Black Lives Matter in Poland, Too

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Black Lives Matter in Poland, Too

Pointing out hypocrisy is usually pointless: first, because we are all guilty of this sin from time to time; second, because it is rare indeed when someone who is confronted with their own inconsistencies responds by abandoning mutually exclusive viewpoints.  More commonly, they (we, because I do this too) just rationalize our views until the round peg really does fit into the square hole.

That said, I have to make an exception today, because the double standard is so glaring and so upsetting. 

With protests against systemic racism and police brutality breaking out across the United States, someone in Poland decided to show their solidarity (something Poles are supposed to be good at) in a particularly poignant way. In both Lafayette Square in Washington and Żelazna Brama Square in Warsaw stand identical statues that symbolize the bond between our countries.  The figure commemorated in these monuments is Tadeusz Kościuszko, who is one of those rare historical figures who really does deserve to be (literally) placed on a pedestal. He is most famous for serving as a volunteer in the American army during our War for Independence, and then for returning to Poland to lead an uprising against Russian rule.

He is famous for his service during these wars of national liberation, but that is not what truly set him apart from his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic. In both the infant American Republic and in the dying Polish-Lithuanian Republic, he stood out boldly for his opposition to unfree labor.  In Poland he was responsible for the very first effort to eliminate serfdom, with the justly famous Połaniec Manifesto of 1794. This document, which sadly remained a dead letter because of Kościuszko’s eventual defeat, recognized peasants (the vast majority of the population of northeastern Europe at the time) as full citizens with equal protection before the law—a radical proposal at that time. More, shortly after issuing this document Kościuszko also promised to implement a program of land reform that would give peasants full property rights over that land that they cultivated. To translate this to an American context, this would be as if an antislavery abolitionist had demanded that the white landowners divide up their plantations for distribution to former slaves. 

Kościuszko also carried these values to North America.  In his will, he dedicated a large part of his estate, including the substantial sum he had earned serving as a high-ranking officer under Washington, to the cause of purchasing manumission for slaves.  In keeping with his program for unfree laborers in northeastern Europe, he specified that the newly freed African-Americans be provided with land, tools, and whatever education they might need to be successful. Unfortunately, he had the poor judgment of naming Thomas Jefferson as the executor of his North American property, and he refused to carry out his Polish friend’s wishes. 

With this background, I cannot imagine a more appropriate gesture than this, which appeared last week on the Warsaw monument to Kościuszko:

Pomnik Kościuszki w Warszawie zdewastowany! - Ameryka po polsku

Currently the mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, is running for president as the candidate of the liberal opposition. He has generated a great deal of hope recently among those who want to bring an end to the far-right nationalist rule of the Law and Justice Party, and their apparatchik currently serving as president, Andrzej Duda. In the past Trzeskowski has positioned himself as the candidate of multicultural tolerance, and was even willing to alienate his more centrist supporters by defending LGBTQ rights. In response to the Kościuszko graffiti he said “There can be no acceptance for vandalism. I have ordered the cleaning of the Tadeusz Kościuszko monument in Warsaw, which was devastated (zdewastowany) last night.” 

Here are some of the headlines the next day:

One of those headlines is from the absurdly tendentious state television, which serves as the party organ of Law and Justice.  Another is from Polsat, a commercial station that usually tries to position itself as nonpartisan.  The third is from Gazeta Wyborcza, which is the leading newspaper for the center-left opposition.  Can you guess which is which?  I cannot think of another occasion in which picking between these three would be difficult. 

Meanwhile, an official state body known as the Institute for National Memory is currently selling a celebratory album called Graffiti in the Polish People’s Republic. The website (the English language site of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute) offers an article entitled “Playing with Censorship: How Polish Artists Dealt with the Communist Regime”.  The featured image on the article is a bit of graffiti that reads “the radio and the TV belong to the nation! Down with censorship!”

Playing with Censorship: How Polish Artists Dealt with the ...

It is still possible to find fading street art in Warsaw that dates from the communist era, and there have been efforts to have these included in the “registry of historical artifacts” so that they can be preserved.

And of course, the famous “Fighting Poland,” the symbol of true patriotism, began life on the walls of Warsaw.

I’m not arguing that the Black Lives Matter slogan written on the Kościuszko monument be preserved and sanctified. Personally, I probably would have chosen another way to link the slogan with its very deserving Polish progenitor. But given the long history of the effective use of street art as a form of protest in Poland, the nonpartisan rush to condemn this powerful and appropriate political statement as if it was merely an act of “vandalism” or “destruction” may well be the most glaring act of hypocrisy in our all-too-hypocritical age.

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.