Whose History is it? The Challenges and Paradoxes of Studying Queer History in a Neoliberal and Nationalist Context

By Mathias Foit

Ever since the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s victory in the 2015 parliamentary election, queer research in Poland has become especially challenging and more politicised than ever before.

The moment the ultraconservative PiS party won the election in 2015 and secured an outright majority can be pinpointed as the beginning of what some have referred to as a “conservative revolution” in Poland.[1] The upsurge of nationalist tendencies (already strongly present in the years before); the tireless and never-ending campaign against women’s and LGBTQ+ rights; sweeping changes to the organisation of public education and to official school curricula; and the advancement of an exclusionary and sanitised politics of memory have all been key components of this cultural upheaval. Part and parcel of the revolution is also the marginalisation of discourses that do not fit into the smug, sanctimonious national narrative promoted by the government – among them queer studies. Just weeks into the electoral victory of PiS, the then-Minister of Science and Higher Education Jarosław Gowin (in-) famously threatened to put an end to “some [jakieś tam] gay and lesbian studies” in Polish academia.[2] Enthusiastic young people including me suddenly found themselves in a frenzy to locate and apply to those fabled departments that we had so far been too blind to see ourselves. Sparing the poor minister further sarcastic remarks, it must be said, however, that, with each and every milestone of the conservative revolution, the burden of conducting queer thought and criticism in Poland becomes increasingly heavier.

Breslau, modern-day Wrocław, in the 1930s. Photo from fotopolska.eu.

That is not to say that it was an easy task before PiS. In fact, the status quo is a continuation (if somewhat more malicious) of trends present in Polish academia prior to the change of government. A de facto very young and still budding discipline on Polish soil, queer studies and one of its subdisciplines, queer history (given my expertise, I will focus on the latter), entered Polish academia in the 2000s, although the amateur work of preserving the history of gender and sexual dissidents had started earlier, in the 1990s.[3] Some of the pioneering studies in the field were conducted by non-academics, and, although the number of scholars working on queer history projects is growing continuously, most of them are not “professional” historians, in the sense that they do not have a degree in history. Obviously, this is no statement about the quality of their work; rather, it shows the discipline’s lack of institutionalisation. There is not a single degree course (either BA or MA) in queer studies, let alone queer history; enthusiasts must content themselves with individual seminars or working groups offered by some Polish universities. This fact is, on the one hand, a correlative of the neoliberal paradigm prevalent in Polish academia and its funding policies, admitting representatives of the business world into advisory bodies of universities or evaluating academic performance on the basis of an arbitrary and quantity-oriented scoring system, which does not make queer history a particularly attractive or profitable branch of study. However, it is also deeply ideological, resulting from an anti-queer and anti-feminist prejudice. Queer history is considered not only revisionist (and therefore possibly threatening to received narratives), but also unimportant, or not even “proper” history altogether. As a consequence, queer historical projects are extremely unlikely to obtain state funding and – more often than not – are met with ignorance from supervisors and the broader academic community. Furthermore, they do not garner the same public attention as other studies in the field of humanities. Most junior scholars working in the discipline either are lucky enough to have been awarded international funding or receive none at all. Predictably, the marginalisation and delegitimisation of queer history as an intellectual and academic pursuit gained momentum only after the PiS took and then maintained power in the parliamentary elections of 2015 and 2019.

The situation gets even more complicated in cases like mine, where there is doubt about whose – meaning, which country’s – history is even being studied and what potential profit is at stake. After all, in a markedly nationalist and neoliberal context in which history – usually the one and only, “right” version of history – is a political instrument employed for present and future purposes and becomes a given state’s “asset”, any deviations from the official narrative are branded sacrilegious and subversive.[4] Focusing on the early 20th-century queer history of formerly German, currently Polish regions such as Silesia, Pomerania, and East Prussia collectively referred to in Polish as the “Recovered Territories” – a highly problematic and political term alluding to Poland’s stewardship of these lands in the Middle Ages – I am acutely aware of the controversies and challenges that this project poses to the dominant national narrative and traditional ideas of history. (Nationalist) Polish academia has little interest in studying history that members of that community view as German (even though it concerns territories that now belong to Poland) and, therefore, fundamentally as “un-Polish” and irrelevant. All in all, isn’t it reasonable not to invest money in (academic) enterprises that not only bring no profit – in this case, to the industry of politics of memory – but also actively undermine the latter? The history, queer or otherwise, of Poland’s Western and Northern Territories demonstrates, after all, that, if history cannot exclusively belong to one actor (state, nation, etc.), it does not really belong to anyone in particular, and that attempts at monopolising it are nothing but political and highly instrumental in their nature. With this simple realisation, the foundations of the whole project of a politics of history are shaken – something that a nationalist country simply cannot allow to happen. Let us not, therefore, take it personally; a nationalist construct must persist no matter what.

