BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. This week, we seek answers to our domestic troubles by looking east to Poland, a country wrestling with disinformation, xenophobia and a battle over its own story.
NEWS REPORT The assumption that we had finished with those arguments and that we'd all learned the lessons of the Second World War or whatever piece of history you want to point to was wrong. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Poland's new Holocaust speech law was passed this year, and it bans any claims that the country collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War Two. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Four years ago, I believed that a lived in a democratic country which is the heart of Europe. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT This is not a problem that should be given to the public prosecutor, but rather to educators. The proper answer to ignorance is education. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Okay, so this elections were won by illiberals, but we should hope and work for the future and we should win next elections. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is out this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Since the election of Donald J. Trump, we in the United States have become accustomed to a degree of fabulism.
PRESIDENT TRUMP I've done more for black Americans than anybody. With the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. [END CLIP].
BROOKE GLADSTONE The president's self aggrandizement provides the framework for his alternate reality.
PRESIDENT TRUMP We have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.
CHRIS WALLACE That's not true, sir. We had 900 deaths on a single day.
PRESIDENT TRUMP You have the numbers, please. Because I heard we had the best mortality rate. Number one, low mortality rate. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE We are being given something I can't recall in my lifetime, a choice of realities. One that is mostly regarded as evidence based and one that you might call faith based. That faith being in Mr. Trump. In either case, you have a sizable cohort to back you up. Truth has been displaced in many quarters by rage and fear. Over the past four months, we've had many opportunities to observe the impact of paranoia when deployed by a fantasist in the White House.
NEWS REPORT An Arizona man died after taking chloroquine. His wife said that they heard about it from Trump's briefings. [END CLIP]
PROTESTER Are you going to allow the government to tell you you have to wear a mask?
CROWD No! [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Some believe these mask orders go against their freedoms. [END CLIP]
PROTESTER We will protect our rights. I will not wear a mask. Fine me, and I will not pay for it. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Anti-Vax conspiracists have seen their numbers swell on Facebook. and doctors warn, if left unchecked, they could undermine an effective vaccine. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The death toll from the coronavirus pandemic has surpassed 150,000 in the United States. That's the highest number of fatalities in any nation by far and accounts for nearly a quarter of the recorded global toll. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Immediately after the 2016 election, I spoke with New Yorker writer Masha Gessen, who, after having lived long under Vladimir Putin, had some advice for anxious Americans trying to navigate the so-called new normal. She explained that for the would be authoritarian the lying is the point. That the ability to create a reality flagrantly staring down conspicuous fact is a crucial component of building and sustaining power. And last fall, