GRZEBALSKA: The weak state and its soldiers

With the militarization of collective memory, construction of Territorial Defense Forces and resurrection of the citizen-soldier figure, the civilian state model in Poland is crumbling


We usually tell the story of the changes that occurred in Central Europe in the second half of the 20th century through the lens of political and economic transformation, European integration, and the advent of the global hegemony of the liberal free-market model. However, this period also witnessed a different, quiet revolution which – although it was not given as much attention – transformed the European model of statehood. This revolution was the switch to what we call post-military societies[i] – the gradual disappearance of classic militarism and progressing social demilitarization – which began on the continent after World War II and gained momentum following the political transformation in the Eastern Bloc. In his book Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?[ii], the American historian James J. Sheehan observed that after centuries of recurring military conflicts and bloodshed Europe became politically and socially demilitarized on an unprecedented scale. In the second half of the 20th century, garrison states – with a defense of borders as their legitimizing purpose and mass national militarism as their main tool of uniformization – were replaced by civilian states that built social coherence through economic growth, provided public services instead of mobilizing national sentiments, and ground their legitimacy in providing social and economic security rather than in the ability to wage wars.

Most European countries have maintained armies and continued investments in armaments, some of them participated in expeditionary operations. However, militarism in a sociological sense – understood as the penetration of the social sphere through the military sphere and expressed in the influence of the military on the values and attitudes exhibited by citizens as well as the army’s ability to subordinate the civilian domain – was greatly limited. All across Europe, the reduction and professionalization of the army was accompanied by the demise of the social role of the military and the relationship between service and citizenship. While in the era of classic militarism where military service was perceived as the most sacred duty of the male citizen towards the community, in the second half of the 20th century fighting and dying for the nation state ceased to be commonly perceived as part of the social contract. In Germany, which perhaps offers the model example of this passage into post-militarism, already in the nineties almost half of the men of military age chose community work instead of military service[iii]. This past July, when the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherni, said that the EU’s path to security lay in supporting peace and not building a European army[iv]; she was pronouncing herself in favor of post-militarism understood as a political model and historic achievement for Europe. A model for which the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 and which the NATO Secretary General George Robertson criticized using soldier’s language when he described the European community as a “military pygmy”.

Poland entered the path of this European model of civilian society slightly later. Under the People’s Republic of Poland, the military remained an important, although contested, social institution that influenced the attitudes of citizens through universal military conscription. However, after 1989, the distance between the military and society started to grow, culminating in the professionalization of the army and the abolition of conscription as well as a replacement of defense training classes in schools with a less-militarized education for security. According to polls conducted by the IPC research institute for the Ministry of National Defense in 2013, only 9% of young Poles wanted to have a career in the military or were seriously considering it, while the percentage of those completely uninterested in the military was the highest among the youngest members of the studied group[v]. It seems Poles have ceased to perceive the duty to defend the country, featured in article 13 of the Polish Constitution, as a necessary and desired element of the social contract. Surveys performed for the Rzeczpospolita daily in 2014 showed that only 19% of Poles were willing to sacrifice their life or health for the country[vi].

A short guide to the militarization of society

The processes occurring recently in Poland – like the development of the paramilitary sector, attempts to revive the republican model of the citizen-soldier as well as the creation of Territorial Defense Forces (Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej, WOT) – may be interpreted as a reaction against the European model of a community of post-military states and the liberal understanding of citizenship. According to estimates, the pro-defense sector, which contains paramilitary nongovernmental organizations and students of military classes, may count as many as sixty thousand citizens[vii]. Although today the paramilitary groups are ironically described as “Macierewicz’s soldiers”, it was the government of the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) which lay the foundation for the development and rise of the political significance of this sector as well as its social normalization. In 2015, reacting against the impact of the war in Donbas, PO created the Office for Pro-Defense Affairs at the Ministry of National Defense and the Federation of Pro-Defense Organizations which groups the seven largest paramilitary organizations in Poland, many of which have been functioning since the nineties. Thus, in a way, when in 2016 the government of Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) announced the creation of Territorial Defense Forces, it was following the logic of social processes and accommodating phenomena that were active much earlier and had gained political capital from the grassroots efforts that nongovernmental paramilitary groups had been undertaking for several years. According to the 2017 Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) survey, only 25% of Poles were against the WOT and as many as 49% were in favor of their creation[viii].

