Piłsudski’s Poland: The Role of Collective Memory in Far-Right Nationalism

M. Guthrie

As November 11th approaches, with it comes not only the history of great personal sacrifice and trauma – but also that of deeply ingrained nationalism. This legacy pervades current European relations, with nationalist movements taking hold in a number of countries. What has been widely recognized as a solemn occasion, one which signifies the signing of the Armistice and the end of the First World War, has since become a source of ideological contention.

Poland’s recognition of November 11th presents itself as an interesting outlier of sorts. Serving as the nation’s Independence Day following occupation during the war, the day serves as a reminder of the importance of the Polish national identity and independence – though has been taken to rather extremist lengths. In particular, the annual Polish March of Independence has drawn all sorts from the woodwork, inadvertently making it what has been deemed as “one of the largest far-right gatherings in the world.”

Poland court approves far-right ′independence march′ in Warsaw | News | DW  | 08.11.2018
Far-right supporters march on Polish Independence Day. Image sourced from: https://static.dw.com/image/46219108_303.jpg

Amassing tens of thousands of participants, the event attracts far-right extremists not only from Poland itself, but from all corners of the globe – coming together to support their fellow nationalists. Frequently dissolving into violent clashes, the March has become a deeply unsettling event rife with hatred towards those who do not meet the values of the unified Polish identity.

However, the Polish government has done little to contain the event in recent years – even amidst growing concerns regarding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from attempts to ban the March by the Polish court, as well as recent comments made on Twitter by Warsaw’s mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski (who deemed the gathering as “an unlawful assembly,”) the general response surrounding the event has been lukewarm.

Though given the nation’s overarching sentiments surrounding issues such as the refugee crisis, immigration, women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, perhaps this is unsurprising. The presence of such ideological beliefs within Poland’s government has allowed far-right thought to flourish. For this reason, November 11th serves as far more than just a celebration of national history and achievement, instead coming to represent the deeply ingrained nationalistic tendencies at play within the country.  

So, independence from what exactly?

Each year, crowds flock to Piłsudski Square in the nation’s capital to commemorate not only the end of the First World War, but also the end of occupation by the Central Powers – Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. Free from this external intervention, Józef Piłsudski was named Temporary Head of State in 1918, going on to re-establish Poland as the independent nation-state it is today.

During his five years in office, Piłsudski worked to establish a stable house of governance, the Seym (or Sejm), developed and revitalized the national military, and established a number of allies – developing connections with Lithuania and the Ukrainian Peoples’ Republic (now Ukraine). Piłsudski even went on to serve in the nation’s best interest in the years following his retirement. Suffice to say, Piłsudski has maintained his position as a central figure in the nation’s history, serving as an inspiration for nationalists to pin their ideologies upon.

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Piłsudski (fourth from left), Head of Polish State from 1918-1922. Image sourced from: https://kafkadesk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Pilsudski-May-Coup.jpg

With this historical origin in mind, it is unsurprising that swathes of the population have continued to uphold the strong sense of identity and ideals established by Piłsudski and his successors – with President Andrzej Duda evoking the memory of Piłsudski in a recent statement.

“We can safely say that those victors who not only regained the Republic of Poland for all of us, but who were also able to defend it in difficult moments, are still a model for all Polish soldiers, for Polish officers, and I do not hesitate to say – for all Poles.”

Breaking or Building Barriers?

While there had been some debate as to whether the event will happen this year, it appears that organizers fully intend to push on with the March –  going against government regulation and fears regarding rising COVID-19 numbers. Violence clashes with police are to be expected, as in previous years the Independence March has dissolved into chaos that has injured officers and members of the public alike. In 2020, far-right extremists reportedly set fire to a housing complex after seeing a pride flag hung in the window.

Far-right extremists espouse hate at a rally in Poland. Image sourced from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/poland-defends-weekend-rally-organized-far-right-1.4400147

Perhaps most worrying is that there is a demonstration for women’s rights set to take place along the same route – presenting an even further threat to Polish women, whose bodily autonomy has already become the subject of much debate after a near-total ban on abortion.  

Despite aforementioned attempts to stop this year’s Polish March of Independence, President Andrzej Duda and the Polish Government (in both their inaction and ideology) have ultimately allowed the nation’s far-right perspectives to run rampant, further advertising vicious ideologies of nationalism and extremism to the broader public.

Fear and “Othering” in Post-War Europe

M. Guthrie

Following the upheavals of 1989, the role of memory became an increasingly useful tactic in building support for populist movements. Evoking (and often, completely revising) collective memory of recent political and economic strife allowed for populist parties and their leaders to instill not only a belief in a collective national identity (“the people”), but also a deep-seated fear of the “Other” in a society experiencing rising levels of immigration.

