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The Clash of Moral Nations
The Clash of Moral Nations
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The Clash of Moral Nations

Cultural Politics in Piłsudski's Poland, 1926–1935

Eva Plach

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Clash of Moral Nations

Cultural Politics in Piłsudski's Poland, 1926–1935

Eva Plach

About This Book

The May 1926 coup d’état in Poland inaugurated what has become known as the period of sanacja or “cleansing.” The event has been explored in terms of the impact that it had on state structures and political styles. But for both supporters and opponents of the post-May regime, the sanacja was a catalyst for debate about Polish national identity, about citizenship and responsibility to the nation, and about postwar sexual morality and modern gender identities. The Clash of Moral Nations is a study of the political culture of interwar Poland, as reflected in and by the coup. Eva Plach shifts the focus from strictly political contexts and examines instead the sanacja’s open-ended and malleable language of purification, rebirth, and moral regeneration. In tracking the diverse appropriations and manipulations of the sanacja concept, Plach relies on a wide variety of texts, including the press of the period, the personal and professional papers of notable interwar women activists, and the official records of pro-sanacja organizations, such as the Women’s Union for Citizenship Work. The Clash of Moral Nations introduces an important cultural and gendered dimension to understandings of national and political identity in interwar Poland.



Poland’s Postwar Moral Panic

STANISŁAW KOZICKI (1876–1958), a prominent politician of the nationalist-right camp, reflected in 1932 on the numerous challenges that contemporary Poland faced and offered the following summation: “In addition to everything that is going on there [in western Europe after the Great War], we are undergoing a transition from slavery to freedom and are exerting a great effort to organize our own state. Can one really be surprised that the transitional period is lasting longer and is more complicated?”1 Though it was unpleasant and troubling, it was natural enough, Kozicki reasoned, for the Second Republic to confront monumental problems on all fronts and at all levels. Commentators like Kozicki moved effortlessly from blaming the lingering effects of the partitions for the problems evident in the Second Republic, to blaming the Great War and the subsequent border wars, the political structures of the new state, the ethnic minorities, the international situation and geopolitics. But commentators also impugned something far less tangible and potentially far more explosive: the moral health of the nation. A vocabulary of infestation and filth, of healing, good ethics, and moral rigor, was heard frequently in the press of the early independence period as many looked to the moral realm as possessing great explanatory power. In an atmosphere of economic uncertainty, social tension, and political animosity, cultural and moral visions of newly independent Poland were bound to clash. Bit by bit, the contours of a discursive moral panic developed alongside the political crises, the social unrest and the economic ruin. Within intellectual circles of the Second Republic, debates raged about the quality of the nation’s moral fabric.
Just as they did in western Europe, debates about Poland’s moral health developed with a ferocious intensity right from the start of the postwar period. Evident in the Second Republic before the May coup of 1926, these debates were instrumental in laying the groundwork for an intensification of interest in moral themes after May 1926. If the May coup could capitalize on a feeling of disaffection and malaise, as I argue it did, then this was possible only because the foundations for a nationwide forum on moral health had been laid earlier. Piłsudski’s coup and the proclamation of a sanacja would provide a resonant focus for discussions about morality—political, social, and sexual—that had been circulating in the Second Republic ever since independence. The sanacja could and did function rhetorically as a moment of rebirth precisely because many people had become accustomed to thinking about the need for a dramatic cultural and social transformation and had become comfortable with a language of crisis, moral degeneration, spiritual renewal, and moral rejuvenation. The sanacja grew out of and reflected a deep-seated moral crisis, while it also acted as a catalyst for an invigorated focus on moral questions.

