Wojtyla and Kolbe: Out of Poland

Poland, contrary to what we tend to think, belongs to Western Europe. In the very moment its national destiny was born, Poland chose the Roman Catholic Church and the Latin liturgy, paying dearly for this choice, which it never forsook.

That said, Poland lies on the borders of the East and shares its Slavic ethnic and linguistic background. Owing to this position, Poland is able to speak the language of two spiritual worlds and to link them together. Poland’s very geographic position permits it to live a peculiar catholicity: a universal opening to which it can remain faithful without in any way denying its Roman choice, but only deepening it.

Karol Wojtyla shares the perspective on the history of the world which comes from the experience of the Polish nation and culture; in his case, however, it is not a question of a simple state of mind, but rather of a judgement, which he sometimes explicitly states, and which accompanies, as an implicit premise, his approach to the most diverse ethical, religious, theological, and philosophical questions.

This way of seeing man is evident in the considerations which John Paul II has offered several times, above all during his first trip to Poland, on the providential meaning of the election of a Polish pope at the eve of the second millennium of evangelization. His homily for the Mass celebrated at Victory Square in Warsaw poses this problem with the greatest clarity:

My pilgrimage to my motherland in the year in which the Church in Poland is celebrating the ninth centenary of the death of Saint Stanislaus is surely a special sign of the pilgrimage that we Poles are making down through the history of the Church not only along the ways of our motherland but also along those of Europe and the world. Leaving myself aside at this point, I must nonetheless with all of you ask myself why, precisely in 1978, after so many centuries of a well-established tradition in this field, a son of the Polish Nation, of the land of Poland, was called to the chair of Saint Peter? Christ demanded of Peter and of the other Apostles that they should be “his witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth”(Acts 1:8). Have we not the right, with reference to these words of Christ, to think that Poland has become nowadays the land of particularly responsible witness?

John Paul II affirms that there is a particular vision of man that we have to learn from the Polish Church. This vision, conditioned by Polish history read in the light of faith, is preeminently Catholic. In this homily, John Paul II sketches its essential traits:

To Poland the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding that great and fundamental reality that is man. . . . Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. . . the history of each person unfolds in Jesus Christ. In him it becomes the history of salvation.

These affirmations are related to every man and to all people of the earth; they are, first of all, Catholic and consequently universal. But what is particularly Polish in them, in the Christian vision of man which they condense and propose? The key to understanding this problem is found again in the discourse in Victory Square:

The history of the nation deserves proper appreciation according to the contribution which it has brought to the development of man and humanity, to the intelligence, to the heart and to the conscience. This is the deepest current of culture, and it is its most solid support, its marrow and its force. Without Christ, it is not possible to understand and appreciate the contribution of the Polish nation to the development of man and his humanity in the past, nor her contribution in our days.

With this affirmation of the pope, we attain the core of the question. To appreciate its full scope, let us take Hegel’s Philosophy of History as a term of reference. This book expresses, at the highest and most coherent level, the understanding of the history of the West achieved by modern secular culture. In this book, we find no more than an allusion to Poland and its history. For Hegel, the Slavic people dwell outside of history, with the exception of Russia alone, which was getting ready to enter the theater of the history of European civilization. This judgment does not arise from a preconceived hostility with regard to Poland or the Slavic people. Rather, it is the necessary consequence of a way of considering history which fails to recognize or misunderstands the central position of Christ in the history of man. It would be unjust toward Hegel to say that he wishes to exclude Christ from the history of man. For the great dialectician of Stuttgart, Christianity marks the turning of an epoch in the history of humanity, and he conceives his own philosophy as a rational development of Christian dogma. Hegel, however, seeks to reconcile the Christian principle of truth and the Holy Spirit with another principle, always present in the history of man but which, in the course of these last centuries, emerges with a particular vigor: the principle of force and power.

Is it possible to read the history of men and nations as the history of force and not of truth? Is it possible to understand and to judge, without Christ, the contribution of the German (or American, or Russian, or French) nation to the development of humanity? At first view, such a task does not seem impossible. These nations participate, nearly equally, in the play of force and truth. One can attempt to understand the meaning of their history on the simple level of a materialistic vision of human reality. These nations can be seduced by the temptation to understand and to judge themselves in this way. What is, for example, Nazism, if not a reading of the meaning of the history of Germany and its mission in the world from the simple point of view of power and force. The same observation could be made regarding other forms of totalitarianism, sometimes more subtle, which have persisted in our own times.