As Christopher A. Molnar notes in “Greetings from the Apocalypse: Race, Migration, and Fear after German Reunification,” the use of fear has long served as a powerful agent of change. Whether this change can be labelled as productive or otherwise has been the subject of intense debate, however, in the case of Germany in the 1990s this growing fear of the “Other” (most often due to fears of migrants and the “over-foreignization” of the German nation) became widely-perceived as a in the public sphere (493). In some cases, even leading to a resurgence in targeted violence by the far-right.

Likewise, Anna Cento Bull’s “The Role of Memory in Populist Discourse,” examines the ways in which fear and creation of the “Other,” worked in furthering Italian populist movements in the Italian Second Republic (from 1992-2011). By affirming the characteristics of the national identity and drawing on recent historical memory, which Bull aptly terms as “empty signifiers,” populist movements likewise created a portrait of those who posed a threat in this national identity (214). At times using the controlled media in the creation of such memory politics – with Italian leader Berlusconi using his ownership over media channels to spread messaging warning against leftist (or communist) corruption (224).

Interestingly enough, the discrimination and violence towards migrants did not evoke memories of another recent atrocity in Europe: the Holocaust. Molnar notes that distaste towards migrants in Germany could often be pinned on either religion or pseudo-science, although one must also question how much the fear evoked by populist movements played into reactions towards immigration (500-502). Did swathes of Germans really believe that it was God’s will for people to stay in their designated region? Or that different races had vastly differing biological makeup? (Remember, this was only in the 1990s, not the distant past.) Or was this acting in self-interest and protectionism? Perhaps providing a way for Europeans to explain away their racism in the wake of populist, fear-driven hysteria – no matter how fringe those movements may have been.

Works Cited

Anna Cento Bull, “The Role of Memory in Populist Discourse: the Case of the Italian Second Republic” Patterns of Prejudice, 50:3 (2016): 213-231.

Christopher A. Molnar, “Greetings from the Apocalypse”: Race, Migration, and Fear after German Reunification” Central European History, (2021), 491-515.

What Britain’s Far Right Movement Lacks in Size, it Makes Up in Sentiment

M. Guthrie

Scotland recently captured public attention following the integration of LGBTQ+ content into its schooling– making it the first country to successfully adopt such sentiments into its educational curriculum. However, the decision has not come without significant backlash – nor erased instances of homophobia in Britain. Rather, the lingering influence of the far-right movement has contributed to the ongoing normalization of systemic discrimination.

The curriculum, put into practice in September, places emphasis on uplifting the voices of LGBTQ+ role models, preventing discrimination, and normalizing alternative family models, “ensuring [that] all children and young people receive the support they need.”

One example of the inclusion of LGBTQ+ families in the new curriculum. Courtesy of https://lgbteducation.scot/resources/curriculum-resources-primary/

Although for Britain’s Far Right, including groups such as Patriotic Alternative (PA), the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content threatens the traditional values of the nuclear family – in which “the central building block of our nation” is comprised of a man, woman, and their children. As such, the public acceptance of diversity from a national institution has spurred waves of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment – whether inflicted by those proudly associated with the group, or rather those who have simply been exposed to such ideals through their normalization.   

So, what exactly is Patriotic Alternative?

Founded in September of 2019 by known neo-Nazi Mark Collett, Patriotic Alternative describes itself as a “community building and activism group …” designed “to raise awareness of issues such as the demographic decline of native Britons, the environmental impact of mass immigration and the indoctrination and political bias taking place in … schools.” Centered around twenty fundamental tenets, PA strives to protect the ‘integrity’ of Britain – a nation for those of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish descent, and as such, social infrastructure (such as the welfare, healthcare, and education systems) would cease to benefit those from other backgrounds. Under this plan, immigration and asylum would cease to exist – viewing immigration as an erosion of British culture, and an environmental detriment.

While Patriotic Alternative itself is a relatively new organization, its origins have roots in the nation’s complicated relationship with fascism.

Fascism in Britain

Despite attempts over the past decades by figures such as Sir Oswald Mosley and John Tyndall, Britain’s fascist movement has ultimately struggled to make significant headway. Establishing the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1933, Mosley strived to follow in the footsteps of popular European fascists: Hitler and Mussolini. Viewing economic turmoil as an opportunity to rouse political support, Mosley began to amass followers called Blackshirts.

Sir Oswald Mosley being saluted by fascists in Bristol, England, 1934.
Courtesy of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Similarly, John Tyndall, leader of the National Front (NF) and founder of the British National Party (BNP) espoused anti-Semitic and racism ideology – even participating in a general election in 1979. However, in post-war Britain, Mosley and Tyndall’s messages of hate were met with general hostility – the state even declaring the BUF as a public enemy. Given the strong sense of national pride in the wake of WWII and the defeat of Nazism, Britain was more inclined to turn towards the Labour Party for political representation than far-right fringe groups.

