54% of Poles think favorably of Americans, only 13% unfavorably, according to Centrum Badania Opinii Spolecznej. Ten years ago, the numbers were 44% and 21% respectively. Twenty years ago, they were 64% and 6%. Back in the 1990s, Americans were the most liked nation among Poles. Now they are in the fourth place.
During the years which Barack Obama spent in the White House, the sympathy level dropped significantly. With Donald Trump in the White House, the tendency is reversed.
Even though it would require a thorough sociological research to answer the question: Why Poles love Trump, I will try to give some answers to it based on my personal and subjective perception of reality.
During the last visit of Trump to Warsaw, Poland, one could easily see that the present American president was very warmly welcomed and cheered. This becomes even more obvious when compared with his later visit to Hamburg, Germany, where Melania Trump could not even leave her residence due to riots in the streets of the German city.
The first and most immediate reason why Poles love Trump is that he showed appreciation and understanding for Poland, Polish history, and its present political situation, which is to a great degree shaped by the Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014 and by the Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008.
For a nation which for the last 250 years was treated as a pawn in international politics both by the East and the West, it was a very enjoyable but also important gesture because it helped the Poles feel acknowledged.
Obama visited Poland three times, in 2011, 2014, 2016. None of his visits was as celebrated by the Polish people as Trump’s was. There were several reasons for that, but perhaps the most important was that on September 17, 2009, Obama announced that he canceled plans to build a missile shield in Europe, part of which was to be situated in Poland. Obviously, Obama did this to please Putin as a part of his attempted reset in the American-Russian relations.
This decision was received in Poland with astonishment and fear. Only a year before, Russia invaded Georgia, without any serious consequences, which made Russia’s neighbors nervous about this neo-imperialistic turn in the Russian foreign politics. The timing was very symbolic for Poles, though probably not intended by Obama. Exactly seventy years earlier, on September 17, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland and partitioned it together with Germany in accordance with the arrangements of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. It was the end of twenty years of Polish independence regained after World War I.
Almost from the very beginning, Obama was perceived as an American president who did not care about Poland. His later visits did not change this perception. And he made one huge mistake that led to an even greater increase of his unpopularity in Poland.
In 2012, Obama posthumously honored Jan Karski with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Jan Karski risked his life to sneak out of German-occupied Poland to present a report about Nazi atrocities in Poland, and especially about the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. During the ceremony of awarding the medal, Obama spoke about “Polish death camps.” Later he explained that what he meant was “death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland,” but it did not improve his perception in Poland. His excuses were lame and proved that he did not give a hoot about Poland or Polish history.
Poles are very sensitive about their history. Obama showed disrespect for Poles by ignoring their history. Trump did just the opposite. He spoke to the hearts of Poles. And now they will follow him like they did Napoleon 200 years ago.
But the sympathy of Poles to Trump does not end here. Poland is a relatively conservative country, with high church attendance, strict abortion law, no gay marriages, etc. Patriotism is still a positive word there. So is family. And when they look to the West of Europe, they see the rise of Islamist terrorism, the decay of family values, deserted churches or churches embracing the gender agenda. This is not the West they want to belong to.
Thus, when Trump spoke in Warsaw about liberty, family, faith in God, and the need for the West to defend its traditional values, he again gained their attention and approval. The West Poles want to belong to may not be a real West, but it is the West where black is black and white is white, where courage and loyalty mean something, where liberty and security are not sacrificed on the altar of some leftist progressivism.
Perhaps guarantees of security are what Poles expect most from Trump, representative of the most powerful nation in the world whom they trust (or want to trust). With Trump’s departure from Obama’s foreign policy, Poles hope again that they have a reliable ally in America who would not hesitate to intervene should Russia try to subdue Poland one more time. Whether this is well-grounded or just another example of wishful thinking, we will see in the future.
Bogumil Jarmulak, a Pastor in Poznan, Poland, is Presiding Minister of Anselm Presbytery in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches.