A Nuanced Report: The Battle for Memories in Central Europe

As the past few weeks have shown, we should not simply give up on the politics of memory, not without a fight

Marcin Napiórkowski
8 February 2018

The article was first published in “Res Publica Nowa” nr 3/2017 and translated into English with support from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education’s research dissemination funds (contract no. 692/P-DUN/217).

This article covers:

  • How nationalism in Central Europe is being spurred on by historical patriotism
  • The impact of past tragedies or war crimes on the minds of today’s youth
  • The intolerance of opposing perspectives of history
  • The surprising power of contemporary media in forming historical narratives


It is July 2014. A Malaysian plane has been shot down over Ukraine and the world wonders what will happen next. Will the West, which has been rather restrained in its reactions following the Russian invasion of Crimea, decide to take some serious steps? Will the tragedy of flight MH17 mark the beginning of the war, becoming an event about which children learn from textbooks?

In his article for Gazeta Wyborcza, published after the tragedy, Ivan Krastev answered these questions. According to the Bulgarian scholar, if we want to understand how politicians and society make decisions, we should keep in mind what year it is. Anniversaries of important events inspire historical analogies.

Despite that, this should not have any significance from the point of view of historical mechanisms; the fact that something happens on the hundredth, five-hundredth or thousandth anniversary of another event often impacts the interpretation of the current developments.

If the contemporary European wants to divine the possible reaction of the West to the events in Ukraine, they should refer to one of the two historical analogies looming over the 20th century – either to the summer of 1914 or to the years 1938–1939.

The interpretation of the crisis and choice of course of action depend on the chosen memory analogy. A comparison with 1914 imposes an interpretation according to which the greatest threat would lie in hasty action; a comparison with the period 1938–1939 in turn points to passivity as the most dangerous solution. Krastev explains this as follows:

The choice of the historical analogy depends to a large extent on what history books we are currently reading. And what we read is determined by the historical anniversary we are celebrating at a given time. Pretending that we draw from history in 2014 means going back to the beginning of the Great War. This year no other historical event has any chance of breaking through.

This is an excellent example of how collective memory shapes security politics. The politics of memory is often perceived as distanced from the present and past. It could seem that the message and form of commemorations of the past do not have any immediate impact on the economy or security.

However, taking note of the significance of the role historical analogies play in defining the current crises – be it economic, political or military – allows one to demonstrate the relationship between memory and the decisions that shape the present and future. It allows us to appreciate the importance of the politics of memory – not because of museums, parades, and patriotic clothing, but because memory plays such an important part in shaping the decisions of societies and politicians in key matters like security.

The politics of memory analogies practiced in the Polish parliament provides several striking examples of this phenomenon.

The Battle of Vienna and the Battle of Warsaw as memory analogies

The principle of analogy is one of the primary subjects of research on collective memory. Ewiatar Zerubawel devotes to this subject a substantial part of his book Time Maps, where he lists several examples of how analogies are used in the evaluation of risks as well as attempts to formulate general principles to help determine whether a given comparison is successful or not.

The most important of these principles is that the precedent’s (or model’s) remoteness in time can be compensated by its cultural proximity, meaning a situation where a past event is interpreted as something that happened to “us”. Framing past events in structures that underline the identity of their participants as analogous with the present enable using them as effective tools for social mobilization.

The scientific literature on memory offers several analyses of the political use of particular historical analogies for the interpretation of present and future risks – for instance, many scholars analyze the significance of the Holocaust as a key figure of imagination that provides a model for the moral interpretation of other genocides. However, if we want to find a comparative systemic analysis of this sort of mechanisms, it is worth looking to the area of politics of memory or politics of security.


In the Third Republic of Poland, the politics of memory has traditionally focused on commemorating the process of consolidating Poland’s borders after it regained independence, the Katyń massacre, and the Warsaw Uprising.

However, these memorializing acts have also referred to two battles: the Battle of Vienna of 12 September 1683 and the Battle of Warsaw of 1920. These two battles, when referenced during parliamentary debates, can serve as a repository of interesting memory analogies for current events.

