Poland, Defending Christendom
Gregory Slysz gives us chapter and verse
Leftist commentators in both Poland and abroad have expressed bafflement and alarm about the current position adopted by the Polish government on a host of cultural and political issues. Its refusal to receive thousands of Islamic migrants in breach of the EU’s migrant relocation programme and its reforms to the post-communist judiciary have elicited accusations of impending tyranny and dictatorship not to mention threats of EU sanctions. Has all this finally revealed Poland’s incompatibility with Western culture? Has its pretence of being part of the Western world been shattered? Yet once the finger pointing is put aside a more complex scenario emerges that harbours insights not only into Poland’s national identity but also into the future of Western civilisation itself. Could these accusations be turned on their heads? Has not Poland, through its steadfast defence of its sovereignty and Christian heritage, a greater claim to being a champion of the West’s cultural legacy than its self-proclaimed liberal defenders? Here one can add other Eastern European states, including Russia, which are also increasingly at odds with contemporary cultural trends and agendas in the West.
As Western liberal establishments grapple with the self-inflicted disasters of their post-modernist and multicultural experiments, they wax lyrical about the importance of preserving Western values in a bid to avoid societal disintegration. Of course, none among them can agree on what these values actually are, given that everything is considered relative. The key problem that they face is that what once passed for universal Western values was rooted in the Judeo-Christian inheritance of moral certainly, faith, family and national heritage. Attempts to recast these values in secular garb focus on commercial-juridical-technical elements to the exclusion of religion.
However, shorn of its religious roots, the Judeo-Christian heritage is an empty shell. And the more that Western societies stray from their founding principles the more civilizational division is reinforced, as is so evident, between the nation-states of Eastern and Western Europe, as well as within western European societies amid tension between traditionalists and cultural relativists.
The rapid development of both horizontal and vertical tensions in Western civilisation during the post-cold war period was not foreseen by commentators committed to the virtuousness of the Western heritage. In his seminal Foreign Affairs article in 1993 ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Samuel P. Huntington stated unequivocally that ‘The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural … The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.’ Although Huntington was broadly correct, he overestimated the cultural homogeneity of ‘western civilisation’ while he underestimated the role that ideology would play as a socio-political determinant in the post-Cold War world.
It was certainly true, as Huntington stated, that people’s cultural and religious identity in Eastern Europe would be heightened in the absence of the ideological constraints of the Soviet order. What has jarred with his thesis has been the hostile redirection of this renewed sense of identity against contemporary mainstream Western values. Indeed, Huntington’s claim that the disappearance of ‘the ideological division of Europe’ would reinstall a historical cultural fault line ‘between Western Christianity, on the one hand, and Orthodox Christianity and Islam on the other’ has not transpired as he envisaged. The main reason for this lies in the proactive adoption by Western governing elites of cultural Marxism, known popularly as political correctness. It is no surprise that these values, especially in the domain of sexual identity politics, are far removed from what even Soviet block leaders considered unpalatable.
In a further ironic twist, while Western governments have adopted a radical ideology in opposition to their historical inheritance, Russia has become one of the staunchest defenders of Judeo-Christian socio-cultural values against the transgressions by its erstwhile Cold War foes. Given this role reversal, it would seem appropriate to shift Huntington’s civilizational fault line in Europe further to the West, positioning it on the Order-Neisse line rather than on the borders of the Orthodox world. At the Valdai Forum in September 2013, Vladimir Putin highlighted the growing cultural chasm between the West and Russia. He emphasised Russia’s Christian revival while stressing the West’s civilizational crisis whereby ‘many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan’.
Putin decried the fact that ‘European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations [and yet they] are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis’. These claims, which Putin revisits on a regular basis, could be dismissed as the political posturing of a former KGB operative were it not for the fact that Russia is experiencing a huge religious revival, with 86% of Russian people, according to a recent Levada poll, affiliating with Orthodoxy to some degree. It is a view echoed by senior Orthodox clerics such as the Oxford educated renowned theologian and head of External relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion, who at a recent conference in London on the ‘Christian future of Europe’, expressed alarm at the ‘transformation in the religious and ethnic landscape of Europe’, noting ‘an opposite trend in the Eastern European countries, in particular in Russia’  It is a national mind-set that should resonate loudly in Poland, which is increasingly confronting the type of cultural imperialism that Putin alluded to, being regularly pressured by Western institutions to abandon its religio-cultural values, in favour of liberal social norms on a host of issues such as abortion.
A Russo-Polish rapprochement, which mutual cultural proximity would suggest is possible, is being hampered however by the current antagonism between the two countries. For the situation to change, conditions need to be reset. For one, Poles need to reject claims that Moscow’s policy in Ukraine represents a new era of Russian revanchism, and understand that the notion of ‘Russian aggression’, which their leaders continually parrot, has been devised in foreign climes, which use Poland as a spring-board for their anti-Russia foreign policy. The West’s regime-change strategy in Ukraine, which sought to undermine closer Russo-Ukrainian economic cooperation as well as threaten Russia’s access to the Black Sea, was the latest in a long list of provocations against Russia marked notably by the expansion of Nato to the Russian border. Moscow’s swift reaction cannot in any way be taken as a precursor to a territorial aggrandisement strategy that would serve no strategic purpose.
