Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland

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Overview

In the summer and fall of 1998, ultranationalist Polish Catholics erected hundreds of crosses outside Auschwitz, setting off a fierce debate that pitted Catholics and Jews against one another. While this controversy had ramifications that extended well beyond Poland’s borders, Geneviève Zubrzycki sees it as a particularly crucial moment in the development of post-Communist Poland’s statehood and its changing relationship to Catholicism.

In The Crosses of Auschwitz, Zubrzycki skillfully demonstrates how this episode crystallized latent social conflicts regarding the significance of Catholicism in defining “Polishness” and the role of anti-Semitism in the construction of a new Polish identity. Since the fall of Communism, the binding that has held Polish identity and Catholicism together has begun to erode, creating unease among ultranationalists. Within their construction of Polish identity also exists pride in the Polish people’s long history of suffering. For the ultranationalists, then, the crosses at Auschwitz were not only symbols of their ethno-Catholic vision, but also an attempt to lay claim to what they perceived was a Jewish monopoly over martyrdom.

This gripping account of the emotional and aesthetic aspects of the scene of the crosses at Auschwitz offers profound insights into what Polishness is today and what it may become.

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Editorial Reviews

European Studies Forum

"A brilliant study of how charged symbols and particular places can be implicated in the transformation of nation and religion."
Philip Gorski

“The study of nationalism is one of those fields that tend to produce more heat than light. Having sweated through many of the debates myself, I found this study of Polish nationalism since the collapse of Communism as calming and refreshing as a cool beer on an August day. Geneviève Zubrzycki’s writing is direct and unpretentious, her argument clear and convincing, and the material rich and original.”--Philip S. Gorski, Yale University

 

Jan Kubik

“By analyzing in detail the famous controversy over the crosses at Auschwitz, Zubrzycki’s book shows with great ingenuity how the meaning of ‘Polishness’ has been negotiated, debated, and fought over since the fall of state socialism. She demonstrates in convincing and authoritative fashion that this conflict was not only a dispute between Poles and Jews over the memory of Auschwitz, but also a debate among Poles about the ‘proper’ discursive establishment of Polish national identity. This will become the standard work on this extremely important topic.”--Jan Kubik, Rutgers University
Antony Polonsky

“The Roman Catholic Church was one of the principal forces which made possible the ultimate success of the Poles in negotiating the end of the communist system and freeing themselves from Soviet domination. This balanced and well-researched book examines how this Church has reacted to the new and more complex problems posed by the achievement of freedom and independence, and in particular, the painful legacy of antisemitism in sections of Polish society and of the Church itself.”--Antony Polonsky, Brandeis University and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

 

Catholic Historical Review - Sabrina P. Ramet

"This is a brilliant book, both in terms of the author's insights and depth of understanding, and in terms of the coherence and logic of her presentation of her material."
Slavic Review - Marek Kucia

"This work is grounded in the careful reading of sources, comprehensive study of literature, and careful empirical research conducted through participatory observation and personal interviews. The text is clearly structured and written with a light academic style. . . . An outstanding work of social science which is to be recommended to all students of Auschwitz, Poland, Christian-Jewish and Polish-Jewish relations, nationalism, and religion."
American Journal of Sociology - Piotr Sztompka

"[The] book teaches us how to practice event-focused historical and cultural sociology better than any methodological textbook could. . . . This book is not only for sociologists of religion or ethnicity, nor for the experts on Poland or Polish history, but for all who are bored with cross-tabulations and regression analysis and would like to see how qualitative methodology may be masterfully employed. Furrthermore, the book is fasicnating to read and hard to put away."
Holocaust and Genocide Studies - John T. Pawlikowski

"The best book to date on the Auschwitz 'crosses controversy' . . . . The end result is a comprehensive study of religious symbolism and its impact on people's self-understanding as a national community. Hence the book is as relevant for sociologists of religion as it is for historians and religious-studies scholars."
Journal of the American Academy of Religion - Slavika Jakelic

"Zubrzycki's book will become an indispensable reading on the topic of nationalism and religion--among other reasons, it is one of the first books to identify the impasse in the contemporary scholarship on the problem."
History of Religions - Brian Porter-Szuecs

"Zubrzycki's prose is both eloquent and clear, holding the reader's attention even through the most complex theoretical presentations and most detailed historical accounts. . . . This book has already become required reading for anyone interested in Poland or Roman Catholicism, and it should be part of any bibliography dealing with the relationship between religion, politics, and cultural identity."
Slavic Review

"This work is grounded in the careful reading of sources, comprehensive study of literature, and careful empirical research conducted through participatory observation and personal interviews. The text is clearly structured and written with a light academic style. . . . An outstanding work of social science which is to be recommended to all students of Auschwitz, Poland, Christian-Jewish and Polish-Jewish relations, nationalism, and religion."

