Polish Patriotism after 1989

Concepts, Debates, Identities

by Dorota Szeligowska (Author)
©2016 Monographs VIII, 310 Pages
Series: Nationalisms across the Globe, Volume 17


This book analyses the concept of patriotism and the contestation over its meaning in key public debates in Poland over the last twenty-five years. It focuses on the strategies used to define, re-shape and «bend» the notion of patriotism, which during this period has become a central issue in Polish political discourse. Contemporary Polish society is characterized by a growing polarization of the public sphere. Rivalry between former communists and former dissidents has been progressively replaced by internal opposition within the ranks of once-dissident allies, now divided into civic-minded «critical» patriots and nationalist-oriented «traditional» patriots. This division re-emerges regularly during key moments in Polish public life – most recently in the aftermath of the highly contested 2015 parliamentary elections. By tracing the evolution of the debate over patriotism since 1989, this book provides crucial insights into the current political situation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Figures
  • Chapter 1: Introducing Polish Intellectual Debates About Patriotism
  • Chapter 2: Theoretical, Historical and Political Contextualization of Debates About Patriotism in Poland
  • Chapter 3: The Reopening of the ‘Discursive Space’ After 1989: Reconquering Key Political Concepts to Legitimize the New Democratic State
  • Chapter 4: Progressive Polarization of the Contestation over the Modern Form of Patriotism
  • Chapter 5: The Development of ‘Critical Patriotism’ within Debates About Polish–Jewish Relations
  • Chapter 6: The Divisive Effect of Romantic Patriotism: National Mourning Following the Smolensk Crash in 2010
  • Chapter 7: Discussing the Country, Contesting the Love: Concluding Remarks
  • Appendix 1: Sources
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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This book is the result of my doctoral research carried out at the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations at Central European University in Budapest. I am deeply indebted to my supervisors, professors Lea Sgier, Balázs Trencsényi and Nenad Dimitrijevic, for their help during my studies.

I also want to recognize the importance of the support of the Visegrad Scholarship Program of the International Visegrad Fund in the initial years of my doctoral studies.

I would like to thank all the teachers and researchers whose valuable advice helped me to attain this milestone. I’m deeply indebted to Hans-Dieter Klingemann, the first professor who inspired me to follow an academic career. I also want to thank Georges Mink for academic challenges at Sciences Po Paris and College of Europe, and for encouraging me to do a PhD at CEU. I want to express my appreciation towards those whom I had the pleasure to meet during my doctoral studies and at conferences, and who took their time to discuss my research and share their thoughts in order to help me advance: Jan-Werner Müller, Joanna Michlic, Geneviève Zubrzycki, Joanna Kurczewska, Maciej Janowski. I presented earlier versions of some of the chapters in this book at a number of conferences: ECPR General Conference in 2013 and 2014, BASEES Annual Conference in 2011, 2013 and 2014, and Graduate Network Conferences in 2010 and 2013, and I am grateful for all the insightful comments I received on these occasions, which helped me to finalize the manuscript of my doctoral dissertation and this book.

My endless gratitude goes to my loving parents Renata and Jacek, and friends who have put up with my tight schedule during the process of writing, and have always been encouraging. While I will not be able to thank everyone specifically, Olga Löblová, Divna Manolova, András Szalai and Francesca Micheletti need to be mentioned.

I dedicate this book to my grandmother Czesia and aunt Irka, who were not there to see the end of this process, but have always been my biggest supporters.

| xi →

List of Figures

Figure 1: ‘It may be patriotism’. © Andrzej Mleczko.

Figure 2: ‘Heroes of our liberty’. Introductory billboard and an example of specific billboards.

Figure 3: ‘Patriotism of tomorrow’. Billboard 1.

Figure 4: ‘Patriotism of tomorrow’. Billboard 2.

Figure 5: The photograph of the alleged ‘diggers’ of Treblinka.

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Introducing Polish Intellectual Debates About Patriotism

The concept of patriotism is strongly embedded in the political languages of some countries, such as the United States of America. It has also been an object of theoretical reflection in the field of political theory over the past 30 years, and a number of conceptualizations have been proposed to establish the grounds for a stable and viable political allegiance of citizens to their respective polities. One of these is ‘constitutional patriotism,’ a conceptualization that emerged in Germany in the 1980s in the context of the ‘Historians’ debate’ [Historikerstreit], about the approach to the nation’s war past. The idea of constitutional patriotism, looking beyond a purely national framework of reference, was later suggested as a possible desirable version of political allegiance to the European Union, perceived as a post-national community.

