The conclusion of my first semester in Wrocław has brought a number of mixed emotions, ups and downs, and reoccurring themes. Of these topics and themes that come up in casual conversation, one in particular continually emerges between my friends and I. As a political science student at home and in Poland, political debates are not uncommon in either class or casual gatherings and it never takes long for the conversation to transition into a comparison between nations. Though there are always good natured jokes between my peers of various national origins and serious debates there are, inevitably, disagreements. At the end of these conversations, it is always easy to see that there is a vast difference in the way that each participant views not only the perspectives of their peers, but also their own nations.
As an American, I had never before questioned the commonplace of the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in high school, the playing of the National Anthem before any given sporting event, or even the presence of military personnel during Independence Day celebrations. Each of these is a norm, especially in my rural Nebraska hometown. Having grown up with these norms, it’s hard to imagine life without them and even more of a shock when I hear the way that this is perceived from the outside looking in. What many of my peers and I at home view simply as pride and patriotism is more often than not described as “nationalism” by my friends abroad. Admittedly, I was at first enraged to be labeled as an “American nationalist” due simply to the fact that a fine line exists for me between the concepts of patriotism and nationalism. While I view the former as a love for one’s country and the principles that it represents, I tend to see the latter as an extremist position that supports a “holier than thou” perspective that refuses to acknowledge anything other than one’s own national superiority. Patriotism for me, then, boiled down to accepting new ideas and tolerance and having pride when these principles prevail in the society that one calls home. Nationalism, on the other hand, seeks to further a sense of superiority in a subjective and exclusive way. Having this as my operating definition of this dichotomy between the two terms fueled my annoyance with the “nationalist” brand that had been given to me and required me to take a step back and try to understand the difference in perspective.
Searching for context to understand the viewpoints of my Polish and other European friends, however, made me take the aforementioned American norms and look at them through a new lens. While for me these actions would fall under my definition of patriotism, I had also to consider the fact that I was now on a continent where what I would classify as patriotism had not once, but twice, given way to global conflict under the guise of patriotic duty. In Poland, you will rarely see a national flag flying somewhere other than a government building and outward criticism of the status quo and establishment is not uncommon. Discussing this issue with my roommate, a Polish law student, also shed some light on the contextual differences that supported our separate definitions of the two terms. In November, Polish Independence Day occurred and my roommate had off handedly mentioned that it was one of her least favorite holidays. This was a small shock to me, as U.S. Independence Day is one of my favorite holidays back home. After some time, she explained that in Poland this day was often hijacked by nationalists and, more than once, people from different countries were made targets for little more than speaking a language other than Polish too near to a demonstration. This year, more than 60,000 nationalists marched in Warsaw with anti-Semitic and racist undertones under the guise of a patriotic celebration with many on edge as the potential for violence grew. Between conversations with my roommate and events such as this, it became easier to understand why patriotic norms at home may be viewed in a different context here in Poland.
It also became apparent at this point that this only represented a Polish perspective. I am studying alongside individuals from dozens of different countries and for each of them, myself included, different significance is given to various norms and it becomes incredibly complicated to see all events through the eyes of one another. Although it’s difficult, however, it doesn’t mean that hope should be abandoned. The purpose of programs such as study abroad is to help bridge these gaps and understand the way that historical context and education can be used to rid ourselves of stereotypes and dichotic labels such as “patriot” and “nationalist.” In Poland, there is much history to take into consideration. The catastrophe of WWII and the transition to a Soviet dominated society thereafter will forever hold contextual significances on this issue that many may overlook. It is here that nationalist viewpoints devastated a society for decades and the consequences of extremism are still being felt as Poland marches forward into new and uncharted territory. With this in mind, I now take the “patriot” versus “nationalist” debate with a grain of salt when it arises and though I stand by the norms at home, I now have a better grasp on their perception abroad.