Author Archives: Brian Porter-Szucs

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Three Cheers for Historical Ignorance

In recent years, pathbreaking websites like or have challenged the norms of journalism and punditry by introducing serious statistical analysis and rigorous background research to the public discourse. The writers who contribute to these sites are accessible, witty, and down-to-earth, but they refuse to accept conventional-wisdom generalizations about what “Americans” think or feel or do. They are always asking for the evidence—and when they get it, they often find that the assumptions of the intelligentsia are wildly mistaken.

This is painfully true in Poland as well, where even very smart writers and politicians routinely perpetuate overgeneralizations about what “the Poles” believe (as if “the Poles” were part of a hive mind). Recently more nuance has been noticeable, as people increasingly talk about two Polands, the nationalist-Catholic-rural Poland and the liberal-secular-urban Poland. This helps, but I think the real issue goes deeper.

A recent survey by CBOS provided an example of how deeply the Polish intelligentsia (and most international observers of Poland, who tend to base their impressions on conversations with those intellectuals) misunderstand the Polish population. I wish I had a złoty for every time I have heard someone say that “Poles are very religious” and “history is extraordinarily important to Poles.” I understand why people say that: a casual trip to the country gives one the impression that religious iconography is everywhere, and that historical commemorations are unusually common. But just because political leaders and other public figures promote a particular worldview does not mean that these attitudes will be shared.

The aforementioned survey started with a relatively easy question: “how often do you feel proud to be Polish?” Not surprisingly, 45% said “quite often” and 26% said “very often.” Only 4% said “never” and 22% “rarely.” The insight in this survey came with the next question: “what makes you proud to be Polish?” Respondents could list multiple answers. The most popular response (selected by 24%) pointed to victories by Polish athletes in international competitions. A mere 10% mentioned stories of historical heroism, and only 2% said that they were proud of their country’s Catholic religiosity and traditional values. 8% referred to the symbolism of the nation: the flag, the national anthem, etc.

If we combine this data with other statistical information, this general image is confirmed. We know that just over a third of Poles regularly attend mass (36.7%, according to the most recent figures), and that Poles are startlingly unaware of the historical episodes typically highlighted as seminal for that nation. For example, in a 2016 survey, only 21% were able to identify why 1863 was important, and only 57% recognized why 1989 was a significant year. Amazingly, 43% did not know what 1918 represented for Poland! To be sure, 82% could identify the meaning of 1939, and 74% knew what happened in 966. The only other widely recognized date was the battle of Grunwald in 1410. Moreover, historical awareness has fallen over the past 25 years. Only 966 and 1410 are more widely recognized today than they were in the late 1980s, while every other historical anniversary is less well known. When asked to name the most important historical events of the past century (they could name more than one), only 23% pointed to WWII, and only 8% mentioned the Warsaw Uprising (the most omnipresent event in official public memory). Oddly, just over half said that Poland’s restoration in 1918 was most important, though based on that earlier question, it seems that the remainder didn’t even know what happened in that year. 43% pointed to the election of John Paul II, 33% highlighted Poland’s entry to the European Union, and 30% noted the fall of communism.

I suspect that this same survey would get somewhat different responses today, because the PiS government has been relentless in its promotion of the idea that Poland’s national essence was and is defined by its collective martyrdom during WWII. But we need to recognize this for what it is: a PR campaign organized by state authorities, reflecting the preoccupations of a minority. Admittedly, a substantial minority–but not a majority, and certainly not “the nation” as a cohesive whole.

You might expect that a historian like me would lament the low level of historical knowledge among Poles, but in fact I think it is wonderful. Since the dominant historical stories are marked by martyrology and nationalist resentment, a sober forgetfulness is both healthy and rational. For most Poles, patriotism means cheering the red-and-white in the World Cup (but let’s not talk about that) or the European Track-and-Field Championships this week in Berlin (let’s definitely talk about that). During the 2012 Euro-cup hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine (in what feels like a completely different historical epoch now), I wrote that Polish patriotism had matured by becoming more juvenile. Instead of politically charged, lachrymose, nationalistic bombast designed to nurture resentments towards external and internal enemies, it seemed that people were starting to treat Polishness as something to cheer about, not fight about. Sure, some hooligans tried to turn the former into the latter, but they were a tiny minority (contrary to the misleading international press coverage at the time). Now those hooligans enjoy the backing of the state, and it is easy to imagine that their attitudes define Polishness as a whole. Perhaps I overstated the magnitude of the transformation back in 2012, but the survey data mentioned above shows that the resurgence in nationalist-Catholic martyrology remains a thin veneer that has not yet come to characterize widespread popular attitudes.

If the PiS regime lasts beyond one parliamentary term,  and continues to marginalize alternative worldviews (particularly in the school system), then their worldview could become more deeply entrenched. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet. It is also possible (maybe even likely) that interest in history will go down as the schools focus more on the memorization of names and dates from heroic stories, and as the media is increasingly saturated with tendentious stories about a pantheon of Great Poles. The eye-rolling boredom of teenagers will do more to scuttle Mr. Kaczyński’s historical politics than any complaints by professional historians. Hope for the future rests on the ability of the next generation to forget what they are taught in school, and instead pay attention to sports.  That strikes me as a solid foundation for optimism.   

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Public Opinion is Irrelevant

Ok, public opinion is not irrelevant – that’s a clickbait headline. But it really is the case that public opinion is not going to be the key factor in determining the outcome of the regional and local elections that will be held in Poland in late October or early November.

Calling these “regional and local elections” is misleading. Yes, the offices up for grabs include the governors and the provincial assemblies for Poland’s 16 województwa, along with the mayors and town councils for every municipality in the country (from the smallest village to the largest cities). Parliamentary and presidential elections won’t come until 2019, and in the past those have been the elections that mattered. This time, however, the local has been nationalized. I think every politician in the country realizes by now that the results of this year’s vote will be crucial on a number of levels.

