Many Poles, when confronted by the valiant and manly deeds of the citizen-soldiers of the Warsaw Uprising, may well feel belittled by the fact that their own lives are not only banal due to historical circumstances, but above all morally shallow.

It is natural that man experiences night and day, one after the other; quite unnatural if experienced simultaneously. To live like a penumbra is a unique experience and it must be considered the norm for Poles who experience their recent history and present culture in full. So it happens that on 14 September, I had the pleasure of watching an amateur theater spectacle performed in the outdoors of the Ursulian nunnery in Warsaw. On 15 September, I happened upon a collection of short stories, published in 1979, roughly translated as “Which way to the meeting?” (“Gdzie jest droga na walne?“), by Marek Nowakowski. Watching the theater spectacle and then reading the first of the short stories, I was struck by the stark difference between the two Polands they present. The theater spectacle gives us a glimpse of the zenith of European and Christian Poland before its absolute and final demise. The novel casts light on a Bolshevik, lumpen-proletarian Poland that, having passed beyond Stalinism, is a model of the End of History and the phenomenon of existentialist Socialism. To juxtapose the characters in the theater spectacle and the short story is to learn something not only about present day Poland but European civilization as it stands today. It is above all to recognize the post-modern condition as being actually post-apocalyptic. 

‘The Uprising Postal Service’ 

The amateur theater play, put on by a group of patriots and nationalists from the underground Łazienki theater, tells the stories of different aspects of the Warsaw uprising based on authentic letters couriered through Warsaw by a young boy killed by a Nazi sniper during the Uprising. His pouch is recovered by two nurses and a civilian who, upon realizing that the addresses on the envelopes have been rendered illegible by the dead boy’s blood, proceed to open them in hopes that the letters themselves will contain clues about where to deliver them. As the letters are read aloud, their content is played out on stage.

Most of the letters contain poetry, the content of which I remember well (sans the verses themselves). The poem which best encapsulated the view of the citizen-soldiers who fought in the Warsaw Uprising presents the bloodbath that the Uprising became as “the fourth collapse of Christ on the path to the crucifixion” and imagines Warsaw as a new Golgotha, where the Father has once again seen fit to sacrifice the Son to atone for the sins of Christendom. While this martyrological view did not animate Poles at the outset of the Uprising (other letters illustrate the preliminary attitude as an immediate jubilation at the mere  fact that fighting means living free and no longer in fear of occupation), martyrdom does gradually become the primary animating principle for them as it becomes clear that the Allies have no intention of aiding them, even though every means of assistance existed. The clarity of their situation becomes the clarity of the living Christ, who has come to terms with the will of the Father and accepted His suffering and death on the Cross.

The play could easily be accused of pathos if not for the fact that each of the heroic situations it presents are based on true accounts from the Uprising and occupation. Watching it, one immediately understands why the Warsaw Uprising so divides Poles in opinion: many Poles, when confronted by the valiant and manly deeds of the citizen-soldiers of the Uprising, may well feel belittled by the fact that their own lives are not only banal due to historical circumstances, but above all morally shallow. For the Uprising did not spring ex nihilo from barren ground. It was the result of generations of character formation; of a Catholic, patriotic, and classical education. The civilization which gave birth to the boys and girls, men and women who took up arms during the Warsaw Uprising, much like the civilization which reared the German patriots against whom the Poles fought, all came to a bloody end in August 1944. Yet insofar as the destruction of Germany was a function of hubris, Poland died in the Uprising as Christ died on the Cross–a sacrifice from which European civilization would be reborn under the banner of Solidarity.

The characters in the play are by and large boy scouts, girl scouts, Poles of German descent who refuse to sign the Volkslists which could save them from death camps or simply death at the hands of the Gestapo, and civilians caught up in the drama of the Uprising, separated by spontaneous barricades and pre-planned melees from their families (many Poles were trapped at work when the Uprising started). While the execution of the play is amateur, and the stage limited to one makeshift background set up in a narrow alleyway under the Ursulian nunnery, it is impossible not to be struck by the high-minded penmanship of the letters from the mortally shot couriers pouch. They are written in a language steeped in a classical pre-war liberal arts education and there is no doubt that the true result of the war is the death of an entire generation of classically-educated European ladies and gentleman and the subsequent severing of the delicate, organic bonds between the generations. As Warsaw dies, we the audience know that the next generation will not have souls capable of such penmanship and poetic virtue as those whose lives were spent in the Uprising.

