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Polish Flavoured Patriotism

Published on June 28, 2010 by: in: Thought

Couple of weeks ago when I was disembarking from a plane in Brussels, I came across a woman with two exceptionally polite and well-mannered small children. On the way to the baggage claim the boy of preschool age was singing loudly “Mazurek Dąbrowskiego” (“Dąbrowski’s Mazurek” – Polish national anthem). “One can see that the boy is growing up among a very patriotic family” I remarked in the mother’s direction. But on her face I saw a bit of embarrassment, which she hid behind her smile and said that her son had more songs in his bag of tricks.

domink patriotyzm

Patriotism is understood in many various ways not only in Poland but all around the world. Its definition is imprecise and it is frequently mistaken with chauvinism or nationalism. In our Polish tradition it generally has positive connotations, which is supported by setting the patriotic attitudes from Polish history as role models or by the strongly emphasised in public life symbolism of honouring our patriots who fought and died for Poland. Increasingly it is identified with the works in aid of community we live in, the worthy representation of the place and community we come from, the works in favour of fellowman, their rights and the organic work. Patriotism seems, at least in its principles, to be a category integrating the society and strengthening inter-human relations and giving us the possibility of self-realisation.

The Smolensk tragedy and the spontaneous reaction of Poles in the first days after the catastrophe seemed to be the manifestation of that patriotic solidarity – the bipartisan union in face of the loss of so many meritorious citizens. And for the politicians from the opposite sides, for the journalists from mutually fighting news desks, for the ruling and the ruled, for the whole pluralism of public and social life it was a chance, or rather a test for the skill of finding our collective values and for going beyond the divisions in the name of the human dimension of the loss. This hope, thought, turned out to be a naive illusion. For some part of the political arena, represented by certain right-wing publicists and journalists the Smolensk tragedy became an excuse to perform a symbolical rape of the semantics of the notion of patriotism, an excuse to ruthlessly abridge and deform it in the name of their political visions or interests.

The film presented on the public television, the articles in some newspapers were trying to shove down our throats that the genuine patriotism should rise from our mistrust towards our neighbours (Russians), the authorities (the government, the Civic Platform), particular media (Gazeta Wyborcza, TVN) and towards one another (those “dishonest” Poles). The core of the imitable patriotic attitudes was seen as the skill of defying the feeling of mischief and finding an external enemy responsible for the situation. If it represented a certain political option, media or foreign country – the better! The stigmatisation of the behaviours one could not agree with became a political act, and thereby the opponents were excluded from a fair debate. And that is how dramatic endeavours of securing the new definition of deformed patriotism emerged on our political and media arena, trying to divide Poles into the better and the worse – the “genuine” patriots and the “bland”, meaning worse, rest. Can we call such attitudes patriotic?

That ‘tool-like’ treatment of patriotism has nothing to do with the potentiation of Poles’ sense of entity, what the authors seem to suggest. They need to draw a clear line of the division between the fellows and enemies and then serve this “stuff” in a patriotic package for entirely different purpose: e.g. for certain groups to gain power, to authenticate their own proceedings and views, or to show the inferiority of views and proceedings of their opponents. I do not have to add what this has in common with the independent and reliable journalism.

The patriotism which perceives any enemy as its cornerstone is shallow, oafish and blown out of all proportion. It merely appears to be innocuous, not only externally – as its followers, who spread the fear ideology, would like it to be and have foreigners’ respect. Such patriotism is destructive above all internally, it divides its own nation by framing the individual groups into a conflict. It weans us off the dialogue with others and does not prepare us for the encounter with strangers. It pumps the mistrust and insecurity into us, makes us live under constant threat and the impression that everyone different than us is deceptive. There is nothing strange when some are ashamed of such patriotism or such understanding of Polishness.

The sense of national pride or the building up of the affirmation of being a Pole which creates a habit of working for one’s own community and society or the fatherland, cannot be based on strengthening the attitudes mentioned above, by restricting to filling our insecurities with some national fanfaronade or explaining them with conspiracy theories. We need a thorough consideration of Polish patriotism and getting rid of the traditional 19th-century understanding of it. If we remain in the shackles of the not actual definitions from the past world, we will be a colourful European heritage park of mistrust and misunderstanding.

It is true that Polish patriotism is terribly wronged by our tragic history. The though fate of our nation, the fight to regain independence and sovereignty, the defiance towards the cruellest totalitarianisms for almost 200 years have left a mark on our psyche, on the way we perceive the world and how we approach fellowmen. However, in the same history we achieved our goals only when we managed to rise above our dislikes to – instead of dividing – communicate over the divisions. The first generation of Poles born in free, libertine, independent and democratic Poland is currently starting out their grownup life. We should not allow the ghosts of past to determine their attitude towards Poland and patriotism. Our fears of the past must not spoil their openness and the will to discover and improve the world around them.

Today we need the traditionally understood patriotism to much smaller extent. It was meant as a shield defending us from the outer threats, but nowadays we want its modern dimension, which should invite us to openness, to sacrificing for the fellowman, to promote the attitudes important for us, but also to understanding the diversity. Today all that is patriotic does not have to be restricted to Polish boundaries or to an eagle in identity card. The respect for the common values like human rights, democracy, the multicultural dialogue or a tolerant discussion of our worldview and religious ancestry are universal values and they do not exclude patriotism. Poles, though, for decades have not got the chance to nurture them.

We should be connected with one another by the activity in the third sector, by helping others, by being proud of our achievements instead of delight of a common defined or exposed enemy. Patriotism should be perceived as positive and open, not excluding because of a antithetic political outlook, religion of worldview. The genuine patriotism is not only about loving some ideal fatherland but about loving, ascertaining and working for the actual components of the homeland: land, society, people and their riches – as Bolesław Prus once wrote.

It is worth asking the key question of the debate: is patriotism an attitude that can be externally assessed? Or is it an individual element of one’s identity and cannot be a point of reference for others? The conflict over Polish patriotism is just a part of a wider worldview strife characterising contemporary Polish society. The latter exhibits in primeval dichotomies: the community versus the individuality, romanticism versus positivism, the fall of aristocratic culture versus the newborn bourgeois tradition, or perceiving the state as un ultimate commonweal versus seeing it as a (payable) administrative service for the inhabitants. The conflict over narrowing the notion of patriotism is just an example of them, just another battleground for foisting a certain pattern of behaviour on the society, for assigning a new hierarchy of attitudes and conducts.

“It is worth discussing” as one television programme says. But perhaps it is worth learning first what the dialogue and the respect for the interlocutor and their opinions is. The trouble with understanding the alternative attitudes, motivations or operations is mutual and only by openness for one another and a lot of good will we can break it. We should reject the attitude of inaccessibility. It is never too late. We can  – like nobody else – integrate up against a common enemy. But we rarely notice that it can lie in wait in ourselves…

Translated by A. Kumycz

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About Dominik Krakowiak

29 years old. Born in Lodz, Poland, currently living in Brussels, Belgium. Master of Arts in both: Sociology (University of Lodz) and European Studies (KU Leuven). Former management member of the EUROPE DIRECT Contact Centre of the European Commission, currently working for the Community Research and Development Information Service CORDIS. Member of the Polish Forum of Young Diplomats.

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