— Marek Kucia

American Journal of Sociology

"[The] book teaches us how to practice event-focused historical and cultural sociology better than any methodological textbook could. . . . This book is not only for sociologists of religion or ethnicity, nor for the experts on Poland or Polish history, but for all who are bored with cross-tabulations and regression analysis and would like to see how qualitative methodology may be masterfully employed. Furrthermore, the book is fasicnating to read and hard to put away."

— Piotr Sztompka

Catholic Historical Review

"This is a brilliant book, both in terms of the author's insights and depth of understanding, and in terms of the coherence and logic of her presentation of her material."

— Sabrina P. Ramet

Holocaust and Genocide Studies

"The best book to date on the Auschwitz 'crosses controversy' . . . . The end result is a comprehensive study of religious symbolism and its impact on people's self-understanding as a national community. Hence the book is as relevant for sociologists of religion as it is for historians and religious-studies scholars."

— John T. Pawlikowski

Journal of the American Academy of Religion

"Zubrzycki's book will become an indispensable reading on the topic of nationalism and religion--among other reasons, it is one of the first books to identify the impasse in the contemporary scholarship on the problem."

— Slavika Jakelic

European Studies Forum

"A brilliant study of how charged symbols and particular places can be implicated in the transformation of nation and religion."

History of Religions
Zubrzycki's prose is both eloquent and clear, holding the reader's attention even through the most complex theoretical presentations and most detailed historical accounts. . . . This book has already become required reading for anyone interested in Poland or Roman Catholicism, and it should be part of any bibliography dealing with the relationship between religion, politics, and cultural identity.

— Brian Porter-Szuecs

Catholic Historical Review
This is a brilliant book, both in terms of the author's insights and depth of understanding, and in terms of the coherence and logic of her presentation of her material.

— Sabrina P. Ramet

Slavic Review
This work is grounded in the careful reading of sources, comprehensive study of literature, and careful empirical research conducted through participatory observation and personal interviews. The text is clearly structured and written with a light academic style. . . . An outstanding work of social science which is to be recommended to all students of Auschwitz, Poland, Christian-Jewish and Polish-Jewish relations, nationalism, and religion.

— Marek Kucia

American Journal of Sociology
[The] book teaches us how to practice event-focused historical and cultural sociology better than any methodological textbook could. . . . This book is not only for sociologists of religion or ethnicity, nor for the experts on Poland or Polish history, but for all who are bored with cross-tabulations and regression analysis and would like to see how qualitative methodology may be masterfully employed. Furrthermore, the book is fasicnating to read and hard to put away.

— Piotr Sztompka

Holocaust and Genocide Studies
The best book to date on the Auschwitz 'crosses controversy' . . . . The end result is a comprehensive study of religious symbolism and its impact on people's self-understanding as a national community. Hence the book is as relevant for sociologists of religion as it is for historians and religious-studies scholars.

— John T. Pawlikowski

Journal of the American Academy of Religion
Zubrzycki's book will become an indispensable reading on the topic of nationalism and religion—among other reasons, it is one of the first books to identify the impasse in the contemporary scholarship on the problem.

— Slavika Jakelic

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226993041
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2006
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Geneviève Zubrzycki is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.