First, the democratic opposition desperately needs to demonstrate that PiS can be stopped. Since Jarosław Kaczyński took power in 2015, he has shown that he can violate Poland’s constitution with impunity and seize control of nearly every lever of power in the country. He and his lieutenants have violated both norms and laws without compunction, daring anyone to stop them. No one, neither within Poland nor in Brussels, has figured out how to do so. Since the supporters of liberal constitutional democracy believe in following legal procedures, there is little they can do when faced with an opponent who has no such compunctions. This fall we will see the first elections since 2015, and if the anti-PiS forces are defeated at the ballot box on top of everything else, it is hard to see a path forward that will restore constitutional rule and liberal democracy in Poland.

Aside from the issue of morale and symbolism, there is real power at stake. Poland is not, yet, an entirely centralized country. Independent local and regional self-government was established after the fall of communism precisely to serve as a bulwark against the sort of authoritarianism Kaczyński is trying to impose. Since the województwa and the cities have their own autonomous budgets, they have been able to blunt some of the force of the PiS takeover. This is mainly because most of them are still controlled by PiS opponents. In the last elections, PiS was only able to come out on top in five provincial assemblies (out of 16). Even there, they were short of majorities, and in four out of the five they were unable to find coalition partners. In other words, they currently control the government of only one województwa (Podkarpacie, in the southeast tip of the country). Meanwhile, the cities have never been friendly territory for PiS, and they occupy the mayor’s office in a mere 11 out of 107 municipalities (the largest being Nowy Sącz, with just under 85,000 people).

Since PiS is so weak at the local and regional level, they are almost certain to improve their situation—there’s nowhere for them to go but up. Given that all the public Polish TV and radio channels have been converted into partisan mouthpieces for the regime, and considering the relatively strong economy, they should certainly be able to gain more votes than they did in 2014. Nationally, they have hovered around 38%, precisely the percentage they won in the 2015 parliamentary elections. They haven’t lost any support, nor have they had any lasting gains. But that support is not evenly distributed. In a few województwa (according to a recent survey by IBRIS) they are more popular than they were at the time of the last local and regional elections, while in several others they have fallen. Nowhere—not even Podkarpacie—does PiS enjoy the support of a majority, and in only two provinces do they top 40%. This general picture is not likely to change between now and October. PiS will be short of a majority everywhere, so everything depends on how the remaining political parties behave.

The two large liberal parties in Poland, Civic Platform and Nowoczesna, have already established an electoral alliance for the regional and local elections. That will not be enough. The vagaries of local elections are extremely complex, with polling that can never be as reliable as national polling. But just playing with the numbers IBRIS has given us, this alliance will likely be able to govern in only four województwa. Meanwhile, PiS should be able to govern in 10, assuming they can build coalitions with a smaller right-wing party. The two remaining provinces are too close to call.

But here’s the real news: if the PO/Nowoczesna alliance were expanded to include the agrarian party (Polskie Partia Ludowa, or PSL) and the social democrats (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, or SLD), such a coalition would form a government in 15 out of 16 województwa.

Averaging across the country, the aforementioned IBRIS survey shows PiS at 34%, PO/N at 26%, SDL at 10%, and PSL at 12%. This should not be surprising. It roughly reflects the balance of forces that has existed for the past several years. Unlike Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary, Kaczyński’s PiS does not have, and is unlikely to ever have, the support of the majority of Poles. On the other hand, neither are they likely to ever fall much below a third of the electorate. So the choice for everyone else is stark: will they set aside their (very real and substantive) differences in order to defend democracy, establishing a wall of isolation around PiS? Or will they stick to the old norms of politics and maneuver to maximize their own party’s position? Neither SLD nor PSL are likely to overtake the liberal PO/Nowoczesna coalition, but the latter alliance on its own cannot defeat PiS. Everything depends on how the politicians deal with this reality—because they aren’t going to substantially change it.

In 2015, PiS did not win because they convinced a majority of the electorate to support their vision for anti-liberal authoritarianism and nationalism. They conducted an overtly misleading moderate campaign, and even then they only got 38% of the vote. Their majority rests on the electoral rules that eliminates all parties earning fewer than 5%, then distributing their votes among the large parties.  This transformed that 38% into 51% of the parliamentary delegates. The gap between overall voter preference and the actual results was cavernous.

The same thing could easily happen again this Fall. If the smaller parties strive to go it alone, the electoral system will swallow them up and PiS might end up winning in most of the województwa. Even if those parties don’t end up below the 5% mark, they may or may not agree to an anti-PiS coalition. But if they do, they’ll govern in 15/16 provinces. Either of the maps below is possible under exactly the same distribution of the popular vote.

In other words, Poland’s fate is only partially in the hands of the voters. Much more depends on the political choices—and compromises—that the politicians offer them.

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Commemorating the Warsaw Uprising in 2018 (update)

After writing up my impressions of yesterday, I learned that I had missed one of the key events of the day.  A much larger ONR gathering had taken place a bit earlier at an intersection in Warsaw’s commercial center (scandalously named the “Dmowski Roundabout.”).  Again it is impossible to estimate the size of the crowd, because that’s always a crowded space and many of those present were wearing anti-fascist stickers to protest the presence of the ONR.  Regardless, there were easily a thousand or so ONR supporters present.  When they tried to march downtown for a planned convergence on Castle Square for the concert I wrote about yesterday, they were blocked by city police.  A spokesman for Warsaw stated that the group was propagating hate-speech and was therefore prohibited from marching. After a tense standoff, the ONR members walked along the sidewalks to the Castle Square, but quite a few just went home.  The noteworthy aspect of this story is that the municipal government, which is still controlled by liberals opposed to Poland’s authoritarian regime, was able to act with decency and independence.  Just because the ruling party at the moment is opposed to liberal democracy, that doesn’t mean that all aspects of public life have been (yet) subsumed by Mr. Kaczyński. It’s hard to remain optimistic, however. The city had the legal (not to mention moral) right to ban that march, but if the ONR had challenged that right in court, the case would have gone to a legal system which is now completely controlled by the ruling party. It is hard to imagine anything resembling a fair trial under these circumstances.  My first reaction to the story of the blocked ONR march was to recall how vitally important the local self-government elections later this year will be.  If the elections are free and fair (a big “if”), the opposition is heavily favored to win in Warsaw and the other major cities. But my second reaction to the story is to remember that the judicial system is now a mere arm of the ruling party, so local self-government will be operating in highly constrained circumstances.  Yesterday’s episode went well, all things considered, but the future remains grim.

