Last week, as the world was marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, the governments of Poland and Israel found themselves in the middle of a diplomatic row. The night before the memorial of one of the worst crimes in the history, the strongest Polish political party, Law and Justice (PiS), approved a controversial law banning the definition of Auschwitz and Birkenau as “Polish concentration camps.”
Furthermore, Warsaw claims that the aim of the bill is to prevent what it sees as an “international defamation” of Poland and denied its purpose was shutting down an academic debate on the events during Nazi Germany occupation. The proposal won enough votes in Sejm (the lower chamber of the Polish Parliament), and on Wednesday steamed through the Senate with 57-23 support.
Reactions in Israel were swift. Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett called the bill a “shameful disregard of the truth” and Yad Vashem Remembrance Center called for further research into the complex subject of Poland’s role in the Holocaust. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly criticized the draft.
“I strongly oppose it. One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” he said in a statement.
The country’s Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki, who is the main author of the bill, said Israel’s objections were a confirmation of its necessity.
“Important Israeli politicians and media are attacking us for the bill. On top of that, they claim that Poles are ‘co-responsible’ for the Holocaust. This is proof how necessary this bill is,” he claims.
The Benefit of the Doubt
Duda announced that he will sign the law, but also said that it will be sent to the Supreme Court for evaluation. Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki agreed to start “an open dialogue” on the issue, although the Senate confirmation and Duda’s signing of the law are bound to hurt the process.
Historians agree that calling Nazi death camps “Polish” is a misrepresentation, since the Germans administrated the camps and were the perpetrators of the Holocaust. “Arbeit macht frei is not a Polish phrase,” Prime Minister Morawiecki said. Along with 3 million Polish Jews, almost a half of the total number of killed in the Holocaust, nearly 2 million ethnic Poles were also among the victims of the Nazi death machine.
“Yet it is also undeniable that Poles were directly or indirectly complicit in the crimes committed on their land and that Poles were guilty of anti-Jewish pogroms during and after the war. These are the facts of that terrible history, and the Poles, like all other nations conquered by Germany that became embroiled in the Nazi atrocities, have an obligation to the victims and to the future to seek the full truth, however painful,” The New York Times Editorial Board wrote.
Poland’s New Front
The latest in a series of Poland’s diplomatic spats and attempts at looking away from uncomfortable aspects of its history and society, however, seems to be a part of a broader trend within Polish society — one that did not appear out of nowhere, as some would like to believe. As Polish ghosts are coming back, so are the questions Europe has been sweeping under the rug of its idealism. Brussels and Warsaw have had their fair share of battles this year — and none seem close to resolution.
The European Commission, led by Jean Claude Juncker, has criticized Poland for its curtailing of freedom of speech and increasingly authoritarian rule. According to Brussels officials, this stems from justice reforms implemented by the Law and Justice party, which forced nearly half of the Supreme Court judges into early retirement, conveniently replacing them with justices favoring Law and Justice ideals.
The move was met with protests by the liberal opposition, whose supporters deemed the reshuffle as unconstitutional. The EU struck back by trying to invoke Article 7 of the Lisbon Agreement, which could exclude Poland from EU decision making by suspending its right to vote. However, the chances for that scenario are fairly slim, with Hungary and several Eastern European member states against it.
“The program of deep changes in our country will not slow down. On the contrary, there cannot be any talk about reaching an agreement with powers that for years treated Poland as their own private loot,” Kaczynski told the daily Gazeta Polska Codziennie.
The justice reform also had negative reviews from the other side of the Atlantic. The US State Department has criticized recent decisions by Warsaw, especially the fine for a television station TVN24, owned by a US company. They were forced to pay nearly half a million dollars for allegedly unfair reporting about street protests in 2016.
“This decision appears to undermine media freedom in Poland, a close ally and fellow democracy,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert claimed.
Favorite at Home
The Polish government’s bold stance may seem peculiar to those looking in from outside, but in Warsaw, the Law and Justice party has the wind of public opinion at its back. According to the latest polls, the conservative party is enjoying its greatest support in history, with more than 40 percent of Polish citizens backing its political agenda.
There are a few reasons why the party is so popular. First of all, its social services programs proved to be an important rallying point for the Polish public. The government provides big families with benefits worth up to several hundred dollars — which is an important source of aid for Poland’s rural population, hard hit by country’s tumultuous transition to capitalism.
Paradoxically, despite the controversial Supreme Court replacements, the government has held a strict position on crime, corruption and the growth of the economy, in general, which has been on the upturn for several years. The country’s GDP has grown exponentially since it gained independence and started its EU accession, but the standard of living, especially in the countryside, didn’t always follow that trend. Centrist governments led by the Civic Platform were more focused on making Poland look and function like Western countries.
