Jaroslaw Kurski and Piotr Stasinski embody the hope that once was Poland. They struggled against the Communist regime for years in the underground press and as Solidarity members. They built Gazeta Wyborcza, now one of the most influential newspapers in the country, after the 1989 fall of communism. They helped usher in a period of democracy and open debate, one that included cultural space for historians such as Jan Gross, a Polish-born American who courageously confronted the taboo topic of Polish complicity in the Nazi extermination of nearly all of Poland’s 3 million Jews.
And then neoliberalism, imposed by global capitalism and international banks, began to spread its poison. Legions of unemployed or underemployed were cast adrift. Two million Poles, many of them young people desperate for jobs, have left to work abroad. Governmental austerity programs devastated cultural institutions, including public schools, the arts and public broadcasting. And finally, following a familiar death spiral, the October 2015 elections brought to power the nationalists and demagogues of the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS). There is no left-wing party represented in the parliament.
Not much of Poland’s promise remains. PiS is rapidly rolling back constitutional rights. It blocks state media coverage of the fading political opposition, especially the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), which has held a series of protest demonstrations. PiS shamelessly uses the airwaves and the schools for rabid nationalist propaganda. The public broadcasting system—in which the party purged more than 100 staff members—twisted President Barack Obama’s recent criticism of the Polish government’s assault on the judiciary into praise for Polish democracy. And the ruling party has forced state institutions to cancel subscriptions to Gazeta Wyborcza and pressured distributors throughout the country not to display or sell copies of the newspaper.
“There is no longer genuine parliamentary debate,” Stasinski said when I met with him and Kurski at the Gazeta Wyborcza offices in Warsaw. “There are no longer checks and balances of power. The parliamentary system is dysfunctional. The Constitutional Court and judiciary are paralyzed. New laws passed by the parliament cannot be challenged or changed. The government is supposed to publish sentences of the Constitutional Court in The Journal of Laws [Dziennik Ustaw] for them to become legally effective. This is required by the Constitution. But the government, by not printing them, paralyzes the Constitutional Court, which has been reduced to announcing its sentences on the internet without any legal effect. It is a very dangerous time.”
“We operate under two systems of law,” said Kurski. “One is constitutional and legal. The other is unconstitutional and illegal. The problem is that the illegal and unconstitutional system runs the country.”
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the founder and head of the ruling party, governs Poland like a private fiefdom. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and President Andrzej Duda are political puppets. Kaczynski, reclusive and morbid, is referred to with fear or reverence as “the Chairman.” His words, and his obsessions, are law.
And it is not only Poland that is in trouble. Europe, especially EU countries on the fringes of the union, is devolving into proto-fascism. The Hungarian strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orban has destroyed his country’s democracy. Neofascist groups are gaining strength in France, the United Kingdom, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Greece.
These movements are rabidly xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic and homophobic, and they demonize immigrants and brand internal dissent as treason. When they take control they rely on ruthless internal security and surveillance systems—Poland has established 11 intelligence agencies—to crush dissent. They seek their identity in a terrifying new nationalism, often, as in Poland, coupled with a right-wing Catholicism. They preach hatred of the outsider and glorification of obedient and “true” patriots. This lurch to the right will be augmented in Poland later this year with the establishment of an armed militia of more than 30,000 whose loyalty, it seems certain, will be to the ruling party.
“If you are a Pole, you should be Catholic,” said Stasinski. “I’m not. So for some, I’m not a Pole.”
Poland, like Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, has rejected the European Union’s call for its nations to accept refugees fleeing the chaos in the Middle East. The ruling party in Poland employs rhetoric to describe Muslim immigrants that echoes prewar Polish anti-Semitism. Immigrants are condemned as diseased, painted as rapists and excoriated for supposedly having barbaric religious practices. When Gross, who teaches at Princeton University, decried the hate campaign against immigrants and made the links with anti-Semitism, reminding Poles that they killed more Jews than they killed Germans during the war, PiS began legal proceedings to challenge Gross’ assertions and called for his Polish Order of Merit to be revoked.
