Poles must stop living in the past

Friday, 1st of August, was a day devoted to remembrance of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Its heroism and glory, that had to be concealed during the years of communism. Now in full shine thanks to the massive media coverage… hours of live broadcasts on all news channels, metres of tape and pages of text have been devoted to various analysis, diaries, transcripts, comments, interviews…

The remembrance celebrations for the 64th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising have become another episode in an endless celebration of history while the needs of the current inhabitants of Poland are being neglected. We should be focusing on making new and innovative things happen.

So let’s dash the burden of our troubled past and start living in the present.

Celebrations of history have become festivals of pride – of Polish pride. Pride for “our” people, for “our” struggle, for “our” greatness. But history is not something I want to be proud of. This is not a real achievement of the people of this country. The fact that we decide to focus all our popular celebrations around history means that we feel we have no achievements in the present. Or no other interests. And we know it. Festivals of music, festivals of flowers, festivals of wine, festivals of anything else never get quite the coverage as dead people festivals do. Will we ever see a festival of, let’s say, art that brings the whole country to a halt? That gets the attention of the VIPs? That sees parades and concerts all around the country?

OK, we have a country, we have freedom. Very well. Many people don’t. But what do we do with it? Where are our talents of music, drama, comedy, architecture, science, literature, management, politics… etc.? Why doesn’t our system encourage creative people to do great things? Things we can be really proud of. Things we can see as real and present achievements. Where is the innovative music and style? Architecture that makes an impression. Experimental media… outstanding performances… We don’t let our talents flourish, we offer second-hand culture. Half of our television programmes are imports from the UK (while our public television pays millions for substandard soaps), most of what is shown in cinemas is American, while the music in our iPods is half British half American. The things our system and our people create don’t even appeal to ourselves, so no wonder we don’t feel proud of our creativity.

Is the past is the only area of greatness in our minds? We must stop living in the past in order to move on.

It is very difficult for Polish people to ever dare to see things this way. We are raised with certain patterns of thinking, we are socialised to certain myths, and most of our schooling concentrates on preserving our National sentiments; sentiments for partitions, war, and communism. We are manipulated into the romantic notions that surround Nation. Analysing the past we take sides and engage emotionally, instead of remaining cool observers. Television programmes, papers and books are filled with sweet-like-sugar pictures of heroes. Pictures people seem to fall for, but these are pictures I never believed. For I know life, and things are always complicated and people are full of passions and fears, truths and lies, and are never one-dimensional. We are manipulated into being hysterically Polish. Like our parents. And their parents. This leads our schooling to neglect the practicalities of life, like communication skills, tolerance, organisation, work ethics – which cost us so much trouble… Is remembering really the main task of the Polish people? Shouldn’t we primarily concentrate on developing some other qualities?

We, the people of Poland, remember our history too much, too often, we try to hard, we concentrate on it too much. We put too much emphasis, and heart, into it.

Furthermore: history and common experiences (war, pain, victories over enemies, lashes from greater powers) are a feature of a discourse that talks about Nation. And Nation talking always shifts our focus from everyday things – Nation serves romantic high purposes. Nation talk also excludes non-Poles.
I would prefer our present focus to be on the inhabitants of Poland, and their happiness. Inhabitants you will note, is a broader notion than Nation. It doesn’t exclude anyone.

Another things is that the national remembrance excitement is becoming obligatory, and I really hate when I’m being told what to think and what to feel. Just as “Słowacki was a great poet”.

“If you’re Polish and you know it,
And you really want to show it,
If you’re Polish and you know it,
Clap your hands (Clap, Clap).”

I hate these never ending celebrations of dead people. As someone said, Poland is ruled by coffins. And the coffins that rule Poland and the minds of people of this country are both the coffins of great Polish people, and of Polish victims.

But the worst thing is that all those celebrations strengthen the wrong parts of Polish thinking. They concentrate on the past, on finding those guilty for all that present Poland lacks… And provide a good excuse. An excuse that we are never reluctant to use when something substandard is pointed at. An excuse that comes very handy to all those lazy bastards who complain and complain but won’t lift a finger to change anything. I always say this to people: nothing will change itself, you have to make it happen. If you don’t like something, like for instance the slow pace in which roads are being built: associate with others who share similar opinion, create a pressure group, influence the government. That’s how democracy works. Decision makers will not take notice of you unless they have to.

