History and the National Sensorium: Making Sense of Polish Mythology


Based on archival and ethnographic data from the Polish case, this article argues that national mythology is structured by historical events and embodied in visual and material cultures, which in turn frame national subjects’ understanding of the present. It suggests that the convergence and exchange between diverse sites of material expression and sensory perception, and their compression into trans-temporal nodes—what I call the “national sensorium”—makes them especially resilient. Even so, as historically constructed, contingent and contested systems of myths, the extent to which national mythologies can shape national identity or mobilize toward nationalist action depends on the specific historical contexts in which they are deployed. Theoretically, this article joins historical and phenomenological approaches to propose a framework for thinking about the constitution, persistence and shifting social and political valences of national mythologies.

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  1. 1.

    George Mosse’s work (1975) was also significant in showing the links between bodily practices, visions of the nation and construction of the state, but has had a more limited impact on the field than Anderson’s Imagined Communities. On the literature on emotions and affect in nationalism studies, see Berezin (1999) and Suny (2006, 2009).

  2. 2.

    Here, obviously, Anderson builds on and expands from Émile Durkheim’s (1914) notion of “collective effervescence,” through which individuals come to physically experience “society,” reifying the abstract idea in the process.

  3. 3.

    Recent studies have pushed forward the idea of everyday nationalism by shifting the focus to practices of “ordinary people,” which are not necessarily ideological but can nonetheless be significant (Edensor 2002; Brubaker et al. 2006; Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008).

  4. 4.

    The field of visual studies, which took off in the mid-1980s with the work of W. J. T Mitchell on iconology (1986, 2005) and David Freedberg’s on the history and theory of response (1991), has slowly left the confines of cultural studies and communications to enter the social sciences. On visual studies in historical and cultural sociology, see Bonnell (1997), Wagner-Pacifici (2005), and Hall (2005). The field of materiality studies has also witnessed a vibrant revival in recent years. For a useful introduction to the key terms, theoretical approaches and debates in studies of materiality and material culture, see Miller (2005, pp. 1-50), Woodward (2007) and Henare, Holbraad, Wastell (Eds.) (2007); for key statements by specialists in the field on a variety of topical areas, see Tilley et al. (2006). On visuality, material culture and religion, see Morgan (2005) and McDannell (1995); on material culture and national identity, see Edensor (2002, pp. 103-137).

  5. 5.

    Most of the materials were unused in previously published work, but part of it was collected in the context of a broader project on national identity and religion in Poland, which resulted in The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland (2006). For a discussion of specific data and methods used in this article’s section on the War of the Crosses at Auschwitz, see Zubrzycki (2006, pp. 30-32 and pp. 231-233). Other data were collected through the web archives of Ośrodek Karta, Warsaw’s Museum of National Independence, the Museum of the National Sanctuary of Częstochowa, as well as commercial products’ websites (Chopin, Sobieski, and Belvedere Vodkas).

  6. 6.

    In qualifying that narrative as mythology, I do not imply that the Catholic Church did not play a significant role in Polish history or that Catholicism did not shape Polish culture. What I am emphasizing here is the specific “status” that narrative has; its quasi-sacred character that shapes national self-understanding and presentation of self to others. According to Brian Porter, the myth of Poland’s intrinsic Catholicity has had an especially significant—and problematic—impact on both collective memory and historiography as it imputes “specific meaning to the past and helps to determine what is remembered and what is forgotten” (2001, p. 291). A significant effort has thus been recently undertaken to “demystify” Polish history and to question the dominant belief in its eternal and essential Catholicity (cf. Zubrzycki 2006, pp. 34-76; Bjork 2008). For examples of historiographic works that reproduce that mythology, see Raina (1985) and Cywiński (1993, 1994); for a discussion of the extent to which that mythology informs public discourse and scholarship, see the introduction of Brian Porter-Szücs forthcoming book, Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland.

  7. 7.

