The concept of nationhood and national identity is difficult to clearly define. A nation refers to collective sentiment derived from a common history, religion, culture, and language. A nation represents a group of people coming together and sharing pride in their heritage. If cultivating and maintaining this sentiment is difficult, then it should have been insurmountable for a nation like Poland. After a long, meaningful history starting around 966, Poland ultimately succumbed to three partitions by the surrounding powers of Russia, Prussia, and Austria between 1764 and 1795. For over a century, the state of Poland-Lithuania was essentially nonexistent. However, while the state was officially dissipated, the Polish nation somehow flourished. The emergence of modern nationalism in the 19th century prompted Poles under the control of other territories to resist assimilation and retain loyalty to their ethnic origins. Poles remained passionate about their nation prompting a series of insurrections throughout the 19th century. Thus, when allegiance to the Allied Powers allowed The Second Republic of Poland to emerge out of the rubble of World War I, Polish national identity remained intact.
In this exhibit I examine the elements of Polish identity that were present among images disseminated during the interwar period. My aim is to establish said elements and determine how they impacted the treatment of Polish Jews as an ethnic minority between 1918 and 1939. I analyse images from posters and magazine clippings, the arts, and the right wing press to establish this connection. Throughout the exhibit, two questions will be answered: What elements constituted Polish identity during the interwar period? How did these elements impact the treatment of Polish Jews as an ethnic minority?
A more thorough investigation might include more aspects of Polish culture such as music, cuisine, architecture, and artistic movements. The scope of this investigation is limited by language barriers and the scale of this project. Nevertheless, the themes I study throughout this exhibit are significant because of their modern day implications. Identifying and analyzing elements that influence discrimination is critical to preventing the repetition of discrimination today. While having a unique and clearly defined culture is certainly not a negative thing, it is crucial that individuals do not use elements of culture to promote the exclusion of ethnic minorities.
The contribution toward a post WWI peace settlement with the Allied Powers combined with the seemingly miraculous defeat of a Russian invasion in 1920 ignited a sense of patriotism in a nation that was divided and virtually absent for 123 years. Throughout the long disappearance of Poland from the map after the Partitionist era, the only things uniting members of the nation was language and religion. Thus, when Poland was reunited and solidified its statehood in 1918, Catholicism became an integral part of Polish identity. Strong Catholic influence and language barriers made it difficult for ethnic minorities like Jews to be included in what was now a Polish state. Figures like Rowan Dmowski garnered Christian-nationalist sentiments that painted a future of Poland which excluded ethnic minorities. Polish Jews were largely unassimilated and reluctant to subscribe to a Polish national identity, while many Poles saw Jews as a threat to the newly formed and rather fragile Polish state.
All in all Polish identity persisted between 1918 and 1939, defined by a strong sense of patriotism conveyed with references to history, strength, and themes of masculinity, as well as a return to Catholicism. While values of the past remained an integral part of Polish identity, the nation’s culture also looked to the future with an emphasis on education to preserve Polish nationality through youth. While there was no official anti-semetic legislation during the interwar period, Jews in Poland remained largely excluded from a national identity through explicit anti-semetic acts and a vociferous opposition in the right wing National Democratic Party (NDP) or Endecja.