Evoking Polish Memory

State, Self and the Communist Past in Transition

by Anna Witeska-Mlynarczyk (Author)
©2014 Monographs 253 Pages
Open Access


The book offers an interdisciplinary but very grounded look at the question of memory politics in contemporary Poland. It describes the conflicting ways in which two groups of people – the former anti-communist activists and the former officers of the repressive regime – have actively engaged in representations and claims about the communist past in the contemporary reality of one Polish town. The material is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted during the years 2006-2008. The author focuses on the processes of reconstruction of memories and subjectivities taking place at the intersection of individuals, civic society, state bureaucracy and politics. The book focuses on the beliefs, hopes and fears of people who became the subjects of historical policy during their lifetimes.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Contents
  • Notes on Transcription
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One Hidden Dialogicality: personal memory, expert knowledge, historical policy, and pedagogy of patriotism
  • Chapter Two The Mediating Role of the State in a Social Practice of Acquiring a Hero/Victim Subject Position
  • Chapter Three Religious Framework for Embodied Mutual Orientation: a hero/victim experience situated in the Catholic Church
  • Chapter Four The Archbishop is not the Church! Talk in the Association as a collaborative moral action
  • Chapter Five The Space of Ambiguity: between the collectively enacted frames and the experience of the self in time
  • Chapter Six Between Acknowledgement and Erasure: social dynamics behind the production of political identities materialized in the public space
  • Chapter Seven The Factory of Pathologies: collectivized imageries about the former security officers under the democratic state
  • Chapter Eight Excavating Memories of Political Violence in a ‘Lawful’ State: a case-study of a security officer’s trial
  • Chapter Nine Resolving Disorientation through Narrative: two case-studies
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

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Landscapes of Polish memory

This book is about landscapes of memory, as they have been collectively realized in a historical time of one Polish town - Marianowice1 - by some of its inhabitants. Marianowice’s landscape and the memories held by the people who live in it convey a sense of altered and ruptured history subject to numerous reconstructions. Conflicting commemorative inscriptions pile up on the buildings in which people’s thoughts manage to make sense of the seemingly contradictory. The historical period I focus on encompasses WWII, its aftermath, the communist era, and the transition from communism to democracy, suggesting an association with Howard Hodgkin’s paintings in which layers are painted over layers, never fully erased, always unveiling seemingly forgotten details of past social situations. The subject of this manuscript concerns the recent collective efforts to conventionalize and disambiguate the complex communist past undertaken in Poland, particularly during the years of my fieldwork, from 2006 to 2008. The complexity of the collective appropriation of historical process is visible in many corners of the town, in the ways in which people move within it or in narratives passed on in the locality. In line with Siobhan Kattago’s (2013) view of memory and representation of the past in contemporary Europe, my ethnographic case shows Poland as a space where a plurality of memories and narratives about the recent past start to branch out. The painting of new layers in the landscape and in the people’s minds is a political process comprising collectively enacted efforts by variously aligned social actors differently positioned vis-à-vis the centres of power and holding to divergent narratives about the past. This work takes as its subject matter political processes in which new collectively-built frameworks became objectified and legitimized through institutionalized state channels, eventually proving consequential for the psychologies of two different groups of people, as well as bringing visible change to the landscapes in which they live. The described policies are not characterized by stability as, like society at large, the political elites in Poland are divided on the question of what to do with the legacy of communism.

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The years of the communist regime in Poland were abundant in violent transgressions of varying intensity, directed particularly at those who politically opposed the pro-Soviet establishment. The structure of the security police2 was created in order to immobilize those who imagined that the state in which they lived should have been different and who stood up for this belief. The methods used by the security forces involved harsh repressions, both physical and psychological. During the Stalinist period, the security forces used brutal methods of elimination, imprisonment, torture and psychological repression. From the 1960s onwards, the invigilation of Polish society became more discreet; yet, with every social upheaval, the communist party tightened its control and often used violence against crowds and individuals. Eventually, in the winter of 1981, the newly-imposed martial law turned the social life of the country into a military-controlled project that lasted nearly 20 months. The changes in the global political order, the emergence of Solidarity, and the gradual dissolution of the Soviet bloc paved the way for the processes of political reconstruction. In 1989, the communist party leaders, the Solidarity activists and members of the Catholic Church sat around a table to agree on a new direction for the nation. It was the first step towards a social and political transition3.