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Read an Excerpt

THE CROSSES OF AUSCHWITZ

Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland


By GENEVIÈVE ZUBRZYCKI THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-99304-1



Chapter One

Genealogy of Polish Nationalism

L'incompréhension du présent naît fatalement de l'ignorance du passé. -Marc Bloch, Apologie pour l'histoire

In the Polish tradition, the historical image has proved far more convincing than the historical fact. -Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland

Introduction

Every nation has its myth of foundation: its linked plots of growth and development, crisis and resistance, doom, victory, and rebirth. These myths change over time, with the times, but always remain, their origins occluded; it is in that sense, and only that sense, that they are timeless. The most common and pervasive Polish myth is that of Poland's intrinsic Catholicity: Polonia semper fidelis (Poland always faithful), the bulwark of Christendom defending Europe against the infidel (however defined); the Christ of nations, martyred for the sins of the world, resurrected for the world's salvation; a nation whose identity is conserved and guarded by its defender, the Roman Catholic Church, and shielded by its Queen, the miraculousBlack Madonna, Our Lady of Czestochowa; a nation that has given the world a pope and rid the Western world of Communism ... If this representation is a caricature of the myth, it is, like all caricatures, distorted only by the picture's being drawn with rather oversharp angles.

In this chapter, I analyze the formation and transformation of Polish national identity and nationalism, and investigate the construction of the association between Polishness and Roman Catholicism, too often taken for granted. Before undertaking an anatomy of the War of the Crosses and its multiple layers, we must know something of its constituent parts: the making of the cross as a dominant symbol and martyrdom as a core narrative, the representation of Jews as "Other," and Catholicism as a key element of Polish identity.

To go forward, we must first go back. It is for that reason that I now invite the reader on a fairly whirlwind historical tour of the formation and transformation of Polish national identity and nationalism. The tour will not be an exhaustive (or exhausting) survey of Polish history, but rather a discussion of the historical constitution of the nation focused on the questions defined in the book's introduction. The objective is not only to provide the reader with the historical background necessary for understanding the current period and the War of the Crosses, but also to identify key events, narratives, symbols, and rituals out of which the nation was and is created, and which specifically were brought to bear in the recent crisis at Auschwitz. The current strategies of discourses and practices are delineated by the parameters of historical narratives. It is through these key narratives and symbols that religion and national identity were intertwined during the War of the Crosses. It is therefore crucial for us to uncover their origins.

The pervasive myth of Poland's intrinsic Roman Catholic identity is based on a specific telling of national history, argues Brian Porter: "The Catholic narrative of Polish history is far more than a recognition that Roman Catholicism was and is important in Poland: it is an ideologically loaded conceptual framework that gives specific meaning to the past and helps determine what is remembered and what is forgotten" (2001, 291). Echoing Prasenjit Duara's call, our goal should thus be to rescue Polish history from the ethno-Catholic narrative of the nation by deconstructing and analyzing the different threads of the Polish national narrative(s), and by identifying in which particular contexts the stories and symbols comprising the various visions or versions of Polishness were woven into more or less durable fabrics. The chapter shows how the political history of Poland and the making of a dominant national narrative are imbricated, and highlights the processes by which a specific amalgam of "stories," rituals, and symbols came to form that dominant narrative.

The tour we now undertake includes two aspects: a study of the national narrative's components, and the analysis of the processes of their legitimation and canonization as "national." This is important because in contrast with Poland's national mythology, religion has not always played a role in Polish nationalism. Systematically looking for traces of it would further reify that association instead of deconstructing it. It is precisely the process by which religion came to be entangled with a specific form of nationalism that is the question at hand. Until the Polish nation was constructed along ethnic lines at the end of the nineteenth century, I show, religion played but a secondary role in conceptions of nationhood.

In the first part of the chapter I analyze the Polish protonation, defined in civic terms and centered on the Polish-Lithuanian Republic (1569-1795). I then discuss the implications of the Polish state's disappearance (1795-1918), which led to the reorientation of the emerging nation in ethno-religious terms. In part 3 I analyze the stereotype of the "Polak-katolik" as it was codified in the "Reborn Poland" of the interwar period; and finally, in the last section of this chapter, I analyze the relationship between nation and religion, as well as between church, state, and civil society, during the Communist period.

