Tomasz Kamusella: Between Silesiophobia and Polonophobia

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

The Nation is Above the Law

The ethnolinguistic and ethnoconfessional dimension of Polish nationalism has become the leading form of legitimization for governance in today’s Poland. The best encapsulation of this momentous change is uncritical applause of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party for MP Kornel Morawiecki’s 2015 quip that ‘the [Polish] nation is above the law.’ Unsurprisingly, the current Polish school history curriculum proposes that children should be taught to be proud of their nation, defined as the Polish-speaking Catholic. The independence of judgement and the freedom of thought are downgraded in favor of nationally construed conformism.

The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), founded in 2000, was to probe into the difficult issues and problems of modern Polish history, especially during World War II and in the communist period. However, after the cesura of 2015 when PiS gained power, the IPN has become the controller of the ‘nationally correct’ interpretation of the past. The main bone of contention has been the burgeoning study of the Holocaust, which has uncovered that ethnic (Catholic) Poles rarely saved Poles of the Jewish religion, and mostly remained passive bystanders. But some were perpetrators and actively participated in the Holocaust, as proved by the Jedwabne Massacre of 1941.

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 Nationally-minded Polish politicians have rejected such an ideologically unseemly possibility. Their efforts at whitewashing the past gave much credence to the previously obscure term ‘polonophobia’ (polonofobia), or ‘anti-Polonism’ (antypolonizm), coined in emulation of the expression ‘anti-Semitism.’ In the first half of the 20th century, this rare Polish term was employed for labeling the character of Germanizing and Russifying policies aimed at Polish-speaking communities, mainly before 1918 and during World War II. However, in the second half of the 20th century, especially in the wake of the 1968 expulsion of Poles of the Jewish religion or origin from Poland, the term anti-Polonism was waged by Polish émigré journals and intellectuals to counter any accusations of anti-Semitism leveled against Poland and ethnic Poles.

 Following the political change in 2015, one of the main activities of the IPN is to spot, register and condemn acts of anti-Polonism all over the world. The state budget lavishly supports similar activities by previously marginal right-wing NGOs, such as the Good Name Redoubt – Polish League Against Defamation (Polish: Fundacja Reduta Dobrego Imienia – Polska Liga Przeciw Zniesławieniom, established in 2013), or the Committee for Defending Poland and the Poles Against Defamation (Komitet Obrony Dobrego Imienia Polski i Polaków, founded in 2009).

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What does the presumed crime of anti-Polonism entail these days? First of all, any generalizations on the participation of ethnic (Catholic) Poles in the Holocaust fall under this rubric. Second, any acts of anti-Semitism perpetrated by Poles are ‘explained away’ by proposing that ‘Jews’ (that is, Poles of the Jewish religion or origin) were typically guilty of anti-Polonism. More broadly, and quite justifiably, any prejudices and negative stereotypes voiced about Poles, especially abroad and by foreigners, are a form of anti-Polonism. Less justifiably, the lack of knowledge of Polish history is also seen as a form of anti-Polonism, especially in the case of the widespread use of the incorrect term ‘Polish concentration (or extermination) camps’ for referring to German camps of this type, built and run by the German state in the Polish territories annexed and incorporated into Germany during World War II. Finally, especially after 2015, any Pole can be seen to be guilty of anti-Polonism, if they question cherished myths of the Polish national master narrative, or are critical of the PiS government and officials, and also of the Catholic Church.

 The concept of ‘anti-Polonism’ is one of the main terms of the political and intellectual discourse in today’s Poland. This previously rare coinage has become ubiquitous in the Polish press and mass media. As a result, it is easier for the government-controlled mass media to execute character assassination of members of the opposition or free-thinking intellectuals and commentators critical of the Law and Justice regime. It suffices that a targeted person is denigrated as ‘anti-Polish’ or a ‘polonophobe.’


 Among others, the PiS government’s efforts at making the Polish nation more Polish focus on the country’s ethnic, national and linguistic minorities. Without any proof to this end, the minorities are explicitly proposed to be a ‘threat’ to Poland’s security. It is enough that such groups are perceived as ‘un-Polish minorities,’ irrespective of the fact that their members are Polish citizens. The Polish Constitution defines the Polish nation as consisting from all Polish citizens, irrespective of language, ethnicity or religion. However, the Law and Justice government has no respect for this Constitution, let alone for the document’s definition of the Polish nation. The party’s officials and civil servants construe the country’s population as consisting from ethnic Poles and ethnic non-Poles. In turn, the former group is subdivided into ‘true Poles,’ or supporters of Law and Justice, and into this party’s opponents, that is, ‘untrue Poles,’ commonly disparaged as lewacy (‘lefties,’ ‘commies’) or polskojęzyczni (‘the Polish-speaking’).