“It’s the same right-wing populist melody as in the United States,” said Stasinski. “Isolationism becomes appealing. Maybe there is something rotten in human nature. Maybe we are selfish people who don’t care about the other. Maybe this story about how we are Christian and altruistic is rubbish.
“There is a fear that grows from ignorance,” he said. “These parties manufacture and strengthen this resentment against those they allege are privileged and the powerful, as well as the European Union. They say these forces can’t tell us what to do. They say the nation-state should organize societal living, not global institutions. They say things are out of control. They say there is no real democracy. This leads to the mental and physical militarization of the society. The demagogues promise security. You are safe with us. We care about you. We care about your family. Chauvinism defines public discourse. We are a proud people. We are a proud nation. We don’t accept that other nations can humiliate us. The government devoted a hundred million zlotys to create a special foundation to defend Poland’s good name.”
Populist ideologies sweeping across Europe call for the redistribution of “power, prosperity and dignity,” all of which have been taken from the working class by neoliberalism, Kurski said. “And we saw what such ideologies did to Europe in the 1930s. They led to war.”
The Warsaw Rising Museum, dedicated to the failed 1944 armed uprising by the Home Army (AK) against the Nazis that left 200,000 Poles dead and saw the center of Warsaw razed, is the cornerstone of the rewriting of history and the state hagiography of the nation’s martyrdom. It was opened in 2005 as part of what is called the “repolonization” of the country. Schoolchildren and youth groups are bused from across the country for tours. The museum does not acknowledge Polish anti-Semitic crimes.
The museum was in part a reaction to Gross’ book “Neighbors,” published in 2000 in Poland. It told the story of Catholic Poles in the town of Jedwabne who on July 10, 1941, murdered their Jewish neighbors. The number of dead, including women and children, slaughtered with clubs, knives and axes or burned alive, was in the hundreds. And there were dozens of similar massacres of Jews by their Polish neighbors. The houses of the murdered Jews were plundered immediately. For decades, the killings were officially blamed on the German occupiers. Now, the public airing of these crimes has shattered the myth in Poland that Poles were solely heroic victims of the war. The nationalists have attacked the veracity of the accounts and called their publication an unforgivable humiliation.
In the museum, I walked past display cases of weapons and uniforms spread out over three dimly lit floors. I listened to the recorded sound of gunfire and watched the video interviews with former soldiers and other participants. The symbols of Catholicism and the Polish state were fused in display after display. There was a room dedicated to child martyrs wearing oversized helmets and clutching weapons. There were replicas of graves of the fallen. And there was a video of Pope John Paul II, who was Polish, likening the failed Warsaw uprising to the crucifixion of Jesus.
Only on the third floor, tucked away from the main exhibits, was there an oblique reference to Poland’s sinister past. It was a video interview with Marek Edelman, the deputy commander of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, who also fought in the 1944 uprising of Warsaw. He said he and other Jewish survivors from the ghetto were forced to fight alongside fringe elements of the Communist armed resistance during the 1944 uprising because the AK, now sanctified in the museum, did not accept Jews and refused to give them weapons. He mentioned a Jewish fighter who approached the AK and was shot dead. He said he went into hiding after the AK’s surrender to the Germans because the Polish commanders refused to guarantee that he and the other Jews would not be turned over to the Nazis. This, he said with stunning understatement, was “unfortunate.”
“Jewish citizens were treated by Catholic Poles as foreign elements, if not outright enemies,” said Elzbieta Janicka, a cultural anthropologist and author at the Institute of Slavic Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences. “Polish majority stances and behaviors proved to be an important factor within the German machinery of extermination. Sealing it, they made the extermination complete and irrevocable.”
But this truth about Polish history has been reburied with the rise of Polish right-wing populism. And the binary view of the world, split between the noble Poles and the evil Nazis, is being revived today.