The Civic Protonation

In today's Poland, the nation is primarily understood in ethnic terms. It is conceived as a community of history and culture, whereas the state (and "society"-spoleczenstwo) proceeds from an associational-political relation. Nationality and citizenship are thus distinct: the first term has a clear ethnic and cultural connotation, referring to one's tie with a historical and cultural community, a community of descent, "Poland," whereas the second strictly reflects the legal-political relationship between the individual and the state. Although the ethnic conception has been the dominant one since the late nineteenth century, and "nation" and "state" have been understood as distinct if not antagonistic since then, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the term naród (nation) had a political connotation detached from linguistic or ethnic considerations. The nation (or protonation) was, rather, conceived as a political relation between citizens-noblemen: it was a political body composed of and limited to the nobility, the szlachta, whose members were equal in rights regardless of fortune, bound by their loyalty to the state. To a modern reader, this status-based definition of the nation may be too restrictive to be significant, closer to the Athenian demos than to modern democracy, and infinitely removed from what the civic nation ideally embodies since the French Revolution. But note that the Polish nobility was one of the largest in Europe, constituting 10 to 13 percent of the republic's total population. Civic participation in the Republic of Nobles was far greater than in nineteenth-century France or England. In the bourgeois France of Louis-Philippe (r. 1830-48), for example, only 1.5 percent of the population had the right to vote (Walicki 1991, 24).

Polishness was in principle blind to ethnic or religious background: one could be "natione Polonus, gente Ruthenus, origine Judaeus" without arousing the suspicions such an identity could evoke today. Polish protonationalism was instead defined by territorial patriotism and loyalty to the state that guaranteed the szlachta's "golden freedom." This liberty stood in sharp contrast with the rest of Europe at the age of absolutism. The Democracy of Nobles, as the Polish-Lithuanian Republic is often called, was characterized by the active and direct participation of the nobility in the political affairs of the country. The republic was based on an elective monarchy, and had, since 1493, a parliamentary system in which the Sejm (assembly of nobles, now Parliament) retained legislative power. The principle Nic o nas bez nas (nothing concerning us without us) and the (in)famous liberum veto, which allowed for a single nobleman to refuse the sanctioning of a king's election, the ratification of a law, or the levee of a new tax simply by uttering "Nie pozwalam" (I do not allow), are representative of a protodemocratic political culture that valued consensus and unanimity (Kaminski 2000). The potential for anarchy was kept in check by strong social norms that prevented the abuse of the principle; the liberum veto actually existed for a very long period without being used. It was only when the social norms of political behavior that kept it under control were loosened that the liberum veto was unleashed and became a problem. Hence its portrayal, often caricatured, as the cause of a political anarchy that paralyzed the development of essential reforms and inhibited the economic modernization of the country, consequently facilitating foreign intervention in domestic affairs, a pattern that allegedly resulted in the dissolution of the state and the partitioning of its territory.

The First Partition, when Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided up among themselves much of the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Republic in 1772, shook up the szlachta enough to prompt an era of reforms that resulted in the proclamation of the Constitution of May Third in 1791. This constitution remains a potent symbol in Poland, even though it was abolished in 1792, a year after its proclamation and a year before the Second Partition. While it did not extend full equality for all citizens, it called for a broadening of the "nation": political membership was now dependent on landownership, not on noble birth. The landless nobility was therefore excluded from the nation, while the burghers were its new members. The peasantry was overlooked altogether.

Some thus see in the Democracy of Nobles an embryonic form of civic nationalism, though still far from modern nationalism (if by modern we mean mass-based)-a form of nationalism that could not develop further at that time, but nevertheless left its traces in the contemporary Polish social imagination.

Ethnicity, Religion, and Status

While ethnicity was not a criterion for membership in the nation, its ideologists were not completely satisfied with a purely political basis for national unity. A myth of common origins thus integrated the multiethnic nation of nobles within one large family. All nobles of the Polish-Lithuanian Republic were said to descend from the ancient Sarmatians, themselves descendants of the Scythians, ultimately related to the biblical Adam. This mythic tribal identity superseded regional and ethnic differences, explained the association of ethnically diverse (noble) groups, and legitimized the noble nation's privileges. Nevertheless, Polonization was often a requirement for ascension and integration into the szlachta. It frequently meant adopting Polish as the common language in the public sphere and converting to Roman Catholicism. It would thus be a misrepresentation to claim that ethnicity as a category was simply absent from the conceptual universe of the szlachta's ideologues. It was present; but as a defining element of the nation and the principle for inclusion in or exclusion from the nation, ethnicity was not, as it would later become, the focal point of the Republic of Nobles' protonationalist ideology.

