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The Crosses of Auschwitz

Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland

In the summer and fall of 1998, ultranationalist Polish Catholics erected hundreds of crosses outside Auschwitz, setting off a fierce debate that pitted Catholics and Jews against one another. While this controversy had ramifications that extended well beyond Poland’s borders, Geneviève Zubrzycki sees it as a particularly crucial moment in the development of post-Communist Poland’s statehood and its changing relationship to Catholicism.

In The Crosses of Auschwitz, Zubrzycki skillfully demonstrates how this episode crystallized latent social conflicts regarding the significance of Catholicism in defining “Polishness” and the role of anti-Semitism in the construction of a new Polish identity. Since the fall of Communism, the binding that has held Polish identity and Catholicism together has begun to erode, creating unease among ultranationalists. Within their construction of Polish identity also exists pride in the Polish people’s long history of suffering. For the ultranationalists, then, the crosses at Auschwitz were not only symbols of their ethno-Catholic vision, but also an attempt to lay claim to what they perceived was a Jewish monopoly over martyrdom.

This gripping account of the emotional and aesthetic aspects of the scene of the crosses at Auschwitz offers profound insights into what Polishness is today and what it may become.

280 pages | 39 halftones, 1 map, 5 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: European History

Religion: Christianity, Judaism

Sociology: Individual, State and Society, Social History, Sociology of Arts--Leisure, Sports


“The study of nationalism is one of those fields that tend to produce more heat than light. Having sweated through many of the debates myself, I found this study of Polish nationalism since the collapse of Communism as calming and refreshing as a cool beer on an August day. Geneviève Zubrzycki’s writing is direct and unpretentious, her argument clear and convincing, and the material rich and original.”--Philip S. Gorski, Yale University

Philip Gorski

“By analyzing in detail the famous controversy over the crosses at Auschwitz, Zubrzycki’s book shows with great ingenuity how the meaning of ‘Polishness’ has been negotiated, debated, and fought over since the fall of state socialism. She demonstrates in convincing and authoritative fashion that this conflict was not only a dispute between Poles and Jews over the memory of Auschwitz, but also a debate among Poles about the ‘proper’ discursive establishment of Polish national identity. This will become the standard work on this extremely important topic.”--Jan Kubik, Rutgers University

Jan Kubik

“The Roman Catholic Church was one of the principal forces which made possible the ultimate success of the Poles in negotiating the end of the communist system and freeing themselves from Soviet domination. This balanced and well-researched book examines how this Church has reacted to the new and more complex problems posed by the achievement of freedom and independence, and in particular, the painful legacy of antisemitism in sections of Polish society and of the Church itself.”--Antony Polonsky, Brandeis University and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Antony Polonsky

"This is a brilliant book, both in terms of the author’s insights and depth of understanding, and in terms of the coherence and logic of her presentation of her material."

Sabrina P. Ramet | Catholic Historical Review

"This work is grounded in the careful reading of sources, comprehensive study of literature, and careful empirical research conducted through participatory observation and personal interviews. The text is clearly structured and written with a light academic style. . . . An outstanding work of social science which is to be recommended to all students of Auschwitz, Poland, Christian-Jewish and Polish-Jewish relations, nationalism, and religion."

Marek Kucia | Slavic Review

"[The] book teaches us how to practice event-focused historical and cultural sociology better than any methodological textbook could. . . . This book is not only for sociologists of religion or ethnicity, nor for the experts on Poland or Polish history, but for all who are bored with cross-tabulations and regression analysis and would like to see how qualitative methodology may be masterfully employed. Furrthermore, the book is fasicnating to read and hard to put away."

Piotr Sztompka | American Journal of Sociology

"The best book to date on the Auschwitz ’crosses controversy’ . . . . The end result is a comprehensive study of religious symbolism and its impact on people’s self-understanding as a national community. Hence the book is as relevant for sociologists of religion as it is for historians and religious-studies scholars."

John T. Pawlikowski | Holocaust and Genocide Studies

"Zubrzycki’s book will become an indispensable reading on the topic of nationalism and religion--among other reasons, it is one of the first books to identify the impasse in the contemporary scholarship on the problem."

Slavika Jakelic | Journal of the American Academy of Religion

"A brilliant study of how charged symbols and particular places can be implicated in the transformation of nation and religion."

European Studies Forum

"Zubrzycki’s prose is both eloquent and clear, holding the reader’s attention even through the most complex theoretical presentations and most detailed historical accounts. . . . This book has already become required reading for anyone interested in Poland or Roman Catholicism, and it should be part of any bibliography dealing with the relationship between religion, politics, and cultural identity."

Brian Porter-Szuecs | History of Religions

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Key to Pronunciation
Introduction and Theoretical Orientations
1. Genealogy of Polish Nationalism 
2. "We, the Polish Nation": Redefining the Nation in Post-Communist Poland
3. "Oswiecim"/"Auschwitz": Archaeology of a Contested Site and Symbol 
4. The Aesthetics of the War of the Crosses: Mobilizing "the Nation"
5. Debating Poland by Debating the Cross
Conclusion: Nationalism and Religion Reexamined 
Appendix A: Newspapers Consulted  
Appendix B: Preamble to the Constitution of the Third Republic of Poland
Appendix C: Historical Cues 


Am Ass. for Advancement of Slavic Studie: AAASS/Orbis Polish Book Prize

American Academy of Religion: AAR Best First Book in the History of Religions

American Academy of Religion: American Academy of Religion Awards for Excellence

ASA Sociology of Religion Section: Sociology of Religion Distinguished Book Award

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