Martyrology and Motherhood: the ‘Polish Mother’ in Postwar National Identity
Devastating as the Second World War undoubtedly was for the whole of Europe, virtually no country was subjected to greater or more traumatic destruction than Poland. These traumas would take decades to process fully, for the Polish state and its populace. Indeed, the war had created such an immense and violent disruption to everyday life that, in its aftermath, physical reconstruction was of necessity accompanied by a wholesale ‘reconstitution […] of the national discourse’ as well.
This process of national rebuilding centred on the twin focal points of family and religion, which together offered the means to develop a comprehensible, therefore comforting, interpretation of the war and its meaning for the Polish people. Poland’s wartime experiences were folded into a centuries-long story of national martyrdom and redemption, during which the national idea had been protected and sustained within the structure of the traditional Catholic family. In this narrative, the idealized and heroic figure of the Polish mother was celebrated with particular fervour, and became one of the cornerstones of the emergent postwar identity.
A nation of martyrs
The Poles had long relied on ‘religiously infused national martyrologies’ as a well established element of their national identity. This had its origins in the early nineteenth century, shortly after the partition (rozbióry) and occupation of Poland by its various neighbours (Prussia, Austria and Russia). The Polish nation’s suffering as a result of partition was compared to the suffering of Christ, with Poland even described as ‘the “Christ of nations”’.
Alongside this cult of martyrdom, however, nationalistic accounts of the partition era also stressed the resilience of the Polish people. Far from dulling their sense of national unity, the partitions had galvanized their patriotic zeal and fighting spirit, and left them determined to regain their independence. The various struggles against the occupying powers—most famously the revolts against Russia in November 1830 and January 1863—were viewed as worthy sacrifices to the national cause, all the more so because they were unsuccessful. This fight, and the willingness of Poles to give up their lives for it, was the means by which their nation would eventually be ‘redeemed’ and restored.
This ‘messianic vision’ persisted throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and by the time Poland was indeed reformed in 1918, it had become an integral feature of Polish nationalism, ready to be utilized in times of national crisis.
This image of suffering and meaningful sacrifice was often combined with a maternal metaphor, centred on the archetype of the Polish mother. The mother owed her prominence to the fact that during the partition period, the Polish nation had no public face—the political and public spheres were dominated by the three occupying powers. It was therefore the private sphere that became the safeguard of Polish national consciousness, one of the only remaining spaces in which the ‘sense of Polish nationhood’ could be preserved and transmitted to future generations. In this view, Polish mothers occupied a position of unique significance. It was their responsibility to pass on this national awareness to their children, and to support their husbands and sons in the struggle to liberate Poland. Naturally, they was also honoured for their ability to manage the household singlehandedly while the men were away. Bluntly put, it was the fate of Poland’s sons to die for their nation, and the obligation of its mothers to let them, ‘to endure everything and admire’.
This was exemplified in a famous poem by Adam Mickiewicz (himself a renowned spokesperson for the Polish nation), composed shortly before the ill-fated 1830 uprising:
O Polish mother, if the radiant eyes
Of genius kindle in thy darling’s face
If even in his childish aspect rise
The pride and honour of his ancient race;
O Polish mother, ill must be his part!
Before the Mother of our Sorrows kneel,
Gaze on the sword that cleaves her living heart—
Such is the cruel blow thy breast shall feel!
Though peoples, powers, and schisms a truce declare,
And though the whole wide world in peace may bloom,
In battle—without glory—must he share;
In martyrdom—with an eternal tomb.
— Adam Mickiewicz, ‘To the Polish Mother’ (‘Do Matki Polki’, 1830)
Mickiewicz’s verse casts the unspecified mother as a vessel for the grief of the entire divided and defeated Polish nation. Her son, likened later in the poem to Christ, suffers and dies in service to Poland, and as a result, her own torment is elevated to the level of divine passion. If her son is depicted as both Christ and Poland, she stands in place of the Virgin Mary, mother to (and mourner for) both.
This poignant blending of national and religious imagery was already a signature feature of Polish nationalism by the partition era. Polish national identity had been bound up with Catholicism in the popular imagination since at least the late seventeenth century. Very quickly, however, the Catholic Marian cult (that is, the cult of the Virgin Mary) had taken centre stage in Polish devotions. The Virgin Mary had been considered almost the patron saint of the Poles for centuries, since King Jan Kazimierz dedicated Poland to her and consecrated an icon of her as the ‘Queen of Poland’ in Częstochowa in 1656. ‘Patriotic prayers’ were commonly addressed to her, and the Częstochowa icon in particular had become the object of pilgrimage and widespread reverence.
The symbolism surrounding the Matka Boża (Mother of God) in the Catholic Church made her an especially suitable emblem of Polish motherhood. She was perceived as ‘the nurturing, concerned mother who saves her children from evil’, on the one hand, and on the other as ‘a leader of a mighty army of faithful who will do battle with evil’. This dual role, along with the ordeals she was believed to have endured as the mother of the martyred Christ, made her an especially sympathetic ideal for Polish mothers to aspire to.
The postwar perspective
In 1944/45, the martyrological view served as a template of sorts, through which the Polish people could come to terms with their experiences of the war. According to this model, the Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland were simply the latest in a long line of instances in which the country had been ‘attacked, pillaged and parted by its more powerful neighbours’. As before, Poland had been tried and tormented—and, as before, its people had risen to the occasion, resisting the occupiers, sacrificing their lives and their freedom when necessary, and ultimately emerging on the winning side.
The Polish mother was lauded as, if not the architect, then the enabler of this victory. Throughout the war, the nationalist rhetoric claimed, ‘it was Polish wives, mothers and grandmothers who guarded the traditions, provided the social infrastructure, […] and told their men folk where their duty lay’. This narrative overshadowed all others relating to women’s involvement in the war, not least their participation in the resistance movement. In this paradigm, their most significant contribution to the liberation of Poland had been in their willingness to sacrifice their husbands and sons for the cause, and to allow their grief to serve as the focal point for that of the entire nation. The more complex and ambiguous experiences of women during the war, which did not necessarily square with this account, were therefore sidelined.
At this stage, however, Poland had little interest in real Polish women or their diverse perspectives. It was the emblematic Polish mother on whom it called: as nurturing and as protective as the Mother of God, with an equally weighty and tragic burden to bear for her country’s sake. Appealing to her and celebrating her sacrifice, as they had done many times before, allowed the Poles to move into the postwar era by ‘celebrating the nation, its suffering and its recovery’.