    For an analysis of the questioning of that dominant national mythology after the fall of communism in the Polish public sphere and a discussion of the challenges to establish other national narratives, myths, and visions of the nation more specifically, see Zubrzycki (2001, 2006).

  8. 8.

    It is probably from the King’s vows of faithfulness to the Virgin that Poland’s traditional motto, Polonia semper fidelis [Poland always faithful] originates. Those vows were renewed 300 years later, on August 26, 1956, in a Mass in Częstochowa attended by one million pilgrims. The vows were the opening act of the Great Novena, a nine-year ritual initiative that promoted religious renewal and mass mobilization as the repressive years of Stalinism were coming to a close (Osa 1996).

  9. 9.

    They are called in Polish, the “Trzej wieszcze”—which means at once the “three bards” and, significantly enough, the “three prophets.” Together, they are part of the national pantheon of founding fathers, martyrs and heroes.

  10. 10.

    The work was first published anonymously in 1832, shortly after the failure of the November Uprising in Russian Poland (1830-31). It appeared in the form of a missal commonly referred to as the “Mickiewicz Homilies,” and was widely distributed, free of charge, to newly arrived émigrés/exiles to Paris, where Mickiewicz himself lived. The work was condemned by papal edict for its use of religious motifs to justify the pursuit of what the Church considered a radical social program (which included the abolition of serfdom and the declaration of universal civil rights extended to women and Jews). http://www.culture.pl/en/culture/artykuly/os_mickiewicz_adam (accessed April 21, 2009).

  11. 11.

    See, for example, the sermons of Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, Primate of Poland from 1948-81 (1996a, b).

  12. 12.

    For most of its history, Poland was populated by people belonging to different ethnic, linguistic and religious communities. With World War II this was dramatically altered: Jews, who in 1931 constituted approximately 10% of the population, were exterminated during the Holocaust or emigrated after the war, as many survivors became targets of violent pogroms (Gross 2006) or of state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaigns (Stola 2000). The Polish state’s borders also shifted westward after World War II—Ukrainian, Belarusian and Lithuanian minorities were incorporated into the Soviet Union and German populations in the West were expelled. As a result, ethnic Poles, who before the war constituted approximately 65% of the Second Republic’s population, by 1946 accounted for about 95% of the People’s Republic. The population’s religious makeup was also dramatically altered: in 1931 Catholics composed 65% of Poland’s population, by 1946 the proportion of Catholics had increased to 96% of the population within the new borders (Michowicz 1988; Tomaszewski 1993).

  13. 13.

    The tradition was revived during the Second World War and remains to this day. Every church has a tomb with its own scenographic style, parishioners acting as judges in an unofficial competition. The Easter Sepulchers of Father Jankowski (Solidarity’s chaplain in the 1980s) in St. Brygida’s parish in Gdańsk, were infamous for their controversial nationalist depictions, often anti-Semitic in content.

  14. 14.

    The Insurrection left deep scars on Polish society. In addition to the villages razed, the estates confiscated, and the countless killed and tortured during the Insurrection, approximately 400 insurgents were executed by the Russian authorities after it had been crushed, while some 18,000 were exiled to Siberia. Altogether, about 70,000 Poles were imprisoned and exiled in the remote regions of Russia during and immediately after the Insurrection, most of whom never returned. Many also fled Poland and relocated in France in self-imposed exile.

  15. 15.

    For key statements on the association between the landscape and national identity see Cosgrove (1984), Cosgrove and Daniels [Eds.] (1988), and Dijkink (1996). See also Nogué and Vincente (2004), Lekan (2004), Muir (1999, chap. 5), Dabrowski (2008) and Edensor (2002, pp. 37-68) for case-studies.

  16. 16.

    Of course, the extent to which the masses were nationalized depends on which period we are talking about, the period between 1870-1914 being the crucial one in that process in most of Europe (Mosse 1975; Weber 1976; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Stauter-Halsted 2001). The extent to which peasant populations were nationalized also depended on regions within the former Poland, populations in borderlands taking longer to be nationalized (Kłoskowska 2001; Bjork 2008).