For the idea of the WOT to hit fertile soil and in order for the citizen-soldier model to be perceived by young Poles as appealing instead of outdated, preparation was necessary. What helped was the politics of memory, which changed the perception of World War II and founded a political myth, complete with soldiers of the resistance – masculine role models and popular heroes portrayed on t-shirts. Our research, conducted under the direction of Professor Marcin Napiórkowski, demonstrated that the imagery of the war was a constant tool used during the transformation period: memorializing resolutions devoted to it and voted on by the Polish parliament constituted over 45% of all resolutions in the years 1989–2014[ix]. However, a real explosion of memorializing militarism occurred when PiS was in power for the first time (2005–2007): the number of resolutions devoted to military matters increased by 100% compared to the preceding term. This tendency was maintained later when PO came to power.

Some of the initiatives that contributed to this flourishing of memory – like the campaign “Let’s rebuild the Home Army” (“Odbudujmy AK”) which encouraged citizens to participate in the creation of citizens’ territorial defense modeled after the main Polish resistance organization (Armia Krajowa, AK) – were clearly practical and mobilizing in character. However, the militarism that stemmed from the Polish flourishing of memory was to a large extent rather historical and nostalgic than active in character. It was more about building cultural identification with a certain vision of the past and legitimizing the political project of the national right than about inciting actual military activities here and now. If it were not for the Warsaw Rising Museum and popular songs about cursed soldiers, the disillusion of young voters might have probably found a different space for articulation. But building museums and commemorating soldiers alone would not have been enough to convince people to spend money on military equipment and devote their weekends to training. So, how did we arrive at where we are today?

The cursed state and its defenders

When explaining the popularity of the paramilitary sector, security experts usually point to the Ukrainian conflict as the incendiary spark. My conversations with employees of shooting ranges also confirmed that the presence of war close to our borders had certainly shaken Poles’ feeling of security and contributed to a rise of those interested in gun ownership. Another aspect without which the normalization of the paramilitary sector cannot be understood is the function that militarism plays in the broader revolution orchestrated by PiS – as a tool for mobilizing national sentiments and a key building block for the alternative, illliberal model of society. Most paramilitary organizations existed long before the conflict in Ukraine and PiS’s rise to power, and researchers who study social movements are very well aware that the impact of individual events on mobilizing sustained commitment is limited. The key to understanding the growing militarization lies deeper – not only in the politics of Putin or calculations of Macierewicz, but also in the failures of the liberal social and economic model and the inefficiency of the state after 1989.

The political transformation had two faces. On the one hand, it made Poland part of the European project founded on social demilitarization, human rights and ceding some of the prerogatives of the national state to transnational bodies in the name of peaceful cooperation and integration. On the other hand, it undermined the social and economic security upon which the post-war success of the military state model was based and changed the social contract between the citizens and the state, privatizing risk and socializing the costs. The reconfiguration of the national states that resulted from neoliberal globalization made a growing number of citizens feel that there was a void created by the state – a state that was indulgent towards big business and financial markets and, at the same time, increasingly incapable of providing their citizens with security, well-being, and possibilities for advancement. In this context, grassroots militarism can be understood as an adaptation strategy in face of the privatization of risk. When observing the everyday inefficiency of the state in areas like the pension system, healthcare, or reprivatization, citizens have trouble believing that it will rise to the task of dealing with a potential armed conflict. The paramilitary movement, on which PiS capitalizes politically, functions today as a prosthesis for the vanishing and inefficient state. Through its military arm – WOT units in every county – and pompous ceremonies celebrating partisans, the state is again becoming visible and palpable to the citizens. A militarily strong state that builds its legitimacy through the rhetoric of securing borders and giving its citizen-soldiers special legal and financial protection[x] appears as a tempting alternative to the “cardboard state”[xi] which in its current condition is not capable of building community and solidarity through efficient institutions and egalitarian public services. At the same time, the social networks created by paramilitary organizations can provide not only security but also important capital that enables social advancement (in the current government project of “transforming of the transformation”[xii] the paramilitary sector will constitute an important source of alternative local elites) and gives its members a feeling of community, dignity, and agency. As one of the leaders of a local paramilitary movement told me, “young people do not buy into consumerism and refuse to believe that the height of dreams is to slave away in a consulting company. They are seeking a purpose and serving others is one of the most noble purposes”.