The analysis of the contents of legislative acts and transcripts of debates that took place in the parliament and during committee sessions allows one to distinguish a few basic topoi which frame how these two events are referenced and interpreted:

  1. the act of saving Europe and its key importance for world history;
  2. a uniting moment for Poles and a source of Polish pride;
  3. their being presented as part of a sequence of events and comparison with other events;
  4. the restoration and rectification of distorted memory

Comparative analysis does not show significant differences in how particular political parties construct the memory of the studied events, nor does it show changes over time in the way the events are presented. The interpretation of the historical importance of the Battle of Vienna and the Battle of Warsaw is an area of broad consensus rather than a subject of contention.

Topoi act as bridges

Historical events of which the memory has been structured around distinct, clear topoi can be used as memory analogies for the interpretation of current threats.

The memory model can serve as a prototype that indicates where the threat is coming from (for example, in terms of geography, ethnicity, class) and under what form (for instance, an invasion, an internal enemy, ruinous discord) as well as provides advice as to how it can be overcome (for example, fidelity to values, readiness for defense, discipline).

Memory analogies act also on a deeper level, where they not only supply practical advice, but also give meaning to the experience we are living. They suggest how we should feel about what is happening, what approaches we should adopt towards current events, or to which values we should refer.

This is why – similarly as with myths – an important part of the politics of memory analogies has to do with working on emotions. Using a comparison with past events we can, for instance, learn what we should truly fear and what only seems dangerous. Does real danger take the form of an attack from a dictator that has been growing in power (analogy with the years 1938–1939) or of powerful states reacting to a threat in a hasty, disproportionate manner (analogy with the year 1914)?

It was exactly this type of example that a member of parliament, Zbigniew Chrzanowski, used during the 2003 debate on Poland’s participation in the anti-terrorist coalition:

The world is facing a serious international crisis. From this crisis emerges a weakened European Union – a structure, which we are to join – and a weakened NATO. (…) We, Poles, remember the year 1933, when Marshal Piłsudski tried to convince France to start a preventive war against the growing power of Hitler’s Germany. We remember the year 1939, when there were some who did not want to die for Gdańsk. We know exactly how this ended. We also remember the times of communist rule in Poland, when we, Poles, were not able to speak our voice.

“We remember”, “we know exactly how this ended” – it is worth noting these phrases, characteristic of the politics of memory analogies and which we often perceive as transparent or obvious. They project a certain community (“we”) consolidated with memory that appears as common sense, a layer of obvious knowledge shared by all the members of the community that does not require additional justification. This is why building a cannon of historical events that serve as sources of analogy is so important.

In this context the meaning of the above-mentioned topoi also becomes clear. They allow the building of a memory bridge between the past and the present that is interpreted through the lens of that past.

In the discussion on the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw, Sławomir Nowakowski interprets the victory as proof that “in moments of crisis, the Polish society is able to draw correct conclusions and defend itself from danger. We would like to see similar consolidation around certain strategic problems – like security, economic and social progress or joining European structures – also today.”

What allows one to activate the mechanism of memory analogy is not some kind of “direct” similarity between the Battle of Warsaw and Poland’s entrance into the European Union, but the fact that the year 1920 constitutes a topos of a moment of national unity. Even in cases where it seems that the analogy is built directly on certain aspects of the past and present events, they are always mediated through a particular reading.

History as an obligation

In parliamentary speeches, the Battle of Warsaw and Battle of Vienna have been referenced in contexts that included Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Poland’s participation in the anti-terrorist coalition in 2003, Poland’s accession to the EU, and, above all, in the context of the debate on European policy towards immigrants in the years 2015–2017. Even though the two topoi were mentioned in all these contexts, the debate over immigration delivers especially vivid examples in which a poorly recognized threat is explained through a series of memory analogies.

Members of parliament skeptical towards refugees describe both battles as “an obligation”, “an example to follow”, or even “the testament” of outstanding leaders. For example, Czesław Sobierajski uses such expressions in the following history lesson, in which he activates the topoi of external threat and consolidation:

Yesterday, on the 12th of September, we celebrated the 333rd anniversary of the Battle of Vienna. It was Jan III Sobieski who defeated the Ottoman Empire and saved Europe from Islamization. The Polish king led an allied force: Polish and German troops smashed the Turkish army besieging Vienna, serving one of the most severe blows to the Ottoman Empire, from which it never recovered. This was a key moment for Europe. After the defeat at Vienna, Turkey was on the defensive, and its centuries-long struggle to transfer Islam deep into the European continent was halted.

The vanquisher of the Turks left us his testament concerning three key issues that are still pertinent today: reform of the state, stopping an opposition that conspires with foreign powers, and defense against Islam. We can say that this is the testament of the great king for contemporary Poland.

