Ukrainian refugees in Polish schools will struggle with its official nationalism
A key question concerns schooling. Polish officials estimate that 700,000 Ukrainian students can enter Polish public schools, while United Nations officials believe that the total number of eligible children in the country could reach 1 million. However, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has centered the Polish education system on Polish identity and a particular notion of shared national memory. This will make it very difficult for refugees to integrate.
Poland’s ruling party tried to remake Polish history
The PiS has dominated the Polish government since 2015. During this period, it has attempted to remake Polish identity to place perceived national grievances at the center of Poland’s history, while pushing foreigners into historical oblivion .
After Poland became a democracy in 1989, its government did little to create a sense of shared history. As scholars like Jan Kubik, Marta Kotwas, Michael Bernhard and Eviatar Zerubavel have argued, they didn’t really try to create a common understanding of what had happened in previous decades, including the years of Nazi occupation and Soviet control. as the transition to democracy. This allowed the PiS to provide its own history, in which the Poles were the victims of historical abuse and never the perpetrators.
PiS claimed that Poland had not really regained its sovereignty in 1989, as it was still dominated by former communist officials who had collaborated with the USSR. He argued that people who spoke out about Polish anti-Semitism were enemies of Poland. When he came to power, he drastically cut the pensions of all uniformed civil servants and diplomats who spent even a single day on duty during the communist era. It passed a controversial law (later amended) threatening with jail anyone who suggested that the Polish nation had collaborated with the Nazis in crimes against Jews during World War II.
All of this was accompanied by new government cultural policies, which used religious and historical symbols to make Polish identity and support for the PiS seem one and the same. To be truly Polish meant hating communists, devout Catholicism, and feeling nostalgic for the glories of Polish history.
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As part of this cultural program, the PiS changed school curricula to “reclaim the generations of young Poles deprived of conscience”, as Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek put it. He got rid of traditional civics and replaced it with a compulsory course in what he calls “history and present,” which reflected the ideological biases of the ruling party. For example, according to the curriculum of the Ministry of Education, students must prove that the presidential plane crash in Smolensk in 2010 (which killed a PiS leader, the twin brother of the current leader) was the event the most important in Poland’s post-war history.
They should also study the writings of Pope John Paul II on what Polish democracy should entail and treat 2005, when the first PiS government came to power, as the true beginning of Polish post-communist democracy.
Now, with a massive influx of Ukrainian students into Polish schools, this historical revisionism has suddenly become troublesome. One of the main sources of Ukrainian national identity was a rebellion of serfs against the Polish nobility which had reduced Ukrainian peasants to virtual slavery and forced educated Ukrainians to learn and speak Polish in the regions of Ukraine. that she controlled. It’s hard to reconcile with the stories of Polish virtue and victimization that the current Polish government prefers.
On the other hand, during World War II, Ukrainian nationalists attempted to exterminate ethnic Poles in the Wołyń region, killing some 50,000 Polish inhabitants. The Poles retaliated, although on a much smaller scale, killing a few thousand Ukrainians. The Wołyń massacre was a delicate and difficult subject for decades in Polish-Ukrainian relations, also because the Soviet domination over the two countries blocked any meaningful debate about it. Now, this could become a major point of contention, as PiS-reformed curricula, again, emphasize Polish heroism and the tragedy of Polish victims, leaving little room to even discuss the Ukrainian perspective.
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The most fundamental problem is that the official Polish version of history is based on the exclusion rather than the inclusion of non-Poles. It is possible to push such a story in a country that has only one major national group within its borders. Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, Poland has two nations rather than one for the first time since World War II.
PiS faces the dilemma of how to educate Ukrainians in a school system that it has rebuilt around a narrow and intensely distorted version of Polish history. It will be nearly impossible for the government to find a common narrative that simultaneously appeals to a narrow and distorted understanding of Polish nationals while integrating Ukrainians into a country that could become a long-term home.
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Mateusz Mazzini is a lecturer at the Collegium Civitas in Warsaw and a journalist for the daily Gazeta Wyborcza.