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Commemorating the Warsaw Uprising in 2018

August 1 is the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, an attempt by Polish underground partisan units to liberate the capital city from Nazi rule before the Soviets could arrive. It has become the cornerstone of the current Polish regime’s memory politics, because it has all the elements that they like to promote: a sense of dual victimization from both Nazis and Soviets; a resentment towards the Western Powers for not intervening; a story filled with suffering and pain; and of course a martyrological conclusion. The iconic illustrations on posters all over Warsaw this week are of young people who died during the fighting—the ideal innocent victims. I’ve written often enough about why I consider this martyrological historical vision to be harmful, so I won’t rehearse those arguments here. What I want to note instead are three events that I noticed while walking around downtown Warsaw this evening.

The first was on Piłsudski Square, where the official commemorations were staged. Tens of thousands of people gathered to hear a concert of songs composed during the occupation, most of which had lyrics complaining about hardship and oppression. Truthfully, though, I don’t think the lyrics mattered all that much to this audience. Towards the edge of the crowd it was hard to make out what the singers were saying, and the jazzy tunes of mid-20th pop music were more prominent than the words. The proliferation of Polish flags and Uprising iconography ensured that the event was more than just a fun picnic, but the mood was not nearly as lachrymose as August 1 events typically are.

On Castle Square, about a mile away, the mood was very different. Here a small crowd had gathered to listen to heavily amplified metal and rap versions of songs from the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne, or NSZ), a far-right splinter group from the 1940s that broke away from the mainstream Polish opposition, the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, or AK). The NSZ resented the fact that the AK expressed sympathy with the Jews, and hoped instead to build a postwar Poland that would put the finishing touches on Hitler’s plans by ensuring that the Jews would never return to Polish lands. In their political ideology they echoed Fascist and Nazi themes of authoritarianism and nationalism, and they were vehemently anti-socialist, anti-liberal, and anti-modern. The memory of the NSZ is currently being whitewashed by the Polish government, which hopes to win the votes of their 21st century heirs, the National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny, or ONR). Disturbingly, alongside the young men participating in the show were at least two Catholic priests. I don’t want to overstate the importance of the ONR. It’s hard to know how many of the crowd affiliated with that group, given that the majority of the onlookers were curious and clueless tourists, but I would guess that no more than 50 ONR members were there.

The third gathering was the saddest of all. About 100 meters away were a tiny cluster of antifascist protesters who had hoped to decry the defilement of Castle Square by the ONR. Again, It’s hard to know how many of them there were, but there couldn’t have been more than a dozen. They were vastly outnumbered by the police who had surrounded them, so as to prevent them from approaching the ONR concert. In contrast to the young men on the square, these counter-protesters were mostly my age (let’s call that “late middle age”), and mostly women.

One interpretation of these three snapshots would be that most Varsovians treat August 1 as a banal historical anniversary, and an opportunity for a pleasant concert on a warm summer evening. Both the politicized events were tiny and insignificant, and both were taking place under careful supervision by the police (who intervened in the ONR show when someone lit a red smoke torch). I would be thrilled if this depoliticized, content-free approach was taking hold. It might seem strange for a historian like me to say, but I can’t wait until history becomes boring again in Poland. At least in this country, when history comes alive, bad things tend to follow.

But I fear that we are a long way from turning August 1 (or November 11, or May 3, or any other major anniversary) into holidays akin to America’s infamously vacuous grilling-and-fireworks fest of July 4. The critical mass of Varsovians at the main concert were just expressing respect and benign patriotism, but note how the overall terrain has shifted. People openly evoking the memory of mid-20th century fascists are able to hold a legally authorized demonstration on Warsaw’s most central historical and tourist landmark, while almost no one reacts (and those who do get cordoned off far, far away). It is no secret that many people in the current government consider the ONR to be little more than a somewhat overexuberant youth movement, made up of kids with good intentions but a bad public relations strategy. The vast majority of Poles would oppose the ONR, and if they were ever shown the NSZ program from the 1940s, they would be horrified. Yet most are happy to ignore the radicals, even as such extremist ideas creep closer and closer into official discourse. After all, the concert of wartime songs was so much nicer, and the stories of martyrdom bring a cathartic and patriotic tear to everyone’s eyes. Why pay attention to a few nutcases with bad music?

This is how authoritarian ideologies work: not by convincing good people to believe in extremist ideas, but by shifting the center of gravity so that such ideas appear to be little more unfortunate excesses. I’ve written elsewhere that authoritarian regimes don’t typically oppress the majority; instead, they break down the safeguards that allow minorities to live in safety.  Allowing the ONR to occupy Castle Square while establishing a police cordon around a few antifascist protesters is an eloquent example of this pattern.

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Gazeta Wyborcza and the Wall Street Journal

When I visited the website for Gazeta Wyborcza this morning, I was certain that someone had hacked their servers: staring back at me on my computer screen was the announcement of a cooperative agreement between Poland’s most prominent daily and the Wall Street Journal. Henceforth we would be able to read Polish translations of the main stories from WSJ, and GW subscribers who spoke English could get a special price for access to the paywall-protected American paper.

I was suddenly transported back to the 1980s, when Polish labor activists praised Ronald Reagan even as he was crushing the American union movement. That attitude was based on a combination of unfamiliarity with (or disinterest in) Reagan’s actual policies and a belief in the maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Few truisms are less true. In fact, I would venture to say that this slogan has led humanity down more dark paths than any other cliché. It was what conservatives said in 1933 as they handed power to Hitler; it was what many Western leftists said when they refused to denounce Stalin; it was what mainstream Republicans said in 2016 as they backed Trump.

I want to scream to the staff at Gazeta Wyborcza: the Wall Street Journal is not your friend! For that matter, it isn’t even the enemy of your enemy.

Anyone who thinks that the WSJ is just another major American newspaper, comparable to the New York Times or the Washington Post, has not been paying attention. Let’s remember that this is a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose malevolent role in our media culture (as owner of Fox News) is well known. This is a paper run by Gerard Baker, who has instructed the news staff to downplay negative coverage of Trump, and to use euphemisms to cover up his outrages. This is a paper that has been steadily losing staff this past year, thanks to resignations in protest of the editorial efforts to normalize Trump.

In fairness, the Journal represents the so-called “mainstream” wing of the Republican Party, and there have been moments of tension between the paper and the Trump administration. But the same can be said for Republicans in Congress, who have occasionally expressed their distaste with the more vulgar aspects of the administration while dutifully bowing to Trump’s will on every single significant issue. There are still good journalists at the Journal, and there is still some space between the opinion page (which has long been the domain of the far-right) and the news section. Nonetheless, Murdoch’s ownership and Baker’s editorial direction cannot be simply ignored. In Poland, there is a vast difference between Rydzyk and Gowin, but at this point surely no one would dispute that both have made vital contributions to the devastation that PiS has brought to Poland.

The Wall Street Journal, like the rest of the Republican “establishment,” cannot escape their complicity in creating the ideological landscape out of which Trump emerged. Since November 8, 2016, they have helped legitimize his administration even as they have occasionally disagreed with some of his more outrageous moves.

It might be easy to dismiss what I have written here as the ranting of a lefty who wants to silence voices from the right. It is true that my sympathies are with the left, as any reader of this blog knows already, but I firmly believe that there must be a space for reasonable debate between people of different ideological perspectives. This isn’t about reasonable debate. The Republican Party (and thus by extension the Wall Street Journal) cannot embrace the likes of Donald Trump and then declare that the window of accepted debate has just shifted. Trump, like Kaczyński, Orbán, Putin, Erdogan, and so on, were once considered beyond the pale – and they still are. Gaining power doesn’t mean that we must now treat their ideas as normal, acceptable points of view. Quite the contrary: now more than ever we must be very clear where the bounds of the acceptable end.

Those who collaborate with these regimes have a right to state their views, and I would never support any attempt to censor them. I don’t even agree with those who use a “heckler’s veto” to prevent such people from speaking. But Gazeta Wyborcza has gone a major step further: it has openly entered into a partnership with the Journal, and thus endorsed its views. The announcement linked to in the first paragraph presents the paper as if it were an entirely unproblematic exemplar of journalistic excellence, citing the Pulitzers its reporters have won as evidence. Yes, this very wealthy news organization can afford to hire some excellent reporters, and taken in isolation their work is often quite good. But cherry-picking the occasional investigative piece does not change the overall picture.

I am sincerely dumbfounded by the GW-WSJ alliance. Does it reflect mere ignorance about the position of the Journal in the US? Is it an attempt to find international support among people with strong right-wing bona fides in anticipation of a looming fight with the PiS regime? That second explanation strikes me as more plausible, particularly given what we have heard about the soon-to-be-announced media law. If that’s correct, it seems like a thin branch to cling to. The Journal has done precious little to defend democracy in the US. Can we really expect it to do so in Poland? Anyway, what could it do? International pressure has accomplished nothing so far, regardless of where it came from.

I haven’t cancelled my subscription to Gazeta Wyborcza yet. I’m waiting to see if there is any outcry over this unfortunate decision, because that might lead to a reconsideration. At least I’d like to see a public acknowledgement that this deal was made with full awareness that the Journal represents the polar opposite of everything Gazeta claims to stand for. Then perhaps we can learn how such a deal with the devil can be justified.

Another American paper, the Washington Post, adopted a new slogan for the Trump era: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Up until now, I was convinced that Gazeta Wyborcza (for all the quibbles I might have about aspects of its coverage) was a source of light for Poland’s democracy. I still want to believe that. But can one ward off the darkness in one country, while embracing its proponents in another?

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Back to School

Polish children have now finished the first week of the 2017-2018 academic year, and we can start to assess the impact of the “reforms” introduced by the PiS government. This story is a microcosm of the broader process of dismantling liberal democracy and building a nationalist one-party state. It is also a story about how resistance to that state is taking shape.

From the outside, the aspect of the PiS program might seem puzzling. The biggest change introduced by Education Minister Anna Zalewska was structural. The system in place since 1999 consisted of six years of elementary school, three years of middle school, and 2-4 years of high school (with different options depending on a child’s career goals). Zalewska abolished this, rolling the structure back to what it was during the communist era. Henceforth there will once again be eight years of elementary school, followed by 2-5 years of secondary school. Beginning with this academic year, no new students will be admitted to middle schools, and by 2019 they will cease to exist.

There are arguments to be made for and against both structures, but on the surface the whole debate seems arcane when set alongside more obviously urgent issues like last summer’s dismantling of the independent judiciary or the government’s upcoming attempt to break up the opposition media (promised for this fall). Of all the issues determining the quality of an education, whether middle school is separated from elementary school seems rather far down the list.