And I hate to hear all those hypocrites who one moment criticize everything about Poland, and the Polish people, and then suddenly on another occasion, praise such remembrance occasions. So you celebrate the existence of this failed state that disappoints you so much? Why should you celebrate something you don’t like? Something that you never felt good with, something that causes you only headache and embarrassment?

Stop! Wake up people! We are alive, why don’t start living for eff’s sake? Concentrating on the present and the future. On work and fun.

* * *

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36 thoughts on “Poles must stop living in the past

  1. guest says:

    I would agree with you if it were true ,

    but the Poles “live in the past” only for 24hours. We should not overreact here.

    As long as the WWII veterans are still alive ,we should celebrate them. The Polish veterans were treated like s*** after the war for more than 40yrs and the 60th anniversary of the uprasing was the 1st big uprising celebration in Warsaw after the WWII.

    Just look what happens in the USA on July the 4th, or what happens in France on July the 14th, or what happens in Hiroshima on the so called “peace day”, or in Moscow on May the 9th, or how the Jews remember the holocaust, or how the USA remembers vietnam (just count all the movies) or the D-day… and so on.
    There are 1000 more examples. Even the Germans start to make movies about the German resistence and the German WWII victims in Dresden ,on the Wilhelm Gustlow ship and so on….and they invest millions of euros for actors like Tom Cruise.

    As long as the celebrations are not kitchy, last no more than 24 hours and are not nationalistic, I have no problem with them.

  2. guest says:


    And if you want something to be proud of NOW, just look at Poland 2008 and compare it to Poland 1988 or 1982….and then you will notice that this is a country of many many flexible, hard working, freedom loving people who do NOT live in the past 99% of the year but try build their future as good as they can…
    Of course many things could have been made quicker or better, but nobody is perfect especially in a system which depends on many 50yolds with a (lazy ,chaotic ,arrogant) PRL “czy sie stoi czy sie lezy” mentality.

  3. […] Do tego wpisu zainspirowały mnie niezwykle trafne uwagi Pawła, który na Polandianie opublikował wpis pt. Polacy muszą przestać żyć przeszłością […]

  4. […] writes about and posts pictures illustrating the 64th anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw uprising against the German […]

  5. A couple of thoughts in response to this and guest’s comments:

    I work with mostly young people, in their mid to late 20’s – accountants by profession but not necessarily by training. Most have degrees or are working on them. I’ve never or perhaps “very, very rarely” ever heard historical subjects discussed at work – and they do love to discuss, at length, almost any topic that you wish. It is quite possible that older people, in their 50’s+ are more focused on the past than the future but I can’t comment on this. My wife’s parents don’t seem to discuss it much or seem to focus on it much but their English is limited and my wife doesn’t necessarily translate everything

    Next point: I’ve seen the Constitution Day celebrations here. I’ve seen Independence Day celebrations in the US. I’ve even seen the Constitution Day celebrations on a smallish island in Norway. Out of the three, the Norwegians – by FAR – were the most involved and passionate about their Constitution/Independence Day. The US is in second place – it is more of a party than anything else and often is just an excuse to fire up the grill – and Poland is in a fairly distant third place. Of the three countries, I would expect Poland to basically stop on the 3rd of May and for 90% of the population to celebrate the current state of the nation. That’s not what happens at all and it’s pretty damn sad.

    Almost the last point: While I don’t experience a lot of living in the past… I do seem to read/hear/see a lot about it in the media. I’m not saying this phenomenon is necessarily media-driven… but it may be. It does irritate me when I read about it though because I don’t think Poland’s history can sustain the people of the present. Maybe in 100, 150 or 200 years people can look back and say that we, now, were the engines that firmly propelled Poland into the future and made the country great and something to be proud of. That’s what I hope they say, at any rate.

    Last point: I get the impression that “guest” has spent no – or very little – time in the US. For the US, WW2 is a distant memory and, as I said earlier, Independence Day celebrations aren’t about the battles won or lost. It’s just about eating barbecue, watching fireworks and maybe if you’re feeling really patriotic, waving an American flag around. At worst, the US *glances* at the past via the many films made about various wars. In Poland, it seems like those wars are deeply dwelled upon in the news, by Politicians (but this is just obviously populist and opportunistic) and, perhaps more recently, in films like Katyn. A film like Katyn, though, isn’t necessarily like Platoon or Finding Private Ryan. I don’t feel like Katyn is about the visual examination of a wound, it’s about peeling off a scab and poking around a bit. Katyn and things like it are probably where Pawel gets the feeling that Poland dwells too much on the past in an unhealthy way.