The political opposition could find many allies in their efforts to strengthen the state and make it more efficient among paramilitary activists. But in order to achieve this alliance, it would have to abandon the logic of tribal wars and enter into dialogue with the pro-defense sector. It would have to see its members as self-organizing citizens who had been orphaned by the state and not as party hooligans fueled by fantasies of violence. They would also have to postpone their principled pacifism and perceive the paramilitarists not as anti-democratic extremists but as a hybrid form of civic society, in which militarism, gun culture, and a hierarchic structure coexist with pro-state attitudes, local activity, solidarity, and a responsibility for the community. If in the era of militarization of citizenship we consider the European model of civilian states as an achievement worth maintaining, the path to doing so does not lead through dogmatic antimilitarism but through a profound reform of the state and a reinforcement of nonmilitary foundations of security.

Weronika Grzebalska – sociologist, Ph.D. student at the School of Social Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences. She currently works as a researcher at the Polányi Center at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Kőszeg. She specializes in militarism, security, war, and memory as seen from the perspective of gender. Weronika Grzebalska is the author of the book Płeć powstania warszawskiego (IBL and NCK 2013) on gender in the Warsaw Rising and of several scientific articles devoted to war and gender history, including Gendered Wars, Gendered Memories (Routledge 2016), and Gender: War (Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks 2017). Her texts were published in The Conversation, Visegrad Insight and the Political Critique. She is a member of the FEPS Young Academics Network and a board member of the Polish Gender Studies Association

The article was first published in “Res Publica Nowa” nr 3/2017 and translated into English with support from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education’s research dissemination funds (contract no. 692/P-DUN/217).

Tr. Aleksandra Małecka


Tłumaczenie na język angielski artykułów z numeru kwartalnika “Res Publica Nowa” 3/2017  – zadanie finansowane w ramach umowy 692/P-DUN/217 ze środków Ministra Nauki i Szkolnictwa Wyższego przeznaczonych na działalność upowszechniającą naukę.


[i]           See Martin Shaw, Post-Military Society. Militarism, Demilitarization, and War at the End of the Twentieth Century, Temple University Press 1991.

[ii]                See James J. Sheehan, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, Houghton Mifflin 2008.

[iii]          See James J. Sheehan, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?, Houghton Mifflin 2008, p. 178.

[iv]          See Growing EU military power at service of peace, UN Charter and multilateralism [accessed: July 15, 2017]. Online: https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/29389/growing-eu-military-power-service-peace-un-charter-and-multilateralism_en.

[v]           See Marcin Sińczuch, Młodych Polaków wojsko nie interesuje, „Kultura Liberalna” [accessed: July 15, 2017]. Online: http://kulturaliberalna.pl/2014/04/15/mlodzi-polacy-chca-wojska.

[vi]          See Tomasz Krzyżak, “Patriotyzm nie jest w cenie”, Rzeczpospolita [accessed: July 15, 2017]. Online: http://www.rp.pl/artykul/1085889-Sondaz–Rz—Patriotyzm-nie-jest-w-cenie.html#ap-1.

[vii]         See Paweł Soloch, Łukasz Dryblak and Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, Organizacje proobronne w systemie bezpieczeństwa państwa, Instytut Sobieskiego 2015, p.8.

[viii]         See Polacy za Wojskami Obrony Terytorialnej? CBOS survey [accessed: July 15, 2017]. Online: http://wiadomosci.dziennik.pl/wydarzenia/artykuly/544659,sondaz-cbos-wot-polityka-armia-wojska-obrony-terytorialnej-pis.html.

[ix]          Pamięciowy wymiar transformacji ustrojowej w świetle uchwał kommemoratywnych Parlamentu RP podejmowanych w latach 1989–2014, grant financed by the National Science Center.

[x]           According to the draft prepared by the Ministry of National Defence a Territorial Defence soldier would receive a monthly salary of PLN 500 and their employer would be banned from terminating their employment contract while they are in service.

[xi]          See Jan Śpiewak, Mamy państwo z kartonu [accessed: July 15, 2017]. Online: http://www.se.pl/wiadomosci/opinie/jan-spiewak-mamy-panstwo-z-kartonu_881584.html.

[xii]          See Michael Mikneberg, Transforming the Transformation? The East European Radical Right in the Political Process, Routledge 2015.

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