But this does matter, because the changes have ramifications that might not be evident to the casual observer. According to Poland’s largest teacher’s union, so far this year 9,389 teachers have lost their jobs, and 22,087 teachers have been reduced to part-time work. Minister Zalewska rejects these statistics, insisting that there are thousands of jobs currently being advertised for teachers, and that at least 10,000 new ones will open up in the next year or two. Whether her promise comes true is beside the point, because even under her rosiest scenario, the main accomplishment of the changes will have been realized: school administrators (subordinated to her Ministry) will make the hiring decisions. One can only imagine what it must be like for a teacher in Poland today, even those in elementary or high schools not directly threatened by this round of reforms. Like the employees in public administration or the state media in 2016, or judges earlier this year, the teachers now understand that their continued employment depends on their loyalty.

This does not mean that everyone is being tightly monitored, nor that Poland is becoming some sort of totalitarian state. In fact, the revised textbooks for this school year suggest that authors and publishers are trying to minimize ideological baggage and mitigate the worst aspects of the regime’s worldview. For example, in one popular history textbook, Lech Wałęsa is still praised as the leader of the Solidarity movement, despite the fact that the government wants to erase him from public memory. The new guidelines for history teaching include references to only three women: Dobrawa (who, as the wife of Mieszko I, helped bring Christianity to Poland), St. Jadwiga, and Marie Skłodowska-Curie. The masculinization of Poland’s story is accompanied by an almost exclusive emphasis on military and political history, with topics like science, culture, and everyday life marginalized. Yet this new textbook, while ostensibly adjusting to these demands, has found ways to push back. For example, a discussion of Józef Piłsudski is supplemented by extensive coverage of the professional accomplishments of his daughters, and the presentation of Skłodowska-Curie is expanded with details about her public service work. The overwhelming majority of the material remains unchanged from last year, even if much of it no longer has an obvious relevance to the Ministry’s guidelines.

Minister Zalewska has said that her priority is to return “the history and literature of the fatherland” to the educational system (as if they weren’t there already). To accomplish this, the list of required literary works has been expanded, with particular attention to the 19th century classics. It is going to be a lot harder to cover all the mandatory material, and critical literary analysis will inevitably be curtailed. Nonetheless, there will be abundant material that could potentially challenge the nationalist worldview of the current government. Just as during the communist era, literature will provide openings for resistance, at least for those students who aren’t bored to passivity by archaic and difficult prose. But perhaps that’s the point: the cultural elites can enjoy the thrill of oppositional readings, while accessible popular culture remains under the control of the state authorities.

For years, historians in the US have been debunking the concept of totalitarianism, even as many of our colleagues in Poland continued to use the concept. Now, with an authoritarian party pushing an all-encompassing vision of national homogeneity, it might seem like we should repent. Perhaps I’m just stubborn, but I’m not ready for any mea culpas yet. If we set up totalitarianism as our fear, then it is easy to dismiss concerns about what is happening in Poland. There is and will continue to be dissent and diverse viewpoints in Poland, even if our worst nightmares about the future of the PiS government come true. It will always be possible to teach against the grain, even as the Ministry of Education grows increasingly powerful. It will always be possible to live autonomous private lives, even as public displays of tendentious nationalism grow more pervasive. The danger is not an oppressive thought-police, or even the transformation of the schools and the media into channels of indoctrination. I’m frustrated that this is what they are becoming, but not because I fear that they will effectively fulfil their mission. In fact, they almost certainly won’t, and future historians will doubtlessly study the cracks, tensions, and contradictions within the actual workings of the propaganda apparatus. The state PiS is building is not one in which dissent will become impossible, much less unthinkable. The state they are building is one in which dissent will be pointless. In this regard, Jarosław Kaczyński shares the same goals as his predecessors from the Polish People’s Republic, but he is far more crafty in implementing those goals. He isn’t creating any new martyrs for democracy, nor is he going to violently silent opposition voices. He is just building a system in which those voices will talk only to each other. As in Hungary or Russia today, Poland is becoming a country where you can say what you want, as long as you accept that no one with real power cares what you think.

The pictures below, which I took on August 10, are the perfect illustration for life in Poland today. In preparation for yet another commemoration of the Smolensk plane crash—an event that in any other contexts would be a public ceremony—the government brought thousands of police into Warsaw to create a cordon beyond which only approved Party members could go. Outside the barriers, the opposition could protest, or people could simply decide to ignore what the Party loyalists were doing. But only events inside the cordon would appear on the state media, and only the people there would have any power.

As the school year begins in Poland, teachers now understand that these cordons are firmly in place. It isn’t required that they all join the Party loyalists inside the barricades. They can even stand aside and mutter their dissatisfaction to their friends. But their continued employment depends on their acknowledgment that the lines exist, and cannot be crossed.

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Is this the end?

I won’t recapitulate the dramatic events of the past week; they were summarized nicely in an article from Friday on Suffice it to say that Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawidliwość, or PiS), has now fully consolidated his control over Poland. After neutralizing the Constitutional Tribunal and transforming the public media into a tendentious propaganda outlet, the state has now subordinated the remainder of the judiciary. Henceforth, all judges will hold their positions at the government’s discretion. The highest appellate court (which in Poland is distinct from the Constitutional Tribunal), will now consist of people who owe their jobs to PiS, and can be removed at any time.

Today (Sunday, July 16) there were large protest demonstrations in all of Poland’s major cities. I was present for the Warsaw event; here are some photographs:

PiS controls the public media in Poland, which means that most people watching on TV saw messages like this scrolling across their screens:

“The opposition attempts to organize a coup against the democratically elected government”

“The opposition announces that it will break the law”

“Shocking announcement by opposition militants”

Lest there be any doubt: I was there, and can confirm that these are not just misleading “spin,” but bald-faced lies. Not that it matters: all those watching the official state TV have already been primed to accept this rhetoric at face value. The rest of the population watches private TV networks where independent reporting is still possible, but there is virtually no overlap between the two audiences. It is unclear whether this propaganda is only designed to shore up support among the PiS base, or whether there are plans to use the new power over the courts to actually prosecute opposition activists. Certainly, the charge that the protests constitute an attempt by “militants” to overthrow the government would open the door to such extreme measures.