“When the morning lights arise”

From the pathos of the Warsaw Uprising on Saturday evening, I was transported Sunday to the pathetic, in the vulgar, modern sense–at best to the pathos of distance–in Marek Nowakowski’s old communist-era short story, “When the Morning Lights Arise”. The story takes place in what Poles would term “deep” Communism, but what likely would be the 1970s era of detente, when some meek endeavors were made at cultural and economic cooperation between East and West. Nowakowski gives us a glimpse into the Polish soul in this tale of a group of engineers, secretaries, and wives all making a work-organized recreational excursion to the forest one day for mushroom picking, picnicking, and vodka drinking. The content of the story contrasts strongly with its title, taken from the religious poetry of the Enlightenment poet Franciszek Karpinski. The prose itself is evocative of Camus’ Stranger or Fall, albeit with the significant difference that for Camus, existentialism seemed to be the fate of individuals, while Nowakowski paints a kind of existentialist society.

The first striking juxtaposition between the souls of Nowakowski’s short story and the souls of the characters in the theatwe spectacle about the Warsaw Uprising is the spiritual materialism and physical poverty of the former as opposed to the spiritual humility and material luxury of the latter. The Poles who fought in the Warsaw Uprising grew up in a European capital that rivaled Paris for its beauty and culture. They belonged to the wealthiest urban families that their nation had to offer. They were relatively materially well off–certainly we can say they were fabulously rich in material comforts compared to the engineers in Nowakowski’s post-war vision of communist Poland. Yet in spite of their wealth, the Poles who fought in the Uprising were not morally corrupt, as we can surmise from their penmanship; their manly and classical prose and poetry demonstrated them to be high-minded. Their actions were the clear result of their education (formal and informal) and not blind obedience to military necessity. Meanwhile, Nowakowski’s engineers (and their women) are materially poor and spiritually lost, yet ironically, they are the epitome of greedy materialists and petty egoists. They lust after their poorly dressed wives and female co-workers, begrudge one another their poor salaries, detest those of their colleagues who managed to get sent West for short business trips, and even envy each other the mushrooms they manage to find in the forest. In American terms, the Polish engineers in “When the Morning Lights Arise” act like slum degenerates. They are poor and live in conditions of imposed destitution, yet in their poverty they find themselves bitterly clinging to even the most wretched of material goods. Their passionate materialism vastly overshadows their shallow and vacant spiritual lives.

The second striking juxtaposition between Nowakowki’s characters and the Uprising generation is their comportment towards foreigners. The Uprising generation was romantic, impetuous, and nationalist. Their pride was such as to be rather oblivious to the odds of a ragtag group of guerrillas being able to beat the greatest army of central Europe. They felt themselves equal to the Germans in war, superior in culture and Christian ethos. Nothing speaks more to how one views foreigners than the extent to which one is willing to shoot at them. If you are prepared to fight a war with them, then this bespeaks a great self-respect (at worse, hubris).

Nowakowski’s characters have souls that are the polar opposite of self-respect to such an extent that one longs for the vice of hubris. One character’s recollections of his trip to England are a brilliant portrait of the lack of self-esteem bred into the post-war generation which persists today. The Polish engineer begins his visit with his British counterpart, Walter, benignly convinced that the two share an equal footing of sorts, a mutual attitude toward existence dictated by age and experience. Yet as the Pole encounters Walter’s car, which Walter drives “carefree and with confidence”, then Walter’s lawn, his house, his slender wife, his separate room set aside for his hobby, the Pole freezes up emotionally, overwhelmed by his sense of deep inferiority. Walter has a similar job to his, but an utterly luxurious life–comparatively. The Pole will never have a house like Walter’s, the idea of a whole separate hobby room is fairytale-like, he would never afford a pretty wife like Walter’s, and certainly he is shamed that Walter and his children play tennis, while he has not managed this luxury. As the Polish guest passes through the various emotional stages of inferiority and resentment, he fights with himself, searching for stability. Yet the coup de grace is delivered not by Walter, but by Walter’s elderly neighbor who comes to visit. A former soldier, he praises the Poles’ compatriots, with whom he fought side by side in Tobruk.

This is too much. At the mention of the pre-War generation’s gallantry, at their capacity to fight for England even while England did not fight for them, the Polish engineer loses himself in the final pangs of tumultuous inner envy and rage. He falls back on the cynical nihilist realism that is the communist’s cultural fortress against reality: Walter, our Polish engineer concludes, is naive and knows nothing about real life. What goes unsaid here is that “real life” is submission so deep as to have erased even hope or memory. Submission so deep as to have liquidated those men and women capable of even dreaming of liberty and convinced the rest to retire from history. It is, in short, the Pole’s slave morality–something he recognizes via his conscience as unnatural–that fuels his envy and hatred.

