Polish president Andrzej Duda and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting in Wisła in January 2022 (Source: Kancelaria Prezydenta RP/ Marek Borawski)

The unexpected appearance in the bombarded Kiev of the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, and of the actual ruler of Poland, as the leader of the parliamentary majority, Jarosław Kaczyński, was a very significant political symbol. And symbols are important in politics: especially at times when there is a shift in the arrangement of alliances.

Rafał A. Ziemkiewicz

In the language of politics, which is inherently hypocritical (the definition of hypocrisy by Duke de La Rochefoucauld as, “the homage that vice pays to virtue” fits perfectly here), alliances based on the convergence of interests used to be disguised as “friendship between nations”. This is, of course, a narrative for the so-called common man and only in countries deprived of political elites which is taken seriously also by the rulers. Nevertheless, for political PR, friendship narratives are important. Important political structures, if there is a foundation of common interest on which to build them, must be appropriately encapsulated with symbols.

Bismarck’s concept

An excellent example from history is the so-called entente cordiale, in historiography simply called entente – an agreement concluded at the beginning of the 20th century between eternal enemies: Great Britain and France. The rebuilding of the united Germany by Prussia, which quickly began to grow into the greatest European power, forced England to abandon the dispute that had lasted since the Middle Ages and use France’s willingness for revenge after the defeat in the war with Prussia to transform her into its ally against the new threat. Before politicians could do this, however, gestures and symbols were required to convince the public that a great change had taken place, overturning everything that had happened before. The British monarch at the time, Edward VII, who traveled to France many times and constantly sweetened its inhabitants, played a great role in these events, expressing his admiration for every aspect of the eternally hostile country, from history and art to the cuisine and beauty of women. There is an anecdote about the king being booed by the French during one of these first visits; yet he smiled and waved amiably at the hostile crowd. “They do not like us here, Your Highness”, one of the advisers was supposed to say to him then, to which the king, with an unflinching smile, replied: “That is why I am here, that they would have something to like us for”.

In a similar way, I see the purpose of our next “expedition to Kyiv” in our history, similar to the one from a hundred years ago, undertaken in defense of Ukrainian statehood against the Russian conquest. Here, however, the analogy is misleading because in 1920, Ukraine, exhausted by successive wars, was practically unable to summon the will to fight for independence and the participation of the Ukrainians themselves in the fight against Russia was symbolic. This time we are dealing with a huge national upheaval, which will undoubtedly be the founding moment of modern, pro-Western Ukraine.

Ukraine has not had such a legend so far – it tried to make up for this shortage by building a narrative about the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) / Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as an anti-Soviet guerilla warfare group, concealing its criminal ideology for the current needs and falsifying the history of the Volhynian massacre, which obviously had to create conflict between Kyiv and Warsaw. Until then, the Ukrainians did not worry too much about it, because they focused their policy on Germany, firmly convinced that they were their patron and advocate in Europe. In fact, it would be so if German policy continued the concept of Mitteleuropa1 from the last century. Angela Merkel, however, adopted a different concept – that of Bismarck2 – which inevitably led to Berlin’s consent to leave Ukraine in Moscow’s sphere of influence. The consequences of this decision are being felt by Ukraine today.

“After this war, Ukraine is going to open a completely new chapter in its history. We know who is our friend, our brother, our partner in Europe and in the world, and who only thinks about himself” – these words of President Zelensky, spoken to Poles a few days before the Polish visit to Kiev, are of immense gravity.

(…)

1 The term Mitteleuropa originated in the first half of the 19th century and its understanding has evolved over time into several different visions and concepts. It is most widely understood as the concept of German control over central Europe

2 Bismarck’s approach to Mitteleuropa consisted of a restructuring of the German Confederation on the basis of a joint Austro-Prussian leadership

This article was published in March 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine