Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo speaks at a press conference in Warsaw this month. (Radek Pietruszka/European Pressphoto Agency)
Deputy Editorial Page Editor

Americans have been slow to grasp that Europe’s familiar, centrist, European Union-centered political order is endangered. Poland’s new government could deliver a wake-up call.

It’s been just two weeks since Beata Szydlo, a mild-mannered parliamentarian from the right-wing Law and Justice party, was sworn in as the country’s prime minister. During that time, the administration nominally under her control has installed a new chief of the secret security services who was previously convicted of abuse of power for prosecuting political opponents, replaced five members of the Constitutional Court in order to avoid challenges to that first appointment, and named as defense minister an outspoken anti-Semite.

The new Polish culture minister tried to order a state-funded theater not to stage a play by Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek, claiming it was pornographic. When a television reporter questioned whether his edict was legal, the minister promised a purge of the reporter’s network as well as other state-supported news media. The new government spokeswoman meanwhile said she thought it would be a good idea to put former prime minister Donald Tusk — the current president of the European Council, the E.U.’s executive body — on trial.

As for the refugees now streaming toward Europe from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Szydlo has reneged on an E.U. plan under which 4,500 would be sent to Poland. Her mentor and Law and Justice’s real leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, rivals Donald Trump in his use of lies to stoke public fear of Muslims. He’s claimed that immigrants have imposed sharia in Sweden and that they might cause epidemics because they carry “various parasites and protozoa, which don’t affect their organisms, but could be dangerous here.”

Such rhetoric is having a visible effect, in the form of nasty anti-immigrant protests. At one, on Nov. 18 in the western city of Wroclaw, an effigy of a Jew dressed in Hasidic garb and holding the E.U. flag was burned. “Anti-Semites . . . are under the belief that they have support from this new government for such actions,” Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudich, told the Jerusalem Post.

What could explain this radical shift in a country known since 1989 for its firm embrace of the West, burgeoning prosperity, and growing influence within the E.U.? Partly it’s the odd post-communist politics of Poland: When voters grew tired of the previous, center-right government, the main alternative was not the still discredited left, but the more extreme right. But Poland’s turn is also part of a growing popular backlash against European institutions and their ideology of tolerance, one that extends from Greece to France.

Kaczynski, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, is the product of an ugly pre-World War II populism, frozen and preserved through the communist era, that mixes xenophobia, anti-Semitism, right-wing Catholicism and autocratic impulses. Conspiracy theories rule: Kaczynski’s center on the death of his brother Lech, Poland’s former president, who was killed with 95 others in a 2010 plane crash in Russia. I nvestigations pointed to pilot and controller errors during an ill-advised landing at a fog-bound airport.

For Kaczynski and his crew, however, it is an article of faith that the crash was the result of a plot involving Russia and perhaps Kaczynski’s rival, Tusk. Hence the call that Poland’s best known and most respected active statesman be criminally investigated. Other former government ministers fear that they may be targeted, along with leading journalists.

Other than Kaczinski himself, the leading proponent of the conspiracy theories is the new defense minister, Antoni Macierewicz, who in 2002 was asked about his views of t he Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “I am not a specialist on this, and so I can’t resolve this,” he answered . “But experience, Polish experience, especially in recent years, shows that there are such groups in Jewish circles who think in a cunning way and act deliberately to the detriment of, for example, Poland.”

If criminal investigations of Tusk and other Kaczynski enemies go forward, a key figure in them will likely be Mariusz Kaminski, who was installed in a new post as coordinator of all the secret security services. In his last job as head of an anti-corruption agency, Kaminski repeatedly tried and failed to bring criminal charges in political cases, leading to his conviction on charges of abuse of power. On receiving his new job, he was pardoned by the president, another Kaczynski loyalist, in what legal experts said was a constitutional violation. But no matter: On its fifth day in office, the government pushed through the appointment of five new judges to the Constitutional Court, without hearings or debate.

Liberal Poles are calling this a creeping coup d’etat. Perhaps they are overreacting. But the message for those who assume that leaders such as Angela Merkel and François Hollande will forever rule Europe is: Watch Warsaw.

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