Three Cheers for Historical Ignorance

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Three Cheers for Historical Ignorance

In recent years, pathbreaking websites like or have challenged the norms of journalism and punditry by introducing serious statistical analysis and rigorous background research to the public discourse. The writers who contribute to these sites are accessible, witty, and down-to-earth, but they refuse to accept conventional-wisdom generalizations about what “Americans” think or feel or do. They are always asking for the evidence—and when they get it, they often find that the assumptions of the intelligentsia are wildly mistaken.

This is painfully true in Poland as well, where even very smart writers and politicians routinely perpetuate overgeneralizations about what “the Poles” believe (as if “the Poles” were part of a hive mind). Recently more nuance has been noticeable, as people increasingly talk about two Polands, the nationalist-Catholic-rural Poland and the liberal-secular-urban Poland. This helps, but I think the real issue goes deeper.

A recent survey by CBOS provided an example of how deeply the Polish intelligentsia (and most international observers of Poland, who tend to base their impressions on conversations with those intellectuals) misunderstand the Polish population. I wish I had a złoty for every time I have heard someone say that “Poles are very religious” and “history is extraordinarily important to Poles.” I understand why people say that: a casual trip to the country gives one the impression that religious iconography is everywhere, and that historical commemorations are unusually common. But just because political leaders and other public figures promote a particular worldview does not mean that these attitudes will be shared.

The aforementioned survey started with a relatively easy question: “how often do you feel proud to be Polish?” Not surprisingly, 45% said “quite often” and 26% said “very often.” Only 4% said “never” and 22% “rarely.” The insight in this survey came with the next question: “what makes you proud to be Polish?” Respondents could list multiple answers. The most popular response (selected by 24%) pointed to victories by Polish athletes in international competitions. A mere 10% mentioned stories of historical heroism, and only 2% said that they were proud of their country’s Catholic religiosity and traditional values. 8% referred to the symbolism of the nation: the flag, the national anthem, etc.

If we combine this data with other statistical information, this general image is confirmed. We know that just over a third of Poles regularly attend mass (36.7%, according to the most recent figures), and that Poles are startlingly unaware of the historical episodes typically highlighted as seminal for that nation. For example, in a 2016 survey, only 21% were able to identify why 1863 was important, and only 57% recognized why 1989 was a significant year. Amazingly, 43% did not know what 1918 represented for Poland! To be sure, 82% could identify the meaning of 1939, and 74% knew what happened in 966. The only other widely recognized date was the battle of Grunwald in 1410. Moreover, historical awareness has fallen over the past 25 years. Only 966 and 1410 are more widely recognized today than they were in the late 1980s, while every other historical anniversary is less well known. When asked to name the most important historical events of the past century (they could name more than one), only 23% pointed to WWII, and only 8% mentioned the Warsaw Uprising (the most omnipresent event in official public memory). Oddly, just over half said that Poland’s restoration in 1918 was most important, though based on that earlier question, it seems that the remainder didn’t even know what happened in that year. 43% pointed to the election of John Paul II, 33% highlighted Poland’s entry to the European Union, and 30% noted the fall of communism.

I suspect that this same survey would get somewhat different responses today, because the PiS government has been relentless in its promotion of the idea that Poland’s national essence was and is defined by its collective martyrdom during WWII. But we need to recognize this for what it is: a PR campaign organized by state authorities, reflecting the preoccupations of a minority. Admittedly, a substantial minority–but not a majority, and certainly not “the nation” as a cohesive whole.

You might expect that a historian like me would lament the low level of historical knowledge among Poles, but in fact I think it is wonderful. Since the dominant historical stories are marked by martyrology and nationalist resentment, a sober forgetfulness is both healthy and rational. For most Poles, patriotism means cheering the red-and-white in the World Cup (but let’s not talk about that) or the European Track-and-Field Championships this week in Berlin (let’s definitely talk about that). During the 2012 Euro-cup hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine (in what feels like a completely different historical epoch now), I wrote that Polish patriotism had matured by becoming more juvenile. Instead of politically charged, lachrymose, nationalistic bombast designed to nurture resentments towards external and internal enemies, it seemed that people were starting to treat Polishness as something to cheer about, not fight about. Sure, some hooligans tried to turn the former into the latter, but they were a tiny minority (contrary to the misleading international press coverage at the time). Now those hooligans enjoy the backing of the state, and it is easy to imagine that their attitudes define Polishness as a whole. Perhaps I overstated the magnitude of the transformation back in 2012, but the survey data mentioned above shows that the resurgence in nationalist-Catholic martyrology remains a thin veneer that has not yet come to characterize widespread popular attitudes.

If the PiS regime lasts beyond one parliamentary term,  and continues to marginalize alternative worldviews (particularly in the school system), then their worldview could become more deeply entrenched. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet. It is also possible (maybe even likely) that interest in history will go down as the schools focus more on the memorization of names and dates from heroic stories, and as the media is increasingly saturated with tendentious stories about a pantheon of Great Poles. The eye-rolling boredom of teenagers will do more to scuttle Mr. Kaczyński’s historical politics than any complaints by professional historians. Hope for the future rests on the ability of the next generation to forget what they are taught in school, and instead pay attention to sports.  That strikes me as a solid foundation for optimism.   

About Author

Brian Porter-Szucs

Brian Porter-Szucs is a Thurnau Professor of History at the University of Michigan, where he specializes in the history of Poland, Catholicism, and modern economic thought.