About nkulawiak

Puget Sound '18, History and Politics and Government (International Relations) double major. Lover of the outdoors, baseball, and The Economist, among other things.

First-hand impressions of Trump in Poland

Hello again,

I’m writing now, a month after my original post, from Warsaw, Poland, where I planned to spend the month of July. Long story short, things have not gone to plan, and my research has now taken me back to Budapest. The details of my troubles getting access to the archives would only be interesting for those sad and lonely souls* who enjoy discussions about Eastern European bureaucracy, so I’ll stay away from that as a topic.

*I am one of those sad and lonely souls who enjoy such discussions myself.

Instead, I’ll write about Trump’s visit to Poland a few days ago, which I observed first hand with a lot of interest. For transparency’s sake, I think it’s important that I say that I was part of the anti-Trump demonstration in Warsaw on the day of his speech. Poland has been one of the most pro-American countries in the world over the last century. The modern Polish state’s birth out of the ruins of European empire after World War One is tied to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about the right to national self-determination. Since then, Poland suffered under Nazi and Soviet occupation during World War Two, and experienced the worst that being in the Soviet Union’s Cold War sphere of influence had to offer. Even the best efforts of communist propaganda could not sway public opinion away from the US. Since the Cold War, and especially after Poland’s admission into NATO, US military presence in Poland has been a pillar of stability — the perceived threat presented by Russia makes Poland an extremely welcoming place for American troops.


“Always Close #safertogether”


Even so, the amount of support for Trump was surprising. On the days around Trump’s visit, I saw more Make America Great Again hats than I ever would have thought, and I saw multiple displays of the confederate flag. Given Trump’s history of shying away from strong statements about his commitment to NATO and how flippantly he has treated Russia (Poland is strongly anti-Russia), one would think that there might be some worry about Trump in Poland, but this was not the case.

I think this is an indication that the the main phenomenon the democracies of the world have to deal with right now is understanding and responding to the prevalence of ethnic nationalism among their constituents. Decrying ethnic nationalism as simply “racist” and not engaging with the difference in ideology, is, I think, useless. For a Polish ethnic nationalists such as those in PiS, the current ruling party, the Polish nation is defined by Catholicism and a national historical narrative that highlights only the times of Polish victory or heroic martyrdom. There’s nothing political about it.

I reckon Trumpism to be very similar. Americanism is not understood as being defined in political terms, but rather in a mercantilist, hard power-based framework. Trump has no need for soft power, which the US has historically used to promote democracy around the world, or at least pay heavy lip service to it. Enemies such as fascists, communists were defined by political terms. With Trump, the US’s enemies are not those who undo democracy such as Erdogan or Putin, but those who are viewed as living fundamentally different lives than the West. Trump and PiS share this worldview, and therefore, share a disregard for a democratic processes when their societies face existential threats. The Confederate flags and general support for Trump in Poland, then, is something beyond support for Trump himself, but rather, an celebration of alignment in world views. For a country with history of foreign control, both at the ideological and hard power level such as Poland, having the world order’s leading country support the country’s worldview is tremendously powerful. I think it’s safe to say the we’re currently in the midst of a global upswing of confidence in the idea of ethnic nationalism, and this plays right into the hands of Trumpists, while dealing true liberal democratic around the world a strong blow. 

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These are just reflections and thoughts from a hostel common room; there’s a reason I’m not on the editorial board of any prominent news sources. Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts.

Some musings on Budapest and historical memory

Hi dear reader,

Thanks for finding your way here. I’m honored that my writing gets to be a part of your day. Broadly, this blog is a place for me to publicly reflect on my summer spent doing archival research at Stanford University, as well as in Hungary and Poland. I’m in the process of writing on Polish government propaganda’s use of Polish-West German relations in its efforts to discredit Radio Free Europe during the Cold War  That’s a lot, I know, but I will save the focused historical analysis for my final article, meaning that this forum will be a place for more personal musings.IMG_2998

Budapest is a funky place. Parts of it seem as if they could be in any other central European capital on the well-beaten tourist track. Sweepingly grand buildings and boulevards quickly grab one’s eyes, as well as those of the masses of tourists bussed from scenic spot to scenic spot. Yet despite the similarities, Budapest is not the same as Vienna or Prague.

Politically, Hungary is under Prime Minister Victor Orban’s aspiring “illiberal democracy.” Throughout the Trump presidency, Orban has been one of the few European voices of support. He has rallied against the “unholy alliance of Brussels bureaucrats, the liberal world media and insatiable international capitalists.” Though Hungary is a member of the European Union and NATO, Orban has not shied away from cozying up to Vladimir Putin, whose rule of Russia presents an attractive blueprint for the type of politics Orban aspires to bring to Hungary. Whether such a development is possible with Hungary remaining in the EU is one of the many questions that organization faces. In recent months, the democratic world’s attention has been placed on Hungary, as Orban has targeted the Sophos Foundation-funded Central European University for its promulgation of pro-West and shared European values.

In the world of nation-states in which we live, history frequently serves a distinctly political purpose. Hungary is a particularly interesting example of this. In order to correspond to Obran’s uncompromising nationalism, Hungary’s collaboration with Nazi Germany has been whitewashed. After the government law requiring such a construction, a monument was put up in 2014 in the center of Budapest commemorating the Nazi “occupation” of Hungary (Germany and Hungary were allies in the war until 1944, when defeat to the Allies was approaching and Hungary sought out a separate peace, whereafter Hitler occupied it). In the monument, Hungary, represented by Archangel Gabriel, is shown being attacked by an eagle (Germany). As a protest, the families of Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust have put up a competing memorial in front of the government’s, highlighting that the real tragedy befell Hungary’s Jews (in part due to Hungarian collaboration), not the whole nation of Hungary. That this period would be remembered as anything else is taken as a direct insult to families who lost loved ones during the Holocaust, and this anger is made very public. One part of the counter-memorial simply reads: “My mother was killed in Auschwitz. Thank you ‘Archangel’ Gabriel.”

It is into this context that I am jumping into with my research. tThough I’ll be spending most of my days in Budapest reading old documents about Polish propaganda inside the Open Society Archives, and thus will not interacting with Budapest and Hungary at a very personal level, I thought it important to orient myself and whatever audience I have to the dynamics of what’ll be my home for the next while.

~Thanks for reading

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