  6. Robert says:

    The past should be remembered and learned from but not be a yoke that holds people or society back from moving forward.

  7. guest says:

    Last point: I get the impression that “guest” has spent no – or very little – time in the US. For the US, WW2 is a distant memory and, as I said earlier, Independence Day celebrations aren’t about the battles won or lost. It’s just about eating barbecue, watching fireworks and maybe if you’re feeling really patriotic, waving an American flag around.

    Brad and what about 09.11 celebrations ?

    The Warsaw uprising was a 09.11 x 60days if you count how many people died. And i do not think that the celebrations are 60 times bigger i Warsaw than in NY.

  8. ge'ez says:

    Uh, WWII is dealt with mainly on Memorial Day in the US on May 30th. Also veterans groups, politicians and TV still make a pretty big deal about Pearl Harbor Day and D-Day.

    July 4th is more like Polish Constitution Day.

    And I grew up watching WWII movie after WWII movie. While that’s not so much the case now, y’gotta remember that the US has gotten itself in quite a few more wars than Poland since then, although recently y’all have allowed your politicians to tag along in the oil war.

    And ye might want to consider:

    “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience. ”
    –> George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905

  9. schaden freud says:

    Well, at least Poles have shown enough sense not to commemorate the Nazi dead:


  10. adthelad says:

    Dear Paweł, it seems such a shame to me that you arrive at such conclusions. Poland, the Poles, our ancestors and our dead and living family members were subjugated in distant and recent history, decimated by acts of unimaginable aggression, and who after a non aggression led revolution regained independence from that legacy find themselves accused even today (and tomorrow) of crimes that were puportrated on them in the first place by Germany and Russia. Accused and sentenced as guilty.
    We Poles take this rather personally as you might imagine.
    So we won’t be forgetting the Warsaw Uprising as it doesn’t stop us enjoying life now but envigorates us to take from it as much as we can WITHOUT GIVING UP!
    There are quite a few countries that don’t seem to like that approach.

    ge’ez… I wonder if the Russian saying ‘ If you keep one eye on the past you are blind in one eye, but if you forget the past you’re blind in both of your eyes’ stems from George Santayana?

  11. schaden freud says:

    At least Poles, even the K-twins, have demonstrated enough sense not to mourn the Nazi war dead:


  12. island1 says:

    Pawel: Interesting from the point of view of a Brit. We went through a similar thing in the 1960s and 70s as Britain tried to come to terms with the loss of empire and our new status as a minor power. I suppose it was never really ‘resolved,’ the older generation just died and the younger one couldn’t be bothered and got on with new things. There are still a lot of people who say Britain lives too much in the past, particularly in our obsession with ‘beating then Germans’ in WWII and our continued popular delusions about imperial glory. On the other hand even I find it sad that events such a Remembrance Sunday don’t have the impact that they once had. Remembrance Sunday is held every year (on the Sunday closest to the 11th November). It was initially instituted as a national day of mourning for the dead of WWI but later became a day of remembrance for all wars in which we were involved. When I was a kid in the 70s it was still normal for almost everyone to observe the 2 minutes silence that was the central act of remembrance; cars and buses stopped, babies and toddlers were hushed etc. It doesn’t happen anymore, and I’m not sure we’ve gained anything by spending those extra 2 minutes a year in DIY shops.

    I would certainly agree that I’ve noticed an awful lot more ceremonies of this kind in Poland. It has no effect on me but I can imagine how it might be stifling for a native.

  13. phred says:

    Maybe there are more ceremonies because there were so many WWII deaths in Poland and because a higher percentage of the population perished than in any other country. Such memories are not going to be easily forgotten as long as the sons and daughters of the victims live. Nor should they even unto future generations. A knowledge of history and respect for ancestors is not detrimental and need not paralyze anyone. I don’t see how such understanding should be stifling in any way.


  14. guest says:

    Poland lost its professors, artists, nobel price winners, businessmen, art works, whole cities, 16.07% of the population and freedom for the next 45yrs…

    Yes that IS pretty tragic. ;)

  15. Robert says:

    Poland has had a tragic past. Can you imagine (put yourself in these shoes) being say 85 years old today: Having witnessed WWII first hand, survived that, suffered through communism, survived that and are now in a free country – Think about it. Most of us cannot even begin to think what that must be like.