My own suspicion is that few (if any) arrests will be forthcoming, because they are not necessary. There have been multiple protests since PiS took power, and the government simply ignores them. Mr. Kaczyński now controls the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; he now controls the police and the military; he now controls enough of the media to guarantee that his message dominates the agenda. Although he does not directly control the Catholic Church, his supporters in the clergy do. Barring protests massive enough to actually disrupt the regular flow of life (and those are unlikely), the government can simply go about its business.

Many in the opposition had been looking to the local and regional elections next year as an opportunity to slow down the assault on liberal democracy. I fear that those hopes are now in vain. The government has already tried to bring down some popular local politicians with trumped-up corruption accusations, but until now that hasn’t worked because the cases have been blocked by the judiciary. That will no longer be a problem, so we can anticipate a wave of trials that will compromise, even if they don’t actually imprison, key figures in the opposition. Moreover, the PiS-controlled courts will be the ones to judge any accusations of electoral fraud. It is inconceivable that they will lift a finger against future irregularities. Ironically, even if PiS legitimately wins, such a victory will now be under a cloud. My expectation is that PiS will claim victory in the elections next year, and in the parliamentary elections that come a year after that. The opposition will be taught that resistance is futile, and more and more Poles will join PiS in order to remain plugged into the system of patronage. They will then support PiS in future elections, because if the government does ever fall, all those who gained positions under its auspices will fall as well.

The III Polish Republic that was established in 1989 has now come to an end, for all practical purposes. The constitution is a dead letter, and there are no longer any open doors for meaningful political contestation. Symbolic opposition—sure. Angry articles in the press and public expressions of dissent will continue. But the sort of resistance that can have an impact of policy or act as a constraint on the will of the leadership—that’s over.

If the III Republic is gone, what do we have now? What will the “IV Republic” be like? Supporters of the government insist that they believe in democracy, and in a sense, they do. Theirs is a democracy in which “the sovereign” (their preferred term for “the people”) has ultimate authority over all things. The sovereign selects a government, and anyone who opposes that government thereby challenges the democratic will of the people. There can be no legitimate democratic opposition, by definition. This is the essence of “illiberal democracy.”

On the surface, life is going to proceed without dramatic changes for most people. For those in the majority, that’s always been the case in illiberal regimes. The image of the communist era as a time of “totalitarianism” was misleading precisely because it suggested a reign of omnipresent terror and oppression. In reality, the vast majority of people in the Polish People’s Republic didn’t need to worry about the state’s apparatus of repression, and the same will be true in the new IV Republic. The minorities are the ones who will suffer: ethnic minorities, ideological minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities. They may (or may not) be “tolerated” by the state. But it will not be their state.

Like many people, I thought Poland had turned a corner in the 21st century, and that the country had consolidated a system of constitutional democracy based on the rule of law and respect for diversity, individual rights, and European political norms. I continue to believe that most Poles, or at least a very large minority, share these values. I continue to firmly reject any suggestion that Poland is inevitably destined to sit on Europe’s periphery, prevented from integration by some sort of inherent “backwardness”.  Nonetheless, I’m forced to acknowledge that for the foreseeable future, this is Kaczyński’s country.

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Trump is NOT popular in Poland

The following was published at *The Conversation*, a site which I urge everyone to visit. It provides a great opportunity for academics who want to try writing for a broader audience, and for readers who would like to read first-hand the work of experts without sifting through academic articles. 


As Donald Trump began speaking in Warsaw at noon on July 6, I was sitting in my apartment a few blocks away.

Police helicopters kept buzzing past my building, and nearly all the main streets were blocked off. A government-sponsored “picnic” was being staged in a field near the National Stadium to celebrate Trump’s visit, and supporters of the ruling party had been bused in. That sort of artificial display of enthusiasm is necessary because Trump is definitely not popular here.

This visit has sparked familiar stories about Poland being the most pro-American country in Europe. CNN ran a story depicting Poland and its neighbors as inherently friendly to Trump’s brand of far-right nationalism.

I’ve been writing about Polish history for nearly 30 years, so I wasn’t at all surprised by this. It fits with the often repeated argument that the former Soviet bloc countries were never truly ready to accept the liberal democratic norms of the more “civilized” West.

Poland’s de facto authoritarian ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński, said last week that other European countries “envy Poland” because Trump decided to visit here. Polish president Andrzej Duda – who is, in reality, less powerful than Kaczyński – said that the American president’s support will strengthen Poland’s position internationally.

It is hard for me to imagine how this could be true. Given the deep distrust of Trump among European leaders, and the overall contemptwith which he is viewed across the continent, the only possible outcome of Trump’s visit is to further Poland’s isolation within the European Union.

Here’s the problem as I see it: The Polish government is giving ammunition to entrenched stereotypes about Poles as backward, undemocratic, bigoted and uncultured. And the Western press, while extremely critical of Kaczyński’s assault on European norms, creates a feedback loop for his claim that he represents the true Poland.

He does not.

A Warsaw bus stop ad reads: ‘This is not a cap; it is an invitation to Canada’ Taken March 3, 2017

In the 2015 elections, Kaczyński won 38 percent of the vote. He was able to transform that support into a parliamentary majority only because the left and center-left were fragmented among several small parties. In Poland, parties getting fewer than 5 percent receive no delegates. Their votes are distributed among the larger parties.

The popularity of the ruling party hasn’t risen since the election. For most of the past year it has slid even lower. If we add in a second right-wing party called “Kukiz 15” that generally supports the government’s policies, the right is still supported by less than half of the Polish population.

Even to assert that Donald Trump is more popular in Poland than elsewhere in Europe is misleading. During the U.S. elections, a survey asked Poles whom they would prefer to see in the White House. Only 20 percent chose Trump. After the election, a “whopping” 13 percent felt that Trump’s victory would be good for Poland. Yes, these figures are indeed higher than the 9 percent popularity rating that he enjoys in Europe overall, but they hardly paint a picture of Poland as a friendly place for the U.S. president.

