The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland

TitleThe Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsMagdó, Zsuzsánna
Author(s) of reviewed materialZubrzycki, Geneviève

xvii. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Illustrations. Photographs. Maps.

PublisherChicago: University of Chicago Press
ISSNISBN 0-226-99304-3
Review year


Full Text

In the summer and fall of 1998 answering the call of Kazimierz Świtoń, an ex-Solidarity activist, individuals, civic organizations and religious groups from every corner of Poland as well as from the USA, Canada and Australia erected 322 crosses close to the current Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in order to defend Auschwitz as the symbol of the Polish Holocaust during World War II. The controversy had been initially triggered in 1998 by rumors regarding the government’s attempt to remove the “papal cross” from the site – the cross that commemorated the Mass John Paul II celebrated in 1979 during his first visit to Poland as pontiff.

Geneviève Zubrzycki’s perceptive study uses the War of the Crosses (1998-1999), the controversy surrounding the removal of the “papal cross,” as a window to address the relationship between Polish national identity and Catholicism in the context of post-communist transition. In addressing these larger questions, Zubrzycki’s focus is on rethinking the relationship between religion and nationalism. Whereas the mainstream theory of nations and nationalism linked the rise of nationalism to the demise of religion, the author sides with historical sociologists like Liah Greenfeld, Philip S. Gorski and Anthony Marx arguing that nationalism did not emerge as a result of secularization and cannot even be treated as a secular substitute for religion in modernity (p.19-20). According to Zubrzycki, this evolutionist-functionalist perspective is flawed because it reifies and primordializes psychosocial needs for the transcendental and assumes the inevitability of nationalism. In order to avoid reinforcing the evolutionist-functionalist perspective or alternatively to maintain, in the perennialist tradition, a direct continuity between ancient forms of community and modern nations, Zubrzycki attends to the historical contingency, the institutional and cultural embeddedness and the social dynamics of the religion-nation relation by positing a triadic relationship between state (re)formation, the (re)construction of national identity and the (re)definition of religion’s role in society (p. 218). Accordingly, this model suggests that the relationship between nationalism and religion, far from being linear or evolutionist, is a dynamic one and is contingent on the state.

A crucial theoretical underpinning of Zubrzycki’s dynamic model of the nation is her use of symbols to expose the heterogeneity of meanings attributed to the nation and national identity in Poland. Following Victor Turner’s interpretation, Zubrzycki argues that symbols are polysemic and multivocal condensing multiple meanings and remaining semantically open (p. 23-28). This methodological approach to symbols allows the author not only to highlight the ways in which the different aspects of symbols allow humans to be active users of cultural tools. By putting symbols in a historical context, she may also argue that their historical continuity allows users of culture to form a semiotic community in which they recognize the meaning of signs and symbols and are able to engage in meaningful action even if coherence in their emotional or moral evaluations of these symbols may be thin. This theoretical framework forms the basis of the book’s organization.

Chapter 1 contains a genealogy of the Polish nation in which Zubrzycki deconstructs the ethno-Catholic vision of Polish national identity, while in Chapter 2 she looks at the constitutional debates of 1997 in order to portray the redefinition of the relationship between nationalism and Roman-Catholicism in post-communist Poland. In Chapter 3 the author traces the creation of two separate symbolic universes, “Oświeçim” for Poles and “Auschwitz” for Jews which serve as the context for a discussion of the War of the Crosses in Chapter 4. In the following section, Zubrzycki looks more closely at how the War of the Crosses became a debate about Poland. Besides the fact that the presence of a Christian symbol at the symbolic site of the Holocaust caused tensions between Christians/Poles and Jews, the meaning of the cross in post-communist Poland was also associated with the debate over the relation between Polishness and Roman-Catholicism and the role of the Church in an independent democratic Poland.

As suggested above, Zubrzycki offers a complex analysis of the relationship between Polish national identity and religion relating it not only to macro-political transformations but also micro-sociological processes. The theoretical sophistication and depth of analysis with which Zubrzycki impresses the reader springs partly form the vast range of sources on which she relies (p. 31). Interviews, participant observation, multiple guided visits in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, records of the museum and of the Roman Catholic Church as well as posters, placards, icons and inscriptions left behind during the War of the Crosses are all part of her documentation.

One quibble that the reader might have with the book is the terms Zubrzycki’s description of the development of Polish nationalism as a transition from a ‘civic proto-nation’ established during the Polish-Lithuanian Republic (1569-1795) to an ‘ethnic nation’ emerging in the 19th century. In addition to ignoring the ways in which the adjectives ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ have been used in the literature on nationalism to differentiate between ‘good,’ ‘Western’ nationalism versus ‘bad,’ ‘Eastern European’ nationalism, Zubrzycki’s uncritical use of these terms might also play into the hands of Polish nationalists, who like to argue for the good and civic ‘original nature’ of Polish nationalism.

This shortcoming is only a minor one contrasted to the merits of the book. Indeed, Zubrzycki’s work comes as an excellent follow-up to Jan Kubik’s The Power of Symbols and the Symbols of Power. It also comes as a nice correction to Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of the Nationin that it contests the essentialist interpretation of Polish-Catholic identity that is supposedly underlying Polishness.