  17. 17.

    This is more difficult to document, of course, but specific locales and historical periods certainly have their own smellscapes associated with a season, foods that were eaten then, materials used to heat and so forth. The odors of war and repression—soiled clothes, blood, decaying corpses, burnt crops, gunpowder—are especially intense. However powerful they may be in shaping one’s memory of a given period, unlike texts, images, objects and music that can be seen, spoken, touched and heard, smells can only be passed down to later generations indirectly through descriptions rather than through actual experience. Olfactive memory is therefore mostly missing from collective memory.

  18. 18.

    Although bi-national (born and raised in Poland from a French father and a Polish mother), Chopin is seen as quintessentially Polish—as both his personal life and his oeuvre were shaped by the national fate. He was abroad during the “November Uprising” of 1930-31 and was forced into permanent exile to France where he became, with Adam Mickiewicz, one of many expatriates of the Polish “Great Emigration.” Like Mickiewicz, many of his creations are odes to the lost nation. On Chopin’s music as narrative of national martyrdom, see Bellman (2009).

  19. 19.

    The opening credits of a popular 1970s television mini-series, which recounted everyday life under Nazi occupation, showed a dark night sky poetically illuminated by slowly freefalling bombs, which, upon hitting the ground, revealed in a flash of light the Polish countryside and its landscape dotted with iconic willow trees. The images were accompanied by a contemporary Chopinesque piano track. It can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmw9ohqOE-A (accessed May 1, 2009). Significantly, the mini-series was entitled Polskie drogi, which is literally translated as “Polish Roads,” but also means “Polish Fates” and alludes to “Polish stations [of the cross],” echoing messianic martyrology. The series’ title was, incidentally, translated as “The Passions of Poland” in English.

  20. 20.

    The City of Warsaw, on the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth in 2010, has installed “musical benches” at key places associated with the composer. A recording of a specific Chopin musical piece is played when a passerby pushes a button on the bench. This initiative is an excellent example of how music, place, history and present experience are potentially collapsed. Judging by the number of youtube “slideshows” and amateur movies that use Chopin as a soundtrack to “quintessentially Polish” images, the matching between place and music is quite successful. While Poles excel at this bricolage, the specific mixing of the Polish landscape and Chopin has transcended the borders of the national community and is also embraced by non-Poles as representative of “Poland.” Clusters of symbolic representations, therefore, are part of the nation’s “branding” (willful or not). See, for example, a clip of peasant women digging potatoes at dusk, with Chopin’s Nocturnes complementing the tableau, prepared by a German music lover. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGPPDV8wBOQ (accessed April 16, 2009).

  21. 21.

    The Ndembu tree’s power, as a dominant symbol, resided in the physical property of the tree as they allowed multiple significations. The tree secretes a milky sap when its bark is scratched; the liquid was metaphorically associated with breast milk, and ideologically linked to matriliny and group solidarity more broadly.

  22. 22.

    The quotation marks indicate the symbolic and discursive nature of the category. It is the image of Jews and representations of Jewishness that are used to define Polishness, not real, existing Jews—even when actual Jewish persons are referred to or symbolically abused, as was a frequent occurrence during the War of the Crosses.

  23. 23.

    For a summary of the Carmelite Convent dispute, see Zubrzycki (2006, pp. 2-7). For detailed accounts, see Bartoszewski (1990), Głownia and Wilkanowicz (1998), Rittner and Roth (1991).

  24. 24.

    See Chapter 3 of The Crosses of Auschwitz for an analysis of the various layers of meaning “Oświęcim” has for Poles and for a discussion of recent trends at the Museum. On the respective meanings of “Auschwitz” and “Oświęcim” for Jews and Poles, see also Tanay (1991), Webber (1992), Goban-Klas (1995), and Young (1993).

  25. 25.

    The cross had been part of an altar on the grounds of Birkenau, Auschwitz’s sister camp three kilometers away, where John Paul II celebrated mass in 1979 during his first, historic visit to Poland as Pontiff—hence the cross’s popular naming as the “papal cross.”