Although the history of fascism in Britain has been relatively feeble when compared to other European nations, the fact remains that the ideologies of such groups have continued to exist in the public consciousness. With PA capturing attention through use of ‘White Lives Matter’ banners on Scotland’s Ben Nevis this past August, their message has gained a rather public platform. Even for those who may not be familiar with the group itself, the very presence of such views (primarily dispensed through social media platforms) allows for the spread of xenophobic ideas – subsequently bleeding into the mainstream in the form of violence.

Members of PA unfurl a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner at Scotland’s Ben Nevis.
Courtesy of https://www.thenational.scot/news/19485677.ben-nevis-witnesses-horrified-patriotic-alternative-banner-mountain-summit/

Rising Anti-LGBTQ+ Crime

Amidst attempts by Scotland’s Directors of Education to normalize diversity within the public sphere, LGBTQ+ centered hate crimes have only continued to climb across the United Kingdom, with instances of crimes based on one’s gender identity and/or sexual orientation rising by 5% in Scotland alone since April 2020. In August, two men in Edinburgh were publicly robbed and beaten for their sexuality, reportedly having been called slurs by their attackers. Likewise, the UK has seen an uptick in crimes against transgender individuals, making them four times more likely to become the victim in violent offenses.

When they are not attacking immigrants or racial minorities, Patriotic Alternative has also great taken issue with the LGBTQ+ community. In an article posted to their website, the group reinforced harmful stereotypes of transgender individuals being confused and unnatural; hypothesizing that gender affirming treatments causes irreversible bodily damage and that trans-ness is the result of the “WOKE entertainment industry,” indoctrinating young people. Even going as far as proposing an alternative curriculum, PA’s messaging drives home that teaching children about the very existence of LGBTQ+ individuals and their history is simply unacceptable.

Considering the reach and accessibility of the internet, this influence from far-right groups is significant, as it gives not only a platform but also perceived validity to xenophobic thoughts and behaviours, with real world repercussions. While Scotland settles into its first term under the new inclusive curriculum – undoubtedly provoking intolerant reactions from a wave of individuals, we must continue in the outright condemnation of far-right ideologies to curb their spread, calling them for what they are: not an “activist group” to be welcomed in public discourse, but rather a hateful, white supremacist form of neo- Nazism.

Reckoning with the Past in Postwar Germany

M. Guthrie

The question as to how to reckon with one’s past has recently come to the forefront of discussion here in Canada. With last week marking the recognition of the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, Canadians were asked to consider the nation’s past and its treatment of Indigenous peoples. For this reason, I feel that it is not beyond the realm of imagination to consider how Germans have dealt with their own complex historical past. As noted in this week’s articles, responses to such a history can be and were quite varied. I felt this was exemplified well in Fulbrook’s chapters “Voices of Victims” and “Discomfort Zones,” in which she explored the responses of both victims and perpetrators in postwar Germany (and throughout Europe in general).

I was intrigued by this creation and implementation of narratives in which participation or levels of culpability were downplayed. Long have we heard speculation into what people knew about the Holocaust while it was happening, however Fulbrook begs the question: what exactly did these individuals do about it? The assumption of ignorance has continued far too long, and we now know that people did in fact have some semblance as to what was happening to the Jewish population during the period. Some even having significant involvement, such as the example of Dr. Münch (Fulbrook, 419). Rather these arguments of ignorance as innocence (or simply choosing not to speak at all) seems to have been explicitly designed as a kind of post-war protectionary measure for those involved – removing potential legal culpability or social repercussions. Additionally, I found this particularly reprehensible when contrasted with the accounts of those for whom the label of survivor meant “a sense of being forever different,” not to mention staggering trauma and survivor’s guilt experienced. (Fulbrook, 365).

However, there is little argument that the creation and upholding of these historical narratives has had direct implications on the attitudes held by the present state. While post-war responses in Germany have attempted to quell Nazism, there has likewise been the adoption of what Sollors terms “American occupation policies,” leading what some may perceive as the alienation of the unified German character (153). With the (re)emergence of fascism and alt-right movements becoming increasingly popular, it is important that we consider how historical narratives have served in furthering the “growing skepticism about democracy and the future of European integration,” at times providing fuel to the fascist flame (Häberlen, 123).

Works Cited

Mary Fulbrook, “Discomfort Zones” in Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp: 404-423.

Mary Fulbrook “Voices of the Victims” in Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp: 361-377.

W. Sollors, “Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Later’: The Denazification Questionnaire as Cultural Text.” German Life & Letters. Vol 71, Issue 2 (2018): 139-153.

Joachim Häberlen, “(Not) Narrating the History of the Federal Republic: Reflections on the Place of the New Left in West German History and Historiography” Central European History Vol. 52, Issue 1 (March 2019): 107-124.