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 The Silesians, according to the 2011 census, are present-day Poland’s largest ethnic and linguistic minority. About 850,000 people consider themselves to be Silesians, while at least half a million speak Silesian as their language of everyday family and neighborhood communication. However, since the end of communism and totalitarianism in 1989, not a single government of democratic Poland has recognized the existence of the Silesian language or the Silesians as an ethnic group. Likewise, Warsaw does not recognize the results of the two postcommunist censuses of 2002 and 2011 in regard of the declarations of the Silesian language and nationality (namely, membership in the Silesian nation).

Isn’t this continuing Polish disrespect for identificational and linguistic choices of the Silesians anti-democratic, and in essence a form of anti-Silesian sentiment, or in short, anti-Silesianism (antyślōnskość)? Isn’t it Silesi(an)ophobioa (ślōnskofobiyjo)? Shouldn’t Silesians see this treatment at the hands of ethnically Polish co-citizens, as forced Polonization. If Germanization and Russification experienced by Poles before the founding of the Polish nation-state in 1918 was anti-Polonism, how come that the ongoing Polonization of the Silesians is not anti-Silesianism?

 In 2011 the PiS Chairman (Prezes), who de facto rules today’s Poland, opined that the Silesians are ‘clandestine Germans.’ Some protested, rather weakly. No one took a principled stance and characterized his pronouncement as prejudiced and anti-Silesian. In 2018 the German Vice-Consul in Opole, or the historical capital of Upper Silesia, appealed that the region’s Germans should not use the ‘Slavic dialect’ of Silesian. That was a surprisingly anti-Silesian statement uttered by a diplomat from a foreign country. Again, no one protested.

In school, Silesian children have no right to learn how to write and read in Silesian. Silesians pay taxes, but no subsidy is available for supporting the publishing of Silesian-language books, periodicals and online information platforms. During school lessons of history, it is mistakenly proposed that Upper Silesia was part of the Prussian partition zone of Poland-Lithuania. But how could it, if the region was never located within the frontiers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was erased from the political map of Europe in the late 18th century? Isn’t teaching this kind of falsehood a form of anti-Silesianism?

 Even worse, Silesians are pressed not to commemorate their dead who perished immediately after World War II in Polish concentration camps. Officially, after 1945, Warsaw saw Silesians as ‘autochthons,’ or ethnic Poles with no consciousness of their Polishness. But in reality, they were treated as ‘crypto-Germans,’ and this attitude survives to this day. Not surprisingly, unable to make a decent living in Poland, many Silesians left for Germany during the communist period and afterward. This fact, in the eyes of PiS’s ‘true Poles,’ seems to ‘prove’ the inherent anti-Polonism of Silesians. As though the Silesians had been given any choice by Warsaw’s unwavering policy of anti-Silesianism that has been directed at Upper Silesia and its inhabitants since 1922, when Poland received part of this region.

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 Most of the Silesians who stayed in Poland and made a career in this country had to adopt anti-Silesian attitudes in order to pass as ‘good Poles.’ The tension of denying and concealing one’s own origin, culture and language for the sake of camouflage, survival and success takes a toll. The result may be self-hatred. For instance, some Silesian scholars, or rather Polish scholars of Silesian origin, wrote Silesian-language culture into the tradition of Polish village folklore. It does not matter that Silesian culture has been overwhelmingly urban in its character since the early 19th century. Furthermore, in such scholars’ opinion, despite the Silesians’ wishes to the contrary, Silesian cannot be a language in its own right, and must be a dialect of the Polish language. These scholars of Silesian origin are the most vociferous proponents of anti-Silesianism in Polish research and universities.

Not only do Silesians must face up to the challenge of Polish or foreign (mainly German) anti-Silesianism, but also to self-hating Silesians’ Silesiophobia. But it is better to have a clear-cut view of the situation as it is, instead of daydreaming. Only then, an ameliorating plan for supporting the development of Silesian culture and language may be realistically drafted and implemented.

Last but not least, it is worth emphasizing there is no Silesian ethnolinguistic national movement. Most Silesians are happy to be Europeans, Poles and/or Germans at the same time. They have nothing against school-enabled literacy in Polish, German and English. Their wish is that anti-Silesian prejudices and policies are at long last dropped in the name of genuine democracy and tolerance. That the Silesians be permitted to cultivate their language and culture. Why not to institute a couple of hours per week of Silesian language and history in school? Is it so unaffordable to channel a bit from the taxes dutifully paid by the Silesians since 1922 into programs and grants for Silesian-language publishing, music, radio, film and television?

But should Warsaw decide not to budge on any account, let it be said clearly and openly that, regrettably, the Polish nation-state used to and continues to be anti-Silesian.

November 2019



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