Moral Crisis in Postwar Europe

In the aftermath of the Great War, and with the profound and all-encompassing transformations that the war occasioned in Europe, anxiety about culture and the vitality of nations was raised to unprecedented heights. Historians have described the postwar era as one replete with moral anxiety, as a time of cultural and moral crisis. These terms designate periods in which analysis of the forms of social and national organization, purpose, and potential develop a widespread appeal. Moral crises are sparked when the structures of a given community change dramatically and, consequently, when visions of the world and conceptions of right and wrong clash, as can happen during and in the aftermath of war. As people search for explanations and subject their environments, both local and national, to intense scrutiny, they typically identify scapegoats to blame for ushering in changes they perceive as threatening.2
The term moral panic was coined by British sociologist Jock Young, who used it to describe quite a different context: the public reaction to forms of supposedly threatening youth behavior, especially drug use, in Britain in the 1960s. But the term has since been used to describe any period that provokes concerted and widespread scrutiny of the meaning and structures of social organization, of moral beliefs, and of the ties that bind people together. When the members of a given society disagree fundamentally about how to create categories, norms, and models to evaluate action and perception, and when they disagree over what values the society should promote, the result is a moral crisis, or a pervasive feeling that something is not quite as it should be.3
Feminist scholars have further suggested that in times of acute political or moral chaos, social disorder, and perceived danger, ideas about gender difference acquire an especially powerful resonance and are easily linked to more general national preoccupations. Though certain levels of anxiety over gender roles are arguably always present to some degree, changes in the intensity of this anxiety and variations in its expression during particular historical moments can be quite revealing. During chaotic times, the disorder of social life is represented by and reflected in the perceived perversion of what is assumed to be a natural order between the sexes: men are portrayed as ineffectual and unable to fulfill their obligations, while women are depicted as replacing men in their public roles, as strong and assertive as well as careless in their attitudes toward family and nation. What are understood to be immutable gender norms and relationships are depicted as having been overturned and violated.4 The overall impression is of a broken-down social order that only dramatic intervention can fix.
Historians of the postwar western European context have argued that the Great War, in part because it was an experience so exceptional and devastating, produced a profound and long-lasting moral and cultural crisis.5 Many analyses have focused specifically on the gendered aspects of this crisis. In postwar France, for example, anxiety about women’s new status, choices, and opportunities was discursively linked to nervousness about sluggish population growth and to the effects that this was expected to have on military potential, national prosperity, and security. A violation of “proper” gender norms and the emergence of a “civilization without sexes” (to quote the title of a monograph on the subject) portended the ruin of France itself.6 Similarly, postwar Britain nurtured its own anxieties about how the war had opened new possibilities for women and had altered gender relations, and how, in turn, both private and public morality were affected adversely, to the detriment of the nation as a whole.7 In Germany contemporary sources reveal a heightened anxiety about women’s perceived embrace of sexual liberation and a commitment to all manner of “modern” ideas, from the latest fashions to paid employment.8 Critics, especially during the National Socialist period, argued that the “New Woman” of the Weimar era had brazenly abandoned her womanly duties and forsaken family and nation, putting Germany itself in peril.9
Historians of western Europe, and of North America,10 have produced many interesting analyses of the deliberations about moral and national health that erupted after the war and have paid special attention to the ways in which an emphasis on gender identity and gender relations became a part of these debates. A discursive focus on women and their newfound rights, their supposedly modern styles of dress and comportment and their daring new behavioral choices, emerges in such times of turmoil.
Historians of eastern Europe, in contrast, have been slow to offer specific analyses of the postwar moral trauma that might have accompanied the numerous political and economic crises after the war. They have tended to prioritize instead the strictly political aspects of nation and state building that the war occasioned. There are many reasons for this. In the Polish case, the independent Second Republic, which represented the realization of long-held Polish patriotic dreams, was hardly a favorite topic of the post–World War II Communist regime. Moreover, historians of Poland or other Soviet Bloc countries could not often indulge in the luxury of studying topics that did not suit the ideological imperatives of the moment and that did not promote a desired narrative about one’s national history.11
And yet the Polish context provides an especially fruitful terrain for the study of a postwar moral crisis; the language and preoccupations of the period show this very clearly.12 The Second Republic had to contend with more than just the effects of the Great War, as other countries did; it also had to come to terms with the end of a partition period that had lasted well over a century. This was the transition “from slavery to freedom” to which nationalist-right politician Stanisław Kozicki referred. It was hardly surprising, given this double burden, that so much discursive attention was devoted to Poland’s moral health in the post-1918 years. The fact that political life was not functioning smoothly, that economic problems were fierce, and that social and ethnic tensions were dangerously high, suggested, many contemporaries argued, that Poland’s “moral health” was also in need of serious attention and reform. “Something,” people said, was not right. It is to the specific Polish context that we now turn.

