After a decisive electoral victory in October 2015 by the conservative Law and Justice party (known by its Polish acronym PiS), the politics of memory became a policy priority in Poland.
Following more than two decades of negligence and avoidance when it came to the nation’s past, in which nearly all of Poland’s post-communist governments deemed it politically unrewarding to rouse historical demons and risk partisan support, the PiS government undertook an unprecedented project: re-narrating Poland’s recent history.
It definitely helped that PiS became the first party in post-communist Poland to rule without a coalition partner. Governing with no impediments, it was capable of not only producing its own narrative of Polish history but also using that historical revisionism as a tool to exacerbate the country’s already profound political polarization. Internally divided, with a society segmented into political tribes and a public space brimming with hatred, ever more distant from the core of European Union, and at loggerheads with almost all its neighbors, Poland today appears to be the antithesis of its own post-transitional success. Once a powerhouse of democratic institutions and liberal change, it is now slowly descending into a mafia-like state—much closer to the model of governance promoted by Moscow than by Brussels.
The founding myth of the PiS is the betrayal of the 1989 Round Table agreement. At the time, Poland’s democratic opposition came to terms with the communist leadership, cementing the latter’s eventual retreat from power. It’s true that the outgoing regime was indeed assured a comfortable passage into democracy, with substantial political privileges and economic handicaps still in their hands. But the agreement also provided for relinquishing power without spilling a single drop of blood, accepting democratic rules of the game, and agreeing on the country’s total independence from Moscow, despite several thousand Soviet troops still stationed there. The Round Table deal set the tone for Poland’s democratic transition that followed. It was a protracted, nonviolent process that paved the way for the first partially free democratic elections in the entire Eastern bloc, on July 4, 1989.
Yet for PiS politicians, the Round Table agreement represents a betrayal. Far from being the birthplace of Polish freedom, it was a rotten deal in which the soul of the nation was sold for political and economic privilege. Headed by PiS’s chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s politicians instituted a systemic campaign of questioning the entirety of Polish post-transitional record right after assuming power in 2015. During the first PiS government, ruling in the years 2005 to 2007, their views were much less primitive, while Kaczynski’s radicalism was tamed by his more moderate twin brother, Lech Kaczynski, then the country’s president.
In their eyes, the Round Table represents a mere change of labels, a secret, profoundly disgusting pact that the dominant, liberal-intellectual faction of the 1980s opposition—encompassing also ex-Communist Party members, Social Democrats, and former Marxists—established with the outgoing regime to allow the latter’s smooth transition into democracy. In the view of PiS, Round Table was an abandonment of the opposition, the society, and the Polish tradition of uncompromising freedom-fighting.
Kaczynski was the pivotal figure in all of this because he has played a major role both in the events of 1989 and in Poland’s recent illiberal turn. Once a co-architect of the Polish democratic framework, a high-profile functionary on Lech Walesa’s presidential team in early 1990s, Kaczynski for years suffered by being pushed onto the margins of nationwide politics by liberals and post-communists. His party’s 2015 victories allowed him to set the record straight—with his political adversaries, but most important, with history.
The rhetorical strategy of the current Polish government rests on three assumptions. First, it is profoundly revisionist. Since revisionism draws on noncognitive principles, it usually stands in direct opposition to established facts. It ignores them and serves a therapeutic purpose for society; it tells the good side of “our story” and forgets the bad one, so Poles can feel better about themselves. PiS employed historical revisionism to unilaterally define Polish-Jewish relations during World War II and in its immediate aftermath. According to PiS mythology, Poles as a nation risked their lives to give Jews shelter and safe passage, while no Polish nationals were complicit in crimes against them, despite ample historical evidence suggesting otherwise. What’s more, the government has sought to discredit the works of prominent historians and social scientists dealing with themes of Polish complicity, including Princeton University’s Jan Tomasz Gross, the University of Ottawa’s Jan Grabowski, and numerous others gathered around the world-class Center for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Second, it is exclusive in nature. PiS accepts no debate over Polish collective memory; its only goal is to make others subscribe to the party’s vision of history.
All other narratives need to be delegitimized or destroyed, while those who subscribe to them are in turn unworthy of membership in the Polish nation. The determination shown by Kaczynski’s party in creating its own national mythology is remarkably ironic, because it exhibits features more typical of a communist, totalitarian movement than of a party with social-conservative roots and claims of representing Christian democracy.
Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, provided a fitting example of these processes last March during a speech at the University of Warsaw, saying that the authorities of communist Poland were “not Polish,” and referring to the Jewish citizens of the country as “members of the nation of Polish Jews,” a completely artificial ethnic category made up in order to avoid admitting that a Pole can also be a Jew.
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