Ironically, the German academic community seems, at least in part, to share the very same logic, if only unwittingly and without any specific nationalist political project in mind. In private conversation with German scholars, I have often encountered an anxiety on their part about studying the history of formerly German territories in view of the political implications of such an activity; to do so could expose them to accusations of nationalist sentimentalism and historical revisionism. Indeed, there have been very few queer history studies relating to Germany’s former Eastern territories conducted by German scholars (or any scholars, for that matter).[5] I fear that the reluctance goes much deeper and is paradoxically rooted in a nationalism that is, admittedly, a “lighter”, politically non-engaged version of what these scholars are so afraid of being identified with; basically, since these territories are no longer German, there is no interest and no advantage in studying their history, which is (no longer) of profit to the German national(ist) narrative. We should make no mistake; the ultimate conclusion is that neither Poland nor Germany has an interest in studying the history, queer or otherwise, of these regions.

It must be said, however, that it is from a German state-funded organisation, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, that I receive my scholarship and support, for which I am infinitely and unspeakably grateful. We need institutions that are more open, transnational, and willing to invest in research that does not (necessarily) profit specific national publics, or that at least complicates the idea that history is something that a given actor – a city, a state, a nation, etc. – can own all on its own. After all, ideally, it is not for a particular nation’s interests that a queer project like mine should be pursued, but for queer memory’s sake itself: to commemorate and celebrate the lives of people whose stories deserve to be told and who have not found their place in the historical pantheon of either national and cultural context.


References

[1] See, for example, Barbara Cöllen (20 May 2016), “‘Die Welt’: Konserwatywna rewolucja partii Kaczyńskiego znalazła się w impasie”, in: Deutsche Welle (30 Dec. 2021), dw.com; Magdalena Cedro (4 July 2019), “Konserwatywna rewolucja PiS i Fideszu legła w gruzach. Nowi unijni liderzy to ich przeciwieństwo”, in: Forsal.pl (30 Dec. 2021), forsal.pl.

[2] Daniel Flis (17 Nov. 2015), “Minister Gowin: Reforma nauki i szkolnictwa wyższego zaboli środowisko i PiS”, in: Gazeta Wyborcza (3 March 2020), wyborcza.pl.

[3] It was then, for example, that the first legal, Poland-wide LGBTQ+ organisation, the Association of Lambda Groups (Stowarzyszenie Grup Lambda), called to life the oldest and greatest archive of Polish queer history, which, as of 2021, comprised more than 100,000 files and items. Lambda Warszawa – Nasze działania – Archiwum (30 Dec. 2021), lambdawarszawa.org.

[4] For a more in-depth discussion of the instrumentalisation of history in national(ist) discourses, see my paper “Recovered, or Not Recovered, That Is the Question, or Whose History Is It? Questions of Ownership and Nationalism in (Queer) History”, in: Work in Progress, Work on Progress: Beiträge kritischer Wissenschaft, Doktorand*innen-Jahrbuch 2020 der Rosa-Luxemburg Stiftung, eds. Gerbsch et al., Hamburg, VSA-Verlag, 2020, pp. 195-209.

[5] For a bibliography, see ibid.


Works Cited

Cedro, Magdalena (4 July 2019): “Konserwatywna rewolucja PiS i Fideszu legła w gruzach. Nowi unijni liderzy to ich przeciwieństwo”, in: Forsal.pl (30.12.2021), forsal.pl.

Cöllen, Barbara (20.05.2016): “‘Die Welt’: Konserwatywna rewolucja partii Kaczyńskiego znalazła się w impasie”, in: Deutsche Welle (30.12.2021), dw.com.

Foit, Mathias (2020): “Recovered, or Not Recovered, That Is the Question, or Whose History Is It? Questions of Ownership and Nationalism in (Queer) History”, in: Work in Progress, Work on Progress: Beiträge kritischer Wissenschaft, Doktorand*innen-Jahrbuch 2020 der Rosa-Luxemburg Stiftung, eds. Gerbsch et al., Hamburg, VSA-Verlag, pp. 195-209.

Flis, Daniel (17.11.2015): “Minister Gowin: Reforma nauki i szkolnictwa wyższego zaboli środowisko i PiS”, in: Gazeta Wyborcza (03.03.2020), wyborcza.pl.

Lambda Warszawa – Nasze działania – Archiwum (30.12.2021), lambdawarszawa.org.


Mathias Foit is a Polish-German scholar living in Berlin. He graduated in English studies from the University of Wrocław and is currently pursuing a PhD degree at the Free University of Berlin. In his doctoral dissertation, which concerns the queer history of Germany’s former eastern provinces, he studies Weimar-era queer organisation and queer spaces. In 2022, the scholarly journal Ikonotheka will publish his most recent article, in which he considers and compares the topography of cruising in the German-speaking Breslau and the Polish-speaking Wrocław.


Further articles in the Gender, Sexuality, and Knowledge Production in Current Neoliberal and Authoritarian Regimes series on TRAFO:

Anya Heise-von der Lippe, Cripping the Neoliberal University – We need a Politics of Care, 10 February 2022

Tanja Wälty, Dealing with Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Neoliberal University, 25 January 2022

Alena Sander, Reconciling Care Work with an Academic Career at the Neoliberal University, 11 January 2022

“Gender, Sexuality, and Knowledge Production in Current Neoliberal and Authoritarian Regimes”: Call for Contributions to the Series, 18 October 2021


Citation: Mathias Foit, Whose History is it? The Challenges and Paradoxes of Studying Queer History in a Neoliberal and Nationalist Context, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.02.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/33460


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