Moral Citizenship in the Second Republic

That the partitions had imprinted many undesirable features on the Second Republic was beyond dispute: the long partition era had deprived Poles of the experience of state administration and political organization and of opportunities for social cooperation and growth. Thereafter it became standard fare for commentators to invoke the partitions when trying to explain the political, social, and economic problems that plagued the Second Republic. At the same time, some commentators in the Second Republic noted that certain aspects of partition-era patriotism had been passionate and ideal, and that the Second Republic needed to emulate the best features of this national devotion if it were to survive the challenges of the modern period. A fantastic legend about consummate partition-era commitment to the nation developed in independent Poland (although only a very small elite actually expressed this unwavering national devotion during the partition period) and became a measure by which to gauge contemporary patriotism. Citizenship in the Second Republic was recast as much more than a constitutionally regulated designation; it acquired the status of a moral category,13 a duty to the nation and to Polish history that, if ignored, would result in a tragedy on the scale of the late-eighteenth-century partitions.
In the postwar era of national soul-searching about what it meant to be a Pole living in a resurrected Poland, certain expressions of partition-era Polish womanhood became for some an especially revealing marker of national commitment and, it follows, of the health of the nation generally. With the partitions, the men of the nobility and the political institutions they had dominated in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lost their special and publicly recognized status. And while men went off to fight for Polish independence, women dominated the private sphere and turned it into a site of sedition and hope; the home became a repository of Polishness, a vital center of political and national mobilization in a patriotic spirit. Commentators from across the political spectrum in the Second Republic heralded women of the partition era for fulfilling their “natural” roles as bearers of national culture as well as for having played an indispensable role in the national struggle, for protecting national virtues, for passing along language and tradition, and thus, at the most basic level, for ensuring the very existence of the Polish nation.14
Women of the Second Republic could not but fail to measure up to the models of femininity and citizenship that had arisen out of the partition period. Some commentators in the Second Republic were quick to observe that independence-era women had too quickly become satisfied with mere formal territorial independence and with their newly won political rights, including suffrage rights; women of the Second Republic were accused of having become so enamored with the concept of rights that they forgot what responsibilities to the nation they, as women and as mothers, “naturally” possessed. Many critics emphasized that independence-era women had been lured away from husbands and children by the temptations of modern life. The effects of women’s supposed disregard for national imperatives were evident in the depth of the problems the Second Republic confronted; as a result of women’s choices, the family suffered, and the nation suffered, too.
As early as the border wars of 1919 to 1921, but after the formal declaration of Polish independence in 1918, women were already singled out for threatening to eschew their responsibilities to the nation. Contemporary women needed to be reminded of the sacrifices their foremothers had made and which they, as good and moral citizens of an independent Poland, should also make. An army poster from the border wars urged, “Be like Polish women from the past, who, without a tear, sent their most beloved to their deaths. . . . Away with rags and fashions, trite phrases and fox-trots, and that whole hideousness of a low and impoverished life. Your dance hall is an army hospital, your fashions, a headband with a cross.”15 If women needed to be reminded even during the wars over Poland’s borders that they were morally obliged to fulfill the dictates of citizenship, then it could come as a surprise to no one, the reasoning went, that during a time of formal peace after 1921, when the threats to Poland were less tangible, women continued to act with callous indifference toward the nation. Far from being unimportant, women’s behavior went to the very core of definitions of citizenship and symbolized what some believed was the lamentable state of national commitment in the independence era.16
References to the dangerous “savage mores” of the postpartition period, to the dire effects private immorality exerted on the nation as a whole, and to the need for women to take seriously their citizenship duties resonated with a dire urgency as the political and economic problems mounted in the Second Republic. The discursive attention given to gender and morality—a focus that conveyed, in turn, an anxiety about the nation generally—was especially marked in the press of the period, which, owing to its numbers and influence, came to occupy a central role in the political and cultural life of the nation.17 Almost all political groupings in the Second Republic had their own periodicals, such that reading a particular publication revealed a great deal about one’s political affiliations and ideological underpinnings.18 Divisions...

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APA 6 Citation
Plach, E. (2014). The Clash of Moral Nations (1st ed.). Ohio University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
Plach, Eva. (2014) 2014. The Clash of Moral Nations. 1st ed. Ohio University Press.
Harvard Citation
Plach, E. (2014) The Clash of Moral Nations. 1st edn. Ohio University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Plach, Eva. The Clash of Moral Nations. 1st ed. Ohio University Press, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.