“The country was doing great, but people are not earning any more than they used to, and it annoys them. You’re building motorways, high-speed trains, movie theaters, and they can’t afford to use them,” former foreign minister and a member of the centrist Civic Platform Radoslaw Sikorski explained to the Washington Post when asked why previous governments couldn’t manage the expectations.
This lack of understanding by the ruling elite led to the growth of mistrust in parts of society that didn’t see clear benefits from the changes in the political structure. Members of the elite were perceived as corrupt and focused on personal ambitions instead of general well-being. The most immediate consequence was that people in Poland, and Eastern European countries in general, lost faith in democratic institutions and became hostile to the liberal concept of human rights, opting for more socially conservative and authoritarian political options.
The phenomenon, however, isn’t as new and peculiar as it may seem. Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev wrote about this tendency within Eastern European societies more than a decade ago.
According to him, the rise of populist parties in the post-communism era was facilitated precisely by the liberal elites — who took over the governance, but didn’t offer a way to oppose their policies, which were described as necessary for society to go forward. They weren’t offered as the best solution and didn’t generate excitement. The idea that “the only way is the European way” made everyone who didn’t agree the policies look like outcasts and the proponents of going backward in history.
Per Krastev, populism in the Eastern European context usually refers to either emotional, simplistic and manipulative discourse directed at the “gut feelings” of the people or to opportunistic policies aimed at “buying” the support of the people. However, he also questions who is authorized to describe a political player as a populist, and asks why there is a skeptical view towards acting on people’s wishes.
“By raising and combining ignored political issues, populist parties encourage the articulation of suppressed hardships and demands. They challenge “accepted” external constraints and call into question existing and often exploitative dependencies upon foreign powers,” Krastev writes, citing political scientist Philippe Schmitter.
“The End of History?”
Anti-immigration and anti-globalist positions, coupled with the Catholic Church’s growing influence, merely gave voice to a large population in Polish society that felt ignored and silenced.
Journalist and former dissident Adam Michnik described their style of rule as “a peculiar mix of the conservative rhetoric of George W. Bush and the authoritarian political practice of Vladimir Putin.”
This turn towards the right also emboldened the extremist wing of Polish nationalists, who prominently expressed their racist views during the Independence Day March. Both Kaczynski and Duda condemned the incidents, although many observers claim that this is merely posturing, recalling that Kaczynski’s previous comments about migrants (including alleging that “they would bring unknown parasites”) legitimizes their positions.
Opinion polls show that these far-right views are not predominant, but their presence and the attention they draw during big events in Poland is raising concerns in Brussels. The voices of the far-right, previously only heard during football matches, are now slowly spilling over to the streets as their new battle arena.
Poland has always been predominantly Catholic and conservative. This was one of the ways that the Polish identity survived the years of communism and being ruled by different multinational states who attempted to bring the Poles into their “melting pots.”
At the moment, 98 percent of people living in Poland are ethnic Poles. Some of them see multiculturalism as a threat to their way of life. For example, in a recent poll, over half of Poles said that they would not accept Middle Eastern and African refugees, even if it meant losing their membership in the EU, a popular institution in Polish society. Some pundits argue that their improving social and economic position has helped Poles to be more open about their opinions, as there is no more need for impersonating the cosmopolitan worldview of the Western powers.
East-West Ideological Dissonance
PiS’s popularity in Poland, Viktor Orban’s and Robert Fico’s stable governments in Hungary and Slovakia, and Milos Zeman’s win in the Chech presidential election raise the question: Are populists now officially the rulers of Central and Eastern Europe? The integration of these countries into NATO and EU was hailed as “the end of history,” the final victory of liberal democracy. Krastev claims that they tried to imitate Western institutions and practices.
“What people missed is that imitation produces resentment. And as resentment rises, what gets politicians elected is divergence: You show how different you are. It will be difficult for the EU to cope with this,” he concludes.
The popularity of PiS is proof that perception can be misleading. It may be almost incomprehensible to Western observers why the Polish people give so much support to a party that is considered authoritarian and against commonly accepted norms of democracy, legislation, and human rights. On the other hand, many common people in Poland probably can’t understand the level of mistrust, and almost disdain, coming from some members and leaders of the EU for their government with family-oriented social programs. The truth is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.
“EU norms are not a supermarket, where everyone takes what they like and leave what they don’t agree on,” French President Emmanuel Macron said when talking about Poland and Hungary.
This growing ideological dissonance is also proof that the bloc has internal disagreements that could hamper its decision making, because every member, has the right to veto. That includes Poland, for now, at least.