Regime Representations of Gender and Sexuality

M. Guthrie

Under a system preoccupied with the maintenance of a largely singular ideal of national character, it is safe to assume that those actively challenging fascism’s picture of the so-called ‘model-citizen’ were not exactly considered favourable or met with approval. However, Marhoefer’s exploration into the lives of lesbians and transgender folk under German fascism during the 1930s and ‘40s aligns with recent historical discussion regarding the attitudes surrounding the diversity and fluidity of gender roles and/or sexual orientation. This has likewise sparked conversations surrounding the lengths to which these standards were upheld under fascist regimes (in this case, Nazi Germany), and whether standards were more rigorous for certain types of individuals.

I was fascinated by this idea, and equally so by the ways in which individuals could therefore utilize fascism in a way that afforded them greater agency – either challenging or aligning with the state. Likewise, I felt that attitudes towards gender and sexual identity throughout this period reveal important ideas about the primacy of patriarchy – as it seems that masculinity was generally more accepted than displays of femininity.

That is not to say that women were not also expected to uphold gender roles, however Marfoefer’s case study of Ilse Totzke points out the ways in which queer women (or those not presenting as traditionally feminine) were not criminalized to the same extent as gay men. On one hand, this was due to lack of law explicitly prohibiting sexual relations between women, though I have to wonder if this is also due to the preference for expressions of masculinity.

Similarly, Kühne’s explorations of gender roles within the Third Reich depicts the “protean” expressions of masculinity amongst soldiers, adapting to include traditionally feminine traits (408). Despite the adoption of feminine tasks in programs such as Hitler Youth and later in the military, Kühne notes that “for a boy to become a real man, he had to become a woman first,” implying a kind of hierarchy in which masculine attributes become the dominant social norm (409).

Works Cited

Laurie Marhoefer, “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: a Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943” The American Historical Review 121: 4 (2016): 1167-1195.

Thomas Kühne, “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic Masculinity: Soldiers in the Third Reich” Central European History Vol 51, Issue 3 (September 2018): 390-418.

Understanding the Role of Mass Culture and Media in Far-Right Ideologies

M. Guthrie

Throughout this week’s readings, I was particularly struck by the recurring theme of mass culture being used as a means of reflecting and/or reinforcing authoritarian and fascist ideologies. Throughout contemporary European history, novels, newspapers, films and the like became crucial cultural resources, dispersing information and allowing for reflection on the shared experiences of a group.

While it was commonly understood that these sources worked in strengthening ideas of national identity or character, this media likewise acted as a divisive tool which could be specifically moulded to demonize social and cultural outliers – most notably protecting Europe from the “foreign contamination” of Judaism (Ben-Ghiat, 138). A prime example being the idea of the lasting conception of the Jewish Bolshevik, painting those of Jewish background as a malignant presence in Eastern European society, threatening the stability of authoritarian and nationalist ideologies (Hanebrink, 11-45).

I began to wonder how these tendencies have evolved in recent years to come to reflect the broader trends of globalization and internationalism. Especially considering the ease and accessibility provided by the internet, it is no surprise that individuals across the world can find a resource to support their beliefs, no matter how far-fetched or controversial they may be. In the context of the present-day, what comes to mind are sources like Breitbart News, or Alex Jones’s InfoWars gaining popularity worldwide, not just in the United States.

What I found extremely interesting is that this connection between nationalists in differing nations is not necessarily a new concept and is aided by the very presence of mass culture and popular media. Motadel notes that as early as 1937, figures such as George Orwell described fascism as a rather international movement – citing the Spanish Civil War as a prime example. It originally seemed to be a bit of an oxymoron in my mind, for those valuing a specific national identity to accept and support the help of others. However, if I understand correctly, it becomes more about supporting those who similarly want the preservation of what they feel is the original composition of the nation.

Works Cited

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Conquest and Collaboration” in Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945 (University of California Press, 2004), pp. 17-45.

Paul Hanebrink, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (Harvard University Press, 2018), pp. 1-10, 11-45.

David Motadel, “The Far Right Says There’s Nothing Dirtier Than Internationalism — But They Depend on It.” The New York Times. 2019.

Hi everyone,

My name is Madeline Guthrie, but most people just call me Maddie. I’m entering the fourth year of my undergrad with a major in History and a minor in Film Studies. While I’m still working to narrow down specific areas of interest, I’m aiming to attend a graduate program in Library and Information Studies at some point. When I’m not in class or slinging scones at the SconeWitch, I enjoy reading, knitting, tending to my sourdough starter, and entertaining my kitten, Bonnie.

(If prompted, I will bombard you with cat photos. You have been warned.)

I’m looking forward to our conversations over the semester as this will allow me to gain a greater understanding of circumstances in which authoritarian regimes (throughout history and into the present) have had the ability to grow and gain significant power. I’m particularly interested in learning about how this relates to conceptualizations and expressions of gender, sexuality, and disability.