Culture & Ideas Ideas

Interview: Andrzej Stasiuk’s European lesson

26 December 2011
Wprost Warsaw

Why do the Germans and the Poles have a hard time getting along? How does one recognise a Pole? Is there a way to help Germany better "dominate" the EU? A hard to pigeon-hole Polish writer provides some leads.

TOMASZ MACHAŁA: In Poland, how emotionally and negatively charged is the word Germany?

ANDRZEJ STASIUK: It has a heavy legacy, beginning with the etymology of the word 'German' [Niemiec, in Polish] which means mute, someone with which you cannot communicate because of his incomprehensible language. There are also a multitude of sayings, such as this one:

'As old as the world becomes, a German will never be the brother of a Pole' and the popular image of the devil disguised as a German. There are other examples that could be cited. We can say that for a long time this word had enormous weight, which is difficult to alleviate after so many centuries.

Despite the European Union, despite the subsidies, despite the absence of borders?

They have really tried and are still trying and I say this without irony and with respect. The weight is so great that it overwhelms a generation that should be free of this trauma of history. Our daughter, when she was in Third Grade [8 years old] recited before a German friend the words to Rota [a patriotic Polish song] which contains the phrase: "The German will not spit in our faces".

She obviously didn't do it in bad faith. Not at all. She just wanted to please our guest by quoting the only verse she knew about anything Germanic. Albrecht was stunned and could not believe that such a thing was still taught in school. Well, it is.

In Germany, is the same true of the word 'Polish'?

I don't know. But even if it is true, they are too well-brought up to show it. Nonetheless, I honestly think that the attitude of the Germans towards us is just as complex as ours regarding them. But it is hidden. They have chased us out of their consciousness.

Is a Pole in the European Union treated as an equal partner or as someone inferior?

He is harder and harder to distinguish in the street by his clothing or by his behaviour.  There exists a trans-European mimicry. But to the expert eye, some anthropological traits remain visible. That indelible Slavic face. Before, when speaking in the street, a Pole would lower his voice. This is no longer the case. At least in Berlin. But Berlin is not Germany; it is the tower of Babel.

What about in Paris, Hamburg, London or Rome?

A few years ago, on Saint Peter's Square in Rome, I could recognise my compatriots without hesitation, especially the males (clearly more rigid from the self-image perspective): pants that end mid-calf, sandals, socks; higher up a beer-belly; a moustache at the top and, the obligatory camcorder. I think that the division between the old and the new Union will be around for a while.

Can the old Union learn something from us?

We didn't welcome them, they incorporated us. The price is to become like them or at least try. There is no reciprocity. The 'how we are' doesn't interest them much, all they want is that we not disturb too much. That doesn't bother me personally. By staying in the margins, we have greater freedom.

Do you fear German domination? Hegemony from Berlin?

When there is a group, someone has to dominate, that's how it is. Of course, the Poles would rather play this role but the situation being as it is, Germany will dominate. We already tried to stop them with a certain Versailles Treaty and we saw where that led us.

Is domination necessarily bad and dangerous?

Everything rests in the art of inciting the dominators to 'dominate well'. For a long time, we managed rather well. With their bad conscious, their history, their guilt, they tried by all means to dominate gently. The 'bad Germans' were transformed into 'good Germans' – and my words  are devoid of irony.

But how can they be convinced to continue "dominating well'? All of Europe must get involved. They need to be the best at everything, and what is needed is to put them on the rails to good leadership. In other words, they need, how shall I put it, a bit of monitoring.

For you, does the Union have more or less value than the nation state?

The Union is an administrative system.  You see, I write books, texts. My tool is language. It's from that perspective that I perceive the world. The Union is not a total reality; there is no 'Union language'. That's a first issue.

Secondly, I think of history. There is, of course, a universal or European history. But show me a sensible person who identifies with universal history. We have distinct histories which define us in the same way as language does. All the stories about the 'common house of Europe' sound absolutely fabulous but they are more like propaganda.

Why do you admire Germany?

Admire...That may be too big a word. I like Germany by contrast, it's a world that is the opposite of ours. I felt well there studying history, civilization, all the superiorities and the inferiorities. Germany transformed, in a rather interesting manner, my 'Polishness' which doesn't usually bother me. Yet as soon as I’m strolling on Unter der Linden or on Potsdamer Platz, it comes back. I don't admire Germany. I just like to go there from time to time to see how matter is tamed and organised.

Should all of Europe be more like Germany: tidy, hardworking, neat and respectful of the law?

Who would we take as an example? No, we can't do that to them. No, Europe is diversity. It is incredible that on this little peninsula at the margins of huge Eurasia, so many nations, so many languages and such numerous cultures were able to emerge. Look on a map, please, this little European thing. So what? Is the next step Scandinavia and its social ideals? No. Europe should be more Greek. Prosperity and tranquillity are deadly.

Before Europe existed because it knew how to take risks, it went to sea to seek a fortune. Today it just accumulates and fears losses. I know nothing of nation states. I know nothing of states at all. For me language is of course primary. Poland survived partitions, occupations thanks to its language, thanks to the culture. Religion also played an important role in affirming the national consciousness. The Catholic Church replaced the budget, the army and taxes. Today, it is somewhat trying to do the same.

But what seems the most essential, is the feeling of uniqueness, of unity, which is worth sacrificing for. Otherwise, why not become German for convenience sake, Russian on a whim or Jewish to upset everybody? This 'Polishness' must also certainly be a sort of feeling of superiority. Don't you think so? Yes, a feeling of superiority. Unjustified, of course. But still.

Are you afraid that Germany will become a dangerous nation?

Yes, and that is very good because my country exists more when it is threatened. Without danger, without troubles, Poland is less alive and a little more inexistent. However, whenever nationalism comes knocking on the door, it feels better right away, it perks up and gets its strength back. So long live German nationalism. Which doesn't mean, does it, that we must not remain vigilant.