Similarly with regards to religious affiliation. In addition to being ethnically diverse, the population of the Polish-Lithuanian Republic was a complex religious mosaic: it included not only Catholics (of both Latin and Greek rites), but also Orthodox, Jews, and a small number of Muslims. The nation of nobles, because it was status based, was ethnically and religiously somewhat porous: some nobles never converted to Roman Catholicism, while others converted to Protestantism during the Reformation. Indeed, Calvinism spread rapidly among the nobility in the sixteenth century, and by midcentury, Protestants were a majority in the senate. Protestants and Catholics were equally "Polish," equal compatriots, which earned Poland the reputation in Europe of being the land of religious tolerance. In 1572, the Sejm issued a declaration assuring "that we who are divided by faith will keep peace among ourselves, and not shed blood on account of differences in faith or church" (in Porter 2001, 291). Religious divisions would not shatter the collective "we" alluded to in the declaration. Just as being ethnically Lithuanian would not prevent a noble from being Polish, a noble's religious affiliation would not threaten his membership in the Polish nation. With the Counter-Reformation, however, Roman Catholicism was naturalized and "indigenized" as the religion of Poland. It was contrasted with Protestantism, a "new" and "foreign" religion: "Your religion is a newcomer which recently came to us from foreign countries, while the Catholic faith was and is mistress in her own house," declared a chancellor at the Sejm in 1648 (in Tazbir 1990, 120). Protestants responded by "indigenizing" Protestantism: just like Catholicism, Protestantism had come to Poland via the Czech lands.

Already in the mid-fifteenth century, Poland had started to be known in Europe as Antemurale christianitatis-the bulwark of Christendom-a reputation that was confirmed and reaffirmed after King Jan III Sobieski liberated Vienna from the Turks in 1683, a victory important enough to be commemorated in a mural in the Vatican. And a few decades earlier, in 1653, in what belongs to legend as much as to history, Pauline monks in Czestochowa resisted and defeated Swedish invaders, amiracle attributed to the presence of the icon of the Black Madonna in the monastery (fig. 8). As a sign of his gratitude, King Jan Kazimierz dedicated Poland to the Virgin Mary and consecrated the icon as "Queen of Poland." It is probably from the king's vows of faithfulness to the Virgin that Poland's traditional motto, Polonia semper fidelis, originates. Her cult began to spread during the Catholic Counter-Reformation, under the shadow of conflicts with Ottomans and the threat from the infidel (Tazbir 1990, 119). Amajor symbol and a central trope of the Catholic narrative of the nation and of modern Polish nationalism thus were born.

There is therefore no doubt that religion occupied an important place in the Polish-Lithuanian Republic and its politics, and punctuated the everyday life of its inhabitants. The conversion of Mieszko I to Christianity in 966 had had important historical consequences: it marked the inclusion of Polish lands into the Latin world and "Western culture," and propelled the Polish crown into a network of alliances, influences, and conflicts tightly related to that event (a historical "fact" constantly evoked by Poles whenever their nation gets lumped together with "eastern Europe"). The Catholic Church was also an important player in the life of the kingdom: from the sixteenth century onward, for example, the archbishop of Gniezno, Primate of Poland, even assumed the role of the Interrex, holding power between the death of a king and the election of his successor. What must be emphasized here, however, is that the religious (that is, Roman Catholic) element, although definitely present by the mid-seventeenth century, did not play a defining role in the noble nation's identity. We do not find the clear association between Polishness and Roman Catholicism in the protonational ideology of the nation of nobles as would later be claimed by the church and nationalists alike, in part because Polishness was not defined in ethnic terms. Ethnicity and religious affiliation were not yet firmly tied into the definition of the nation. Catholicism would become central to Polish national identity and ideology, as well as instituted by a national political program, only toward the end of the nineteenth and during the twentieth century.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE CROSSES OF AUSCHWITZ by GENEVIÈVE ZUBRZYCKI Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations
Preface 
Acknowledgments
Abbreviations
Key to Pronunciation
Introduction and Theoretical Orientations
1. Genealogy of Polish Nationalism 
2. "We, the Polish Nation": Redefining the Nation in Post-Communist Poland
3. "Oswiecim"/"Auschwitz": Archaeology of a Contested Site and Symbol 
4. The Aesthetics of the War of the Crosses: Mobilizing "the Nation"
5. Debating Poland by Debating the Cross
Conclusion: Nationalism and Religion Reexamined 
Appendix A: Newspapers Consulted  
Appendix B: Preamble to the Constitution of the Third Republic of Poland
Appendix C: Historical Cues 
References 
Index
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