Poland is in the midst of a pitched battle over its collective memory. The ruling party has recently stirred an international controversy by passing a bill criminalizing the use of the phrase “Polish death camps.” But in many ways, those international rifts are just collateral damage. The real battle is at home and is over what counts as legitimate political authority, and who can wield it.
Poland’s government is suggesting that the present-day cosmopolitan liberals who want to acknowledge Polish collaborators in crimes against Jews are traitors, like the Communists, willing to sell the nation to the highest international bidder. And such national mythmaking has more real-world power than many understand.
The “Polish death camps” law
For the past two weeks, the ruling Law and Justice party has been chastised internationally — including an unprecedented breakdown of relations with Israel — for its new amendment to the law on the National Institute of Remembrance (IPN). The IPN is a government institution established in 1998 to safeguard the archives of the Communist secret services and to prosecute crimes committed by past totalitarian regimes.
The new amendment makes it a crime to refer to Nazi concentration camps established during World War II in Poland as “Polish.” It also threatens legal punishment for anyone who publicly implies Poles’ involvement in Nazi crimes against Jews “against the established historical facts.”
It’s important to look more closely at that last phrase. Since taking power in October 2015, the government of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party has been consciously weaponizing Polish collective memory, turning it into an instrument of domestic politics and partisan polarization. PiS is establishing an official history that will shore up its own authority — and delegitimize its opposition.
Control of the official history gives more control over contemporary politics
Academics in the discipline of memory studies say that since communism collapsed in 1989, Poland has been a “fractured memory regime.” Many nations establish a firm, unifying narrative about their recent history, or at least allow for competing narratives to peacefully coexist. But for more than two decades, Poland’s democratic governments, mostly leftist or liberal, have stayed away from policies that frame the nation’s history. For instance, to this day, Poland has no single public holiday commemorating the successful passage to democracy.
Since its all-out electoral victory in October 2015, PiS has been pursuing a consistent strategy of memory. Consider what happened in December 2016, during a parliamentary crisis that brought tens of thousands of Poles into the streets. PiS enacted a regulation restricting journalists’ ability to cover parliamentary sessions. In protest, the opposition blocked access to the main parliamentary chamber. So PiS deputies assembled the parliamentarians in a different chamber to pass the 2017 budget. A massive public protest outside the building questioned whether, having been passed without a quorum that included the opposition, the bill was legal.
But Law and Justice pulled a sleight of hand: It also passed a bill to significantly reduce pension benefits for all Communist-era employees whose salaries had come through the Ministry of Internal Affairs. By voting on those bills at once, PiS was able to argue that the protesters weren’t fighting for democracy — but were defending the post-communist bureaucrats. The politics of the past was used as a weapon in the politics of the present.
Suggesting that Poland hasn’t been a real democracy until now
Since then, the conflict over Polish collective memory has expanded. In September 2017, the Institute of National Remembrance commissioned a four-minute computer animation called “The Unconquered,” with a heroic history of Poland since 1939. The short film has a modern look; its English version is narrated by Sean Bean of “Game of Thrones.”
But the movie gives a largely revisionist history. It focuses primarily on the wartime underground state and goes no further toward the present than the 1979 papal visit of John Paul II. “The Unconquered” makes no mention of the Solidarity trade union that was so significant in bringing down the Communist government. It doesn’t even mention Solidarity’s former president, Lech Walesa, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whom PiS has almost entirely erased from the public debate since files emerged that allegedly proved he collaborated with the Communist secret service. PiS uses that collaboration to replace Walesa as hero of the transition with the late Lech Kaczynski, former Polish president and twin brother of the PiS chairman.
So why would PiS leave out Solidarity and Walesa? Because it is painting itself as the heir to the noble Polish wartime resistance and the exclusive successor to the anti-Communist opposition. The founding myth of the PiS worldview is that the 1989 Round Table talks between the democratic opposition and Communist authorities, which laid foundations for Poland’s nonviolent transition to democracy, were in fact a betrayal — that the intellectuals and party bigwigs conspired to share power in the new regime.
PiS Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski argues that Poland never fully made a transition to democracy. Rather, in PiS’s view, since 1989 the country has been a para-democracy, a puppet state serving the interests of foreign powers. As the party politicians have stated many times in public, Poland gained complete sovereignty only when PiS took power — and is only now shaking off the authoritarian or oligarchic grip of the previous regimes. That’s why PiS is equating itself with the World War II-era resistance fighters, who saw their enemy clearly. It’s giving its constituency a noble myth in which they have been suffering under — and resisting — oppression since the Nazi invasion.
All this is what the sociological literature calls “memory layering.” Different, unrelated historical events are presented as if they were seamlessly part of one unified story.
As recently as December 2017, after President Andrzej Duda signed the laws fully subjecting the judiciary to political control, the current defense minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, announced the official end of communism in Poland. Last week, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that “Poland did not exist” in 1968, when Communist authorities expelled thousands of Jews from the country: That crime was a crime of the Communists, not of true Poles. In the PiS historical narrative, while Poland was under occupation — first by the Nazis, then by the Communists, then by the cosmopolitans — it was not responsible for those occupiers’ crimes.
It’s in that spirit that the new law bans any use of “Polish death camps” — not to annoy other nations, but to criminalize opponents who want to imply otherwise. The goal is to further polarize the nation politically, to ennoble its voters, and to quash the opposition. And with its support approaching 50 percent in polls, PiS is very unlikely to back down, no matter the outside pressure.
Mateusz Mazzini (@Mateo_Mazzini) is a doctoral candidate in sociology of memory at the Polish Academy of Sciences.