World War II and Two Occupations

Dilemmas of Polish Memory

by Anna Wolff-Powęska (Volume editor) Piotr Forecki (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 282 Pages


This anthology presents the work of several authors from different academic disciplines. Film and literature experts, sociologists, historians and theatrologists analyse the Polish memory of the Nazi and Stalinist occupations, which are key components of Polish collective identity. Before the political turn of 1989, the memory of World War II was strictly controlled by the state. The elements of memory related to the Soviet occupation were eradicated, as well as any other elements that did not fit the official narrative about the war. Unblocking the hitherto limited public discourse resulted in the process of filling the blank pages of history and the development of different and frequently conflicting communities of memory.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Anna Wolff-Powęska & Piotr Forecki - Introduction
  • Piotr Tadeusz Kwiatkowski - World War II as Collective Experience for Polish Society
  • Lech M. Nijakowski - Fighting for Victim Status: Polish Debates on Genocide and the Collective Memory of World War II
  • Bartosz Korzeniewski - World War II in the Politics of Memory of the Polish People’s Republic 1944–1970
  • Paweł Rodak - The Unusual Everyday Under the Occupation
  • Anna Wylegała - Between Biographical Experience and Social Construction of Memory: The Oldest Generation of Poles on the Soviet Occupation and the Soviets
  • Kaja Kaźmierska - Between Biographical and Collective Memory: The Experience of War in Narratives from the Kresy
  • Zuzanna Bogumił & Joanna Wawrzyniak - War Trauma in the City Museums of Saint Petersburg, Warsaw and Dresden
  • Katarzyna Woniak - The German Occupation of Poland in German and Polish History Schoolbooks
  • Tadeusz Lubelski - The Representation of the Soviet Occupation in Polish Film
  • Małgorzata Hendrykowska - War Films After 1989. A Dialogue Among Three Generations
  • Joanna Krakowska - Why Does Theatre Need War? Why Do Historians Need Theatre? Images of War and the Subject of Occupation in Polish Theatre After 1945
  • Anna Zawadzka - Żydokomuna: The Construction of the Insult
  • Information about the authors

| 7 →

Anna Wolff-Powęska & Piotr Forecki


No matter how intensely they are dealt with, there are some issues in every nation’s history that are extremely difficult to comprehend. The discovery of new facts may even raise more doubts and questions than answers. Evaluation of a historical process that is burdened with the most dramatic experiences, such as the Nazi German aggression against Poland on 1 September, the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939 and the consequences of the two occupations that followed continue to cause numerous problems. With the passage of time, it is becoming clear that our understanding of these events is very limited.

The 1989/1990 democratic turn in Poland and in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe provided the conditions for profound social transformation. The state’s loss of the monopoly on shaping public opinion was followed by privatisation and pluralisation of memory. The departure from people’s democracy, however, did not result in a focus on the past, as one might expect, but in a surge of interest in the future. New conditions and simultaneous national, European (access to the EU in 2004) and global transformations determined the dynamic and diverse character of narrative strategies that have been used in relation to sites of memory.

Generational change, changes in language and increases in knowledge about the past transform the nature of memory. However, while in Germany (unlike Italy or Austria) the 1968 generation passed moral judgment on their parents and demanded an explanation of their hitherto silence, the situation in Poland and other country-victims of the Nazi occupation was reversed. The entire post-war reality, all areas of life, were dominated by a narrative of victimhood. National suffering and heroism were a subject that brought individual feelings and the communist party policy together. Despite cosmopolitan slogans, the authorities in fact promoted national ideals articulated in a nationalist language. The heroism of the Polish nation was a value that was employed to legitimate the new political system. However, both in the case of individual historical narratives and the narratives of social actors who control collective memory, images of historical events are often deconstructed or obfuscated.1 ← 7 | 8 →

Democracy does not provide clear rules or an obligatory canon for the transmission of memory. Therefore, Polish society, whose memory was ‘occupied’ for several decades, immersed in domination conflicts over symbols and images of history with the zeal of neophytes. Not only did various powerful social actors attempt to impose their own narrative about the past; there was also a bottom-up process of supressing historical events that could contradict Polish collective identity. Along with the fall of the authoritarian system, axiological aspects became important for historical culture. Questioning everything that could not be questioned before 1989 resulted in the reinterpretation of events and processes, and caused the exchange of historical heroes in schoolbooks and public space. The new discourse was characterised by two features. First of all, after four decades of focus on the German occupation, the supressed memory of the Soviet occupation, Stalin’s crimes, the loss of the eastern territories (Kresy) and sovereignty was revived and those who were forced into silence could finally have their say. Secondly, a presentation of Poland and Poles in the international arena as heroes and victims who had experienced two occupations became a significant element of the new discourse and an important component of the sense of historical continuity and development of a new collective identity. The attempts to promote this image on the world stage were a request for equal rights to memory for both the western and eastern parts of Europe. The Iron Curtain effectively blocked the transfer of knowledge about the two totalitarianisms that affected Poland. The desire to present a comprehensive picture of the Nazi and Soviet occupations in Poland and former Polish territories, which were incomparable to the German occupation of Western European countries, is thus justified.

