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What is the motto of Poland?

What is the motto of Poland?

For our freedom and yours

Piotr SzafraŃskI

I like this motto for multiple reasons.

I like it, first, for what is not about. It is not about some supposed superiority or exceptional qualities. It is not about privilege.

Then, it is not about exclusion. While for some of us this motto defines Poland, there is room, under this motto, for everyone.

There are many a bit different notions of “Poland” for us here in Poland, different people take different things from the rich heritage, as the most identifying ideas and traditions. So what I write here is of course my own thinking, but it is not uncommon.

What was making me always think about the notion of “patriotism”, is the problem of the randomness of it. I am brought up to be a patriotic Pole because I was born in Poland to Polish parents, but is it just a random chance, that “Polishness”? It seems logical that I would be a patriotic German if I was born in, say, Hamburg, to German parents.

If it is so random, that “patriotism”, if there is nothing objective in it, then why should it matter? If it is so random, then does it mean that if I move to Cologne, if I learn perfect German, I learn culture etc, then the only thing separating me from being “German” are my childhood memories and family history? Does it mean that there is nothing more in “patriotism” than tribe and real estate?

Well, that motto, “For our freedom and yours”, allows me to define “Poland”, and my identity with it, as something more than only a piece of land, culture, memories, family ties. For me, “Poland” is about freedom, freedom being fought for, not to own, but to share.

This was an invention, or realization, of people in the 19th century. Necessity or fate. My ancestors, 19th century, could not define their identity through land, there was no Poland on the map. Identity could be defined by culture, language or religion, but somehow some people transcended that, added, to culture, language or religion also this, “For our freedom and yours”.

Maybe this was simply utilitarian. A Pole could be dispossessed of his kin, land, maybe even language, but he still could have that “Poland”, anywhere he was, simply by standing on the right side of a freedom struggle. Maybe it was simply (I suppose) a virtue out of necessity. A matching piece to our anthem, “Poland has not yet perished, So long as we still live…”.

We have no claim to that motto, we cannot claim being heirs. It is not something we have, it is simply something we can uptake, if we have the strength, individually.

As usual, those (as I argue here) most defining traits, are not “Polish defining traits” because they are supposedly common in Poland. We choose to identify with them not because we have them (debatable), but because we decide to aspire to them.

A good example is the legend (historically true) of Polish soldiers in Napoleon employ, early 19th century, sent to squash a slave uprising in Haiti, uprising against the French. There were some 5000 of these Poles. They fought for Napoleon in Europe before, for the promise and chance to free the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the Russians.

The legend tells that these Poles, arriving in Haiti, understood the conflict for what it was – the fight for freedom of black slaves against French slave-owners, and switched sides.

That uprising was the only one I know, from that era, which resulted in former slaves freeing themselves, and establishing an own state. The Poles got the “honorary black people” status and were allowed to stay on the island.

This is how we remember this story today. In reality, the percentage of Polish soldiers who went over to the uprising side, was small. Still, the fact how we remember this legend today, says something. We choose to identify with “For our freedom and yours”. So, as I wrote, no claim. Aspiration.

Later through 19th century and later, many wars, far from Polish lands, Poles fought for freedom, “yours”. Solid historic data, but never mind data, this is how we remember that. “How we remember” is our identity.

Just a couple of days ago, I was listening to the initial statement of George Kent, US State Department civil servant. He was reviewing the current situation of Ukraine, comparing its shooting war struggle against Russian Empire legacy with American War of Independence of late 18th century. He also referred to US work and policy of bringing freedom to Europe, late 20th century. In this context he mentioned six names, of people who were deeply involved in those events (18th and 20th century): von Steuben, Kościuszko, LaFayette, Pułaski, Kissinger, Brzeziński. My observation, three of those six names are Polish. An accidental occurrence, but it does illustrate, “For our freedom and yours”.

As I wrote, this motto, while defining identity, transcends it. You cannot be a chauvinist, if you take this motto. This resolves the paradox of “patriotism”, yes, you can be “for something”, without necessarily being “against everything else”.

My favourite childhood book was “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”. Here is a quote, Professor Aronnax describing Captain’s Nemo’s stateroom:

Just then my eye was caught by some etchings hanging on the wall, which I hadn’t noticed during my first visit. They were portraits of great men of history who had spent their lives in perpetual devotion to a great human ideal: Thaddeus Kosciusko, the hero whose dying words had been ‘Finis Poloniae’; Markos Botzaris, for modern Greece the reincarnation of Sparta’s King Leonidas; Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s defender; George Washington, founder of the American Union; Daniele Manin, the Italian patriot; Abraham Lincoln, dead from the bullet of a believer in slavery; and finally, that martyr for the redemption of the black race, John Brown, hanging from his gallows as Victor Hugo’s pencil has so terrifyingly depicted.

What was the bond between these heroic souls and the soul of Captain Nemo? From this collection of portraits could I finally unravel the mystery of his existence? Was he a fighter for oppressed peoples, a liberator of enslaved races? Had he figured in the recent political or social upheavals of this century? Was he a hero of that dreadful civil war in America, a war lamentable yet forever glorious . . . ?

There was a good reason why “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” resonated with myself – in the first Verne’s manuscript, Captain Nemo was Polish, running from Russian oppression, forever devoted to help the enslaved. Due to commercial pressures from the publisher (Russian market sales!) Verne gave to Captain Nemo, final draft, the Indian identity, with a similar “running from oppression” backstory.

And here the power of the idea, “For our freedom and yours”, shows. I never met any opinion of resentment, in Poland, that the Captain Nemo’s identity was changed (to satisfy the Russian market, at that). Because the idea stayed, “For our freedom and yours”, and that idea is what Poland is really about.

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