August 1 is the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, an attempt by Polish underground partisan units to liberate the capital city from Nazi rule before the Soviets could arrive. It has become the cornerstone of the current Polish regime’s memory politics, because it has all the elements that they like to promote: a sense of dual victimization from both Nazis and Soviets; a resentment towards the Western Powers for not intervening; a story filled with suffering and pain; and of course a martyrological conclusion. The iconic illustrations on posters all over Warsaw this week are of young people who died during the fighting—the ideal innocent victims. I’ve written often enough about why I consider this martyrological historical vision to be harmful, so I won’t rehearse those arguments here. What I want to note instead are three events that I noticed while walking around downtown Warsaw this evening.
The first was on Piłsudski Square, where the official commemorations were staged. Tens of thousands of people gathered to hear a concert of songs composed during the occupation, most of which had lyrics complaining about hardship and oppression. Truthfully, though, I don’t think the lyrics mattered all that much to this audience. Towards the edge of the crowd it was hard to make out what the singers were saying, and the jazzy tunes of mid-20th pop music were more prominent than the words. The proliferation of Polish flags and Uprising iconography ensured that the event was more than just a fun picnic, but the mood was not nearly as lachrymose as August 1 events typically are.
On Castle Square, about a mile away, the mood was very different. Here a small crowd had gathered to listen to heavily amplified metal and rap versions of songs from the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne, or NSZ), a far-right splinter group from the 1940s that broke away from the mainstream Polish opposition, the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, or AK). The NSZ resented the fact that the AK expressed sympathy with the Jews, and hoped instead to build a postwar Poland that would put the finishing touches on Hitler’s plans by ensuring that the Jews would never return to Polish lands. In their political ideology they echoed Fascist and Nazi themes of authoritarianism and nationalism, and they were vehemently anti-socialist, anti-liberal, and anti-modern. The memory of the NSZ is currently being whitewashed by the Polish government, which hopes to win the votes of their 21st century heirs, the National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny, or ONR). Disturbingly, alongside the young men participating in the show were at least two Catholic priests. I don’t want to overstate the importance of the ONR. It’s hard to know how many of the crowd affiliated with that group, given that the majority of the onlookers were curious and clueless tourists, but I would guess that no more than 50 ONR members were there.
The third gathering was the saddest of all. About 100 meters away were a tiny cluster of antifascist protesters who had hoped to decry the defilement of Castle Square by the ONR. Again, It’s hard to know how many of them there were, but there couldn’t have been more than a dozen. They were vastly outnumbered by the police who had surrounded them, so as to prevent them from approaching the ONR concert. In contrast to the young men on the square, these counter-protesters were mostly my age (let’s call that “late middle age”), and mostly women.
One interpretation of these three snapshots would be that most Varsovians treat August 1 as a banal historical anniversary, and an opportunity for a pleasant concert on a warm summer evening. Both the politicized events were tiny and insignificant, and both were taking place under careful supervision by the police (who intervened in the ONR show when someone lit a red smoke torch). I would be thrilled if this depoliticized, content-free approach was taking hold. It might seem strange for a historian like me to say, but I can’t wait until history becomes boring again in Poland. At least in this country, when history comes alive, bad things tend to follow.
But I fear that we are a long way from turning August 1 (or November 11, or May 3, or any other major anniversary) into holidays akin to America’s infamously vacuous grilling-and-fireworks fest of July 4. The critical mass of Varsovians at the main concert were just expressing respect and benign patriotism, but note how the overall terrain has shifted. People openly evoking the memory of mid-20th century fascists are able to hold a legally authorized demonstration on Warsaw’s most central historical and tourist landmark, while almost no one reacts (and those who do get cordoned off far, far away). It is no secret that many people in the current government consider the ONR to be little more than a somewhat overexuberant youth movement, made up of kids with good intentions but a bad public relations strategy. The vast majority of Poles would oppose the ONR, and if they were ever shown the NSZ program from the 1940s, they would be horrified. Yet most are happy to ignore the radicals, even as such extremist ideas creep closer and closer into official discourse. After all, the concert of wartime songs was so much nicer, and the stories of martyrdom bring a cathartic and patriotic tear to everyone’s eyes. Why pay attention to a few nutcases with bad music?
This is how authoritarian ideologies work: not by convincing good people to believe in extremist ideas, but by shifting the center of gravity so that such ideas appear to be little more unfortunate excesses. I’ve written elsewhere that authoritarian regimes don’t typically oppress the majority; instead, they break down the safeguards that allow minorities to live in safety. Allowing the ONR to occupy Castle Square while establishing a police cordon around a few antifascist protesters is an eloquent example of this pattern.