    The events we all are referring to are similar in scope to what we see in our own countries (as Island and phred say), Remembrance Day/Memorial Day etc. It is probably magnified in Poland because it becomes a huge media event and we are all inundated for a day or two about it.

    With that said however, the country and people need to move on to a brighter future and not be mired in the past.

    As I said above: “The past should be remembered and learned from but not be a yoke that holds people or society back from moving forward.”

    Unfortunately for many reasons Poland and many of it’s people (most) are stuck in the concrete shoes of the past and as such will have a very difficult time moving up the food chain so to speak with respect to the rest of the western EU countries. They need help however will not accept new ideas and keep making the same mistakes socially, economically and politically over and over. Three steps forward and one back.

  16. phred says:

    The past that is problematic for Poles is not that epitomized by rememberance and commemoration of the sacrifices made during WWII.

    The “yokiest” yoke is still that of the legacy of Soviet-imposed communism.

    But even then the current problems are more rooted in the present and they have little to do with Poles being somehow stuck in the past. Rather, factors wholely external to the Polish psyche hold predominant sway in shaping Polish society today. To be frank, I am very tired about reading about the Polish mindset and such.

  17. […] of Polandian writes about the 1st of August anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, including several photos of the […]

  18. Anonymous says:

    Phred: Could you explain what this external factors are?

  19. Magic says:

    Greetings form polish nationalist (NRC)

  20. L says:

    Most Poles are proud of their history but we don’t live in it. On occasion we pay our respects. That’s all. The thought that we only talk about the past comes from the fact that most Poles asked about the historical thing answers with the same info about “sacrifice”, “resistance”, “winning here” and “giving our lives there”. When I meet someone from Britain I don’t go ‘Hi! You’re from Britain? You do know that in 1939 you guys were supposed to help us but then you left us die, then we broke the enigma for you, our aviators saved your asses in the Battle of England and you payed us back by giving us away to Stalin after the war”. However if the topic of the past will come out I would ask “why all Brits think that they’re the ones that broke the enigma?” and things like this, but only IF this subject comes out.

  21. […] 10, 2008And the Polandian award for worst organised Polish company goes to….. August 6, 2008Poles must stop living in the past August 3, 2008In Defence of The Fence August 2, 2008Krakow’s Walk of Fame – Update! July 31, […]

  22. reidar says:

    I’m a Pole and I couldn’t agree with you more. It pisses me off that we still live in the past and can’t see current affairs and problems. All we ever think about is how great our nation *WAS*. Wake up, fellow citizens!

  23. Ric says:

    I’m an Irish Canadian who is visiting Poland for the first time. Here’s my top ten suggestions…
    1) Never forget your history or it might repeat itself. Remember that genocide is still going on – witness Darfur. Be political.
    2) Protest the high price of Real Estate or you’ll never own your home. Anything that costs 5 times more than you can build it for with your own hands is ridiculous.
    3) REALLY smile to a stranger – this is a biggie for me. There’s too many people here with fear on their faces. Socialize. Do you know your neighbor?
    4) If you don’t appreciate your politician, become one yourself. Stop crying about the state of a country you aren’t actively doing anything about.
    5) Take advantage of the EU in every way. If they want to invest in you, take their money and build a dream. Sell yourself!
    6) Absolutely get minimum wage laws and educational income tax breaks in place NOW, or your talented young adults will continue to emigrate to other countries. e.g. England, Spain, Ireland.
    7) Get off the beer and vodka. Really. It seems all everybody does is drink. If you must drink, do it moderately. Ever hear of Merlot?
    8) Treat your elderly with respect. They survived horrendous conditions so you could live. Walk a mile in their shoes.
    9) Look at yourself naked in front of a full length mirror until you laugh hilariously. You need humility not anger to control your life.
    10) Get some marijuana and smoke a joint. It’s good to mellow out every once in a while.

