In my forthcoming book, The Problem of Moral Rearmament: Poland, the European Union, and the War in Ukraine, I primarily look at Poland during the war in Ukraine, with emphasis on the political philosophy—and to some extent, political theology—that the war has inspired in the country. I also examine the influence of historical memory on that philosophy, with particular focus on the question of “moral rearmament.” These reflections are set against the broader sociopolitical background of the country—both its internal experience and its role —to help the reader better understand the issues under discussion. In this article, I focus on an exemplary case: the reemergence in Poland, at the war’s outset, of the moral community first created during the Solidarity Movement.

Historical Consciousness and the Tragic Sensibility

In The Road to Ukraine (2022), sociologist Frank Furedi, best known for his work on the culture of fear, raises a crucial matter. The cumulative result of historical amnesia—the neglect of the importance of traditional boundaries, both national and cultural—he insists, has been “the moral disarmament of the West.” He persuasively argues that, as important as rearming the countries of the West may currently be, “[w]hat matters now today is not so much military but moral rearmament. . . . Recovering a sense of historical consciousness is the precondition for the Western world to acquire the ability to play a mature and responsible role in global affairs.” Poland arguably retains a degree of moral “armament” and historical memory, but Poles have insufficiently plumbed these; a considerably fuller measure of each would serve their national community at such a time.

But the problem of moral rearmament goes beyond knowledge of history. When French religious philosopher Chantal Delsol visited East Central Europe shortly after its countries regained their sovereignty in 1989, she noted the presence of an intriguing sensibility. After some reflection, she realized that, even though at some level those countries dreamed of adapting to the West, there was something important for the West to learn from them, since “the divergences between us and them led me to the belief that the last fifty years of good fortune had entirely erased our sense of the tragic dimension of life.” Later on that tragic sensibility became less pronounced in the region itself, but it was still present enough to make a marked comeback for a time, with the onset of the war in Ukraine. A year after the invasion, a Polish political philosopher plainly stated that the full-scale war brought with it “not so much an overwhelming, as for many difficult to accept, tragic sense of history.” Significantly, this was Jan Tokarski, who wrote a book on Polish-born philosopher Leszek Kołakowski and his thoughts on the presence of evil in the world.

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While my book examines current sociopolitical concerns, a national community is also morally formed by its historical memory, or its lack of it in some cases. Historical memory certainly invites philosophical reflection, and through its relation to community, it can be called history as communion, as one of the functions of history has perceptively been termed by Donald Bloxham in Why History? A History (2020). History as communion invites theological reflection, which has also been the case in Poland. But in a fairly obvious manner, it can obviously be claimed history has returned to Poland and the rest of Europe. It can also be argued that history never left the region. Moreover, radical evil has returned, or to paraphrase Kołakowski—who witnessed Nazi and Soviet terror—the devil has returned to history, if he has ever left. The reflection on existing historical memory in Poland explains the survival of a tragic sensibility and is a counter to the historical amnesia Furedi discerned as a deterrent to the axiological task of moral rearmament, playing an important part in a deeper reflection on the present dangerous times.

The Solidarity Movement and the Creation of Poland’s Moral Community

Under communist totalitarianism as well as during the earlier war, religion proved to be a key to surviving extreme trials. At this point, it is worth specifically exploring what Poles learned during the period of Solidarity. Solidarity organized the first successful workers’ strike in a communist country by creating a union, which was supposed to be redundant in a workers’ paradise. But that was not the only irony of the revolution. As the communist state was also officially atheist, this bore fruit in an even greater irony, noted by ex-Marxist Kołakowski: 

It follows that the first workers’ revolution in history was directed against a socialist state, and has proceeded under the sign of the Cross and the blessing of the Pope. So much for the irresistible laws of history discovered scientifically by Marxists.

Indeed, one of the first acts of the striking shipyard workers in Gdansk in the summer of 1980 was to fix a cross, together with an image of Mary and Pope John Paul, to the shipyard gates.

The Polish philosopher and theologian Reverend Jozef Tischner addressed the trade union at the First Congress of Solidarity in Gdańsk in September 1981. Since so many hopes in Poland were pinned on the movement, together with understandable fears, as he records in The Spirit of Solidarity, in that homily, he stated: “The key question emerges, can we transform our Polish hopes into reality, especially the hope for wise and independent work?” That was indeed a problem of the communist system: work was not independent. Tischner insisted that work can only reach such a state when it is governed by the conscience of the worker and the bonds created with other workers. Under the circumstances governing their lives, this involved risk: “I believe that today we may lose everything, but if we succeed only in planting the idea of independent Polish work in the human conscience we will have fulfilled our task.”

Altogether, it can be seen that solidarity in Tischner’s teaching opened the way to what has been called a “politics of virtue.” Unlike John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, who in The Politics of Virtue try to develop the notion by challenging the liberalism of the West to be more humane, Tischner developed his version of the notion under the totalitarian constraints of communism.

