When U.S. President Barack Obama misspoke at a White House ceremony by referring to “Polish death camps” yesterday, the reaction from Poland’s government was nearly immediate and fierce, and the White House quickly retreated, noting that they “regret this misstatement,” clarifying that Obama meant Nazi concentration camps in German-occupied Poland.
The words uttered yesterday by the President of the United States Barack Obama concerning “Polish death camps” touched all Poles. We always react in the same way when ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions lead to such a distortion of history, so painful for us here in Poland, in a country which suffered like no other in Europe during World War II.
Tusk has been Poland’s centrist prime minister since 2007 and his country is seen as one of the United States’s chief allies in Europe (so much so that it was one of the few European countries to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003):
It may seem odd for a moderate prime minister in a very pro-American nation to be picking a fight with the Obama administration over a verbal slip. It also leaves aside the thorny issue that many Poles collaborated with the Nazis during that war. But still, the remarks came at a ceremony designed to honor Polish resistance hero Jan Karski, who himself exposed the Nazi genocidal killings of Jews in Poland. That Tusk is making such a kerfuffle out of Obama’s awkward word choice makes him seem even more touchy and defensive about the issue.
But it also gives Tusk a potent political opportunity to reclaim the mantle of nationalism from his domestic political opponents, who propelled themselves to power in the 2000s on the strength of nationalism to an unusual degree.
That’s because Polish identity, to an unusual degree, is shaped by the centuries-long fight for its own existence, as you might expect from a landlocked country that’s had to deal with Germany on one side and Russia on the other throughout its history. For many Poles, their country gained its sovereignty just over two decades ago with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Some background is in order.
Two years ago, Poland was awash in commemoration of the Battle of Grunwald, its legendary victory against the Teutonic Knights — six hundred years ago. That shows how far back the Polish collective memory stretches.
Indeed, after the end of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, there simply did not exist an independent Poland. Any number of Polish uprisings in the 19th century failed, and it was only in 1918, as an afterthought to the Versailles peace talks following World War I, that the modern state of Poland (somewhat shifted to the west of what had been the historical Poland) came into existence.
Newly independent Poland, of course, did not last long: its invasion by Nazi Germany in September 1939 kicked off World War II, which inflicted some of the worst damage of the war on Poland — the failed Warsaw Rising in 1944, in particular, led to so much approbation by Nazi Germany that it razed Warsaw just before Stalin’s Red Army “liberated” Poland.
Of course, following the war, Poland existed as an unhappy satellite state of the Soviet Union, with Warsaw giving its name to the anti-NATO alliance of the Soviet-dominated world, the Warsaw Pact.
So it’s difficult to overstate the sensitivity of modern Polish identity. To make matters worse, the Polish political scene remains scarred by the airplane crash in April 2010 over Russia that killed Lech Kaczyński, a former president, the national bank president, the deputy prime minister, 15 Polish parliamentarians and dozens of other Polish notables (to mark the victims of the Katyn massacre, conducted by Soviet Russia in 1940 but blamed, until recently, on Nazi Germany).
It’s in this environment that the Kaczyński brothers — the late president, Lech, and current opposition leader Jarosław — were able to propel their Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) into power for the first time in the 2000s. Law and Justice very deftly tapped into Polish identity to gain power, in many cases by pitting itself as the champion of Polish nationhood against the encroaching (German!) influence of the European Union — and, in complimentary degree, as the champion of traditional values, in what might vie with Italy as Europe’s most Catholic nation.
For a good run in the 2000s, the Kaczyński brothers and their nationalist populism gave fits both to Europeans and to Tusk’s more moderate center-right Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska).
So Tusk’s opportunity, after Lech Kaczyński himself became a potent symbol of Polish martyrdom and identity, to stand firm in the name of Polish honor against the world’s superpower, is rather a political bonanza. After a decade in which Law and Justice and the Kaczyńskis have so successfully grasped the nationalist mantle, Tusk now has an opportunity to wrap himself in the pride of a nation that’s only recently emerged from a couple of horrible centuries.
All of which is probably a good reason for the Obama administration to issue a prompt, full and gracious apology.