Polish Patriots Once Fought Alongside Rebelling Slaves. Where is that Solidarity Today? | Opinion

Polish minister Jews Goebbels Holocaust
People bearing Polish flags and others holding lighted flares participate in the March of Independence during events to mark the 100th anniversary of the reinstatement of Polish independence in Warsaw, on November 11. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Yesterday, a group of Polish nationalists marched through New York's Foley Square. They carried signs that called to "stop the Holocaust industry," and handed out leaflets alleging that the Jews were responsible for their own demise in World War II. But as this group seeks to import Poland's disastrous pivot to nationalism to America, it bears recalling that the first Polish intervention in the Americas could not have been more different. In fact, it entailed hundreds of patriotic Polish soldiers fighting shoulder to shoulder with rebelling slaves.

Admittedly, they started out on the wrong side. In 1802, some 5,000 Polish legionnaires were duped into fighting a vicious insurrectionary war on a Caribbean island they knew nothing about. The troops were sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to quell a rebellion led by the general Toussaint L'Ouverture in the colony of Saint-Domingue. In 1801, Saint-Domingue adopted a constitution that abolished slavery and declared L'Ouverture leader for life.

The French had been sympathetic to abolitionism in the few years after the French Revolution. But by 1800, Napoleon had come to power. He was bent on restoring control over what was France's wealthiest colony—and putting shackles back on the recently-freed slaves. Napoleon sent some 20,000 troops to fight against the rebels. His army included a cohort of Polish soldiers from what were known as the Dąbrowski Legions.

The Polish legions were a product of our own subjugation. In 1797, Habsburg Austria, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire signed a treaty dissolving the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in what became known as the Third Partition of Poland. Many Polish soldiers emigrated to France and joined the French army. They believed that the French, being the enemies of Poland's occupiers, would help them win back their independence.

In sending them to fight the rebels in Saint-Domingue, Napoleon took advantage of the Poles' zeal. But many of the Polish legionnaires soon realized that they had been conned. The French army treated them with contempt, often sending them into the line of fire and failing to pay them for their services. Over time, the Polish troops started to see in the Haitians something of themselves. They were a repressed people, seen as inferior by the French and struggling for self-determination against a foreign empire. Many Poles who survived the early stages of the war began to desert Napoleon's army and joined the cause of Haitian independence.

The revolution won. In 1804, Saint-Domingue adopted a new constitution and became Haiti. The constitution guaranteed that any Pole wishing to become Haitian would be guaranteed citizenship. The Poles, Haiti's first president Jean-Jacques Dessalines said, were the "white negroes of Europe"; they shared with their Haitian comrades a story of oppression and rootlessness.

Of the 5,000 Poles who came to Haiti, some 4,000 died, many of yellow fever. Of those who survived, some became pirates, and others travelled further still to fight in different colonial wars. But about 400 of them stayed, many of them in the village of Cazale, still home to a community even now known as La Pologne.

As the Poles settled down, their traditions began to meld with local ones. The Haitian Voodoo spirit Erzulie absorbed the likeness of the Polish Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Through historical coincidence, the famous Polish icon of the Virgin Mary is now a syncretic goddess in the Caribbean, 8,500 kilometers from her first home.

It helps to recall such stories today, as Poland and Polish communities around the world grapple with increasingly vocal xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic movements like those seen in New York yesterday. This hate is not accidental—it was incubated by the political class. Jarosław Kaczyński, head of the ruling Law and Justice party and the de facto leader of Poland, has openly dehumanized immigrants. He once claimed that they carry "various types of parasites, protozoa, which aren't dangerous in the organisms of these people, but which could be dangerous here." In January 2018, Poland's President explicitly said that the country would not allow in any refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa. 200 years after Haiti, with the help of Polish freedom fighters, rejected race as the basis of social and economic organization, Poland is reinstating it as a political norm.

It is precisely by recalling Poland's long history as a complex, heterogenic, multicultural society that helps us expose an uncomfortable truth about the fictitious historical nostalgia championed by the Polish right. Its fixation on a mono-ethnic, white, catholic Poland would be plainly untenable if Hitler hadn't eradicated the vast majority of Polish minorities during World War II—and Stalin hadn't deported many others.

Before the war, minorities made up about a third of Poland's population. Among them were four million Ukrainians, three million Jews, one million Belorussians and over seven hundred thousand Germans. Today, Poland is almost entirely ethnically Polish. A "Poland for Poles" is, indeed, a historical inheritance - but one bequeathed to us by Nazi occupiers, not by the Poland that once was. It is symbiotically tied to the Nazi murders and Soviet deportations that destroyed our rich multiethnic and cultural heritage. And it's a deep stain on our much older history of solidarity with the oppressed.

At least on the surface, many of the Polish right's grievances are rooted in the belief that Poland itself had been betrayed and has been on the receiving end of empire and colonialism. Our World War II allies stood by while Warsaw burned after the failed uprising in the summer of 1944. Churchill surrendered Poland to Stalin at Yalta, ushering in nearly half a century of dictatorship.

Indeed, Napoleon's failure to come to Poland's aid still rankles for some as the first great Western betrayal. But rather than eliciting empathy for victims of empire today, these stories are used by the Right to reinforce a narrative of victimhood and exceptionalism. One grotesque manifestation was the controversial Holocaust law, which would have criminalized allegations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, even while playing down the suffering of other groups, including the Jews. (The law was watered down after an international outcry.)

But the story of the Dąbrowski Legions in Haiti shows that there are narratives in our past more powerful than the fear, hate and isolationism that has become the basis of Polish nationalism today. For those communities who contend with the legacies of colonialism, war, poverty, racism, dictatorship and other injustices, there's a better way to secure a just and common future: solidarity.

Pawel Wargan is a writer, photographer and public policy consultant based in London. He can be found tweeting at @pawelwargan.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.