Warsaw’s Shift Eastwards: the Dislocation of Polish Identity


Poland has always strived to define itself against the East-West dichotomy; a struggle common amongst Eastern European societies.  Even though globally the North-South distinction continues to rise in relevance, this division is still – often implicitly – popularly embraced and mapped onto the understanding of world politics, and remains exceedingly important in the Polish context.

Amongst the most common criticisms of the East-West dichotomy is its difficulty in capturing hybridity, cultural interpenetration, and contamination – everything that makes the concept of a rigidly delineated border seem somewhat irrelevant and easily substitutable by the concept of borderland. In the light of a vast amount of easily accessible testimonies and simple logic, it would be naïve to cherish a vision of the world whereby the membership in a certain cultural circle was a dummy variable. Admittedly, states and nations form communities focused around shared values, norms, and practices, but at the same time their cultural constitution is dynamic and open to multiple influences.

Sławomir Mrożek (Slahvomir Mrozhekh), a Polish absurdist novelist and playwright, famously characterised his fatherland as being “to the west from the East and to the east from the West.”. Being in the peculiar grey zone between the two traditionally defined spheres has clearly translated into the political realm. Perpetual uncertainty surrounding the construal of Self against the Other, which could underlie national identity, generated scepticism towards the Other per se. It contributed to the purchase of a martyrized theory of national history and it made Poland swing between recognising and embracing its Slavic origins and looking up to the developed Western Europe.

The roots of Polish insecurity concerning its place in the global-political landscape can be traced back to the state’s foundations. The earliest recorded milestone in the country’s history is 966 AD, when Mieszko I, the first known Polish ruler, adopted Christianity as the state religion through his personal baptism. By the standards of the era, this was a politically momentous act which effectively integrated Poland with the community of established European states centred around the Catholic Church. Borne by the incoming religious current, the wave of Western legal, political, and administrative influences profoundly shaped the young and consolidating Polish state. Even nowadays, 966 remains a date - one which most Poles associate with the foundational act of their homeland.

 Jan Matejko Christianization of Poland (1889)  Matejko was a Polish painter living in 18th-19th century, famous for documenting momentous historical events. His artistic output earned him an informal title of a “national painter”

Jan Matejko Christianization of Poland (1889)

Matejko was a Polish painter living in 18th-19th century, famous for documenting momentous historical events. His artistic output earned him an informal title of a “national painter”

To give an opposite example, forced into the Soviet sphere of influence throughout the Cold War era, Poland was associated with the world’s East. Its capital was enshrined in the name of the communist defence alliance forged as a counterpunch aimed at NATO; the USSR exercised a nearly unconstrained control over its political and economic life; imported Marxism-Leninism took the place of the ideological paradigm. Wretched by the war and too weak to decide for itself, in a game between great powers, the country was forced into the Eastern camp with no realistic prospects of changing sides in foreseeable future.

Some news, however, soaked through the iron curtain and the dense clouds of official propaganda. It soon became obvious that the degree of freedom, welfare, and prosperity enjoyed by Western societies vastly exceeded that of the ordinary Polish resident. The West, neither for the first nor last time, became a model looked up to - despite the communist authorities’ desperate attempts to play down Western appeal.

The chance to cross the line and join the Western community came in 1989 with the breakdown of communist authoritarianism in the aftermath of the upsurge of the Poland-based Solidarity movement - a source of national pride. A series of events took Warsaw, shaking off the authoritarian grip and centrally planned economy, closer and closer to the West. Joining NATO in 1991 and the European Union in 2004 marked two major steps in its political shift westwards. By 2014, a Pole became the President of the European Council, which was widely dubbed a success and sign of recognition from the West.

However, the rise to power of the incumbent Law and Justice (PiS) party abruptly broke the steady Polish integration with Western Europe. PiS wasted no time. Just after the electoral results were announced, they started passing multiple illiberal policies, politicising the Constitutional Court, seizing state media, and later concentrating considerable power over the judiciary in the hands of party-nominated Minister of Justice. Nearly overnight, relations with Western Europe were severely damaged. PiS dignitaries did not wish to initiate dialogue with the West - let alone step back. The language they used to justify their political actions was exceedingly divergent with the language of Western liberal democracies.

 PiS’ PM Mateusz Morawiecki during a press conference; EU flags removed from the background.

PiS’ PM Mateusz Morawiecki during a press conference; EU flags removed from the background.

This discontinuity manifested itself in the way the authorities altered the state narrative about the EU. Just a few months before PiS took power, the official commemoration of the end of World War II involved a choral performance of the Ode to Joy alongside the national anthem. Soon after the seminal parliamentary elections, the Prime Minister tellingly decided to remove EU flags from the background of her press conferences. These gestures went hand in hand with a startling change in words. Polish ever-growing participation in the European community used to be presented as a source of pride; Western liberal democracies were posited as partners and, in many respects, models to follow. Since 2015, instead, government officials have exhibited a tendency to construe Europe as part of the Other rather than the Self – to talk about Poland as opposed to Europe rather than as being part of it. It is enough to read a few headlines of state media to notice that “Brussels” is identified with a foreign agency, embracing an inferior socio-political model, misguided and misinformed by inimical media, and threatening to punish legitimate defiance with sanctions.

Luminaries of the ruling elite have openly questioned values cherished by Western democracies. The overtone of notions such as “political correctness”, “liberal left”, or “feminism” has been rendered either ironic or simply pejorative. A prominent PiS’ MP, Krystyna Pawłowicz, called the EU flag a “rag”, expressing contempt towards European axiological system. The idea of liberal democracy came under attack: the then-Foreign Minister openly declared in a BBC interview that his party seeks to establish a “democracy without adjectives”. Kaczynski, the leader of PiS who effectively runs the state from behind the scene, notoriously deplored “legal impossibilism” – the obstacles posed by the system of checks and balances, which prevents winner-takes-it-all political outcomes.

The dismantling of checks and balances took the form of legislation. A series of ruthless reforms set the grounds for executive dominance known from most non-Baltic post-Soviet states. The goal of the process was simple – putting power over law and removing the obstacles which tie the hands of the rulers. The ideological shift extends to personal freedom and plurality, which were marginalised for the sake of order and homogeneity.

In his brilliant essay, John Plamenatz of All Souls College distinguished between Eastern and Western nationalism, listing the features where they are different. “Eastern nationalism” – writes Plamenatz – “is also illiberal (…). Leaders or rulers who take it upon themselves (…) are impatient of any opposition. Their task, they think, is urgent, and they will not tolerate obstructive criticism, taking it for granted that it is for them to decide when it is obstructive”.

Clearly, since the 2015 elections, there is an observable change in how Polish identity is officially construed. The authorities not only brutally criticise, but also seem to deny the legitimacy and relevance of current Western European politics and values. Whereas they don’t dare to argue for “Polexit” – surveys suggest over 80% of Poles are supportive of the EU – their rhetoric, absorbed by the exposed population, alienates and stigmatises the West. They seek to deeply alter the political structures based upon Western examples and embrace arrangements increasingly resembling Eastern hybrid systems. Given the popularity of their narrative, this can mean that the new vision of politics will be here to stay – unlikely to be reversed in the nearest future.