  26. 26.

    Approximately 100,000 non-Jewish Poles were prisoners at Auschwitz, of which about 70,000 were killed. About 1.1 million people found death at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 90% of whom were Jewish (Piper 1992).

  27. 27.

    “Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever I tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice…Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some of whom you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth… Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.’” (Matt. 23:1-3, 34, 36. RSV).

  28. 28.

    The Katyń massacre, when some 20,000 Polish officers, intellectuals and civilian prisoners were murdered by the Soviet NKVD in the spring of 1940, is often called the “Golgotha of the East.”

  29. 29.

    Neighbors was first published in Polish in 2000. Its English translation appeared a year later, allegedly to allow enough time for the Polish government to make appropriate apologies and officially recognize the role of ethnic Poles in the pogrom before the book became available to the American public. Following its Polish release, the Institute of National Memory (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej) opened an official investigation of the murders and published its findings in two volumes (Machcewicz and Persak 2002, 2002b). Neighbors also produced an important debate among historians in the form of lengthy editorials in the Polish press (see Jedwabne: spór historyków wokół książki Jana T. Grossa “Sąsiedzi,” 2002). Gross’s own responses to the debates appeared in a collection of essays published in 2003. Other interventions by prominent public intellectuals in Poland and abroad, as well as by Polish Catholic personalities, can be found in English in Brand (2001) and Polonsky and Michlic (2004).

  30. 30.

    “Siberians” are survivors of Siberian camps.

  31. 31.

    In 1995, almost half of Polish citizens (48%) associated Oświęcim with the martyrdom of the Polish nation, and only 8% with the extermination of Jews. A quarter associated the site with the “martyrdom of several nationalities,” in accord with the socialist narrative (CBOS 1995). OBOP conducted two surveys in 2000, one on January 15-17 (N = 1,008) and the other two weeks later (January 28-30, N = 1,111), i.e. before and after the commemorative events of the 55th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. The same questions were administered in both surveys to measure the impact of the event on the population’s knowledge and perceptions of Auschwitz. The results cited here are those of the second, post-commemorative survey. This OBOP survey was designed by and conducted for Dr. Marek Kucia, Department of Sociology, Jagiellonian University. I am grateful to OBOP for making the 2000 surveys available to me at no charge. For analyses and discussions of these (and other) surveys on Auschwitz, see Kucia (2001). The 2005 CBOS survey was conducted from January 28-February 1 of that year (N = 1,333), after the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation.

  32. 32.

    Although I privilege generational differences here because of national subjects’ historical experiences, their class and ideologico-political positions also certainly matters. Economic “losers” of the Post-Communist transition, for example, tend to narrate Poland’s accession to the EU as yet another dismemberment of the nation, as another crucifixion. National mythology is therefore closer to them than to those who have benefited from marketization and “Europeanization.” The losers, however, also tend to come from older cohorts of Poles who could not “retool” after the economic restructuration of the 1990s. Similarly with ideologico-political affiliations: those on the Left are much less likely to actively embrace Polish national mythology now that it has been tainted by the Right and the far-Right in events such as the War of the Crosses and protests over the acknowledgment of ethnic Poles’ role in the Jedwabne pogrom. The secular Left has therefore been trying to build a new national mythology by selecting different elements of its mythological repertoire, with more or less success (Zubrzycki 2001).

  33. 33.

