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Obama slip-up allows Tusk to grasp mantle of Polish nationalism

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.

But Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, in a harsh statement at a hastily arranged press conference, called for an even stronger apology that the White House “regret”:

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. Continue reading Obama slip-up allows Tusk to grasp mantle of Polish nationalism