Szczerski on Polish history lessons (Part 4)

As Krzysztof Szczerski, the Commissioner-to-be rejects constructionism and embraces a historical approach, he draws three important lessons for Europe from the Polish historical experience.

This comes as I continue to read for you Mr Szczerski 2017 book on Europe called European Utopia. My previous inputs from his book include:

  1. Noah’s Days
  2. Europe without a soul is dead
  3. Euro’s good only for the powerful

Mr Szczerski asks a genuinely good question: “what can we teach our friends from other Union states, especially those of its core” and gives three answers.

Poland defends Europe

First, the Polish political choices have impacted not only the fate of Poland, but also, “the shape of Europe“. In this perspective Mr Szczerski draws attention to the 1683 Vienna siege and asks “what would happen if the Polish king Jan III Sobieski would not decide to go to rescue Vienna in 1683 from an Islamic onslaught“?

The other examples used refer to the Polish defence of Europe against the Tatars in 1241 and the Soviets in 1920. Mr Szczerski concludes: “We need to remind the Western countries […] what has been the role played by Poland on our continent“.

There are two reflections of the author in this context. First, “a good policy is the one which allows for making choices which do not incapacitate us“. Second, “Poland is the country which over the centuries in reality has made fundamental choices alone for itself as well as for the whole of Europe“. Surely, there were mistakes along the way, too, admits Mr Szczerski. There is an important warning: “when Poland was deprived of the choice by the external powers, or it has deprived itself of the choice, or when it has led an unthinking or a subordinate policy vis-a-vis other capitals, it would lose its resources and its own subjectivity. Europe would lose out too, as it would lead to much greater crises later, on a continental scale“.

Poland’s sovereign choice is one of the very important stabilising elements of our continent.

Krzysztof Szczerski, European Utopia 2017

Free Poland = Free Europe

The second historical conclusion of Mr Szczerski is that the history of Poland is the history of freedom. “Poland was free when freedom ruled Europe“, and subordination of Poland effectively means a domination of larger nations. When Poland was not free, in late 18th and 19th centuries, many others suffered, writes the Commissioner-appointee, including the Belgians and the Italians.

The Polish freedom is linked with the European freedom, but one should not “confuse freedom with frolics and lawlessness“.

Deep Roots

Lesson number three relates to historical identity. “Polish history is a history of a community connected by culture, identity, values and traditions originating from the Christian fundament“.

Mr Szczerski writes that today’s Europe “has a fundamental problem with its own identity, its own civilisation, when it turns itself into a post-cultural, post-civilizational or post-identity conglomerate of some undefined forces and processes“. If Europe is truly lost, it can survive only if one relates to the identity. In fact, Mr Szczerski argues, a community can survive only when “the community roots are deeper than just ad hoc business, political identity, economic wealth or opportunistic choices of being politically correct. Only deep roots give a guarantee of long lasting.”

There are three elements Mr Szczerski would like to upload as Polish experiences into the European political dimension: the issue of choice, the issue of freedom and the issue of a culture based on centuries-old values. “If those three things we could merge today for the sake of Europe, it would truly become a different political community“.

Et alors?

I truly agree with the sentiment of Mr Szczerski when it comes to freedom: what freedom is and what freedom is not and that the value of freedom is important to Poles. Freedom, however, is not only a freedom of a nation from a foreign oppression. Individual freedoms matter! Personal freedoms are relevant. The European and, wider, the Western thinking about liberties has massively advanced since 1945. Today human rights are part of the Western understanding of freedom.

In a way it is amazing how simplistic the historical analysis of Mr Szczerski is. It does not include the centuries old tradition of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation. In fact, the fact that some 97% of citizens of Poland are “ethnic Poles” is a historical anomaly for Poland. Poles do not have a concept of an ethnic Pole like many other European nations do. Poles are those who speak the language, said the 1931 census. It was a linguistic category, not an ethnic one.

I am missing also the reference to the Second World War. There would be no European Union without the War. In Poland the WWII is considered “the War” and not to draw lessons from it seems to be a major omission. The War changed Poland: its borders were moved, its citizens were killed or relocated. It’s cities were deplored and the country was in ruins. All that was locked under a Communist freezer; the historical debates only resurface post-1989. As the War’s fallout all the minorities disappeared. A third of Polish citizens before the War was not “Polish”, but Ukrainian, German, Jewish, Dutch, Scottish, Czech, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Russian, Armenian or another. Poland was a melting pot the same way the Austro-Hungarian empire was a melting pot of nations. It was not a paradise, there were many problems of the day, but the multi-culti was the norm. The mono-culti is an abnormality, for Poland, too, Mr Szczerski.

For excellent texts about the history of Poland look for the books of historians like Norman Davies, Timothy Snyder or Adam Zamoyski.

I am also missing nuance in Mr Szczerski analysis. As much as Poland cherishes its freedom many Poles tend to forget that our freedom is not exactly someone else’s freedom. See Lithuanians for it, and their experience, their reading of what a “free Poland” means: occupation and often a forced Polonisation. Yes, Poles were subjects to Germanisation under Bismarck, but similar processes took place against other nations. When General Żeligowski entered Vilnius in 1920 what exactly did his army mean by “freedom”? Or, was it more politics with fait accompli as the international politics of the day were still largely based on rude power?

Maybe this is why Europeans decided to draw a line making a distinction and a decision: we focus on the future, because the past can divide us as easily as before? We need to build trust between Europeans before we build fences between us.

I do not share Mr Szczerski reflection that Europe’s doomed because it lost its identity. Who am I to tell others they lost their identity?

I do agree, however, that the political community of Europe is something important. It should be built and developed further, in a constructive way, even if the Commissioner-to-be does not like the approach.

I hope for his perspective to be included in the European political discourse. It is an important input, but to preclude it is the only one correct is too much, it is presumptive, and as such, offensive to others.

An open, tolerant, culturally and religiously diverse Poland is the true nature of this smiling country. Not the grey mono-religious and a righteous perspective of some Poles. In order to be inclusive I shall say that both versions, or all versions of a complex and multi-dimentional Poland should be included in the statement of Mr Szczerski: “More of Poland means more of Europe“.

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