Secondly, there needs to be a conscientious re-visiting of history in both Poland and Russia. Crucially, Russia needs to de-couple its contemporary identity from that of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s bewailing, implicit or otherwise, of the demise of the Soviet state is an affront to the millions of Russian victims of Soviet authorities as well as to Russia’s great Christian cultural heritage that was so wantonly vandalised, but also to countries like Poland for which the Soviet imperial legacy was so tragic. In Poland, conversely, there needs to be a recognition that Poles were not always the victim of Russia’s aggression but were frequently the aggressors which ultimately provoked a decisive Russian riposte in the nineteenth century at the expense of Polish independence. In this instance, Sergei Lavrov’s recent observation that the Polish public is being ‘brainwashed into holding ‘unequivocally anti-Russian’ attitudes and that history is being re-written so as to ‘pin the blame for all of Poland’s misfortunes on [Russia]’ has merit, as does his conclusion that there is no evidence that Poles have a hostile predisposition toward Russia. At the same time, Poles need to remind themselves that their historical experiences with their Western neighbours have consisted of a catalogue of deceit and betrayal of their cause of national independence, from Napoleon’s cynical exploitation of Poland’s interests during his Russian adventure to Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s notorious betrayal at Yalta, with much in between.
These experiences have certainly dampened enthusiasm among Poles for things Western. Despite the media frenzy at the time that sought to confirm Poland’s ‘Western’ credentials, Poland’s joining the European Union (EU) in 2004, which many Poles are increasingly regretting, especially the youth, was not rooted in the integrationist agenda. Rather, it was partly a desire for western consumerism after decades of socialist austerity and, in a very large part, fear of a resurgent Russia, which weighed heavily on long-standing collective national memories of national subjugation stretching back to the Partition of the nineteenth century at the hands of Russia, Prussia and Austria. Yet it was precisely these experiences that rendered Poland incompatible with any supra-national integrationist agenda. With the total disappearance of the Polish state in the 1830s came a re-definition of the Polish national identity. Having no state of its own, the Polish nation came to be identified with the principle of jus sanguinis (the right of blood) that was determined by a combination of ethnic, historical and linguistic factors, and not by the principle of jus soli (the right of soil), as is standard in the West, which determines someone’s nationality by the place of his birth. Abandoning their more inclusive outlook towards foreigners during the golden age of Polish statehood in the sixteenth century, when, as masters of their own fate, they shared their state with many other nationalities, Poles now saw that the jus sanguinis principle was the only alternative to enforced Germanisation and Russification.
This mentality is difficult to shift, even in these more fruitful times. In fact, it is strengthening, especially among the youth, in direct contrast to trends in Western Europe and elsewhere in the West. The socially conservative, religio-nationalist ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), which in 2015 scored the biggest victory of any party in post-communist Poland, relied heavily on the youth vote while nationalist marches, which in the West attract a few hundred participants, in Poland attract hundreds of thousands, in which youth groups like Młodzież Wszechpolska (All-Polish Youth) are highly active. Only within this historical context can it be understood why three quarters of Poles reject the influx of refugees from Asia and Africa and why the PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński could state during the election campaign, and be electorally rewarded for it, that migrants carry ‘all sorts of parasites and protozoa, which … while not dangerous in the organisms of these people, could be dangerous here’. 
Poland’s ethno-nationalism, similarly, is determining the government’s defiance of the EU over its judicial reforms which Brussels claims break the rule of law by denying tenure to judges voted in by the antecedent parliament but which Warsaw insists are constitutionally legal, designed to purge Poland of political appointees. Threats of EU political and economic sanctions have failed to dent the government’s resilience in defending what it regards as a matter of national sovereignty. The moderate levels of active internal opposition to the government that manifests itself primarily in street protests by the so-called Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an eclectic mix of liberal-leftist forces, has similarly had no effect on the government’s electoral support. With a government determined to implement its agenda, come what may, KOD increasingly looks to be less about defending democracy and more about preserving the privileges of the corrupt post-communist elite, as its critics always suspected and which the government, with its far-reaching socio-economic reforms, plans to remove. Talk of coups akin to that which toppled the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine, have been exposed as mere bravura by the Left, which as in the US in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory and in the UK after Brexit, finds it difficult to accept electoral defeat.
Speaking at the recent European Forum for New Ideas in the Polish Baltic resort town of Sopot, Elżbieta Bieńkowska, EU Commissioner for the internal market and Poland’s former deputy prime minister in the defeated liberal government of Civic Platform (PO), noted with exasperation that Poland now presents ‘a greater danger for the EU than Brexit’ for its disobedience of EU diktats. Hyperbole aside, she has a point. History has taught Poles many bitter lessons, chief among which is instinctively to suspect system-builders and if necessary to resist them. Donald Trump was politically astute in the words he chose in Warsaw, when he addressed huge crowds against the backdrop of the memorial to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. In declaring that ‘The people of Poland, the people of America, and the people of Europe still cry out “We want God” … We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the centre of our lives’, he was both warning against those who ‘threaten to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are’ and validating Poland’s enduring commitment to these values. The implication was not lost that Poland was now one of the staunchest custodians of these values in the face of determined opposition against them.
Adherence to a regimented state system, which seeks to undermine its national identity for the sake of some alleged common good, is alien to Poland’s national character. Saddling the Polish cow, as Stalin once remarked and as history has repeatedly demonstrated, is a precarious and futile exercise. The failed attempts to do so serve as lessons to those who seek to re-invent the Polish nation so that it reflects the latest political fashion of far away places. They will discover quickly that their efforts will amount to nothing. And with populist rebellion sweeping the Western world, perhaps history is moving in Poland’s direction.
Statue of Cecil Rhodes, Oriel College, Oxford
Dr Gregory Slysz studied History at Oxford University. He lectures in History and International Relations
 See for instance, N. Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest, (Penguin, 2012)
 S. Huntington, ‘The clash of civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs, summer 1993, Vol.72
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