Poles drop their Messianic complex? Apr 14, 2011 18:54:11 GMT 1
Post by Bonobo on Apr 14, 2011 18:54:11 GMT 1
Laying Poland's messianic complex to rest
Poland is finally shaking off its image as the martyr of Europe – the first anniversary of Smolensk will test its progress
Have you heard the one about the Russian, the East German and the Pole? At the gates of heaven, St Peter tells them they can each ask one question.
The Russian goes first. "What does the future hold for Russia?" St Peter ponders for a moment, then whispers the answer. "Oh no!" cries the Russian, and starts weeping. The same thing happens with the East German, who also ends up in tears. Finally, it's the Pole's turn. "What will the future hold for Poland?" he asks. St Peter mulls it over, looks at the Pole, then starts weeping himself.
It's an old joke and one no longer much in currency, for at last it seems that Poland is shaking off its long-nurtured image as the martyr of Europe. But it's a change that's been tested by the Smolensk plane crash, and will be under the spotlight again come Sunday's first anniversary.
Opinions on the crash are divided. The older generation, and many living outside the main cities, are convinced that the crash was either a Russian conspiracy or an "act of God", thus renewing the centuries-old idea that the country has been singled out for suffering. After all, the delegation was on a flight to visit Katyn, the site of the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers in 1940 at the hands of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, an act only recently admitted by the Russian government. Seldom an evening passes on Polish TV without a documentary about last year's crash, the katastrofa, the catastrophe.
Poland's messianic complex was first voiced by the Romantic poet and activist Adam Mickiewicz, in his play, Dziady (1832), written in the aftermath of the country's unsuccessful 1830 uprising against the Russian empire, and in the national classic, Pan Tadeusz (1834), an epic poem that wistfully recalls Polish customs, folk songs and the beauty of its land during the partitions that banished Poland from the map altogether for 123 years. In both, Mickiewcz champions the country as the "Christ of Nations", while claiming that Poland's suffering would save Europe as a whole.
Though the country was back on the map after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Poland's perilous geographical position between German and Russia swiftly brought more terror and despair. Despite their huge contribution to the allied effort in the second world war (not least the Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain), the Poles were betrayed by Churchill who reneged on the Anglo-Polish military alliance (which promised "mutual assistance"), meaning that Poland was neither aided at home during the war nor liberated at the end of it.
What's more, their leader, the highly respected General Sikorski, prime minister of the Polish government in exile in London, and commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces, was killed in a plane crash off Gibraltar in 1943. Mysterious circumstances? You bet. The aircraft went down in the sea, and the pilot survived. Earlier that year, Sikorski had called upon the International Red Cross to investigate the Katyn massacre. Even more unnervingly, with Sikorski gone, the western allies could set about a pact with Stalin, signing away Poland to the Russians at the treaty of Yalta, a whole country and its people used as a mere bargaining tool.
And it didn't get any better for Poland. Communism followed, when many returning from the war, or from camps, were immediately sent to gulags, then, in 1981, came the declaration, and the brutality and deprivations of martial law. Small wonder, then, that Poles felt cheated, and fearful. Could they ever trust anyone again? Each time they had committed themselves to a cause, they had been betrayed. How could they not see themselves as God's chosen suffering state?
But attitudes are changing. At a dinner I attended in Krakow, a Polish woman in her 30s said she believed the Smolensk crash to be a tragic accident caused by human error, not divine intervention – a lack of judgment not Russian subterfuge. "In fact," she said, "I am proud. We lost so many important people, but the country did not collapse as the doubters expected. So it's given us more belief in how our government works, and in how our country is run, and that things can continue calmly here now despite such a tragedy."
Last Saturday was the sixth anniversary of Pope John Paul II's death. I was surprised how quietly the day was marked in Krakow (where he was archbishop before becoming pope): of course, there were thousands of candles and numerous services, some of them in the street, but there were not the mass, weepy pilgrimages of the first three or four anniversaries. In supporting Solidarnosc's bid to steer Poland towards democracy, the pope did much to ease the country from its notion of suffering and self-pity, and to convince them of the value of engagement over apathy. That's an extraordinary achievement from the highest seat in the Catholic church.
Since 1989, Nato, and EU accession in 2004 (and Poland will be taking over the presidency of the EU on 1 July this year) the country feels, perhaps for the first time, a solid part of Europe, even a player of growing strength.
There's no longer such an urge to be the scapegoat, the Christ of Nations, the nail between the pliers of Russia and Germany. Yes, it will take time for that recovery to embrace the whole nation – and such a mentality does not change overnight – but a considered response to the Smolensk disaster, and its anniversary, would mark continued progress. Perhaps then, at last, and with other nations taking heed of the history that created it, Poland's messianic complex can be laid to rest, once and for all.
• This article was amended on 11 April 2011. The original referred to General Sikorski's plane crashing in Malta. In fact, it came down shortly after take off from Gibraltar. In addition, it was mistakenly referred to as a "jet". These errors have now been corrected