This July, I had a chance to return to Europe, to reconnect with family, friends and colleagues. A conference dedicated to the study of empires took me to Poznań, Poland. Although I had very much looked forward to the event, it challenged me more than any other conference that I co-organized in the past twenty years. About a third of the presentations were more concerned with conveying the ideology of the national-conservative PIS party rather than the set topic. I thus left with mixed feelings.
Some scholarship was excellent, some discussions were lively and enriching, yet the misuse of the academic stage for the spread of political ideology frustrated me.
At least, these difficult encounters gave me the opportunity to better understand the political right in Poland and beyond. For someone who tries to promote a strong, open-minded centre as the core of a vibrant democracy, it was, after all, a valuable learning experience.
The main aim of the conference was to analyse historical empires from the second millennium BCE to the 21st century CE. The particular focus was on the strategy to gain legitimacy by claiming descent from or a close connection with previous dynasties or rules. The opposite approach was likewise up for scrutiny: some studies looked at imperial constructs by which oppressed subjects or enemies tried to undermine the legitimacy of a rule(r) and mobilize opposition.
My own paper fell into the latter category. I investigated the empire allegories in the biblical Book of Daniel, which prophesized the near end of the world, since God would soon smash the cruel and blasphemous king. I showed how the different images of the five-layered Giant or the four beasts had been recycled in the 160s BCE (and elsewhere) to fit into ever new historical contexts, threatening doom to whatever monarch was in power and promising divine salvation to the ‘true believers’.
Other examples included imperial concepts of the Romans, Chinese and Ethiopians, which provided exciting opportunities to compare and learn. And so did the guided tour through the historical city, in which the architecture of various royal dynasties or oppressive regimes reflect their imperial (or anti-imperial) choices.
While two thirds of the papers analysed ideological distortions to understand historical processes, five out of fifteen papers focused on Polish-European or Polish-German relations, all with Christian-conservative or Polish-nationalist agendas.
To begin with, no matter whether you like or dislike the European Union (let alone Germany), it certainly is no empire. Admittedly, the EU has a large territory, heterogeneous population and power asymmetry in common with historical empires.
However, member states and citizens have freedoms that distinguish the EU from both classical empires, like the Roman or Persian empires, and other unions like the so-called Russian Confederation.
Member states have the freedom to access or leave the union, participate in legislation and policy-making and exercise veto power. Individual citizens can articulate opinions without intimidation and have votes.
The bone of contention at the conference was that a growing number of EU citizens (not only Poles, for sure) reject secular and liberal agendas. They perceive them as a threat to their national identities as well as to social cohesion, although these goals were already expressed in the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) that each member state ratified.
I had been aware of the fact that what I regard as right tends to be centre-right in Poland. Some (in my view, very conservative) presenters even positioned themselves in the centre left.
Most intriguing for me was to understand that Polish nationalism presents itself as genuinely anti-imperialist and anti-fascist, quite differently from its German, French or British counterparts. Considering Poland’s torn history between Russian and German imperial occupation, including the genocidal savagery of the Nazis, I understood that the trauma is still prevalent in Polish society–despite my hopes that it had been largely overcome when Poland was welcomed into the European Union and NATO.
Another pole of the spectrum is a strong conservativism, for most Poles rooted in a very traditional version of Catholicism. It is not difficult to understand why for many it conflated with Polish national identity, after centuries of occupation by Protestant Prussians, Orthodox Russians and Marxist Soviets.
There is an alliance with other strictly conservative tendencies of European countries, but among these are very different mixes.
Leaving aside outright racist parties (which were not present at the conference), I observed different mixes: some glorify old-fashioned Christian societies of the Middle Ages, while others prefer a more secularized Christianity mixed with the philosophies of Enlightenment and Idealism.
One thing those positions had in common was a lack of awareness (or acknowledgment) that all these notions also have their darker history, for the harshness caused to many in their names.
I also found little awareness of the risks that such ‘conservative’ views might lead to authoritarian regimes or discriminatory societies.
Governments with such tendencies are on the rise throughout the Western world, not only in Poland.
Our American neighbour is showing us how quickly democratic values and institutions can be toppled, and Canada is not immune to such developments either. The best we can do to protect the freedom dear to us is to learn to engage with such positions, to understand the needs, fears and nuances of the major trends surrounding us, to reach out to those who still share much common ground with us, and to confront yet others with fact-checks and the less pleasant ramifications of the ‘values’ they preach. The more people participate in this discussion, the clearer it becomes where the centre of our society stands.
Altay Coskun is a professor in Classical Studies at the University of Waterloo. He is interested in constitutional and legal matters, interstate and intercultural relations, imperial policy and propaganda, as well as the status of migrants and foreigners. Every third Wednesday, he hosts the Seleukid Lecture Series with guest speakers.