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Patriotism and Identity

Peter Leese and Beata Piątek

Reprinted from Mapping the Intercultural (British Studies Now Issue 16 Autumn 2002) - by permission of the British Council. For this article in the original and other articles - see the British Studies Now archive at

"1989 was the year of collapse of capitalism in Poland...'; 'In the communist times, Polish people were lazy, drank vodka and didn't care about politics...' These quotes are a more or less random sample from the July 2002 examination papers for admission into the English Department of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Having spent five days reading English summaries of a Polish article on the social and cultural transformations that 12 years of capitalism have brought about in our country, we realised, to our horror, that for Polish nineteen-year-olds the events that shaped the lives of their parents are as close and relevant as a volcanic explosions on Mars. However, we soon stopped lamenting the atrocious ignorance of the young, (fearing it might be an early warning sign of encroaching middle age) and noted that the events of the last twenty years seem to have faded rather quickly in popular memory. A Pole, unlike a Briton, is not exposed to debate on the nature of his or her national identity. That our national identity is taken for granted as unambiguous was ultimately confirmed by a library search; we typed in: 'Polish national identity', and to our surprise the search found only a handful of entries and all of them were either sociological studies of ethnic minorities in Poland or Polish emigrant communities abroad. The impact of history on Polish national identity and culture has been taken up, indeed, but the authors are Norman Davies and Timothy Garton Ash.

It is enough to browse through the list of recent publications on the subject of national identity and culture in Colls' Introduction to his Identity of England to see that what is still virgin territory in Poland is a well-tilled field in Britain. We chose to review these books from a Polish perspective (Peter Leese being nearly native after ten years in Poland) assuming that Poland will provide an interesting point of comparison with Britain because, although it is on the opposite side of Europe, and in many respects its antithesis, the two share a common European heritage. For both Britain and Poland the Second World War was the event which fixed its self image and its personality to the outside world for the remainder of the twentieth century, yet the nature of these definitions could hardly be more different. As Weight reminds us, it was the immediate prospect of invasion - greater in 1940 than at any time since the Napoleonic Wars - which led the British to consider what they might lose if German rule became a reality. By 1945 the 'finest hour' of the battle of Britain (1940) had become the People's War, and eventually the people's peace: spitfires into spectacles as the author of Patriots memorably puts it. In the radio speeches of Winston Churchill and J. B. Priestley, resolute opposition to injustice; in the Ministry of Information posters depictions of the White Cliffs of Dover and the Sussex Downs; in wartime films such as In Which We Serve (1942) or Fires Were Started (1943), images of class unity and everyday heroism. All of this influenced Britons as they thought, during crisis of wartime, of who they were and what they wanted to achieve once the peace was won. Poles had no such luxury. While Britain averted the humiliation of surrender and occupation, Poland fought the longest war of all: from the invasion of September 1939 to the elimination of the final resistance militia in the civil war of 1945-7. While Britain lost 0.9 per cent, Poland lost 18 per cent of its population. While America called in its war debts as the peace was declared in 1945, leaving Britain in a precarious financial state, Poland's cities were devastated, its citizens subjugated and traumatised. In both countries the war left a deep suspicion of German politics, and as a long-term consequence, Europe.

In Patriots Weight stresses the creation of a workable British union between the early eighteenth and the mid-twentieth century, attending more closely to the rapid disintegration of British nationalism into its constituent parts between the Second World War and the end of the century. For Weight Britishness is a construct designed and guarded by politicians. The main theme of his book is the role of American, European and Asian culture in the decline of Britishness. His second major concern is the ousting of religion as the means of worship and idealisation of the nation in favour of the arts and sport. The author emphasises the significance of popular culture: 'History without popular culture is not a history with a stiff upper lip. It is something much worse. It is history with a cleft palate: incoherent and quite unable to communicate the full breadth of human experience.' His discussion of television, film, fashion and pop music as the corner stones of a cultural renaissance that helped to found post-imperial cultural identity in Britain is particularly riveting for readers from a country like Poland, where any power over national identity is still reserved for high art. While a young Briton may fall back on an expanding repertory of models of Britishness (Asian, African, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, feminine, working class, middle class etc.) a teenage Pole is torn between the models provided by education (Romantic warrior for a lost cause, for whom death is the ultimate victory) and those offered by the commercial mass media (greedy yuppie). Presenting young people with nineteenth-century models and linking patriotism with Catholic faith results in a growing chasm between the desired, constructed Polishness and the reality of their lives. No wonder then that they identify with the models provided by MTV and that Polish music is more dominated by house and techno than by Polish folk-pop groups such as Brathanki, or Golec Orkiestra.

Patriots is a book defining identity through perceptions and therefore it is peppered with quotations from novels, letters, private diaries of, sometimes obscure, individuals. This technique lends the account a convincing air of authenticity; the author's witty style makes it an exciting and easy read. However occasionally, Weight slips into the style of a gossip columnist when he makes little asides like: 'Royal scandal is nothing new (it is worth noting that Camilla Parker Bowles is the granddaughter of one of Edward Vll's mistresses, Alice Keppel)' and it is so clear that all the quotes are carefully selected and edited that the reader may feel manipulated at times. Though, on the other hand, such spicy detail might attract the reader, who will find Patriots a very detailed source of information on all aspects of social and cultural reality in post-war Britain. Such terms as: 'Suez crisis' or ‘Profumo affair' are not only explained but also presented in their political and social context. The stereotypically British qualities of reserve, fair play and the habit of drinking tea are provided with a historical and sociological background.

Colls' Identity of England requires a more specialised reader. The author locates national self-definition at the intersection of the objective law (such as the Acts of Union, enfranchisement and empire) and the subjective landscape (such as folk culture, Celtic wilderness, regional and linguistic distinctions). Unlike Weight, Colls does not believe that national identity can be 'invented' or 'constructed', he claims that it must 'correspond to and make sense of the real world.' His discussion of the identity of the nation state once again reminds the Polish reader of all the legal aspects of national identity that simply were not there when in the eighteenth century Poland ceased to exist as a state. Before the partition of 1795 finally abolished the Polish homelands, and ten years after the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland, Peter the Great blocked political and social reform in Poland by turning the country into a protectorate. When British empire, industry and enterprise were flourishing through the nineteenth century, Poland was a land to be imagined by its poets and fought for by its insurrectionists. A political identity was replaced by a cultural one. Military defeats caused a feeling of inferiority, which, in turn, was sublimated into excessive self-confidence. The Romantics advanced a theory of Poland's exceptional role in the civilised world (as the Messiah of Europe) in order to assert its moral right to exist in the conscience of its citizens. Today this very same conviction that Poland is 'antimurale christianitatis' lies behind the twentieth-century claims that 'Solidarity' and the Polish pope paved the way for the fall of communism in all the countries of the Eastern block.

In the second part of Identity of England, Colls moves from the identity of the state and nation to the identity of the land and people. He uses a metaphor of England as a garden representing the English mind as the English landscape and unveiling the gentle spirit of the English. He also quite blatantly exposes the National Trust as pretending that the homes of aristocracy were there for everyone, when in fact they were built 'to keep everyone out'.

Another curiosity for a Polish reader is the English love of the landscape and nature right across the social spectrum regardless of class or education. In Poland, such reverence has been reserved for the sophisticated few, the artists, the aristocrats. In the course of the twentieth century the two World Wars and the communist centrally planned economy played havoc with the urban and rural landscape alike. We can only smile at Weight and Colls, who unanimously scorn the tackiness of the mock-Tudor suburban villa. How about entire cities of grey concrete blocks? Or, as in Krakow, old-fashioned and inefficient steel works built on the outskirts of a medieval university city with a sole purpose of introducing a healthy working-class electorate into the constituency?

The point is not to brag about whose landscape is more damaged and consequently whose sense of identity is more vulnerable, but to adopt the broader perspective manifested in the work of Weight and Colls in the study of the Polish (or any other) national identity despite the political and cultural differences. Polish popular culture also has a lot to say about our identity and history, and it is with popular culture that we can reach out to the young generation so that they do not feel completely uprooted from the past. There is no denying it; the cult film about the communist times in Poland is not Andrzej Wajda's Man of Marble, or Man of Iron, but Marek Piwowski's The Cruise (Rejs). Wajda's Romantic visions make him as remote and hermetic to the young as the school texts they dread. Piwowski, with his absurd humour and irony creates an allegory of the communist regime which speaks to the young in the language which they not only relate to, but absorb and quote.

Books reviewed

  • Identity of England Robert Colls OUP 2002
  • Patriots: national identity in Britain 1940-2000 Richard Weight Macmillan 2002

The authors

Peter Leese teaches social and cultural history, Beata Piątek teaches literature and British Studies, and together with Izabella Curyllo-Klag (another colleague at the English Department of the Jagiellonian University) they edited and introduced The British Migrant Experience 1700-2000: An Anthology (Palgrave, 2002). Peter Leese is the author of Shell Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War (Palgrave, 2002).

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