But one cannot make the same attempt regarding the history of the Polish nation. There, we have to deal with a great spiritual culture nearly totally separated from what constitutes material force. Surrounded by neighbors more populous, more organized, and more powerful (Swedes, Germans, Austrians, and Russians), Poland suffered harshly and for a long time was deprived of independence and of national unity. In the eyes of a Pole, the limits of the Hegelian vision of history are immediately revealed: truth and force do not walk together at all.

The political-military history of Poland is a history of heroic defeats, of rebellion nourished by the desire to witness its own right rather than any concrete possibility of victory. The last of these is the insurrection of Warsaw in 1944, which John Paul II commented on with these words:

Without Christ it is impossible to understand this nation with a past so splendid and at the same time so terribly difficult. It is not possible to understand this city, Warsaw, which in 1944 committed itself to an unequal battle against the aggressor, a battle in which it was abandoned by the Allied powers, a battle in which it was buried under its own rubble, if one does not recall that under this same rubble there was also Christ with his cross which can be found facing the church of Krakowskie Przedmiecie. It is impossible to understand the history of Poland, from Stanislaw in Skalka to Maximilian Kolbe in Oswiecim, if one does not apply to them, also, that unique and fundamental criterion which bears the name of Jesus Christ.

The meaning of Jasna Gora, the symbol of the Polish national identity, is the same. At the time of the great Swedish invasion which popular memory calls the “Swedish deluge,” when the king, the nobles, and the army were defeated and dispersed, the monks of Jasna Gora decided not to submit to the invaders’ demands, but to resist. The Swedish army, at that time the best of Europe, failed to defeat a few monks who defended an old monastery. The resistance of all the people, organized around the monks’ actions, forced the Swedes to retreat.

Many times defeated on the terrain of force, the Nation is reborn thanks to the spiritual awareness of its own identity and of its own right, animated by the Christian faith. The particular vision of man which nourishes the Polish consciousness is the cultural and existential certitude that Christ is the keystone for the understanding of man and of his history.

For various reasons, this certitude has been lost or considerably weakened in the far West. Blinded by the enormous possibilities of domination which the industrial revolution offered them, these nations have made the measure of their dignity coincide with the extent of their force, and on this basis they have sought to construct their participation in the history of the world. They have built great national states which have attempted to expand at the expense of their neighbors, and they have divided among themselves the defenceless peoples of all the regions of the earth. These states are opposed to the Church, which contested the reorganization of national life as a function of domination. Even the church sometimes let herself be carried away by these developments, and either became their accomplice or found herself rejected by the more dynamic currents of national life.

In Poland, the struggle for the construction of the national state was defeated. The two great rebellions of 1831 and 1863 did not succeed, and they were extinguished in blood. Poland found itself alone in contesting the political reorganization of Europe, and it was forced to accept its own destiny. Defeated on the ground of politics, the Polish revolutionaries were able, however, to retreat and to recover on the ground of culture. As they had never broken with the Church, they saw in the development of the Christian consciousness of the people the most solid foundation of the national idea and, moreover, of a national idea which would bring together all the peoples of the earth. While, for example, in Italy the constitution of the state blocked the formation of the spiritual identity of the nation, in Poland this identity is constituted outside of the state, in open polemic with existent states, by opposing the force of right of the individual and of the nation, which has in God its root and its defense, to the right of force exercised by the powerful of the world.

History partially preserved Poland from the influence of that ethical immanentism which has marked the rest of the West. For the same reason, Polish Christianity did not adopt the extreme dualism which marked the Catholic mentality of Italy or France. In these cases, the just requirement that ecclesiastical hierarchy respect the autonomy of the temporal sphere became a demand that the Christian, in his civic activity, assume a point of supreme reference other than Jesus Christ, as well as a completely secular interpretation of the history of the nation. The opposition between the national idea and the religious idea there realized has never since truly healed. It has been prolonged into a general division of life between spheres which do not communicate with each other: one of which is concerned with the earthly and social activity of man, and the other with his movement towards eternal life.