This research, conducted nearly two decades after the collapse of a violent regime, was designed to explore the current perspectives of two groups: those who performed acts of resistance during communism, and who are now involved in the moral modes of defining the past, present and their own position in the framework of national history; and those who worked in the communist apparatus of repression, and who have been undergoing symbolic processes of exclusion in post-communist Poland4. I wanted to examine the ways in which the individuals portrayed in this book came to interpret the recent past. One can appreciate that these subjects and their involvement in the collectively realized actions are oriented to achieving coherence in their life-worlds, unavoidably nest←20 | 21→ed in the local landscape configuration that relies on the shifting power structures, semiotic and material resources, and individual psychologies. When designing the research, I believed that working with both groups, defined by the actions of the current state as heroes/victims5 and perpetrators, would allow the emergence of a more complete account of the symbolic and moral transition of a nation composed of various individual dramas. People who stood unevenly on different sides of the barricade in the past have been subjected to the moral practices of affirmation and denial in today’s polity. I view their fates as necessarily entangled and complementary, even if conflicting. If, while analyzing the acknowledged lives, one simultaneously looks into the denied ones, the picture gains more depth. One is able to see a background and a foreground at the same time, a perspective that is so easily abandoned, especially when the framing has a moral overtone. In this manuscript, I look at the consequences of the changing projects, authored by the Polish elites, of settling accounts with the past, which oscillated between extremes, and argue that the lack of clear and consequential historical policy led to the unpacking of troublesome individual memories while never fully incorporating them into the symbolic sphere. Such a situation brings no solid resolution, and it may distort the process of building a stable narrative about the self, one’s past, and its relevance for the wider community.

Setting and methods

The first part of the book speaks about the heroes/victims. I use this term to denote those who were involved in anti-communist activity, and who were repressed for such engagements during the undemocratic regime; they have since experienced official recognition in post-communist Poland as victims of communism and have at the same time been publicly acknowledged as national heroes. Suffering and heroism is a well-grounded topos in Polish culture. Those who experienced repression during communism are publicly acknowledged as victims and are seen as people whose dignity and integrity was violated in the political context. At the same time, since they resisted and suffered in the name of the nation, their deeds are considered heroic and they are represented as indomitable heroes. A large number of people in Marianowice fall into this category. Thousands are members of various associations of victims, veterans, combatants and former Solidarity activists. In order to ground my work, I chose to work closely with one particular association – the Association of the Former Prisoners of the Communist Period in Marianowice. The first five chapters should be read as a consequence of my engagement in the workings of this asso←21 | 22→ciation. I visited the associational office on a weekly basis. I participated in the rituals and commemorative events with them. I read the files collected by the state security authorities concerning certain subgroups and persons in the association. Eventually, I undertook some more in-depth work with eighteen individuals. These were mostly men repressed during the Stalinist period. For my methodology, I relied on participant observation, recordings of naturally occurring conversations, recordings of commemorative events, written assignments, interviews, historical records and other official documents made available to me in the course of interaction with my informants and used as contextual material for understanding their stories.

The second part of this study is concerned with the former officers employed in the communist apparatus of repression6. I managed to work extensively with a generation of functionaries who worked in the state security authorities in the 1960s. I also reached a few individuals who worked for the regime at its outset. I used a snowball technique to gain access to this category of informants. I conducted in-depth interviews with eight officers of the Ministry of Interior Affairs. The most far-reaching material I gathered concerns an officer accused of committing a communist crime, and who underwent a trial during my fieldwork. I used the trial situation to gain a dual victim-perpetrator perspective on this particular case. I interviewed a couple of witnesses on both sides, and I also worked closely with the defendant and with the main prosecution witness. I attended most of the hearings. The trial allowed me to gain access to the group of heroes/victims who belonged to Solidarity, and who were repressed in the 1980s. Apart from the trial, my work with the former security officers focused on eliciting their life narratives and probing, through conversation, various topics connected to the past and to the present.

This work attempts to give a sense of the ways in which these two differently positioned groups of people belonging to the same nation/state - the former anti-communist activists repressed for their political involvements and the former officers of the state security authorities - try collectively and internally to negotiate a sense of justice and keep a coherent image of the communist past in the circumstances of the revival of memory politics and attempts to account for ←22 | 23→past crimes in contemporary Poland. Above all, the dual construction was meant to allow space for the illustration of divergent perspectives and affective reactions to socially conditioned situatedness vis-à-vis one’s past. The position of each of these groups is different. One used to be on the recognized and privileged side of the state pantheon but, with the transition, moved into the sphere of excluded subjects; the other used to be repressed but is now gaining a momentum of recognition and affirmation7.

I conducted the research mainly among men. While, among the heroes/victims, I met and interviewed women informants, among the former security officers I worked exclusively with male informants. This book should hence be read as an ethnography of particular experiences of manhood nested in nationalist and communist ideologies and realized in the milieu of specific social groups and their complex histories. Recent scholarship has explored the idea that memory is gendered, meaning that there are differences between the ways in which women and men remember the past (Leydesdorff, Passerini and Thomson 2009:1). The socio-linguistic approach, for instance, reveals differences at the level of speech, i.e. it tracks the differences in usage of grammatical constructions in personal narratives, arguing that women and men construct the stories about the same past differently (Ely and McCabe 2009). These differences are believed to be caused by differences in the life experiences of men and women, taking on different social roles and functioning in divergent social contexts and settings, e.g. the tendencies of men to dominate public life and of women to focus on family and household (Leydesdorff, Passerini and Thomson 2009:1). My informants, especially the members of the Association, belong to generations in which male and female spheres remain well defined and separated. I noticed this during visits to the heroes/victims’ homes, where I was greeted by their wives who served us with tea and cookies but never sat together with us while I was recording. In the case of the former security officers, the wives would be ‘protected’ from any knowledge about their professional duties. This was exemplified by Janek who, during my fieldwork, underwent a trial, having been accused ←23 | 24→of a communist crime, and did not share this experience with his wife. ‘I simply do not talk to her about it’ - he told me.