“There is no such thing as human nature,” Janicka said to me. “Human nature is culture. It is a product of education. When you construct an educational system and a public discourse where there is an almost total lack of critical, analytical thinking, where you refuse to strengthen individual human beings capable of autonomous judgment, human beings aware of their experiences and feelings, responsible for their deeds and relationship to the other, you destroy what is fundamental to an open society. It becomes exclusively about collective image, meaning collective narcissism. Liberal pluralism from this perspective is viewed as moral relativism or nihilism. There is a clash in Poland between the formal and legal frame of liberal democracy and the majority dominant culture.
“This began before the current government. Catholicism—with its structural fixation on the Jews—is ingrained into the dominant model of the Polish national identity which did not undergo a laicization and citizen redefinition. Lech Walesa in the 1991 presidential campaign suggested his opponent [Tadeucz] Mazowiecki could be a Jew. Mazowiecki’s electoral staff made public baptismal certificates of his family lineage going back to the 16th century. People began to ask: ‘What about before the 16th century?’ In the final debate of the 2015 presidential campaign the first question the future winner asked his opponent concerned the official state acknowledgment of the Polish perpetration of the Jedwabne massacre.”
The nationalist myth is appealing to most Poles, not only those humiliated and marginalized by neoliberalism. It is used and manipulated by Polish proto-fascists in an attempt to compensate for the loss of social cohesion.
“There are almost no young people in KOD [the opposition Committee for the Defense of Democracy],” Janicka said. “The young people are mostly on the other side. They are nationalists. It is a direct consequence of the ethnic-religious perspective characteristic of the education they received in the independent Poland.”
Right-wing populism, with its heavy doses of self-adulation, requires an assault on historical memory. All that does not fit with the heroic narrative is purged. The minister of justice in 2000 halted exhumation at the site where Poles massacred Jews in Jedwabne. Anna Zalewska, the minister of education, who is overhauling school curricula, recently questioned whether Poles were involved in the Jedwabne massacre. She and the Polish defense minister, Antoni Macierewicz, have also questioned whether Poles were involved in the July 1946 Kielce pogrom, in which more than 40 Jews were accused of ritual murder and killed by Catholic residents of the city.
Overt anti-Semitism is publicly unacceptable in Poland, much as overt racism is unacceptable in the United States. But, as in the U.S., there are ways to speak in code.
“There is always a test of submission,” Janicka said. “Everyone who feels that he or she is a subtenant in this culture, that he or she does not have all of the rights to belonging, has to pass this test of submission. The test of submission means you have to say, ‘I’m normal. I’m a Polish patriot. I respect John Paul II and the Catholic Church. I’m against communism. I apologize for my parents who were Communists,’ and so forth. It doesn’t pay respect to a pluralist culture and society. It delegitimizes cultural critique as well as alternative social, economic projects.”
Over two days, I walked with Janicka through the streets of Warsaw to look at the handful of remnants of the Warsaw ghetto. Monuments to non-Jews, including one to the Polish soldiers who fought with the British army at Monte Cassino in Italy in World War II, are at many of the most important Jewish sites within the ghetto. The Monte Cassino monument, put up in 1999, is a headless Nike adorned with images that include Christian crosses and the Virgin Mary.
A crucifix is directly in front of the old tenement house at 20 Chlodna St., once the home of Adam Czerniakow. Czerniakow, head of the Warsaw ghetto Judenrat, killed himself on July 23, 1942, after the Germans demanded that he be involved in the mass extermination of the Jews of the ghetto.
“This [crucifix] is not an exception,” Janicka said as we stood under it. “The fields of Jewish ashes in Birkenau are dominated by the cross of the church set in one of the former camp buildings. There is a crucifix in the Plenary Hall of the Polish parliament. It is an illegitimate appropriation and a reminder about who is the host, ‘who is the guest and who is the enemy,’ as the serving Polish president has said in one of his recent speeches. As if the country does not have real problems it should face.”