What is here in question is not the distinction between what is sacred and what is profane, but rather a spiritual attitude which precedes every theoretical awareness and which tends to deny the unity of the person. For the person, even if he divides his activities between different domains each of which is regulated by its own law, still remains indissolubly united, and the fundamental structure of human experience as such also persists as a unitary whole. The spontaneous trust in this unity has disappeared in the West. The blame for this is to be shared equally by the hubris of modern man and the uncertainties, the errors, and even the true prevarications of Western Christianity.

This trust was maintained in Poland and was linked to the affirmation of the primacy of truth over force and to the appreciation of the courage of the one who was able to oppose truth to force. This is the teaching of the martyrs in whom the Polish Church recognizes herself, from Stanislas to Maximilian Kolbe. The vision of man conditioned by the Polish spiritual experience considered in the light of the Christian faith teaches the unity of the human person and the primacy, in the formation of this person, of the recognition of the truth over the capacity to impose one’s own domination by way of force.

The novelty of the witness of Christ, made possible by Polish history and culture, is an entirely traditional novelty. Poland bears witness, by its very existence, to the error of ethical immanentism and the philosophy of history which is linked to it. The way in which Poland faced the test of the Second World War and the witness of humanity and faith which the Polish church furnished on this occasion underline this point.

The concentration camp of Oswiecim, the Polish town which the Germans called Auschwitz, is the symbol of the horror of the war and, at the same time, the ultimate destination of immanentist culture. In a universe from which God has been excluded, any reason for respecting man is also forfeited. Man becomes simply an object, similar to other natural objects, on which the project of domination is exercised. Each man, according to the project by which he constructs his own life, treats others only as instruments, rendered docile and available by the work of science and power. This same man himself enters also as an object into the projects of other men, and social life becomes a place of reciprocal instrumentalization, where the Darwinian principle of the “survival of the fittest” triumphs, a process that Spencer transferred to the human world.

The horror of Auschwitz is so great that it cannot fail to have a philosophical significance. It is not only a question of the number of victims and of the terrible character of their murder. Auschwitz is the symbol of a humiliation of man which, under different but equally emblematic forms, does not cease to repeat itself in our time, for it draws its force from a profound spiritual deviation that must be understood at its root if one wishes to put an end to the barbarity.

On this point, no one has interrogated himself more often and more deeply than the philosopher T.W. Adorno. He asks himself if after Auschwitz it is still possible to write poetry, to do philosophy. For the world to which Auschwitz belongs is a world without any spirit, and the spiritual activities that exist serve only to furnish it with an appearance of legitimacy flagrantly contradicting its reality. The Second World War marks the catastrophe of ethical immanentism: at Auschwitz, the fundamental dogma of that philosophy of history, the parallel march of justice and force, is contradicted in the most bloody way. The victory of the Allies on the battlefields does not suffice to overturn this judgment. One of the principal victors of the war maintained in its own country the system of the Gulag, which had nothing to envy in the Nazi extermination camps. The other force, to reach a victory, delivered death to hundreds of thousands of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Beyond a certain level, it seems that force is inevitably separated from justice. The history of man, thought to be necessarily oriented toward indefinite progress, is faced with the menace of destruction. Even if it has not yet struck all cities and destroyed the lives of men, it has already annihilated the values and the consciences which ought to animate that life. The drama of modern man is to have survived physically his own spiritual extinction. Adorno applies this image to the Jew who has survived, but one can easily extend it to the “Aryans” and thus involve the victims with the murderers. When force is separated from justice, then the claim of homo sapiens to rise beyond the sphere of mere animality by reason of his capacity to acceded to a superior order of values comes to an end.