In democratic countries, historical culture is a culture of disputes. Thus, narratives that debunked the idealised image of Polish heroism were legitimised. New academic institutions revived memories of events that used to be marginalised and revealed sensitive subjects such as the diverse attitudes of Poles towards the Jewish population, different forms of collaboration with the occupier and Polish policy towards German civilians after 1945. The new geopolitical situation in Central Europe contributed to the politicisation of the discourse on the two occupations. Obstacles in the historical dialogue with Putin’s Russia, and Russia’s refusal to acknowledge Soviet crimes against Poles (even on a theoretical level) are factors that impinge on Polish-Russian relations. Certain questions are becoming increasingly significant. Did the Red Army invade or liberate Poland in 1945? What should be done with hundreds of memorials dedicated to Soviet heroes that are scattered around Polish cities and towns?

The new historical narrative after 1945 coincided with the process of mediatisation of memory, the informational revolution and commercialisation of the ← 8 | 9 → past. These factors contribute to trivialisation of history, which led to history becoming a subject of manipulation in the transformation period for the purposes of realising individual goals. Historiography was not always ready to defend the objective truth. Attempts to give the same weight to the national-socialist and communist totalitarianisms served the political interests of the time. Now, in the 21st century, is when the disputes over history as a fundament of collective identity are at their most intense since the end of World War II. Advocates of ‘affirmative patriotism’, which aims to legitimise the national community of pride, questioned ‘critical patriotism’, which is supported by those who believe that inglorious acts of Poles should also be included into collective memory. The latter are believed to be national traitors and creators of a ‘community of shame’.

Piotr Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, a public opinion researcher, is definitely correct to claim that ‘knowledge of the sources of national pride has a different social status than knowledge of the sources of shame. The opinion that Poles can be proud of particular people and events from the national past belongs to the collective, socially accepted knowledge (…). The opinion that one should be ashamed of some of one’s ancestors’ deeds, however, is mostly private knowledge.’2

As the new generation, who have no personal experience or emotional connection with the war and occupation, start adult life, new questions are asked and inspiration comes for new studies. The book that you now hold in your hands is the result of academic inquiry by representatives of different academic disciplines. They differ in many respects: research institutes, age, methodology, the source materials used, perspective of analysis, and – most of all – field of research. What they have in common is an interest in the memory of the war and the occupation: its condition, carriers and representations, the clichés, gaps and deformations that it includes and the forms in which it is instrumentally used. Some of the texts from this book have been already published, others were written specifically for this publication, thus they are now being premiered and gain their first readers.

There are three introductory texts in this book. The first is Piotr Tadeusz Kwiatowski’s paper dedicated to World War II as a collective experience for Poles and to the role of this experience in Polish collective memory. Lech M. Nijakowski’s paper on Polish public debates about genocide during World War II focuses on the content of Polish memory about these events and presents it with reference to the most recent public opinion surveys. Finally, Bartosz Korzeniewski’s paper is an analysis of the politics of memory about World War II that was built by the ← 9 | 10 → authorities of the Polish People’s Republic – in other words, about the official memory of the war that was binding at the time. These three texts provide necessary context for subsequent articles.

The next three papers, written by Paweł Rodak, Anna Wylegała and Kaja Kaźmierska, provide information about the war and the occupation from the perspective of individual experiences. However, while Rodak reconstructs the experiences of everyday life during the occupation on the basis of personal documents, i.e. diaries of the Polish intellectuals Zofia Nałkowska and Stanisław Rembek, Wylegała and Kaźmierska listen to the voices of ordinary people. Kaja Kaźmierska analyses the findings of an interview-based study that was conducted at the beginning of the 1990s and was dedicated to war and occupation as a biographical experience of the residents of the pre-war eastern borderlands (Kresy). Also on the basis of interviews, Anna Wylegała studies the memory of the Soviet occupation among the oldest Poles who experienced it.

Almost all of the other papers gathered in this book focus on the collective memory of the two occupations. Yet, the carriers of this memory, the channels of its transmission, and the scope and potential of its social influence are different. Zuzanna Bogumił and Joanna Wawrzyniak deal with the subject of museum representations of the war. Rather than neutral depositories of objects, they consider museums to be institutions that actively participate in the process of constructing collective memory. Katarzyna Woniak, in her in-depth analysis of Polish and German history schoolbooks, examines the presence of the subject of the occupation in the culture of memory. The author demonstrates that textbooks as media of memory are also far from being neutral.

