Politicians and journalists all over the world feel responsible for how their own countries are perceived. However, advertising companies are more often called upon to develop such an image than historians and political scientists. However, if they have a chance to give a speech on the topic (as, in this case, at a conference organized by the President of the Republic of Poland), their thoughts on the subject are interesting and intriguing.
by Wojciech Stanisławski
A common feature of the 11, sometimes edgy, essays written by academic researchers, is the belief that the image of Poland is determined by its past – for good and bad – to a greater extent than in the case of other countries of comparable rank.
The “bad burden” of Poland’s past is present in at least two ways. First, we need to take into consideration all that we know thanks to research done by specialists in creating mass images and visuals of the “other”, at least since Edward Said’s Orientalism. It is extremely important [to take into consideration the influence of the person] who shapes and controls the image of a given subject. Creation of an image by the subject themselves does not protect it against distortions and manipulations. Narrative “from the outside”, especially in the context of a dispute over domination, almost guarantees the creation of a false or distorted image. This is what happened to Poland after the loss of independence at the end of the 18th century. Showing it as a “failed state”, or at best an anachronistic one, was one of the most effective practices that legitimized the partitions of the country. Thus, both St. Petersburg, Berlin and Vienna used it enthusiastically.
When studying the past (and the lack of sovereignty throughout both the 19th century and a large part of the 20th century), it is also difficult for the Polish political elite to understand what effective “soft power”, image and own narrative mean. Perhaps the most frequently mentioned foreigner in this book, apart from perhaps Frederick the Great and Catherine II, is Joseph Nye, the author of numerous works on the technique of creating soft power. Subsequent authors refer to this topic in an attempt to persuade the state, the media, and academia to build an evocative and true story about Poland’s past. This would be a story free from the self-pity that is fatal in the eyes of others (and so frequent in Polish self-presentations), but also focused on the wrongs and suffering that did take place. Poland did suffer a lot – but in everyday practice, recalling it so often simply makes it farcical, as the Polish playwright Sławomir Mrożek put it, lamenting over his generously shown missing teeth: “They knocked them out, sir, they knocked them out!”
The authors of the volume, including historian of literature and philosophy Ewa Thompson, sociologist Michał Łuczewski and philologist, art historian and poet Jacek Kowalski, argue about the need to refer to modern Poland in its heyday: as a monarchy (formally) with a strong republican component. This “republicanism” was present at all levels of the state’s functioning, from local noble assemblies, including the electing of local authorities and deputies to the Sejm (parliament), to the system of electing the ruler – one not free from pressure and corruption but still unique in Europe. The proof of the omnipresence of this “republican spirit” is the fact that the Polish language is one of the few that has a translation of the Latin “republic” (which in most languages of the world is present in an almost unchanged shape): what’s more, the Polish analogue of “Rzeczpospolita” remains part of the official name of the state to this day.
The rest of the issues raised by conference participants and authors of papers remain a matter of discussion: historian and journalist Grzegorz Górny recalls the contribution of Polish thinkers and mystics (from Faustina Kowalska to Maksymilian Kolbe) in the forms of piety in Catholicism. The aforementioned Ewa Thompson offers a proposal to abandon some of the memory of the “Republic of Many Nations” as it is an unwelcome concept for Ukrainians and Belarusians as they continue to develop their modern identity – a proposal not easy for nostalgics to swallow but interesting, nonetheless. Łukasz Jasina, a political scientist and film expert, emphasizes that the peculiar fate of Poland in the last 300 years (its disappearance twice from the world map, and strategies undertaken by the defenders of its independence) distinguishes us most from other countries in the crowded “self-presentation market”.
Some of the proposed promotional strategies may seem eccentric, and others are intended primarily for practitioners of diplomacy or the Polish cultural policy. However, reading the entire volume certainly allows one to imagine the ways of creating Polish historical policy in the coming years.
Author: Wojciech Stanisławski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin