Cross Purposes. Catholicism and the Political Imagination in Poland

Waligórska, Magdalena
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370 S.
£ 90.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Iwona Kurz, Institute of Polish Culture, University of Warsaw

It would be hard to disagree that “No other symbol is as omnipresent in Poland as the cross,” the statement that sits on the cover blurb of Magdalena Waligórska’s book “Cross Purposes”. The cross, as a symbol of Catholicism, is “a ‘natural’ and ‘obvious’ symbol of Polish ‘national traditions,’” or “values that Poles hold dear,” (p. 3) as quoted in the book after historians and sociologists. Anyone with doubts can walk along Krakowskie Przedmieście, the main walking route in Warsaw.

“Cross Purposes” is not the first book to address the political nature of the Church in Poland.1 Nevertheless, it is pioneering in the proposed approach. First, Waligórska raises the issue of the Polish political and religious imagination in a long-term perspective—from the 1860s to the present. Second, and more importantly, the author puts her analysis into an anthropological interpretive framework of the structure–antistructure dynamic proposed by Victor Turner (p. 10).

The book uses a microhistorical approach and consists of selected case studies of Polish disputes between society and the state that centered around the cross. The play on words in the title refers to the phrase “to be at cross purposes,” indicating various social actors’ clashing political goals and the different uses of the cross as a symbol. The case studies show the complexity of conflict dynamics; reveal generational, ideological, and gender tensions; and demonstrate the non-obviousness of the cross’s meanings and its users’ political choices.

Modernity is not the beginning of cross diplomacy in Poland—to recall, for example, the Teutonic Wars in the 15th century, the Counter-Reformation, the Vienna Victory of 1683, or the Bar Confederation. However, it led to a new understanding of statehood and the functioning of “Polishness” in the territory marked by the symbolic border of crosses and shrines erected in every town and at every crossroads (nomen omen). Since modernity, the cross became a “floating signifier” in Ernesto Laclau’s sense (p. 166 ff), grounding the political identity of society in constant transformation: The formation of ethnicity during the partition period, the creation of a “strong” statehood from scratch after 1918, an expression of social distinctiveness from the system of a non-sovereign state after World War II, and the so-called transformation after 1989.

In the first chapter, Waligórska deals with the social upheaval in Warsaw in 1861 and 1862 when Michał Landy, a teenage Jew and one of the heroes of the social imagination, was shot dead while carrying a crucifix at an anti-Tsarist demonstration. The event symbolizes a utopia of class and ethnic unity against the “barbaric” Russian empire. Chapter 2 demonstrates how the Polish state, reborn after World War I, used the sign of the cross to mark external symbolic and military borders, especially with the USSR, but also internal borders, emphasizing Polish domination over others: Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Jews, and in effect excluding them from the community. Chapter 3 focuses on the events of the 1960s when the model socialist city of Nowa Huta defended a cross erected where the construction of a church was planned. Chapter 4 deals with the decade of Solidarity (1980–1989), which began with the emergence of a mass movement and protests and ended with political transformation after years of martial law. The next chapter focuses on the 1990s when political change, the abolition of censorship, and the emergence of the new media market opened and diversified public debate in Poland. The last chapter analyses populist uses of the cross in recent history, including the reaction to the Smolensk plane crash in 2010.

Magdalena Waligórska has selected moments when the “omnipresent cross” became not only much more visible but also productive by revealing latent tensions, thus thickening the “national sensorium”2 and triggering social change. In the Turnerian cycle of the dynamics between the hegemony of the state or dominant group and counter-hegemonic movements, the cross acts as an instrument of inclusion, exclusion, emancipation, and resentment. It also works in the processes of the construction of the Other, both as an external (Russia and the USSR) or internal threat (Jews but also Ukrainians and Belarusians).

The recurring figures and motifs in these social explosions centered around crosses lead Waligórska to more general conclusions. The first refers to the “Cross-Jew Dyad,” as she calls the processes of assimilation or other forms of inclusion of Jews in society that constantly clashed with practices of exclusion and the production of the Other as a necessary counterweight for the reinforcement of the cross. Anti-Semitism appears here as an essential current accompanying and supporting Christianity and Polishness.

The second general thread is the gender issue, on which Waligórska focuses particularly in the chapter on Nowa Huta, where women protested against the authorities’ attempts to prevent the construction of a church in a workers’ estate. The author interprets this protest mainly as an expression of female agency, not apparent in the context of patriarchal power and the socialist state, and, even more so, the Catholic Church. “Quite paradoxically, therefore, a protest template based on conservative values carried gender-emancipatory solid potential” (p. 139). The emancipatory interpretation may, however, raise doubts since women’s anger at one institution’s officials caused the defense of another’s officials. After all, the background for this process was women’s overall ambivalent position in the Polish People’s Republic.

However, the author ignores the class aspect here (and more general in her book). It is difficult to agree that class tensions did not exist in socialist Poland when the state used strong class-oriented discourse and social differentiation was real. The “hysterical women” protesting for the cross were not just “women.” They were workers or workers’ wives, most often coming from the peasant class, which remained a relevant direction of migration in Poland in the 1960s. Moreover, Cardinal Wyszyński—when calling for the Great Novena in 1957—intended to strengthen the so-called “People Church” (kościół ludowy), and to keep the masses attached to the Church.

Another important thread throughout the book concerns visual media. The cross’s uses also result from its simplicity and universality as a symbol undergoing semiotic transformations in artistic and performance practices. For example, the 1861 events described in the book were closely linked to the development of photography, which allowed the widespread dissemination of a new icon of a hero-martyr. In subsequent episodes, Waligórska demonstrates how photography, the press, as well as graphics and satire strengthened and transformed symbolic meanings. Another significant media moment was the period after 1989 when the multitude of ideas present in the public sphere—even before the internet—contributed to a process of trivialization of sacred symbols and ideas.

As Waligórska focuses on selected events, she omits the figures of the Virgin Mary, Christ, and, since 1979, John Paul II, all of which co-created the symbolic imaginary of Christianity in Poland. The field of ideas in which the author operates is dense, so her choice of microhistory deliberately leads to a limited presentation of the historical-cultural background in Poland. This decision is understandable and practical in terms of economics and the readability of the argument. Sometimes, however, it would have been helpful to repaint the background more strongly—as in the above-mentioned case of the vision of Wyszyński’s People Church or the institutional role of the Church in Poland. It would also have been beneficial to present the second most enduring mythology of Polish modernity, the romantic martyrological paradigm, according to which Poland itself is a figure of Christ.

Magdalena Waligórska’s book is historical, but directly and powerfully it provokes questions about the future. The book’s introduction opens with a scene from the Warsaw theater play “The Curse” directed by Oliver Frijlic, in which a character cuts down a wooden cross. Does the cross pass away in the Polish imagination? For the opposite argument, the author critically notes the success of populist movements and parties, which, in the Polish case, frequently use the sign of the cross. The defensive impulse, in which an “attack on the cross” (i.e., its use contrary to the dominant form and style) is inevitably seen as an attack on Poland, seems vital. Waligórska assumes that the cross will still be a part of the Polish “wars of symbols” and “will continue to play out on the familiar turf framed not only by Catholic references but also by a Catholic sensibility” (p. 301).

Magdalena Waligórska’s bet on the future may be wrong—as more and more people leave the Church in Poland—but her thorough analysis of various episodes of these “wars of symbols” makes a brilliant reading of modern Polish history. It is also an inspiring example of practicing cultural history—a multi-threaded study of images, symbols, ideas, and practices, including points of protest and establishment of power.3

1 See e.g., Brian Porter-Szücs, Faith and Fatherland. Catholicism, Modernity and Poland, Oxford 2011; Geneviève Zubrzycki, The Crosses of Auschwitz. Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland, Chicago 2006.
2 Geneviève Zubrzycki, History, and the National Sensorium: Making Sense of Polish Mythology, in: Qualitative Sociology 34 (2011), p. 21–57.
3 The book is very carefully written and edited. Just for the record, it is worth pointing out three typos. It would not be necessary if these were not spelling errors in surnames: Edward Dembowski (and not Dembkowski, p. 19); Izaak Kramsztyk (not Karmsztyk, p. 42); and Antoni Krauze (not Krause, p. 266).

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