As cinema and theatre have a significant role as media of memory, this book includes three papers that introduce the reader to the subject of World War II and the two occupations in Polish films and theatre plays. Tadeusz Lubelski’s article is entirely dedicated to the representations of the Soviet occupation in Polish cinema after 1945, while Małgorzata Hendrykowska deals with war images in Polish cinematography after 1989 and Joanna Krakowska studies the subject of war and occupation in postwar Polish theatre. The book closes with Anna Zawadzka’s paper that deconstructs the myth of Żydokomuna,3 which was also the focus of a documentary written and directed by Zawadzka. Both in popular discourse and academic publications, this anti-Semitic cliché remains in use to describe events that occurred in Poland after 17 September 1939, making Polish Jews responsible for the course of the Soviet occupation. ← 10 | 11 →

This book signalises problems that are currently the subject of very heated debates in Poland. International situations that change at a dizzying pace, and the turbulent nature of contemporary reality means that many questions that are posed in this book remain unanswered. These questions, however, inspire reflection, which contributes to the development of European discourse about the past.


Kwiatkowski, P.T., Pamięć zbiorowa społeczeństwa polskiego w okresie transformacji, Warsaw, 2008.

Passerini, L., ‘Shareable Narratives? Intersubiektywność, historie życia i reinterpretowanie przeszłości’, trans. A. Grzybkowska, in (Kon)Teksty Pamięci. Antologia, Warsaw, 2014.

1 Luisa Passerini refers to many case studies to confirm this theory. L. Passerini, ‘Shareable Narratives? Intersubiektywność, historie życia i reinterpretowanie przeszłości’, trans. A. Grzybkowska, in (Kon)Teksty Pamięci, Warszawa, 2014, pp. 191–203.

2 P. T. Kwiatkowski, Pamięć zbiorowa społeczeństwa polskiego w okresie transformacji, Warsaw, 2008, p. 308.

3 ‘Judeo-Communism’; an anti-Semitic stereotype (translator’s note).

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Piotr Tadeusz Kwiatkowski

World War II as Collective Experience for Polish Society

World War II is one of the main subjects of public debates about the past that have been held in Poland since the fall of communism and have very much involved intellectual elites and opinion-forming groups. It also occupies one of the central positions in the collective memory of societies whose members are not professional historians, but turn to history because it is an important point of reference to their identity and the practice of everyday life. In past decades, this problem was often a subject of interest for social scientists in Poland,1 as well as in Central and Eastern Europe.2 References to World War II can be found, first of all, in the results of research aiming to diagnose the collective memory of the Polish society.3 Secondly, sociological works have been published that are devoted to the many-sided, in-depth analysis of social memory consisting of selected events and phenomena related to World War II, such as the Holocaust,4 extermination camps,5 conflicts on the borders of Poland, Ukraine and Belarus6 or the process of ← 13 | 14 → establishing social images of death camps7 and the social status of war veterans.8 Thirdly, opinion polls have been conducted about selected issues significant to the public debates, which are often controversial. These surveys are conducted on the anniversaries of the outbreak of the war9 the anniversaries of its end10 and on the occasions of important public debates about the Katyn massacre,11 the Jedwabne pogrom,12 the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia (Volhynian slaughter)13 and the relations between Poles and other nations.14

In recent years, numerous academic studies and research reports have been conducted that significantly improve our knowledge of selected aspects of social memory of World War II. A survey aimed to create a comprehensive overview of this phenomenon was conducted in the 1970’s by Anna Pawełczyńska from the Centre of the Public Opinion and Broadcasting Research of the Radio and Television Committee.15 Although still interesting as a reference point for comparative ← 14 | 15 → analysis, there are clear traces of the intervention of political censorship. The author exposed the ‘consequences of Nazism’,16 ignoring the Polish-Ukrainian conflict and the experience of Soviet totalitarianism. A contemporary project aimed at a comprehensive and many-sided study of the contemporary memory of Poles about World War II was conducted in summer 2009 for the Museum of World War II (M2W/Pentor) that comprised of qualitative research and a survey representative of the entire population of adult residents of Poland.17

This paper discusses selected results of Polish sociological research on collective memory of the war, focusing on four subjects: (1) the scope of interest in World War II in contemporary society; (2) relayed war experiences in family communication; (3) war as an important experience for national identity; (4) the result of World War II from the Polish perspective and the impact of the events from the period 1939–1945 on the perception of international relations in Europe.

Are Poles interested in World War II?

The results of surveys indicate that despite the passage of time, the events of World War II continue to interest many Poles who are still experiencing the consequences of economic, political and social transformation and who, for the past decade, have paid the price of the global economic crises. In 2009:

16% of respondents declared ‘considerable’ or ‘great’ interest in the history of the discussed period,

36% reported their interest in the history of World War II as ‘average’


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
collective memory politics of memory biographical experience historical narrative
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 282 pp., 10 tables, 1 graph

Biographical notes

Anna Wolff-Powęska (Volume editor) Piotr Forecki (Volume editor)

Anna Wolff-Powęska is Professor of History and Political Sciences at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Faculty Poznań). She was associated with the Institute for Western Affairs and the Adam Mickiewicz University at Poznań (Poland). She researches Polish-German relations, and political ideas in Europe. Piotr Forecki is Assistant Professor at the Section of Political Culture at the Faculty of Political Science and Journalism, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (Poland). His academic research concerns the Polish memory of the Holocaust, the representation of the Holocaust in films and comics, and anti-Semitism in public discourse in Poland.


Title: World War II and Two Occupations
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284 pages