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Reflections on President Trump’s Speech in Warsaw

DR. ANDRZEJ TURKANIK, QUO VADIS INSTITUTE

2017, JULY 11

On July 6th 2017 we witnessed a unique event: on his way to the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump visited Warsaw, the capital of Poland. Regardless of the political persuasions one brings to the current affairs’ table and the associated baggage, there were several significant elements in the President’s speech, which I would like to highlight.

The location of the event, the monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising at the Krasiński Square, was carefully chosen; Mr Trump did not want to speak where previous presidents stood, so a historically unique place was selected.
Largely unknown outside of Poland, the Warsaw Uprising was one of the most tragic episodes at the end of the World War II. An act of desperation started on August 1, 1944, when underground fighters in Warsaw stood up against the prevailing Nazi occupants, knowing that the Red Army units were a stone’s throw away and hoping they would be deployed in aid of the insurrection. Yet, the Warsaw Uprising, to which the President alluded numerous times, was ultimately about the future of post-war Poland. During the 63 days of fighting, Soviet troops stood by fully withholding their support of the uprising, so as not to allow for an independent post-war Poland, but waiting for their moment after the bloodshed. The uprising eventually failed, sustaining some 200,000 casualties leading to a complete leveling of the city and deporting the survivors. Subsequently western allies were blamed for their passivity in letting the Poles down militarily.

One could argue that President Trump appealed to fierce national pride, citing one of the most dramatic and heroic, albeit intensely tragic, moments in Polish past. Yet it is important to point out the significance of remembering that bit of history and how much we owe to the generations who went before us.

It is never right to exploit the past for cheap comparisons with our current situation, and the risk of that has been pointed out by commentators of Trump’s speech, but the appalling lack of knowledge of our immediate past and the attempt to rectify it have been also noticed. Subsequently on social media a resurgence of interest in learning about Poland’s past (by Poles!) was noted and a renewed realization that identity is indeed based on history.

Starting off with a list of Polish heroes, such as Copernicus, Chopin or Pope John Paul II, the gathered Poles were reminded by the US President they have much to be proud of.

The larger part of the address, however, was linked to the difficult past. Some of the events Mr Trump mentioned were the lesser known incidents such as the war with Soviets before the World War II: “In 1920, in the Miracle of Vistula, Poland stopped the Soviet army bent on European conquest.”

In his speech the President addressed the unfortunate geo-political setting of Poland: locked between Germany and Russia, multiple times it suffered loss of independence, partition and occupation for centuries. Mr Trump applauded the “Polish spirit of independence” and the willingness to defend the Western freedoms, even at the highest cost: “The memories of those who perished in the Warsaw Uprising cry out across the decades, and few are clearer than the memories of those who died building and defending the Jerusalem Avenue crossing. Those heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defense … and that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life.” Those words echoed with the crowds gathered, but especially so with veterans as witnesses to the truth of those statements.

The more recent past was also raised: “Through four decades of communist rule, Poland and the other captive nations of Europe endured a brutal campaign to demolish your freedom, your faith, your laws, your history, your identity — indeed the very essence of your culture and your humanity. Yet, through it all, you never lost that spirit.”

Poles’ adherence to Catholic faith and tradition, and the unique role of the Polish Pope was acknowledged:
“And when the day came on June 2nd, 1979 and one million Poles gathered around Victory Square for their very first mass with their Polish Pope, that day, every communist in Warsaw must have known that their oppressive system would soon come crashing down. They must have known it at the exact moment during Pope John Paul II’s sermon when a million Polish men, women, and children suddenly raised their voices in a single prayer. A million Polish people did not ask for wealth. They did not ask for privilege. Instead, one million Poles sang three simple words: “We Want God.”

Probably the greatest pathos as well as controversy came across in a statement that the future of the Western civilization is at stake and it depends on the West’s “will to survive”. Poland’s history is a good example of that will, said the President, as he pointed out the necessity of such a mindset among the nations: “The triumph of the Polish spirit over centuries of hardship,” said the President, “gives us all hope for a future in which good conquers evil, and peace achieves victory over war.” The President portrayed the Polish story as an inspiration.

Moreover, the history Poles share, is based on common identity:
“You are a people, who know the true value of what you defend.” Furthermore, “The story of Poland is the story of a people who have never lost hope, who have never been broken, and who have never, ever forgotten who they are.”

Mr Trump spoke of two elements crucial in keeping the West a success: family and faith: “We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive.”

The lesson of Polish history leads to raising “the fundamental question of our time”: “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

These rhetorical questions are likely to be interpreted as policy-related in light of the current war on IS as well as the general political direction of the Trump administration regarding refugee matters and border protection policies. Granted, the immediate context of the speech delivered by President Trump was the invitation by the current nationalistic government of Poland (“Law and Justice” Party) pursuing anti-EU and migration polices and practices questionable from a democratic point of view (such as dismantling of the Constitutional Court, as one example among many), puts a shadow of political maneuvering over it. Moreover, the timing for such a visit could not be better: isolated within much of the EU for its stance against refugee policies, Polish government needed a boost to their ratings, and nothing could beat hosting a passing US President.

All those criticisms notwithstanding, I think the speech accomplished much more than solely a boost to the ruling party in Poland. It did what seldom a politician in Europe dare do nowadays: remind the public of the importance of their national history and the lessons we better learn from it. Moreover, it reminded them of the great Western spiritual and ethical moorings long since relegated to obsolete archives.

For me, as a Christian, a Pole, a European, the speech provided an opportunity to reflect on those values which are currently applied almost exclusively to the war on Islamist extremists, and pose them in a much larger context: what do we, heirs to the blood-stained victories over Nazism and Communism, really stand for in terms of our values, and whether we are ready to defend those hard-won freedoms? And if so, what price are we willing to pay? This goes well beyond the currently perceived threat of terror and extremism and forces one to think what other dangers may be lurking beyond those considered most obvious. Ideas which are much more subtle and yet which if left unquestioned lead to captivity in the long run. Freedom of religion, conscience, speech, to name a few, are increasingly under attack from a militant secularist agenda as they are from other ideological stances. It seems that nationalism and tribalism are the current favorites, but as the G20 Summit’s accompanying clashes of militant anarchist left show, other ideologies are alive and well, and keep raising their ugly head if given an opportunity.

This speech made me think of my responsibility before God and history and to keep asking constantly what it means to be faithful amidst the current confusion. And so I echo the President’s call: “Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield — it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls.”

Quo Vadis Europe? Quo Vadis Western World? Where are we going? Will you join in asking the questions so that together we can provide an answer?