Placed in an American context, Trump’s approval rating is higher in California than it is in Poland.

In general, Poles are more conservative than most West Europeans, but that’s relative. The American right should not hold any delusions: Their worldview might be echoed in the government offices of Warsaw under the current leadership, but their support is only marginally greater along the Vistula than it is along the Thames, the Seine or the Rhine.

The current Polish government is trying to pull the country away from Europe. Reinforcing anti-Polish attitudes in the western part of the continent might help them succeed. But let’s not forget that those attitudes are based on stereotypes that do not reflect the totality, or even the majority, of today’s Poland.

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The Parade of Equality

Last Saturday, Warsaw held its annual “Parada Równości” (Equality Parade), the label used in Poland for gay rights marches. The organizers said afterwards that it was their largest ever, and my (very impressionistic) impression is that the responses from Varsovians ranged from disinterest to support. That is, there were very few signs of hostility, and only a tiny counter-demonstration of a couple dozen people.

The issue of gay rights is shaping up to be an important cultural and political dividing line in Poland. For a change, however, this won’t map directly onto the conflict between the current authoritarian regime and its opponents. Instead, it is an issue that threatens to divide the pro-democracy activists, insofar as it symbolizes an even broader problem: the difficulty of uniting the center-right, the liberal left, and the social-democratic left (and all the variations of each). This isn’t just a political challenge, but a cultural one as well—and that’s what makes the gay and lesbian rights cause so dicey.

The most recent data I have on attitudes towards homosexuality in Poland come from 2013. That four-year-old survey shows a clear trend line towards more acceptance of gays and lesbians, but the progress has been slow and incomplete. First the good news: only 26% of the population considers homosexuality worthy of condemnation, down from 41% in 2001. Similarly, 69% believe in “toleration” for sexual minorities, up from 52% at the start of the century. But now the bad news: the number of people willing to accept same-sex marriage remains small (26%), and only 8% believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed to adopt children. Only 30% are willing to accept public displays of affection of non-heteronormative couples, though (to again look on the bright side) that figure was at 16% as recently as 2005. So despite a rhetorical appreciation of “tolerance,” these survey results don’t suggest much genuine acceptance. But before we single out Poland for approbation, let’s remember what happened in the United States: as recently as 2004, almost 2/3 of Americans opposed gay marriage, but today just over 1/3 feel that way.

Regardless of how we interpret these survey results, we can’t escape the fact that Poland is a country where homophobia is common. There are points of light—most notably the rising national popularity of Robert Biedroń, the openly gay mayor of Słupsk—but far too many points of darkness.

Given this context, the political valiance of this issue is quite striking. There is a reason that gay rights marches are called “Equality Parades” in Poland, and not “Pride Parades” after the anglophone model. The leaders of the LGBT movement made the strategic decision long ago to position their cause within a rhetorical framework of universalistic rights and liberties, giving somewhat less emphasis to public affirmations of difference. A turning point for the movement came in 2004, when then-mayor Lech Kaczyński of Warsaw tried to ban one the Equality Parade. Thousands turned out to protest the decision, including a long list of politicians and celebrities who previously hadn’t even given much thought to the issue of gay and lesbian rights, much less supported the cause. Sure, some of those politicians were trying to coopt the LGBT movement for their own purpose, but since that purpose was to expose the antidemocratic tendencies of the radical right, I wouldn’t be too critical. And whatever the motives of individual liberal and centrist politicians, the cause of Poland’s sexual minorities gained a place on the national political stage. A small and precarious place for the time being…but still.

Fast forward to 2017, and once again the LGBT cause is inextricably tied up with a wide range of ancillary issues. Within the main opposition party, Civic Platform, there are now open debates about this, which is quite surprising given the general conservatism of that party. Last week the mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, attended his city’s Equality Parade, after many years of ignoring the event. In a speech at the start of the parade, he said that the rise of a more general atmosphere of intolerance and hatred in Poland has caused him to reassess his own attitudes, and identify his own prejudices. It was a stunning moment; not often does one hear a politician say “I was wrong.” He now hopes to persuade fellow members of Civic Platform to change the party’s positions on gay and lesbian rights. One of those he must persuade is the mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. She has long ensured that the city would provide no support for the capital’s Equality Parade, and she personally boycotts it. More broadly and significantly, for the eight years that Civic Platform was in power (2007-2015), they did virtually nothing to improve the legal status of gays and lesbians in Poland, even as party leaders criticized their opponents on the extreme right for their open homophobia.

This matters a lot, and not only because we are talking about a fundamental measure of respect for human dignity, not to mention tolerance and equality. It gets to the heart of the political decision that Civic Platform’s leadership must take: to shift their party a bit to the left, or to try to compete with the current ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS) for voters on the right.

It might seem reasonable that in a country like Poland there would be space for two parties on the right, one catering to nationalists and another to more centrist, mainstream conservatives. And under normal circumstances, those two parties would compete mainly with each other for dominance on that side of the ideological spectrum. But even setting aside the question of whether Polish politics can be aligned along a two-dimensional “spectrum” (short answer: it can’t), these are not normal circumstances. With PiS steadily dismantling Poland’s constitutional democracy, the stakes are incredibly high, and starkly clear. As the largest opposition party, Civic Platform currently has one task: to lead the struggle to defeat PiS and restore liberal democracy to Poland. That goal will never be accomplished if the entire political stage is subsumed by a debate between a center-right party and a far-right party.

Some have argued that the left is irrelevant in Poland, so issues like LGBT rights should be sidelines, lest the large base of conservative voters be frightened away. After all, left-wing voters will never vote for PiS, so why even worry about them? This reasoning is dangerously flawed. We have just witnessed a US election where low turnout among African-Americans cost Hilary Clinton a victory. Of course American blacks weren’t going to vote for Trump, but large numbers of them saw no reason to support Clinton either, so they just stayed home. Had they voted in anything close to the frequency they voted in 2012 or 2008, she would be in the White House today. This is the fatal and perennial fallacy of centrist politicians who feel they can take the votes of the marginalized (minorities of all varieties, as well as the poor in general) for granted.

