Resisting success
The Polish Failures Club

Failure as the motive behind the association: Piotr Mordel and Adam Gusawski from the Club of Polish Failure Photo: Darek Gontarski

The members of the Polish Failures Club in Berlin devote themselves with great zeal to examining failure. They analyze failure and highlight its positive aspects – and, of course, are never successful in their endeavors. Their story is told by our Havana-based author and colleague Michael Thoss.

Michael M. Thoss

“There are not many of our kind in the city, just a handful, perhaps a few dozen. The rest are success people, cool and cold-blooded specialists – whatever they do, they do it brilliantly,” is how Leszek Oswiecimski begins the “Small Manifesto of Polish Failures” that gave the club, founded in 2001, its name. Its origins can be traced back to a group of Polish artists who came to Berlin in the 1980s and would meet on a regular basis. To this day, the manifesto has remained the club’s guiding philosophy. To counter the cult of success, its members postulate a culture of failure:

“We endure the terror of other people’s perfection. Their presence intimidates us. That suits them extremely well for they live with the fear that they could lose the monopoly on creation that they claim for themselves.”

That said, the word “failure,” as translated from the Polish, also has a positive connotation: a nieudacznik can be a person who does not accomplish anything because he or she is restless. Polish nieudaczniks counter the urge for frenzied new beginnings, constant reinventions of themselves and continuous self-optimization for the sake of dubious success by reflecting on the necessity of failure as an integral part of life itself. After all, they believe that there can be no true, lasting success without failure and have devoted themselves to examining and analyzing failure and its positive aspects with great zeal since registering their club as a nonprofit organization in 2001.

Survey: How much do people in the state of Brandenburg know about Polish culture?

In 2007, the club, which the founding members Piotr Mordel and Adam Gusawski run on a voluntary basis to this day, moved within Berlin’s Mitte district from Torstrasse to Ackerstrasse. They themselves define their club as “a platform for analog communication, an experimental setup for anyone willing to take part.” Prior to the corona crisis, concerts, readings, talks, and parties were staged on a regular basis in their event room that has space for 70 to 100 people. According to the nonprofit organization’s website, its official language is “German and all other foreign languages.”

For many years, the Polish failures also appeared in their own radio program broadcast by the WDR’s Funkhaus Europa, as well as in live events such as Die Schizonationale and Leutnant Show. Over one hundred episodes of Gespräche mit einem interessanten Menschen and roughly 30 episodes of their interview series Umgefragt in Bernau can be found on their YouTube channel. A small town of just 38,000 inhabitants, Bernau is situated in the state of Brandenburg between Berlin and the Polish border and for years was the setting for the bizarre surveys they carried out to highlight deficiencies in German-Polish cultural exchange and to hone their resilience to frustration. The people of Bernau were unable to answer any of the questions about Polish culture – with the exception of one passer-by, who was from Poland herself. Although Mordel and Gusawski offered individual respondents as much as 1,000 euros to watch a Polish film with them, not a single Bernau resident accepted the offer. Nonetheless, in 2017 the Polish failures won third place in the Blauer Bär, a prize that is jointly awarded by Berlin’s Senate Administration and the European Commission in Germany to “people behind the scenes” for their European engagement.

“We stumble on a straight and even path” – a policy of failure

They also failed in their 2018 attempt to establish a pro-European Polish Party of Germany (PPD) and to use satirical shows to combat right-wing populism. When the initial funding provided by Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education was used up, they disbanded their party and founded the Federation of European Poles in Germany, formerly the Polish Party of Germany.

Was its failure foreseeable, or perhaps the secret objective of the PPD? – This is certainly suggested by the concept of the Polish failure club, which oscillates between a voluntary refusal to accept success and an involuntary failure to achieve success. The way the club members describe themselves in their manifesto hints at the same thing: “We – the weak, the less gifted, can hardly accomplish anything; we try to buy milk at the pharmacy and half a kilo of cheese at the hairdresser’s. Cars honk their horns at us, we stumble on a straight and even path, and we step in dog shit time after time, but it simply refuses to bring us any luck.”

Sometimes, when Mordel and Gusawski are overcome by Polish melancholy and regret not having earned more money and achieved fame with their club – as a number of currently sought-after and telegenic multicultural comedians have done – it is hard to tell whether it’s an expression of self-pity or coquetry. After all, if we assess their strategy of failure using the parameters of long-term success and lasting impact, we will be amazed to discover that their philosophy for life (indeed for survival) has been and remains more than successful.

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