In 1989, the political changes that swept the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, leading also to the dislocation of the Soviet Union, placed a number of countries that had only a vague, if any, experience of democracy, on the road to democratic transformation. It seems natural that debates about the nature of allegiance and national identity ensued. Yet in Poland in particular, the persistence of discussions about the concept of patriotism reaches beyond merely understanding questions related to national community and statehood, and provides insights concerning broader political culture and nature of contestation.

On a theoretical level, the concept of patriotism is important for most countries of the world, as it provides a basis of political allegiance and identification of the citizens with the state. In Poland, however, its usage in political contestations can have important repercussions on the county’s foreign, cultural or historical policies, making it relevant also for its neighbours and the entire European Union. It is therefore interesting to study ← 1 | 2 → how it can, within changing political and intellectual circumstances, shift and evolve in unexpected ways.

A recurring contestation over the concept of patriotism within a number of public debates has marked the last 25 years of Polish public discourse. After 1989, the re-opening of the discursive field in general, and of that related to nationhood and statehood in particular,1 fostered an open discussion about topics that were previously taboo, thus re-enabling the contestation concerning key concepts previously distorted by the hegemonic communist discourse. This is especially the case with patriotism, a concept which continues to provoke heated debates. The opening of the discursive field over Polish national identity prompted a new iteration of the ‘culture war’ on a symbolic battleground, where the proponents of ‘the old ethno-religious understanding of Polish nationhood stood against adherents of a more civic definition.’2 While some authors expected the civic option (already proposed by some dissident thinkers3 in the 1980s) to triumph in the new democratic context,4 this has not been the case, and different political languages still clash in the contestation over the meaning of patriotism. For this reason it is crucial to understand how and why different actors turn patriotism into a politically relevant concept.

The concept of patriotism was discussed within very significant (if not the most important) public debates during the post-communist transition in Poland. The present study looks at a series of hitherto unanalysed intellectual public debates in Poland during the democratic transformation from ← 2 | 3 → 1989 to 2010. The analysis culminates with the debate that occurred following the Smolensk crash of the Presidential aircraft, in order to conclude whether prior intellectual developments provided lasting conceptual tools for a heavily emotional period of the national mourning. A public debate can be succinctly defined as ‘an episode of concentrated public ideational contestation among [political] elites reported in the media on a particular subject of some controversy.’5 A debate usually follows a conflict, an event, a publication, or a speech, in other words, a ‘discursive event.’6 While some define the role of the public debate in an idealistic vein, stating that its function is to ‘resolve the controversy’7 over some questions, one can also witness debates in which participants do not necessarily exchange with one another, but try to promote their own view or interest, not aiming at resolving the controversy, but at fostering it, for their own needs.

In the aforementioned debates, held on pages of opinion-setting daily, weekly and monthly publications, the meaning of patriotism was contested, and the concept turned into a political weapon. By studying the dynamics of these debates in the context of a strong embedding of the concept of patriotism in a broadly understood public sphere, it is possible to interpret its persistence in the public discourse in Poland. The research addresses the question of how the concept of patriotism has been debated and what influence the extensive debates about its meaning and their dynamics exerted on the broader Polish public sphere and political culture. In a wider perspective, the analysis enables a discussion of whether the conjunction of the democratic transition and the willingness of intellectual elites to redefine the concept of patriotism resulted in the formulation of a new patriotic formula that would extend the boundaries of previous theoretical reflection.

Answering these questions will help to understand the importance of the concept of patriotism for the Polish public sphere and provide a novel ← 3 | 4 → interpretation of the evolution of the country’s political culture, intellectual landscape, politics, its languages (discourses), and key concepts after 1989. A critical analysis of different understandings of patriotism and of the mechanisms of their use in public and political debates, enabling or disabling different types of intellectual or political arguments will provide an intellectual mapping of different ideological positions and their relationship to the questions of national allegiance, the heritage of the communist regime, the nature of the political community, and by extension, democracy, reflecting the structural and ideational evolution of the public sphere.

1.1 The importance of the concept of patriotism for Polish public discourse

In Poland, the concept of patriotism has always been an important feature of public debates. Historically speaking, it was important in the country’s fight for independence and sovereignty: during the partitions, when the country disappeared from the map for 123 years,8 through two world wars, and under communist rule.

For this and other reasons, patriotism was sometimes grandiloquently called a ‘school of practical thinking about politics,’9 or a ‘philosophy of life’10 or even a historical paradox: ‘[Poland is] a nation marked by its fervent patriotism which has been under foreign domination for most of the past two centuries.’11 The lack of a territorial reference during the partitions ← 4 | 5 → did not lead to the disappearance of patriotism, understood as the love of one’s country. Its survival can rather be linked to the change of the meaning of the concept, or of its object of allegiance, from country to nation, as will be further discussed.

