‘Why is Poland so right-wing?’ ‘Why are there so many churches in Poland?’ ‘What is going on with your politics?’ These are all questions I have been asked since coming to university. In order to understand why I, or any of your other Polish friends, can’t give you a straightforward answer, we need to examine Polish history from a Polish perspective, whilst bearing in mind how exactly this will influence the ongoing politics. 

There is a clear economic, cultural, and ideological divide between Western and Eastern Europe, especially around religion.  In 2018, the Pew Research Centre conducted research into these differences, and found amongst other things, that in Poland 91% of the population were Christian (with a large majority Catholic), with a further 2% being of other religious denominations, whilst in the UK only 72% of the population were Christian (majority Protestant), with a further 5% being other. 

Looking at this, it is no surprise that religion plays an integral part of most Polish people’s lives, affecting their views, customs, and traditions, whilst in Britain where people are less religious, certain decisions or practices will not make sense. For example, on the 1st of November it is common in Poland to go visit the graves of loved ones and pray. Graves are almost always upkept throughout the year, with candles, flowers, and other items being on sale all year round. Meanwhile, in the UK, this custom does not exist; it is unheard of to find a candle designed specifically for graves, and many cemeteries have fallen into disarray. 

This All Saints’ Day custom may therefore seem out-of-place or confusing to British people, as they don’t have the reasoning and the millennia-long history behind it. However, even if you accept that this is simply something that occurs in Poland, there is still a personal connection that comes from doing it every year, experiencing it as a family; there is a difference between acknowledging something exists and understanding the impact it has on a cultural and individual level. 

Apart from this, there is the simple matter that the two countries’ different historical experiences will have different lasting impacts on their politics. Soviet rule lasted in Poland from 1945 to 1989 – recent history, so much so that I and many of my peers grew up with our parents telling us stories of what it was like before the Iron Curtain fell. Meanwhile in Britain during this period, this was not the case. This begs the question, is it not obvious that people who lost loved ones because of communism will shy away from the left? From 1945 to 1948, the Soviet Union deported 3,000,000 to 6,000,000 Poles to forced labour or concentration camps, of which 585,000 are still unaccounted for. Near 1,000,000 Poles were killed during the Soviet reign. Before that, under Nazi occupation 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians were murdered, as well as up to three million Polish Jews, giving a total of more than five million Polish citizens killed, totalling 17% of our population at the time. 

The level of national trauma experienced through this and other historical events (notably, 3 partitions, as well as not being on the map for 123 years) have led to a major impact on politics, one that can’t simply be understood by reading a book or watching a documentary. Many families were directly affected by the actions of the Nazis or the Soviets, with wounds still open and sore. This has led to politics revolving more around ideas of culture and identity, rather than economics as is often the case in Britain. It’s only natural, as when you’re still healing from family members you never met or losing touch with family members who emigrated for fear of their lives, this will still be more relevant to you than improving the national GDP. 

Moving on, another key factor is Poland joined the EU in 2004, providing freedom of movement to the Poles who wanted to leave the country. Between 2004 and 2012, 55,000 Poles officially left Poland for Britain, but this did not match the number that immigrated to the UK, where the 2011 census revealed 611,000 Polish immigrants. A large reason as to why was economic – you could earn more money in the UK. Due to the already failing economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s, industrial output and GDP dropped significantly. 

Whilst inflation did begin to drop, there were still other economic issues that Poland hadn’t fully recovered from such as low wage rates, youth unemployment, and a lack of opportunities in the workforce (especially for women). Since and around then, there have been two major ruling parties; Platforma Obywatelska (PO) and Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS). As is often the case with politics, choosing between these two parties feels like choosing between a rock and a hard place. However, despite this, good has been done. PiS raised the minimum wage, introduced Rodzina 500+ (a scheme that supports parents financially), and is currently dealing with a humanitarian crisis, having taken in 3.3 million Ukrainian migrants since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. 

Following on from this, how exactly does everything discussed affect current politics, and how is it any different from Britain at the moment? Broadly, having a culture that is deeply rooted in its Catholicism has meant that, despite Poland not having an official religion, Catholicism is deeply intertwined with our identity as Poles, and our politics. With sayings like ‘Jak trwoga to do Boga’ (When there is fear go to God) being commonplace, it makes sense that after the fall of the Soviet Union, where religion was heavily discouraged and controlled, people flocked to the churches. Not only this but having neighbouring countries experience something very similar (Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary), explains why we feel a certain camaraderie with them and why Poland has reached out to Ukraine recently.  Whilst some things that happen in Poland are unacceptable morally, they came about due to the older generation, and often through a lack of access to education. Not only this, but we should not hold Poland to a higher standard than we do Britain – every prime minister will do things people disagree with, and the only way to prevent this, is to become prime minister yourself. However, with young people beginning to fight back, as well as efforts to fund better education for all, we may be able to improve things for all. 

In short, the Polish experience is very different to that of the British. Without living through the trauma of losing loved ones, not being able to speak freely, and having to tread carefully when you practise your religion, it is difficult to understand why a country with no official religion has politics that are so entrenched in it. It is difficult to wrap your head around why there isn’t a choice of who to vote for, when one party played a major role in bringing about the conditions that led to 2 million Poles emigrating, whilst the other leans right to a fault. Once again, it may be easy to acknowledge all these things, but there is simple comparison you can draw. Essentially, why would you look at our politics through your lens of being the cause for half of the independence and emancipation movements across the globe, when so many of our ancestors died for ours?