The question of Adorno — whether it is still possible, after Auschwitz, to do philosophy, whether it is ultimately still possible to be man — has not found any response in contemporary culture. But it has been taken up by John Paul II for the first time, implicitly, in his encyclical Redemptor hominis, and for a second time, overtly, in the homily for the Mass celebrated on the square of Brzezinska, before the concentration camp of Oswiecim-Auschwitz. This homily is entirely centered on the figure of a Franciscan father, St. Maximilian M. Kolbe, a figure who exercised a fascination and enjoyed great prestige in Polish ecclesiastical and cultural life before the war. Fr. Kolbe, imprisoned in the extermination camp, was for his companions a continuous comfort and help, a living memory of their human dignity which, in that place, was desecrated. On the occasion of a measure of reprisal, Kolbe offered to substitute himself in the death chamber in the place of another prisoner, the father of a large family, and agreed to be condemned to die of hunger.

Karol Wojtyla has always had a great devotion to St. Maximilian M. Kolbe. He is, for John Paul II, the patron of our difficult century, not only for his spiritual stature, but also for the particular meaning which, in the providential plan of God, his sacrifice has assumed. For this contains the answer to the fundamental philosophical question: whether, and how, it is possible to be a man after the horror of the war — an answer not the fruit of abstract reflection coming after the events and seeking to cancel the memory of suffering, but an answer whose witness is sealed in blood.

In his homily devoted to the figure of Fr. Kolbe, John Paul II welcomes the judgement of Adorno on the meaning of Auschwitz for our epoch, but by reversing it:

This is the victory which has defeated the world: our faith (1 John 5:4). These words of the letter of St. John come to mind and penetrate my heart, when I find myself in this place where a singular victory of man through the faith was accomplished. For the faith which made known the love of God and of neighbor, the unique love, the supreme love which is “ready to give his life for his friends” (John 15:13; 10:11). A victory, therefore, for love, which faith has enlivened unto the extreme limit of the ultimate and definitive witness. . . . The victory by way of faith and love, that man (M. Kolbe) has carried back in this place which was constructed for the negation of the faith — of the faith in God and of the faith in man — and to trample under foot radically not only love, but all the signs of human dignity, of humanity. . . In this place of the terrible massacre. . . . Fr. Maximilian, by offering himself voluntarily to death in the bunker of hunger for one of his brothers, carried back a spiritual victory similar to that of Christ himself.

Auschwitz is a place constructed for the destruction of man, for the annihilation of his dignity. Power, in fact, certainly cannot kill all men: it has need of them as servants and instruments. To be sure of these instruments, it must, however, above all annihilate their dignity, their respect for themselves. In the extermination camp, man is reduced to his pure animality, and it is demonstrated scientifically, by the programmed destruction of his spiritual personality, that he is not a bearer of any superior value but that he is only an animal like the others, scarcely more evolved than a simple trained monkey which observes some good manners, but which is always ready to return to the customs of the forest.

Humanity, from this point of view, is not what is most profound in man, but what is most superficial. By looking at the brutalization of the victims (and that of the murderers) each is forced to remind himself of what he is in his deepest dimension, and what he could at any moment become if he offended power or if he did not show himself completely obedient to its orders. The ultimate finality of the extermination camp is metaphysical: for it shows that there are no authentic human values in the name of which it would be just to defy power, because man is only matter, which can be, by pure material means, coerced to any end.

If, therefore, in man there is neither truth nor justice, if these are only vain words, then in principle the root of all opposition to totalitarian power falls. That opposition, should it still want to constitute itself, would have to place itself also, if it is capable of it, on the terrain of force alone. Precisely for this reason, in virtue of the metaphysical depth belonging to the horror of Auschwitz, the witness of Fr. Kolbe is not a simple witness, but a victory. For he, by the sacrifice of his life, renders useless the extermination camp, he spiritually annuls it by showing that humanity is what is most profound in man. Humanity is more fundamental for man and belongs to him more intimately than the instinct of self-preservation and all the other natural tendencies that he has in common with the other animals. In the place constructed for the annihilation of man, for the negation of his spiritual nature, Kolbe shows, on the contrary, all his greatness.

No success of the anti-Nazi coalition could annul what happened in Auschwitz. No punishment inflicted on the murderers could balance the account of the pain of the innocent victims. It is not possible to cancel Auschwitz and other similar places of death from the history of humanity. Fr. Kolbe, however, opened unexpected depths for the reading of their meaning. For they are the cross of Christ on which contemporary man groans. The Christian knows that, lived in the spirit of Christ, as a participation in his suffering and his witness for man, they are the places of a fundamental victory of man and for man.

