part of man’s weak, fallen nature. The most important thing, though, is that in the end, Polishness as a pursuit of independence and sovereignty survived.

This article is one of four essays inspired by the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II and the 20th anniversary of the collapse of communism in Central Europe, part of a special commemorative edition of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s 3rd Symphony, “The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, published in Blu-Ray format by the National Centre for Culture in Poland.

Ministerstwo Kultury i Dziedzictwa NarodowegoNarodowe Centrum Kultury