After the collapse of communism, patriotism remained a strong, structuring, element of the Polish public discourse. Already in 1990, the eminent historian of ideas Andrzej Walicki suggested developing a new conceptualization of patriotism that would go beyond the three main historical patriotic traditions (republican, Romantic and realist):

Other intellectuals responded to the call for a new patriotic formula that would be suitable for times of peace13 (insofar as the threat to national sovereignty had disappeared) or for the future.14 These recurring calls for a re-definition of patriotism can be seen as a kind of continuation of the reflection of dissident intellectuals such as Jan Józef Lipski, who discussed a dichotomous opposition between two types of patriotism in 1981.15 He opposed a modern and civic version of patriotism (which needed to be developed, in his opinion) to one grounded in uncritical love of the nation and national megalomania. While Lipski described national megalomania as one of the possible, yet undesirable, variants of patriotism, it should rather be called by the name of nationalism. This treatment of nationalism as a variant of patriotism brings to light yet another consideration, that of the semantic and conceptual entanglement of these two concepts. This entanglement will need to be addressed in order to reach an understanding of the concept of patriotism itself. Furthermore, the question of which approach ← 5 | 6 → to patriotism should be called modern became a heated debate after 1989, among both intellectual and political elites. Usually, when someone seeks to frame her idea as modern, such a move aims to discredit the ideas of the opponent by implying that they are archaic or outright wrong.

Discussions about the meaning of patriotism regularly take place in Poland on the occasion of two national holidays: 11th November (Independence Day, commemorating the end of the First World War in 1918 and the end of the partitions) and 3rd May (commemorating the adoption of the first Polish Constitution in 1791). Apart from these usual occasions, after 1989 the concept of patriotism has been discussed within a number of public debates. In the first decade of the democratic transition, more concentrated intellectual exchanges provided for the discussion of patriotism individually (1998), or in connection to related concepts, such as fatherland (1992) or nationalism (1997). Further debates were provoked by specific discursive events: the exhibition ‘Bohaterowie naszej wolności [Heroes of our liberty],’ prepared in 2000 by the rising circle of conservative intellectuals; the publication of Jan Tomasz Gross’s books about Polish–Jewish relations, in 2000, 2008 and 2011; the conservative ‘historical politics,’ deployed in the sphere of public policies between 2005–2007, by the conservative government of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS [Law and justice]; or the crash of the plane carrying President Lech Kaczyński to Smolensk in 2010 for the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of Polish officers by NKVD. All these debates will be introduced in detail and analysed in dedicated empirical chapters.

The concept of patriotism is also strongly present in broader public and cultural spheres, besides politics and Publizistik (intellectual journalism, publicystyka, which is expressed within the editorials and op-ed sections of opinion-setting newspapers). This is not surprising, given that much of political and philosophical thought throughout Polish history, and particularly during Romanticism or communism, was developed within historiography and literature (using historical arguments) and not only within the field of philosophy.16 Since 1989, the concept of patriotism ← 6 | 7 → appears not only in literature,17 but also in satirical comic strips published in daily or weekly press (as it is illustrated in the beginning of this volume); it is discussed in the blogosphere,18 or featured in television production and cinematography. All these examples show a growth of interest in historical reflection and heroic motives.19

The prominent presence of the word ‘patriotism’ in public discourse in Poland over the past twenty years testifies to its importance among key political concepts, yet the more often the term is employed, the more confused its definition becomes. The starting point of this research is to accept that the concept of patriotism is a vessel that can be filled with a variety of meanings, some of which can generate strong leverage for intellectuals and political actors in their quest for, and exercise of, symbolic and political power.

Under the partitions, during world wars, and throughout the communist period, Polish collective identity developed within an ever-present threat to the country’s sovereignty and the nation’s existence. After 1989, the removal of this structuring element of threat provoked insecurity in the matter of identity. I argue that the interest in patriotism in public discourse, especially in the initial phase of the democratic transition, results from the uncertainty about the nature of the new regime and its values, and about the impact of the democratic transformation on the status of individual, society, political community and national identity. Resorting to the concept of patriotism allowed intellectuals to discuss the legacy of the former regime, the desirable form of the new regime and of the relationship between people (citizens) and the state. I then posit that progressively various actors turned the concept of patriotism – strongly embedded in the public discourse and heavily value-laden – into a political weapon that they constructed, de-constructed and re-constructed in order to achieve specific political goals and interests. ← 7 | 8 →

The use of the concept of patriotism is marked by attempts at gaining exclusivity over its definition (a process otherwise called de-contestation, fixing or monopolization), which mirrors the growing polarization of the public and political spheres, particularly acute after the rise to power of the conservative party PiS in 2005, corollary to the crystallization and stabilization of the political landscape. However, even if the conservative intellectuals and politicians progressively claim a monopoly over the definition of true patriotism, competing conceptualizations remain available in the public sphere, enabling other ideological positions to participate in the discussion and use the concept of patriotism to their ends. These specific constructs (conceptions) of the concept are historically, geographically and biographically dependent, and a neutral usage of these conceptions cannot be expected; rather they need to be situated in the broader context of preceding patriotic traditions and wider theoretical and conceptual debates.

