The history of Poland is filled with tales of foreign invasion, partition and occupation. In the period between 1795, when the country was carved up between Tsarist Russia, Austria-Hungary and Prussia for the third time in a generation, and 1918 when it was reborn following the First World War, Poland completely disappeared off the European map. A mere 21 years later, it was torn asunder again through the cynical connivance of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. Over the course of the war, Poland became the theatre for some of the most brutal fighting, culminating in the wholesale destruction of many of its cities. In the vanguard of Eastern European countries fighting to shed the communist yoke in the 1980s, Poland is now proud of its membership of the European Union and NATO and sees its future squarely in the European realm.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that recent Russian belligerence in Ukraine and other former Soviet Republics has reawakened fears of instability on the eastern flank, causing many in this relatively new democracy to ponder the spectre of foreign interference and to worry about the country's preparedness. In April 2015 it was announced that six 50 metre high watch towers will be built along the country's border with Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, in response to the Russian deployment of Iskander short-range ballistic missiles there. Recent NATO exercises have focused on the region and the US Army also deployed a Patriot missile defence battery near Warsaw aimed at reassuring its allies in Eastern Europe.
The country's vulnerability seems to have filtered down the generations to Poland's youth since the past year has seen a surge in interest amongst younger people in organisations like Strzelec ('Rifleman'), a paramilitary cultural and educational organisation founded in 1910 and revived in 1991 after Poland's transition to democracy.
The movement, numbering around 10,000, is part of a larger network of around 120 citizens' militia organisation with a membership of around 80,000 people who train regularly with self-bought uniforms and equipment. Up until recently, the paramilitary organisations had little connection with the country's conventional forces who number some 100,000 with another 20,000 reservists ready to deploy in the case of an emergency. More recently, however, Poland's defence ministry has tried to bring the various forces together, calling a conference of some 500 representatives of various paramilitary organisations in order to coordinate the potential assistance they could give to the regular army in the case of war.
More and more secondary school pupils, university students and young professionals are choosing to spend their weekends at various kinds of camps, often using the facilities of local schools or sports clubs, to undergo military training, complete with pre-dawn reveille, plastic Kalashnikovs and countryside marches. For many, the camaraderie and the fitness element of the training is a big draw.
Yet a sense of pride and patriotism pervades the way Strzelec members speak about their experiences and this is reinforced by the oaths they take during training, declaring solemnly that they are willing to defend the motherland 'to the last breath.'
The paramilitary groups are by no means boys clubs; around a fifth of the membership is young women. And while Kiev's Euromaidan movement was undoubtedly a potent inspiration for Poland's youth, most Strzelec members are clear that their service is an expression of their patriotism rather than a knee-jerk reaction to troubling global developments. Having been born into a free and democratic Poland, most see the European Union as a positive aspect of modern Polish identity. They appreciate the free movement of people and the enjoy the diplomatic heft the union of 28 countries carries abroad.
Piotr Malecki met some of the young volunteers who are shoring up Poland's land defences at a time when the rules laid down for post-Cold War Europe are looking increasingly fragile.