What has been accomplished for the Holy Father is “a singular victory of man through the faith.” What conquers, through Kolbe, is not the Christian faith but man, man who through the means of faith has arrived at the full possession of his own humanity. This possession coincides with the recognition that his own human truth is a gift which springs continually from the mercy of God. In the camp, man as such undergoes the trial of the cross, but it is faith which allows him to overcome this trial, to regain fully and definitively, by means of the trial, his own truth and his human dignity.

It would be unjust to make the figure of Kolbe the symbol of a surrender in the face of the oppressor by a refusal to make use of the means of the world to reject evil. This position would be alien to the spirit of a people which remembers with veneration the casualties of so many bloody struggles for the independence of its fatherland and which had for a spiritual guide Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the chaplain of the insurgents of Warsaw. The spirituality of Fr. Kolbe, at the time of his cultural and ecclesial activity, is strongly marked with the virility of a chivalrous spirit. It will suffice to recall the title of his journal, which reached in Poland before the war a circulation of more than 800 thousand copies: The Knight of the Immaculata.

Kolbe’s teaching is catholic, balanced, and integrated: the oppressed can and must fight for justice with the arms of this earth, but the true victory is the spiritual victory, which regains and rebuilds the truth in the victor and in others. Only by keeping one’s eyes fixed on this victory is it possible to avoid, in the battles of the world, passing inadvertently to the side of injustice and losing sight of the human reasons rendering the struggle worthy and noble. The figure of Kolbe shows that in this tormented epoch of the history of man, the Christian faith is more than ever called to exercise all its capacity for humanization, so that the heart of man does not surrender to barbarity.

To sum up: the conflict which marks contemporary history is a conflict for or against the Christian image of man. The diverse forms of totalitarianism sought to build a city of man without God, where man is inexorably reduced to being an instrument of power alone. In the face of this fundamental conflict, all other contradictions are, in a certain sense, secondary. This is not to diminish the importance of the conflicts among classes or nations. But such conflicts can reach equitable conclusions, just and humane, only if they are oriented by that vision of man: otherwise, they only provoke an increase of injustice and ultimately the self-destruction of humanity.

It is easy to establish how this vision of contemporary history is different from that which is most widespread among us. What is widespread, in our culture, is the idea that the root of the crisis of European civilization, which has brought the terrible cycle of world wars, must be sought in the sphere of the economy, in the struggle between classes, as well as in the struggle between nations. In this way, what appears in the foreground and occupies our attention is the struggle between the different forms of modern totalitarianism. And thus the hope of a life worthy of man is left in the shadow. For this conflict makes us deaf to the quiet resistance of all those who do not wish to renounce their human dignity and, in place of siding with one or the other of the forms of totalitarianism, wish to build an alternative to them.

Poland has known the two most violent forms of modern totalitarianism and, in the face of them, it has reaffirmed another vision of man constituting an essentially moral opposition. In September 1939, the material structures of the Polish state immediately surrendered in the face of German military superiority. The Nazis nevertheless did not succeed in ending the moral resistance of the people. They exterminated the intelligentsia and murdered a sixth of the priests with the intention of destroying the spiritual consciousness of the nation. This, however, reformed itself around the witness for man given by the Catholic Church and, through her, by some great men of faith. Besides Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, one must also mention Cardinal Sapieha, Metropolitan Archbishop of Krakow, a giant of a bishop and priest, and symbol of the spiritual resistance of the nation, in whose sphere of spiritual influence the priestly vocation of the young Karol Wojtyla reached maturity.

The Polish Church, guided by Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, another great figure, also opposed communist totalitarianism through her own moral resistance anchored in the vision of man as “visible image of the invisible God.” This witness reformed the conscience of the people. It represented the decision not to renounce the struggle for truth and freedom and, at the same time, kept alive the awareness that what is more decisive than the political reform of the dominant regime is the reform of the consciousness of the nation, the rediscovery, by individuals and social groups, of an essential loyalty in the face of the reasons of life and of man faced with the claims of power.


  • Rocco Buttiglione

    Rocco Buttiglione (born 1948) is an Italian Union of Christian and Centre Democrats politician and an academic.

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