1.2 The theoretical and methodological framework for an analysis of intellectual debates about the concept of patriotism

The analysis of public debates about the meaning of the concept of patriotism that continue to occur in Poland since 1989 belongs to the field of both political theory and history. While the relationship between these two disciplines is sometimes seen as controversial,20 they meet in the territory of history of political thought.21 Although political theory is often associated with a normative approach or moral philosophy, in this project ← 8 | 9 → it is understood in its applied22 aspect, as a branch of the social sciences. Michael Freeden proposes a definition of political theory as ‘the study of actual political thinking (or thought) […] its patterns, its subtleties, its languages and the processes it permeates,’23 making it distinct from both normative political philosophy and history of ideas that focuses on canonical texts. For this purpose Freeden distinguishes two dimensions: thinking politically, and (durable forms of) thinking about politics, that is, ideologies. Both of these dimensions are ‘expressed through language, verbal and written, and are structured through political concepts, [which are] political thought’s basic units of meaning.’24 In order to grasp these two dimensions, the analysis must include the canonical texts, yet go beyond these and focus on (more common) political writings, parliamentary debates, newspaper editorials, literature and other instances of everyday political thinking. Furthermore, it is necessary to focus both on meaning (semantic aspect) and structural constraint (morphology) of political thinking resulting from the assembly of the concepts that constitute it, as key political concepts are necessarily located within broader ideological formations. Hence, in terms of approach, the focus should be on ‘scrutinizing the meaning and value of key terms in our contemporary political vocabularies,’ rather than on making recommendations to public policy or recovering traditions of political thought.25 In this sense, the historicization of key concepts and explanation of the contestation and possible change in their meaning over time can contribute to a more sophisticated understanding of a given society, its history and practices, and ways of discussing politically. This research will propose such an explanation for the Polish case after 1989. ← 9 | 10 →

Freeden characterizes political concepts and the languages within which they are deployed as necessarily indeterminate and vague. This means that their boundaries are open to contestation, and that there are always competing definitions of their meaning. In order to develop an understanding of a concept, it is thus necessary to pay attention to ‘conceptual contests in which older meanings are challenged and arguments are advanced in favour of new understandings.’26 Different ideological strands attempt to impose their meaning of given concepts as the correct ones (the phenomenon that Freeden calls decontestation), but such a fixing of meaning cannot be achieved once and for all. Rather, different actors and ideologies will use the same concepts, but prioritize and weigh them differently, promoting a specific conception of a given concept, choosing among different plausible ones. The same concept can thus be used in different conceptions or configurations within different ideological strands, and, depending on its importance, be core, adjacent or peripheral for a given ideology. The triumph of one specific meaning in a given debate is conditioned by both the logical and cultural constraints of a specific context, and the discursive strategies of participating actors. In this light, the longitudinal study of public debates about the concept of patriotism in Poland seems the most appropriate to be able to analyze and compare different episodes of concentrated ideational contestation over its meaning among members of the symbolical elites. This will make it possible to focus on debates, analyze their dynamics, and compare different sub-periods of time.

In order to grasp the entire contestation over the meaning of political concepts in specific historical circumstances and potential conceptual change, three aspects of analysis need to be combined: textual, contextual and morphological.27 Not only the textual or contextual meaning is important, but also for a fully accurate identification of the continuous or discontinuous use of concepts and changes in their meaning, the study of conceptual contestation and change needs to explain the importance of ← 10 | 11 → putting concepts in a specific constellation, or their broader interaction within semantic fields, i.e. combinations or chains of different concepts and their counter concepts.28 The work of interpretation thus needs to address both synchronic (at a given moment in time) and diachronic (historical evolution and change over time) perspectives of political languages/discourses, their use in political arguments and intellectual meaning-making practices.


VIII, 310
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
Patriotism in Poland Communist Polish public life Critical Patriotism Romantic Patriotism Dissident
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XIII, 310 pp., 1 coloured ill., 5 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Dorota Szeligowska (Author)

Dorota Szeligowska holds a PhD from the Doctoral School of Political Science, International Relations and Public Policy at Central European University in Budapest, where she specialized in political theory and comparative politics. She currently lives and works in Brussels and is a visiting scholar at the Dijon campus of Sciences Po, where she lectures on the history of communism, the sociology of post-communism and EU affairs.


Title: Polish Patriotism after 1989
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327 pages