  24. […] YouTube | by darthsida Just when the residents of Poland could start stopping remembering BDSM sections of their history (for who needs the notion of “nation” today?) – many Polish […]

  25. […] napisać na ten temat artykuł ale wyprzedził mnie po mistrzowsku angielski blogger z Polandian. Napiszę tylko krótko swoimi […]

  26. Gabriela says:

    Hello Pawel:
    I don’t know that much about Poland, and expressing an opinion would be way too daring from me. So I’ll speak out of my own experience: my country, Peru, and specifically Përuvian football.
    Since 1982, Peru doesn’t classify to a Football World Cup, and most likely we won’t be present in the 2010 edition. In 1970, Peru achieved the 8th place at the Mexico Fooball Cup. In 1975, Peru achieved the 1st place at the Peru Continental Football Cup. And here we are, celebrating those ‘old glories’, because there are none new to be celebrated.
    The worst part is that Peru excels in other sports: women volleyball, surf, for instance. But every Peruvian weeps over our football national team being defeated by a mile. And the the phrase makes an appearance: “but we were the first ones in 1975”.
    People must look at the past, better if they do so proudly, and get ourselves in the shoes of the people who suffered the bad times. But we all have to move on.
    Best regards from Peru!

  27. GreenGO says:

    A good blog … I would go more often …

  28. Dawid says:

    Poles’ relations with history is a complex and an unhealthy one. On one hand you’ve got people who are sentimental about the past; on the other you’ve got people whose knee jerk reaction is to be sceptical at best and scathing at worst. No wonder, given the fact that the last two – some argue that three – hundred years saw mostly foreign oppression and unspeakable disasters, such as WWII. Those two opposite ways of thinking developed as defence mechanisms against the harsh reality in which Poland existed. The paradox is, they are still alive and kicking in the 21st century, when those realities have changed in an incredibly positive way!

    Therefre Poles must not break with the past – forgetting about things is not the way to solve them. POLES MUST INTERPRET HISTORY IN A NEW WAY. History doesn’t need to be a burden – regrettably, decades of communist propaganda and in parallel (over)patriotic education made people wary of history and today there are still plenty of fossilized interpretations that are given credit out of sheer habit.

    That’s why people “hate these never ending celebrations of dead people”, which is incredibly sad because they don’t give themselves even the slightest chance to find something in common with the past, to look for their roots in the history. William Faulkner famously said – thanks Barrack Obama for repeating that! – “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Poles of today, who willingly want to break with their ancestors’ heritage out of disappointment/boredom/tiredness/you name it, do themselves an enormous harm. Poland needs sound foundation to build the future. And despite decades of negative communist propaganda and bitter patriotic celebrations there is plenty in the Polish history which can be appreciated in a modern and impartial manner.

    So before any Pole decides s/he’s had enough and wants to “move on” s/he needs to think hard if it’s possible to run a marathon without any previous training and a starting point.

    I’m afraid it’s not.

  29. Pawel says:

    I have to say this is the one post, that I don’t think I’d have written if I was trensported back in time:) It is full of bold statements, which I wanted to make and are somehow valid. but this is only one way of looking at things, while its possible to see it in many angles – and even I argue with myself on that;)) It just shows how difficult an issue is the past for a Polish person.

  30. Dawid says:

    It does. I personally struggle to get rid of all the perceptions and attitudes that I have taken on somehow along the way and which are a needless burden in a new reality. And there were periods in my life when I would have written a message very similar to yours :) But not anymore.

    An acclaimed Polish historian wrote recently that Polish historiography needs to cease being “medical research” into what caused the “illness” of Poland and when did it start; instead, we need to look at our history just as it was. Very true.

    For those who read Polish:


  31. Roy Wassner says:

    Today is the very first day of the rest of your live.

    The past had brought you where you are at today but it don’t determine
    where you are going tomorrow.

    The past should be remembered and learned from but notomorrowt be a yoke that holds people or society back from moving forward.

  32. gforse says:

    My… I was rather under impresion that this site is for people from abroad lliving in Poland. Am I wrong?

  33. island1 says:

    In a sense; this is site is for people from abroad living in Poland, and for Polish people not living abroad, and for Polish people living abroad – that about covers it.

  34. Rui Vilela says:

    The problem is that polish people could only remember this “past” after the 90’s.

  35. kinga says:

    Who’s the author of that BS, pardon my French? He or she shows completely lack of understanding of Polish culture, modern Polish culture and a value of history. I would propose he or she writes the same BS about Sept.11 celebrations at N.Y., USA and propose Americans to forget about it and enjoy the present. Poland has all the reason to be proud of its history, so if you do not understand that, please, do not even try to pretend being a journalist.

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