(Mis)managing Minorities: Communism and Nationality Policy in Poland


Manifest, Wojciech Weiss, 1950

by Mary Werden

Communism, Nationalism and Ethnicity in Poland, 1944-1950,
by Michael Fleming,
London: Routledge, 224 pp.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the scholarship of the Communist period in Eastern Europe has become entrenched in dichotomies. Whether oppression and resistance, Soviet domination and domestic nationalism, or Communist ideology and state practices, the collapse of Communism has forced scholars to find a middle ground among extremes. In Communism, Nationalism and Ethnicity in Poland, 1944-1950, Michael Fleming shows that nationality policy at the end of World War II and in the early years of the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) was a malleable response to the challenges confronting the new political elite. In the opening pages of the book, he states, “the main contention of this book is that nationality policy was a crucial nexus through which population groups were both coerced and able to consent to the unfolding new social order” (p. 1). Fleming’s approach is twofold—to provide an overview of the international decisions and concerns that dictated the Allied powers’ actions toward national and ethnic minorities and to understand the responses of the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) (and later PZPR—Polish United Workers’ Party) to these groups in the early years of the Communist state. Fleming traces the origins of ethnic and nationality policy from the end of the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. The destruction of the Second World War changed Europe’s demographic landscape, and political elites returned to their homelands to contend with the flux of individuals upended by war. Fleming argues that “nationality policy in Poland during the period 1944-1950 broadly aimed to secure national homogeneity,” although much of his analysis is on the period up until 1948 with a few references to the years after 1948 (p. 67). He acknowledges that the policy was not monolithic but “responsive” and “flexible” to meet the needs of the party in a given situation. In these years of uncertainty, Fleming offers scholars of Polish history an opportunity to understand how the PPR and PZPR responded to perceived challenges to its power through nationality policies.

The book is an ambitious attempt to chart the changes in Poland’s ethnographic makeup from 1944 to 1950. The introduction provides an ample overview of the historiographical trends in the early Communist period in Poland and theoretical approaches to nationality, ethnicity, and modernity. Fleming engages in a robust discussion of the work of Clifford Geertz, Anthony Smith, and Eric Hobsbawm on nationalism and modernity, but readers would benefit from a clearer explanation of the theories’ relevance to the work at hand. Scholars already familiar with literature on the topic will miss a discussion of significant work in the introduction, including Norman Naimark’s Fires of Hatred (2002) and T. David Curp’s A Clean Sweep? The Politics of Ethnic Cleansing in Western Poland (2006). In the second chapter, “Ethnicity and Nation,” Fleming describes the transfers of minorities from the East at the end of the war. None of the information here will be new to scholars of the period, and Fleming devotes a significant portion of the chapter to Allied plans for postwar Europe. Such attention is not entirely irrelevant but elides the author’s potential to offer the reader new examples from his impressive archival research.

Why, then, did a political party derived from an ideology founded on solidarity along class lines rather than national boundaries pursue policies that ostensibly favored ethnic homogeneity? By the end of World War II, ideology and nation became equally powerful tools that the party invoked. Fleming writes, “The task facing the PPR was how these two languages could be reconciled in a way that would solicit social support for itself and its programme” (p. 53). In chapter 3, he elaborates on the concept of “social anger” to describe the ways in which the early Communist state garnered support from Polish society. He references Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, but relies on David Ost’s work on post-Communist Poland (ironic given the topic of the book) to explain how the PPR established political legitimacy through its treatment of ethnic minorities. While the cornucopia of theories at the beginning of each chapter often feels like a distraction from the book’s core contributions, Fleming asserts that social anger originated in the brutality of the Second World War and manifested in the political and social structures in postwar Poland. The goal of the PPR/PZPR was to “shape the anger regime to its advantage, drawing on those resources embedded in society which could be mobilized and rejecting those hostile to its project” (p. 54). Fleming argues that Polish anti-Semitism is a classic example of social anger. He writes, Władysław Gomułka “had taken the view that the Party should prioritize ethnic Poles in order to align itself with widespread social sentiment and to strengthen its position in the battles which it chose to fight with the opposition” (p. 65). But Jews who held high-level positions within the PPR and PZPR suggest the party did not easily draw a line between ethnic Poles and ethnic/religious minorities. For Polish Jews in the higher echelons of the PPR and PZPR, adherence to ideology perhaps mattered more than one’s religious or ethnic background. The acceptance of Jews in the new political elite coupled with the utilization of violence against minorities for political power is a paradox worth further exploration. Anyone familiar with Polish history will also recall the resistance from ethnic Poles who supported Stanisław Mikołajczyk. The party may have seen this “social anger” as a way to establish power with ethnic Poles who did not support the PPR. Violence against ethnic Poles, however, who fought for the Polish People’s Party (PSL) suggests that “social anger” could have been directed toward the party as well.

Religious practice and identity after the war was neither condoned nor condemned as the new political order forced each denomination to work within the state’s new rules. Fleming’s vigorous assessment of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state is both refreshing for its conceptual approach and surprising given the scope of the book. He rightly rejects past claims by scholars who argued that the party sought to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church. Fleming writes, “conceptualizing the relationship between the Church and the state purely as one of repression overlooks Church-state co-operation, the degree to which the PPR not only elicited support from the Church, but required this support” (p. 101). The Catholic hierarchy engaged in policies designed to rid Poland of religious minorities. Indeed, Fleming includes the Catholic Church to show it was never the “unambiguous supporter of democracy in the immediate aftermath of the war” (p. 108). The church’s failure to speak out against Jewish stereotypes of ritual murder “not only provided the discursive legitimization of crimes against members of minority communities, but it also made the PPR’s drive for national homogeneity somewhat easier” (p. 108). The episcopate diverted blame to the PPR and Jews in the government for the imposition of an unwanted government, but its passive support of violence inadvertently aided the new government’s legitimacy. The bishop of Częstochowa was an exception to the church’s reaction. In a proclamation on July 7, 1946, he condemned anti-Semitism, proclaiming ritual murder a lie, but was overturned at a plenary conference in September 1946. Fleming also highlights the religious diversity after the war—Protestant, Greek-Catholic, and Orthodox Churches receive brief acknowledgment for the negotiations each endured with the PPR and PZPR. None were free to organize as they desired, but they sought to work with the party to reestablish religious communities after the war. Jews also faced similar challenges rebuilding their communities. Although Jewish inhabitants who did not emigrate were “exposed” to “greater assimilatory pressures” (undoubtedly Jews who resettled in the United States and Israel faced similar challenges), Fleming does not elaborate on how they rebuilt their religious communities in Poland like their Protestant counterparts (p. 87).

At its best, Fleming’s work transcends bifurcated categories to explain why the PPR and PZPR orchestrated certain minority policies. The Communist Party’s acceptance of Greek refugees who fled the civil war from 1948 to 1950 sheds light on what made some ethnic minorities acceptable in postwar Communist Poland. While the PZPR did not intend for refugees to become permanent citizens of the PRL, the example shows why the refugees were a token minority—they served both an ideological and a practical purpose for the new state. The Greek Civil War and the refugees who sought asylum provided the PRL and the Soviet Union with an opportune moment to elevate their status as heroes against Fascist oppression. According to Fleming, “Their categorization as political refugees shielded them from the strong assimiliationist pressure placed on Poland’s remaining indigenous religious minority communities” (p. 135). The refugees primarily found new homes in the Recovered Territories and jobs in new state sectors, including state farms. The party did not expect the refugees to “discard their cultural identity,” as they did “Poland’s indigenous minorities” (p. 141). Greek refugees could maintain their status as ethnic others because it allowed the party to focus on Greek politics (in which the party had a vested interest), and the party did not consider them a challenge to their political authority. Such examples draw out the complexity of early Communist policies toward minorities, ushering in a new age of scholarship devoted to explicating the expectations that undergirded them.

Piece originally published at H-Net |
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