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Poland’s official nationalism will make it hard to absorb Ukrainians

Although Poles have been welcoming, the newly official Polish version of history is based on excluding and blaming outsiders. How will that affect Ukrainians?

- April 5, 2022

As of this writing, more than 2.5 million refugees have entered Poland from Ukraine since Russia invaded Ukraine. Over a period of weeks, Poland has effectively become a binational country.

As a result, a broad public debate unraveled among Polish intellectuals, government officials and the media on how the country can adapt to the massive of influx of people, some of whom may stay for a long time given the similarities in languages.

One key question involves schooling. Polish officials estimate that 700,000 Ukrainian pupils can enter Poland’s public schools, while United Nations officials think the total number of eligible children in the country may be as high as 1 million. However, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has centered the Polish education system on Polish identity and a particular notion of national shared memory. That will make it very hard to integrate refugees.

Poland’s ruling party has tried to remake Polish history

PiS has dominated the Polish government since 2015. Over that time, it has tried to remake Polish identity to place perceived national grievances at the center of Poland’s story, while pushing outsiders into historical oblivion.

After Poland became a democracy in 1989, its government did little to create a sense of shared history. As scholars like Jan Kubik, Marta Kotwas, Michael Bernhard and Eviatar Zerubavel have argued, they didn’t really try to create any shared understanding of what had happened over the previous several decades, including the years of Nazi occupation and Soviet control, as well as the transition toward democracy. That made it possible for PiS to provide its own story, in which Poles were the victims of historic abuses and never the perpetrators.

PiS claimed that Poland had not really gotten back its sovereignty in 1989, since it was still dominated by former communist officials who had collaborated with the U.S.S.R. It argued that people who talked about Polish antisemitism were Poland haters. When it came to power, it drastically reduced pensions to every uniformed official and diplomat who spent even a single day in service during the communist era. It passed a controversial law (later amended) threatening prison for anyone who suggested that the Polish nation had collaborated with the Nazis in crimes against Jews during World War II.

All this went together with new government cultural policies, which used religious and historical symbols to make it seem as though Polish identity and supporting PiS were one and the same thing. To be truly Polish meant hating communists, devout Catholicism, and feeling nostalgic about the glories of Polish history.

Poland’s Holocaust law is just the latest in the attempt to officially redefine its history

Now it has to figure out how to deal with Ukraine

As part of this cultural program, PiS changed school curriculums to “reclaim the generations of young Poles deprived of awareness,” as Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek put it. It got rid of traditional civic education and replaced it with a compulsory course on what it calls “history and the present,” which reflected the ruling party’s ideological biases. For example, according to the education ministry’s curriculum, students are expected to prove that the 2010 Smolensk presidential plane crash (which killed a PiS leader, the twin brother of the current leader) was the most important event in Poland’s postwar history.

They are also expected to study the writing of Pope John Paul II on what Polish democracy ought to involve and to treat 2005, when the first PiS government came to power, as the real beginning of Polish post-communist democracy.

Now, with a massive influx of Ukrainian students in Polish schools, this historical revisionism has suddenly become awkward. One of the key sources of Ukrainian national identity was a serf rebellion against Polish nobility who had reduced Ukrainian peasants to near-slavery and forced educated Ukrainians to learn and speak Polish in the areas of Ukraine it controlled. That is hard to reconcile with the stories of Polish virtue and victimhood that the current Polish government prefers.

On the other hand, during World War II, Ukrainian nationalists tried to exterminate ethnic Poles in the Wołyń area, killing some 50,000 Polish inhabitants. Poles retaliated, although on a much smaller scale, murdering a few thousand Ukrainians. The Wołyń massacre was a delicate and difficult topic for decades in Polish-Ukrainian relations, also because the Soviet domination over both countries blocked any meaningful debate about it. Now it could become a major point of contention, as PiS-reformed curriculums, again, emphasize Polish heroism and the tragedy of Polish victims, leaving little room to even discuss the Ukrainian perspective.

Check out all TMC’s analysis of the Russia-Ukraine conflict at our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

The more fundamental problem is that the official Polish version of history is based around excluding rather than including non-Poles. It’s possible to push such a history in a country that just has one major national group within its borders. Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, Poland has two nations rather than one for the first time since World War II.

PiS is confronted with the dilemma of figuring out how to educate Ukrainians in a school system that it has rebuilt around a narrow and intensely distorted version of Polish history. It will be nearly impossible for the government to find a common narrative that simultaneously appeals to a narrow and distorted understanding of Polish nationals while integrating Ukrainians into a country that may become a long-term home.

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Mateusz Mazzini is a lecturer at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw and writer-at-large for Gazeta Wyborcza daily.