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Polish history shows Ukrainians how to avoid a major mistake

As they think about commemorating their struggle against Russia, Ukrainians can’t lose sight of the need to grow

Rescuers clear debris on July 26 from around a cultural center building damaged by shelling in Chuhuiv, Ukraine. (Sergey Kozlov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

An earlier version of this piece misdated the Katyn forest massacre in its discussion of the 2010 crash of a Polish government plane on its way to a commemoration of the event. As the earlier discussion in the piece explains, the slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest occurred in 1940, not 1941.

Fiercely resisting Russian aggression, Ukrainians are also making plans to commemorate their brave struggle and intense suffering. They’re confronting consequential choices about how the world should understand Ukraine after the war. Will Ukrainians define their nation as a community of victims? Or will they choose to see themselves as actors who grow and shape the world by means other than the memory of their own pain?

It may be hard to face these questions now, amid the hissing bullets and the gushing blood. But the stakes of these decisions are high. Modern Polish history illustrates why. Focusing on international aggression and a country’s martyrdom can distract from internal problems and the need to focus on growth.

There are similarities between Ukrainian tragedies in 2022 and Poland’s historical experiences. Poles struggled against Russian imperial domination beginning at the end of the 18th century, when Catherine the Great invited Prussian and Austrian rulers to partition the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth into their own empires, erasing it from the European map.

In the 19th century, Poles rose up against Russia twice, and both times the czar brutally quelled the uprisings. More repressiveness followed during the 20th century, starting in 1939, when the Soviets invaded Poland, falsely claiming to liberate Ukrainians from Polish rule. Then they murdered the country’s elites and deported hundreds of thousands of Poles into the depths of the USSR. They also Sovietized Polish institutions, and killed 22,000 Polish officers, prisoners of war, in the Katyn forest in 1940.

After the war, the Kremlin used Red Army troops and secret police to establish a communist government in Poland through violence and deception. In the decades that followed, those who opposed Poland’s communist regime saw their fight as a struggle against the USSR.

How the Poles came to understand the cycle of struggle and repression mattered. In making sense of these historical patterns, they fell back on the tropes of Christ-like martyrdom born during the era of 19th-century romantic nationalism, emphasizing a history of selfless battles on behalf of others, including the United States. “For your freedom and ours,” proclaimed Polish soldiers ready to spill their blood helping Russians and Hungarians fight autocracy and imperial domination in the 19th century.

This emphasis on struggle and sacrifice was useful in mobilizing the nation during war. But in times of peace, this type of national identity proved counterproductive.

For example, in the decades when Poland was independent and sovereign, the focus on heroic struggle and victimhood sidelined discussions about how to overcome the effects of imperial oppression through innovation, hard work and strengthening of the country’s economy. Marshal Jozef Pilsudski successfully challenged the imperial powers who had partitioned his country during World War I, defeated the Bolsheviks in 1920 and led the resurrected Polish state between the two world wars. But in the romantic nationalist tradition, he cultivated the memories of national struggle and sacrifice, while focusing on future threats from Poland’s neighbors, especially the Soviet Russia. Pilsudski’s favorite song (and Poland’s unofficial anthem between the wars), titled “The March of the First Brigade,” told of young men ready to throw their lives into “the pyre” while fighting against the superior forces of the Russian empire for the sacred cause of Polish independence.

But Pilsudski showed little interest in economic issues. When the western Polish city of Poznan staged the Polish Universal Exhibition in 1929, showcasing to the world the growing economic prowess of the newly independent country, Pilsudski chose not to appear once at the five-month event. In so doing, he forfeited opportunities for augmenting the event’s international visibility, attracting foreign investment and promoting to his fellow Poles the notion that in peace time, strength could be achieved through industriousness and hard work.

In the following decades, the historical emphasis on anti-Polish repressions and Polish victimhood made it possible for politicians to distract from abuses of power, mistakes and erosion of democratic norms. For example, in the second half of the 20th century, Poland's communists loudly commemorated German historical atrocities, while censoring the discussions of the numerous crimes against Poles committed by the Soviets.

Polish politicians have continued to use such framing to the current day. High-ranking members of Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party have used Poles’ suffering at the hands of Germans, Russians and (more recently) the West to deflect criticisms of its own economic policies and to consolidate quasi-authoritarian rule.

For example, without evidence, they accused Russia of causing a 2010 crash of the Polish government plane that killed 96 people, mostly government officials, on their way to commemorate the 1940 Katyn massacre. Playing up the familiar national narrative about centuries-long Polish martyrology made it harder to discuss publicly the errors that the Poles made by putting dozens of high-ranking politicians on one aircraft. Pointing at Russia made it more difficult to talk about the likely reasons behind the disaster, i.e. the pilot’s decision to land in unsafe weather, and the pressure to do so coming from the politically powerful passengers.

Poles have historically suffered at the hands of others, especially Russia and the USSR. But these tragic experiences, often enshrined in quasi-religious language, also made it easier for Poles to see themselves chiefly as victims of the world. This interpretation of history has enabled political manipulation at home and has isolated Poland internationally, weakening Poland and paving way for more historical tragedies.

One can only be humbled by the courage and tenacity with which the Ukrainians defend themselves against the cruel Russian attacks. But once the war is over, a consequential discussion will take place about how Ukraine's difficult past can lift up the spirits of future generations without weighing down on them.

For that reason, how they approach commemorating their deep tragedy in the long run will matter to Ukraine. Understandably, now victimhood and messianism set the tone. In an impassioned speech to Congress on March 16, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said that his people “are defending not only Ukraine, we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world.”

Planning of memorials is underway. “We’re going to establish the Battle of Azovstal Memorial Museum in there when this is over,” tweeted Ukrainian journalist Ilya Ponomarenko on May 20, adding a photo of the shattered industrial complex in Mariupol where calculated Russian attacks targeted sheltering Ukrainian civilians. The existing World War II Museum in Kyiv recently organized an exhibition titled “Crucified Ukraine.”

By looking back on that familiar Polish past, Ukrainians can avoid mistakes in the future. For, as the case of Poland shows, in the long run, dwelling on past struggles and victimhood can easily thwart more constructive efforts to rebuild a society ravaged by repeated tragedies.