Patryk Jaki used a similarly structured argument in the debate on immigration policy when he referred to an entire set of historical analogies, which included both Hitler and 17th-century Turks as well as the contemporary immigrants.

You ask for Poles to forgo their common sense. Your naivety, especially concerning the Islamic State, resembles a kind of naivety already known from history when in the years 1938–1939 people said that Hitler was a good gentleman who could be managed. The Islamic State is a kind of contemporary Nazism. (…) when Jan III Sobieski sees your naivety, he turns in his grave.

Robert Winnicki in his parliamentary speech juxtaposes Sobieski, the inter-war period and the contemporary politics of multiculturalism:

We should consider the example of Western Europe, which has been conducting a disastrous, erroneous migration politics and policies of multiculturalism for decades now. (…) The Polish state should systemically protect the treasure that is ethnic, cultural, and religious cohesion because the example of Western Europe, but also the example of the insane conflicts that troubled Poland in the inter-war period, shows that a state that is most culturally, ethnically, and religiously homogeneous is a state that is more peaceful and more secure. (…) In the context of the invasion of immigrants that we are witnessing in Europe, we have heard here references to Jan III Sobieski, the Battle of Vienna, there was the talk of stopping Islamization, we have heard very strong phrases, but they were adequate to reality.

In the debates on refugees, the Battle of Warsaw and Battle of Vienna are referenced by right-wing members of parliament – deputies belonging to PiS (Law and Justice), Solidarna Polska (Solidary Poland) and Ruch Narodowy (National Movement), which is part of the Kukiz’15 association in the parliament.

There were very few distinct attempts at building a competitive interpretation of the past that would directly counter these analogies. More often, we see efforts to shift the weight to other figures of the Polish historical imagination. Examples of memory analogies that support integration and multiculturalism include the Congress of Gniezno that took place in the year 1000 (as a prefiguration of European integration). This type of analogy, however, is trumped by the vision of an invasion and is easily reclaimed by opponents, like in the following argument from Jan Klawiter’s speech:

Yes, our nation is a composition of different political and regional traditions. Every national culture can find room for parallel threads that run alongside its main current that is key for its identity – saint John Paul II spoke about this during his visit to Gniezno, when he described Europe’s Christian identity – but cultural diversity is a product of solidarity and the common historical fate of the nation – it is not built by treating a country like an unguarded parking lot that one can enter and exit at any moment.

Key to the future

The choice of historical analogies enables one to construct a particular vision of Poland’s place in the world and its relationship with Europe. The above-mentioned topos of the bulwark of Christendom or of “Latin civilization” features Poland as Europe’s last bastion, often under-appreciated, ridiculed, or even betrayed.

Though both battles are referenced in the context of the defense of the West, in the light of these historical analogies the West itself is shown as decadent or corrupt. This allows to effectively construct an image of contemporary threats that encompasses not only foreign invasion but also Europe’s passivity.

It is worth to complete the research on parliamentary debates with the study of other fields in which the evaluation of contemporary threats is performed through the use of historical analogies. How do media use such analogies? How are they present in the school curriculum and in the activity of institutions like museums? How do the figures of the victorious leaders, Sobieski and Piłsudski, function in popular culture, and how is their image used by the makers of patriotic clothing, or in novels, films, comics, and murals?

It would be also fascinating to explore the world of amateur or half-amateur do-it-yourself artifacts: signs of the “kebab from a true Pole” genre, street graffiti, tifo displays during sport events, social media, and online memes. These circuits are closely connected and impact one another.

Finally, it is also worth noting that this article does not refer to real similarities that could be explored by economic history or military history – it only describes symbolical structures that organize the collective imagination. The logic of memory analogies propels events not because history was to repeat itself in any way, but because the subjects that create history believe that the past provides them with a key understanding of the present and future.

This is what ignoring the politics of memory and trivializing it as nonsense talk that has nothing to do with real problems is an approach that is erroneous and dangerous. When we influence how citizens perceive the past, we also change their perception of the present and future. If we want a state and society that wisely recognize the challenges ahead and undertake adequate measures, we should not simply give up the politics of memory without a fight. The power of memory analogies must not be underestimated.

Marcin Napiórkowski works at the Institute of Polish Culture at the University of Warsaw

Translated by Aleksandra Małecka