That the Polish engineers have a conscience is made vivid in Nowakowski’s short story when they drink too much vodka and lose their self-control. One of the engineers, in the story’s climactic scene, drinks so much that he experiences a moment of lucidity. He shouts at his comrades to the effect that they are all taking part in a great fraud, a great lie. They, however, see this moment of moral truth through the lens of the aforementioned cynical nihilist. Rather than take their drunken comrade’s moral speech at face value, the others conclude that their comrade “lost it”. Their measure of cultural fortitude, their paradigm of virtue, is the extent to which a man can scoff at idealism and embrace grubby reality while still feigning civilized manners. This virtue is nowhere more apparent and no greater test of it exists, than in the culture of systematic vodka drinking.

The End of History 

Both of these stories illustrate the End of History in its totality. On the one hand, it is physically catastrophic and tantamount to mass death. On the other hand, it is spiritually catastrophic and tantamount to mass nihilism. Catastrophic nihilism is the ineffectual, post-Historical alternative to catastrophic death. In theory, nihilism preserves human life by draining all possible motivations for deadly conflict of their passionate content. In practice, nihilism cannot stop death–if anything, nihilism speeds death along via a culture of vodka consumption. Yet nihilism is not bothered by its ineffective nature, since effectiveness is a value of no significance, like all other values. In fact, nihilism as the active negation of values becomes almost like a sport for post-historical man.

Likewise, the catastrophic death of historical man on account of the tragic logic of dialectical history demonstrates that a return to classical virtue and Christian ethos is also ineffective. Classical virtue and Christian ethos are not bothered by ineffectiveness, since effectiveness is of a lower order in the Ordo Caritatis. Moral virtue, which leads to catastrophic death, is a higher thing than effectiveness, which preserves life even if at the expense of moral perfection.

Thus these two strands of European patrimony, Christianity and nihilismm seem in theory to have too much in common. We might be tempted to argue that the Warsaw Uprising, for all its martyrological Christian pretense, had more in common with nationalism than with Christianity, but this argument depends too much on hindsight. For as has been noted, the Uprising did not begin as a mass yearning for martyrdom, but rather for liberty. Five years into occupation, the citizens of Warsaw had enough of life under Gestapo curfew and, naively believing that the participation of Polish soldiers and airmen in the Anglo-American forces guaranteed them allied assistance, took the opportunity to fight the Germans when the allies were two kilometers from the center of Warsaw, just on the other side of the Vistulla. In 1944, having learned nothing from 1939, Poland again marched to its doom. In September of 1939, according to treatises of alliance with France and Britain, Poland was guaranteed Western military aid if it held out against attack for two weeks. Thus, 16 September 1939 was a day of rejoicing amongst Polish generals who were content to have resisted the German onslaught for a sufficient time. To their horror, 17 September began not with British bombers and French tanks smashing Hitler’s forces, but with the Soviet invasion to the east. Days earlier, the French and British had prefaced Yalta with Abbeville. 1944 was a repetition of this warped Polish mentality which failed to understand what the Nazis knew well: Western liberal democracy was a shallow, spineless and cowardly political body, incapable of action except under dire circumstances. Thus the Uprising metamorphosized from an Allied strike against the Nazis from the East into the ultimate death of Polish nationhood, and in that death, to a Christological martyrdom for the sins of Europe. What ancient buildings were left standing by the Nazis were systematically razed by the Allied occupation that followed after the Germans were routed. From the ashes arose the new, Communist Poland, illustrated so well in Nowakowski’s short story. The new Polish soul that arose with it was a soul belittled, trampled, conquered. It was, at best, an existential soul that would drink itself into oblivion dreaming from time to time of pretty girls it could not afford. Both of these souls, though for radically different reasons, were the epitome of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death.

The question for us now is: is there anything worth redeeming from these two souls? Our age, long past the end of history, no longer post-historical or post-modern, is best characterized as post-apocalyptic. To traverse the streets of Warsaw today is to traverse a sacred cemetery upon which stand edifices to nihilism and slave morality. History cannot be re-written, acts and events once set into motion must run their course. Ours is a life in a world that has run its course. We may, in our ignorance, speed it along towards oblivion with new horrors of our own devices, or we may reflect upon what has been so that there might be a tolerable order in Europe once again.

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The featured image is a Warsaw Uprising monument, courtesy of Pixabay.

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