Arnold Winkelried was a legendary Swiss hero who sacrificed his own life for the nation while staying on moral high ground. Thus his name has become associated with the idea of an individual idealistically challenging the enemy in the interest of the common good. It is a theme that still resonates today, especially when considering the place of Poland in the European Union.
Julisz Slowacki, one of the “Three Bards” of Polish literature, also embraced this way of Winkelried in his dramatic poem Kordian, a drama published in 1834 that is a profound study of a Polish romantic revolutionary’s psyche. The story’s protagonist is a Hamletesque figure who is disappointed with the world, a hero implicated in a tragic conflict of values. Kordian believed that passive resistance bred apathy, and thus the quest for redemption could only be achieved through heroic action.
This historical representation of Messianism in Poland—which opposes Adam Mickiewicz’s vision of Poland as the suffering “Christ of Nations”—maintained that in the course of our tumultuous history, Poles were infused with special knowledge originating from the experience of war and oppression. That precious knowledge turned into insightful wisdom about pain and injustice, with the role of the weak being to remind the strong and prosperous about the frailty of human existence. When it comes to the future of Europe, Poland can still play this role today.
Many people all over the continent wholeheartedly welcomed remarks earlier this month from a Polish member of the European Parliament, Ryszard Legutko, challenging French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a debate on the current situation in the EU.
A professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Krakow (one of the oldest universities in the world), philosopher and political theorist Legutko argued that France and Germany need to exercise some humility. He reminded the assembly of the true meaning of democracy, rejecting the idea that the “joint appearance is historic because it shows the Franco-German engine of Europe is still powering on and we have a radiant future in front of us.” This event was instead, Legutko argued, “a part of the problem … one or two countries decide for the rest … and we altogether are 28 and 28 is far more than two.”
The leader of the Polish delegation also suggested that there is a fine line between leadership and control, warning that different viewpoints need to be heard in the EU. Acknowledging that “events of recent years have placed a burden of leadership on [the] shoulders” of Angela Merkel, Legutko addressed the German chancellor directly, charging that “you sometimes forget the difference between leadership and dominance.” He explained that “people are concerned that their viewpoint does not matter. Some are ignored. Others are bullied and others are vilified. People are concerned because they hear this deafening federalist rhetoric not rooted in reality and through that thin vein of rhetoric they see a ruthless power play with the President and Chancellor as major actors.”
Legutko concluded his speech by referring to the recent refugee crisis in Europe. He asked a vital question—inconvenient for many liberal progressives—about the future of the European Union, asking why the continent was “inviting the immigrants and then cancelling the invitation.” It was, he said, “unbearable confusion of humanitarian, moral and political arguments that obscure the gravity of the crisis we are faced with … not a language of dialogue but a language to obscure things.”
When Merkel decided to “suspend the Schengen rules and open the German border and then to close the border again,” it was evidence that any semblance of collective decision making in Europe had broken down: “If this is not a proof of dominance, what is?”
There is some evidence that Legutko’s message is resonating, at least in Poland. This week his Law and Justice party secured an absolute majority in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, the first time any party has achieved that since democracy was restored in 1989.
Legutko’s defense of freedom and deep concern over the future of Europe speaks to the historic Polish consciousness, all the way back to the tradition of Romantics such as Slowacki and legendary figures such as Winkelried. The Swiss hero threw himself among the enemy’s spears, and “opened a path for freedom.” Perhaps Poles such as Legutko, if they are unafraid to challenge the Franco-German rulers of the EU, can do the same today.
Adriel Kasonta is an editorial board member at the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, and co-editor of Konserwatyzm.pl. He was chairman of the International Affairs Committee at the Bow Group think tank (2014-2015), and is the editor and leading author of the Bow Group’s report titled “The Sanctions on Russia.”