Witness and teacher Zbigniew Stawrowski, a political philosopher who earned his Ph.D. under the supervision of Tischner, gleaned a political message from The Spirit of Solidarity. The structures of the good state should be open to all who wish to help those who suffer: “In this manner politics and the state should be suffused and imbued with the spirit of solidarity.” In his writings, he points out that the movement was inspired by John Paul II, especially through his first visit to Poland, and that alongside his message Poles also saw themselves in a different—positive—context. The universal message of the movement was that true solidarity creates an ethical community formed through virtue.

The experience of solidarity at its different levels is what set Polish society apart from its counterparts in both the Soviet bloc and the West.


The experience of solidarity at its different levels is what set Polish society apart from its counterparts in both the Soviet bloc and the West. Historian Serhy Yekelchyk sees knowledge of solidarity and the generally rebellious Polish experience of communism as having had a positive effect on Ukraine:

Poland was so dangerous precisely because it was so close in terms of language and history. It has always been Ukraine’s implicit alter ego, something we could have been, something we were not allowed to become. It was fitting that western Ukrainians, considered politically unreliable in Soviet times, had better access to Poland. Many traveled there, and many more could speak Polish fluently. But even in Russified Kyiv of the 1970s and early 1980s, Poland was often the topic of quiet conversations in kitchens. If Wałęsa could do it, maybe people’s power was more than an empty slogan?

Second Miracle of Solidarity

Unfortunately, of late, Poles themselves have become increasingly forgetful of one of their seminal historical accomplishments. In an interview Stawrowski gave a couple of years after he published Solidarity Means Bonding, AD 2020, he noted a spectacular rebirth of solidarity after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine: “The second miracle of solidarity.” He claimed it was analogous to what happened when Solidarity was founded in 1980, with the difference that at the time solidarity spread in the Polish neighborhood, so to speak, while currently it was offered to the neighbors from the other side of the border. Moreover, Poles discovered solidarity among themselves, since the greater part of society had the same stance against the awesome injustice that Ukrainians experienced. He summarized this Polish experience:

Ukrainians escaping from the war entered our ethical world, bringing with them the image of demonic evil—metaphysical evil, that we thought our world had forgotten—and it simultaneously aroused within us deeply hidden levels of good. . . . The theological dimension of these events is extremely deep and I have the impression, that we are witnesses to the actions and struggles of tremendous spiritual powers present in our world.

But Stawrowski also made certain to point out the profound level of solidarity that Ukrainians themselves were practicing at home:

It is the experience of solidarity of those, in which they risk their lives and die. The Ukrainians are already building their own, extremely powerful narrative of the experience of solidarity, which they experience among themselves in the face of the greatest imaginable injustice, in other words the criminal genocidal war.

In a particularly touching essay published at the time in Poland, “Death and Eternal Life in Times of War,” Mykhailo Dymyd, a scholar and priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Church whose son was killed in the war, gives his stirring reflections on the invasion. He begins: “Physical death—on account of the aggressive war initiated by the Russian Federation and its president Vladimir Putin against Ukraine—is currently present in the Ukrainian and Russian nations and can come in an extremely cruel fashion.” He points out how important prayer is in the battle with evil. At the conclusion of his theological reflections on the current war, he addresses Christians everywhere, insisting they ask themselves: “What is my personal struggle? What is my personal victory over evil? . . . Whatever our current situation, each of us is called upon to ‘proceed to our own front with Christian courage, to confront evil, and not simply wait somewhere behind the lines.’” This raises the question: How do Poles confront evil?

Michał Łuczewski claims that for a number of ages now “Central Europe is a bloodied altar.” Among others, he draws on political theologian Carl Schmitt’s notion of a global civil war, which appears to be surfacing in the region and beyond through inner political turmoil. This likewise pertains to the Polish national community, with its intense political divisions, despite the lessons the country’s history offers through the Solidarity movement on building an ethical community that for a time reemerged with the outbreak of the war. 

Confront the Evil Within to Fight the Evil Without

Starting at a less apocalyptic level, a religious version of the tragic mind is the necessity of confronting the evil within, as Dymyd implies is our duty in whichever country we happen to be in. In Poland, this does not deny the profound tragedy occurring in neighboring Ukraine. But if Poland could genuinely confront certain matters within its own national community, it could lend greater assistance to its neighbor. This is evidenced by the conflicts between the two countries, despite their overall solidarity. This is a task for the political class but also includes the basic level of the national community and its desires.

A major problem is that in these dangerous times, without strength there will be no lasting peace. Poles are equipping themselves for military defense, but inner conflicts remain. Then there is the problem of strength and rearmament on the part of the broader European Union since some members seem to have a limited understanding of this issue. And where it is growing it took some time to crystallize and even more to enact. But strength can be misdirected without the moral rearmament that Furedi intuits the West requires. In this context, Stawrowski’s insistence on the necessity of a profound ethical community in Poland is more valid than ever, and valid for Europe as well.

Image by Kamil and licensed via Adobe Stock.