Fetishizing Victimhood: From Poland to America

Wallowing in self-pity doesn’t buy nations respect.

Jarosław Kaczyński, Beata Szydło and Mateusz Morawiecki, the leaders of Poland's Law and Justice party, attend a memorial in Kraków, April 18
Jarosław Kaczyński, Beata Szydło and Mateusz Morawiecki, the leaders of Poland’s Law and Justice party, attend a memorial in Kraków, April 18 (PiS)

Poland’s ruling nationalist party has coined the awkward term “Polocaust” to describe the country’s suffering in World War II. At least one minister wants to dedicate a separate museum to the 1.9 million non-Jewish Poles who lost their lives in the conflict.

This comes after the government criminalized blaming Poles for the Holocaust and referenced its 123 years of partition by Austria, Germany and Russia when called out by the EU for illiberal judicial reforms.

Poland, according to the Law and Justice party, has only ever been a victim — until it came to power and restored Polish pride.

It is no coincidence that Law and Justice is popular in the eastern and more rural half of the country, where people have long felt marginalized by the Western-oriented liberal elite.

Nor is the party’s victim-mongering unique.

Obsessed with the past

Russia is still obsessed with what it calls the Great Patriotic War. It keeps alleging that the West broke its promise not to expand NATO eastward after the end of the Cold War. Vladimir Putin’s appeal is rooted in the notion that he alone can defend Russia from a perfidious West.

Much of the Arab world is still obsessed with the 100-year old Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided the Middle East into British and French zones of influence. The Palestinians still refuse to recognize the State of Israel after seventy years. Iran’s leaders continue to remind the world that America supported an autocratic coup in their country 65 years ago.

In America itself, men can be fired from historically male-dominated industries for questioning hiring practices that advantage women and white people who show up at a rally for racial justice are told to get to the back and shut up.

Such excesses of the social justice movement are mirrored in Donald Trump and the European far right. They appeal to mostly middle-aged members of a shrinking racial majority who feel abandoned or betrayed by big-city elites.

In all cases, the oppressed become the worst oppressors.

Selective memory

It’s not that people haven’t suffered. Poland and the Soviet Union were devastated in World War II. European imperialism has scarred the Middle East. Women and people of color have endured generations of injustice.

But relishing in victimhood doesn’t help. Fixating on one historical wrong can even blind people to others.

Right-wing Poland is obsessed with Nazi war crimes, but refuses to recognize Polish involvement in the Holocaust. Anti-communist resistance fighters have been elevated to national heroes, but the crimes they committed against Orthodox Christians on Poland’s eastern frontier are ignored.

Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, lost more people relative to its pre-war population than Russia did in World War II, yet it is cast as collaborationist in today’s Russian narrative.

The Ukrainian government, for its part, at best overlooks, and at worst denies, war crimes committed by Ukrainians against ethnic Poles.

Arab dictators learned decades ago that they could blame European imperialists for their own failures. Legitimate Palestinian grievances can be a smokescreen for antisemitism. Iran blames America for interfering in its domestic politics, but it does far worse in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

Simple psychology

There is a better way. Rather than expecting modern-day favors for past suffering, countries and people can find pride in stories of resistance and resurgence.

France was humiliated in World War II, yet it emerged with its sense of dignity intact. To be fair, that involved a few decades of forgetfulness about the collaboration of the Vichy regime, which France is now belatedly coming to terms with. But it is coming to terms with that — as well as its history of colonialism — on its own. It is not blaming others.

India actively teaches the wrongs of colonialism, but it doesn’t blame the British for all its problems. The legacy of Spanish rule in Latin America casts a long shadow, but the region’s governments don’t allow it to poison their relations with Madrid.

The psychology is simple: like people, nations with low self-esteem seek validation from others; those who find their inner strength can face the world with confidence. Put the cart before the horse and you may inspire pity — but not respect.