Would some gestures towards the LGBT community cost Civic Platform votes among some Catholics? I doubt it. Those on the right who are strongly motivated by fear of or hostility towards minorities make up the core of the PiS voting base, and they aren’t going to be won over. The surveys I mentioned above show that whatever their feelings about specific issues, a very large majority of Poles want to cling to a self-identity as “tolerant.” About half of those who call themselves tolerant currently say that they’d prefer that gays and lesbians stay invisible. In other words, their “tolerance” is (to put it mildly) shallow. But what will those people do if (for example) Civic Platform puts forward a proposal to allow gays and lesbians to obtain hospital visitation rights for their partners (they don’t have that now), or inherit money and property from their partners (which would require some sort of civil union, if not fully recognized marriage rights)? PiS and their allies in the Church would respond that the law must never legitimate “deviant” and “sinful” behavior, and the ideological divide would be crystal clear. I am convinced that very few people outside of PiS’s committed base would want to stand openly for intolerance under that scenario.

Civic Platform will never be a leftist party, and that’s fine. But unless and until there is a viable leftist alternative—that is, a party that is well organized, with a competent and united leadership—then it is up to Civic Platform to ensure that voters on the left will view them as an acceptable, even if not ideal alternative. A large majority of voters oppose PiS; the party’s support is stuck in the 30s, and occasionally falls even below that. But that’s enough to win against a fragmented opposition, if all those on the left are faced with the option of either wasting their votes on tiny parties that won’t get enough support to enter parliament, or voting for a party that is represented by people like Mayor Gronkiewicz-Waltz. Under that dismal scenario, large numbers of them will stay home during the next round of elections. They will be making a grave mistake in doing so, but we can be assured that many will in fact take that path. It is up to Civic Platform to give them a reason not to, and the LGBT issue carries just the right symbolism to serve that purpose.

It’s also the right thing to do.

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Why the Opposition in Poland is so Weak

Sometimes a small moment can perfectly crystalize a monumental problem. That happened today in Poland.

As readers of this blog know, the far-right authoritarian regime of Jarosław Kaczyński and the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) have been dismantling Poland’s constitutional democracy for the past year and a half. They represent a mortal threat to everything that Poland has accomplished since the overthrow of communism in 1989. They only enjoy the support of somewhere between 30-40 percent of the population, but they won the election in 2015 because of a technicality in the electoral law that discards the votes of all parties winning fewer than 5% of the total. Since the left is fragmented, they are entirely unrepresented in the parliament, and PiS has a narrow majority of the seats.

The main opposition party is called Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska). It belongs to the same European bloc of parties that includes Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and presents itself as a centrist movement for whom expertise, stability, and good management are the highest priorities in governance. They cultivate an image as patriotic without being nationalistic, Catholic but not extremist or fundamentalist, pro-market while sensitive to the value of the modern European welfare state.

In other words, in a normal world they would be rather dull. As Douglas Adams might have put it, “mostly harmless.”

But actually, it’s worse than that. It is not a sin to be boring (at least, I like to tell myself that!). Civic Platform politicians often present this trait as if it were even a virtue, and maybe in today’s tumultuous world, it is. One could argue that when faced with an existential threat, like the one posed by the rise of “illiberal democracy,” we need to all rally around a center of steady resolve, and set aside every potential controversy in the name of unity against a common enemy. I’m actually inclined to agree with this position.

Then something like this happens. Warsaw recently held its annual book fair, and linked to it was the Warsaw Comics Festival, the largest regular gathering of its kind in Poland. During the festival, attendees were given a book of political cartoons by Tomasz Leśniak and Rafał Skarżycki as part of the international “Free Comic Book Day” program. Their cartoons appear regularly under the title “Poland, the Champion of Poland” (Polska Mistrzem Polski), and you can view the ones collected in this free edition here. They poke fun at ostentatious patriotism, hypocritical religiosity, heartless corporate management, and political self-aggrandizement. I’m posting a sampling below, but I urge everyone to check out the complete series.

One of the sponsors of the Comics Festival is the city of Warsaw, where the mayor and the majority of the city council belong to Civic Platform. This has been a major roadblock for Kaczyński’s attempt to transform Poland, because most of the large cities constitute islands of opposition to his vision. Suddenly on May 25 the cultural office of the city government issued this statement: „We announce that we did not know in advance the contents of the comics „Poland, Champion of Poland.” After acquainting ourselves with this publication, we state unambiguously that we do not accept its contents. For this reason, the decision has been made to withdraw the subsidy for the project of which this comic is a part.” In other words, because they were offended by the cartoons, they pulled funding for the entire festival.

This was not an act of the national government, but of the supposedly freedom-loving liberal democrats sustaining Warsaw as a fortress against the barbarians from PiS. It is a reminder that Civic Platform is now, and always was, a right-wing political party. They have been able to wear the mantle of Defenders of Democracy because Poland is faced with an unabashed attempt to destroy the entire constitutional order, but under other circumstances many of the anti-PiS protesters of 2017 would be protesting Civic Platform with just as much fervor. In one year local and regional elections will be held, and these same Civic Platform politicians will call on Poles of all ideological persuasions to put aside their differences in the name of defeating PiS. And they should! Local governments still retain some genuine power, and they might be the only thing holding Poland back from an even deeper slide into darkness. But already some of my leftist and even liberal friends have said to me, “sure PiS is bad, but Platforma isn’t all that different.”  If it looks like it’s a choice between one or the other (and for all practical purposes, it is), then those with even moderately progressive views will find little reason to even turn out to vote. The PiS base, in contrast, will definitely be activated.

The fate of a comic book festival in Warsaw might not seem like much, but there in a microcosm is why I am starting to despair.

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