Understanding “the Jesus Christ of nations”

by Krzysztof Sadomski

May 29 is a day of travel for the FASPE fellows, not only in the literal, factual sense, but in a metaphorical one. It is time to leave Berlin—the capital of Nazi Germany, where the Holocaust was coordinated—and to enter Kraków, one of the most important cities in Poland, the country that became the main victim of the war and where the plan for Jewish annihilation was primarily implemented.

In Berlin, the borders between white and black, good and bad, war criminal and war victim were blurred during our many talks and lectures. In numerous discussions and walks around the city, we learned that even things that might seem easy to judge at first glance are much more complicated in detail.

Just after our arrival at a hotel in central Kraków, we listened to a lecture on Polish identity in the 20th century by Zdzisław Mach, professor of international relations at Jagiellonian University. Mach mentioned several factors that were—and, to some extent, still are—fundamental components of Polish identity. Understanding Polish identity is critical to interpreting the role of the country during World War II, the communist era and even today.

Between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 20th century, Mach said, Poland functioned as a nation without a state, one with nostalgic memories about a great past, but with an uncertain future. The rule of oppressive states—Russia, Prussia and Austria—led Poles to view government as an external, hostile force. So the state never became the defining aspect of Polish identity; instead, fighting against the state unified Poles.

The second key factor of Polish identity is language. This unusual rustling, whistling language was always the basis for a simple, negative conclusion: If you can’t speak Polish, you’re not a Pole. Which meant that minorities from such countries as Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, Germany and Austria could never be Polish.

Catholicism was also a critical part of Polish identity and underlies another component of the Polish national character, said Mach: suffering. Suffering caused by the numerous wars Poland had fought, by countless uprisings and by consistent hostility from oppressive states. Those experiences led many Poles to the conclusion that Poland is, as Mach put it, “the Jesus Christ of nations,” and that through its suffering the country will redeem all others. And if Poland is the Jesus Christ of nations, then it must necessarily see itself as morally pure, as the ultimate sufferer. Therefore Poles, said Mach, cannot accept the fact that some people have suffered more.

These factors—the fear of losing independence, language, religion and the glorification of suffering—determined how Poland behaved during and after the war, Mach explained. When Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, it became obvious that Polish independence was once more in danger and that Poland would fight for its freedom and resist the oppressors.

poland map copy

Map of Poland in 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

Many Poles did aid Jews during the war; Poland has the greatest number of people from any country on the Yad Vashem list of the Righteous Among the Nations, those who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews. But many others collaborated with the Nazis or were were indifferent during the Holocaust. After the war this indifference turned into hostility in many cases, because Jews coming back to their homes were often seen by local population as invaders. That resulted in pogroms, which were, and remain, one of the darkest periods of recent Polish history. A history that is still only now being told.



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