    Multiple Facebook pages protesting the burial plans and the martyriological mythologization of President Kaczyński, appeared within hours of the announcement, and was commented by users, bloggers and editorialists, as “national hysteria”—Pages named “Let’s all get buried at the Wawel!” “Wawel is not Enough! Why not the Pyramids?” were especially popular, gathering tens of thousands of “Fans.” For links to multiple Facebook pages, see http://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/Wiadomosci/1,80708,7771897,Facebook_Wawelem_podzielony.html?as=2&startsz=x. See also important editorials from Polish public intellectuals in the New York Times, specifically addressing the “traps” of national mythology and messianic martyrology (Wiktor Osiatyński, “Polish Heroes, Polish Victims” and Olga Tokarczuk, “Where History’s March Is a Funeral Procession,” both published on April 15, 2010). The controversy over the burial is not over: in the summer of 2010, I witnessed long lines of people—many of them elderly, sick or handicapped—patiently waiting to pay homage to the deceased President and his wife in the Wawel crypt, often posing for family photographs by the sarcophagus and touching its stone and gold letters, like the faithful do with relics; but also saw countless graffiti with the simple slogan “Wawel for Kings.”

  34. 34.

    For a collection of special news reports (in Polish) on the so-called “Smoleńsk cross” see http://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/Wiadomosci/8,80287,8207484.html

  35. 35.

    In her 2001-02 exhibit “Passion,” Nieznalska played on two significations of the term—the Passion of Christ and physical enthusiasm. The installation consisted of a photograph of male genitalia affixed in a cross-shaped frame suspended from the ceiling, and a slow motion video of a man’s face during strenuous physical exercise. According to art critic Izabela Kowalczyk, the installation is a commentary on masculinity and consumption in the broader context of Poland’s dominant Catholic culture (http://www.culture.pl/pl/culture/artykuly/os_nieznalska_dorota [accessed June 11, 2009]). For a photograph of the installation, see http://www.artliberated.org/?id=20&p=cases [accessed June 1, 2009]. In 2003, Nieznalska was found guilty of “offending religious feelings” according to article 196 of the penal code, and was sentenced to six months of unpaid community service. The artist appealed, the sentence was lifted and she was exonerated on June 4, 2009.

  36. 36.

    On the “branding” of national identity, see Foster (1999, 2002; Hall 2005) and Aronczyk (2008).

  37. 37.

    The first Chopin ad campaign played extensively on the unique value of “backwardness.” Another ad claimed “Potatoes, water, yeast. In a tiny distillery in Poland, an extraordinary alchemy…in accordance with 500 years of tradition.” Subsequent advertising campaigns of Chopin vodka juxtaposed the terroir with high fashion, dirt and glam, wholesomeness and sex appeal. One, for example, showed a model in evening gown and Russian fur hat in a potato field, holding a wicker basket full of the vegetable (http://www.chopinvodka.com/main.htm [accessed April 22, 2009]).

  38. 38.

    It is not the martyrological myth that is evoked in the naming of the vodka after King Jan Sobieski, but the pre-Romantic messianic one of Poland as the Bulwark of Christendom, for Sobieski is most famous for “saving Vienna from the Turks” in 1683. This is the strong man’s vodka, not that of the effeminate Chopin, against which Sobieski vodka is implicitly marketed (http://www.vodkasobieski.com/poland.php [accessed June 7, 2009]). The campaign aims at demystifying all sorts of claim made by “other” vodka brands (French, Russian, Swedish, and Polish potato vodka), precisely by playfully resorting to Polish mythology (Zubrzycki [in progress] “‘Poland in a Bottle’: Redemptive Vodkas, National Branding and the Commodification of Nations”).


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An earlier version of this article was presented at the conference “Whither National Myths?” at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center in May 2009. I’m grateful to Gérard Bouchard and the other participants for their helpful comments. I also wish to thank two anonymous reviewers, Javier Auyero, Paul Johnson, Krisztina Ferhervary, Krzysztof Jasiewicz and Jeff Lesser for their careful reading and thoughtful suggestions.

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Correspondence to Geneviève Zubrzycki.

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This article was accepted by the former editor-in-chief Javier Auyero. The current editor, David Smilde, has approved of its publication.

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Zubrzycki, G. History and the National Sensorium: Making Sense of Polish Mythology. Qual Sociol 34, 21–57 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-010-9184-7

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  • Nationalism
  • National mythology
  • Visuality
  • Materiality
  • Affect
  • Poland