The Polish Paradox: Freedom, Religion & Community

By Mazurkiewicz, Piotr | Commonweal, January 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Polish Paradox: Freedom, Religion & Community

Mazurkiewicz, Piotr, Commonweal

Poland presents a challenge to Western political commentators, especially in light of the recent rise to power of the conservative Law and Justice Party. While most outside observers were happy to see a post-Communist party seize power, many were unnerved that it was the political Right which assumed leadership of the Polish government in 2005. Much of that nervousness on the part of Western critics can be attributed to ignorance of Polish history and to the tendency of liberals to look with suspicion on any changes they have not triggered themselves. Those traits were also prominent in the reaction in the West to "the explosion of Catholicism" that followed the abolition of Communist restrictions in the 1990s. Some commentators worried that Poland would become a confessional state. Ironically, among those concerned about the influence of Polish Catholicism were people from countries where arrangements similar to those adopted in Poland (for instance, noncompulsory religious education in public schools) had been functioning for decades.

The loud patriotism of current Polish politics may be a reaction to several years of adjustments that were required before the Poles could enter the EU and NATO. A long period of copying alien political models can often fuel a patriotic backlash. No nation wants to be a parrot. Membership in NATO and the EU has long been a strategic objective of Poland's foreign policy. The Poles see their prospects for economic success as dependent on membership in the EU, and most link their hopes for Poland's security with NATO and the United States. Most feel sympathetic toward America, remembering the assistance offered to them in the Reagan era. But sympathy and gratitude cannot be taken for granted. Reciprocal respect needs to be shown. (The current, stringent American visa policy seems to be a test of that respect.) Sandwiched between great powers, historically the target of partition and occupation, Poles become nervous when arrangements are made over their heads. To some extent, the relative popularity of the Law and Justice Party reflects these concerns.

It is the West's unfamiliarity with Polish history and culture that deserves a longer comment, however. Generally, Poland is perceived as an ethnically and religiously homogenous state. But this perception does not fit the history of the country. One has to see the origins of modern Poland in a Central European context. The Jagiellonian royal dynasty, originating in Lithuania during the Middle Ages, reigned over a territory that includes today's Baltic countries and parts of Russia and Hungary, as well as Poland, and ultimately sponsored the Polish-Lithuanian Union of the sixteenth century. The political system in that state was democratic, with constitutionally safeguarded rights for the nobility who made up 12 to 20 percent of the country's population. Owing to the country's multiethnic and multiconfessional structure, tolerance was a sine qua non of its survival, and its cities resembled the modern multicultural metropolises of the West. This tolerant cosmopolitanism informed such deliberative bodies as the Council of Constance (1415), where the rector of the Cracow Academy demanded that the Teutonic Order abandon its methods of converting pagans with sword and fire, and the Warsaw Confederation of 1573, which safeguarded equal rights to all citizens regardless of their nationality and religion.

A characteristic Polish trait is the longing for freedom and the readiness to pay a high price for it, eloquently illustrated by a series of uprisings over the generations. (The best known is the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. During the sixty-three days of insurgency, two hundred thousand citizens of Warsaw were killed.) What makes the Polish conception of freedom different from the liberal individualism of the West is its collective character. The term Rzeczpospolita, like the old-English "commonwealth," is a precise rendition of the Latin term res publica, the community of free citizens.

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