I often asked myself what I might have discovered had I approached this project from an alternative viewpoint - that of women. Time did not allow me to explore both viewpoints sufficiently. The logic of ethnographic research implies constant decision-making about what to follow and what to ignore (Sanjek 2003:299). My choice was to follow men, rather than women, because this is what fitted my research timeframe and the way in which the interactions with my informants unfolded. While an ethnography of female, middle-ranking officers, for example, would have made for a fascinating journey, I did not reach a single woman via the snowball effect technique I used. Within the Association of the heroes/victims, women were present, yet their world was self-contained and lived backstage, compared to the front of the stage occupied by the men. The embodiment of gender was nonetheless visible in the usage of associational space where women often clustered around a tiny pantry serving tea or coffee, preparing food for an occasion, talking mainly to each other, and never really taking part in loud male exchanges on recent politics or history. They hardly ever wore uniforms or carried standards during official rituals, although they were always there to help with a glass of water. They wrote poems from their past experience rather than autobiographical narratives, they ran the associational newsletter, and they were usually more modest than the men about their deeds and accomplishments.

Thinking about gender and memory, Sherna Berger Gluck warns researchers against collecting gendered stories ‘naively on a sense of gender solidarity’ (cited after Leydesdorff: IX). Gender is no longer treated as a hegemonic category; it is seen as flexible and changeable. ‘Masculinity and femininity take different forms in different cultural settings’ (Leydesdorff, Passerini and Thomson 2009:1), and within each gender there is great variety, allowing the display of gendered identities (Leydesdorff, Passerini and Thomson 2009:2). This ethnography describes two groups of men whose different positions enable each of them to remember the past and experience their manhood while evoking that past in the present. In the context of memory politics, their gendered identities gained another dimension in which they were performed and produced. The masculinity of these men became partially defined in a public sphere and exposed vis-à-vis particular audiences (e.g. in an official commemorative ritual or in a court). Catherine Kohler Riessman notes how ‘respondents narrativize particular experiences in their lives, often where there has been a breach between ideal and real, self and society’ (1993:3). The men with whom I worked in this project, who have taken up new social positions as a result of the political transition, were preoccupied in their narratives with piecing together the ideal, the re←24 | 25→al, and the self-demanded or socially-imposed. A hero/victim publicly depicted as a brave and honourable soldier with no stains or shadows has to find ways of incorporating more ambiguous experiences of being a man who ‘did not manage to be adamant at all times’ (see chapter five). Walking with standards and receiving medals and military promotions, he has to work out a selective narrative that favours those memories that prove he was a man, a role he performs in a public square. The second-generation security officers, on the other hand, try in their narratives to rescue the sense of masculinity that had been fed by the ‘bureaucracy of terror’ in the past. For them, being a man meant having flair, being cunning, being able to stomach brutality, being professional, and being powerful. They take a defensive stand, realizing that these attitudes are now socially condemned. As will become apparent from the narratives, the political transition irritated the gendered aspect of the identities of both groups of men.

The manuscript attempts to pin down the notion of memory on various levels of social reality - from legal aspects of the memory project to embodied experience of remembering. It views memory as a multidimensional figure the depth of which is given by social configurations of power, collective objectifying practices, diversity of historically established cultural vehicles, and individual life histories backed up by fantasies, fears and desires. The main aim of this research was to understand ways in which people negotiate and incorporate a hero/victim and a perpetrator identity into their self-schemata and how this influences their psychologies. The plural form of the noun ‘landscape’ in the title of the introduction is intended to signal the plurality of embodied interactive practices of memory, and their conflicting characters.

Since the book is part of a historical series, I wish to devote some space to explaining the philosophy of anthropological research and the reasons for anonymizing the sources and the people. A historian may feel troubled by the question of how to verify the arguments and knowledge presented in this text if the sources are not given. It is hoped that the commentary on the nature of anthropological work and a specific case, in particular the explanation of its ethical dimension, will facilitate the evaluation of this work and help the reader to approach it with openness.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2014 (January)
memory landscape Politische Identität Geschichtlichkeit politische Gewalt Erinnerung Kommunismus
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 253 pp.

Biographical notes

Anna Witeska-Mlynarczyk (Author)

Anna Witeska-Młynarczyk is a lecturer at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (Poland). She received a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University College London in 2010. Her research interests focus on memory, subjectivity, medical anthropology and anthropology of space.


Title: Evoking Polish Memory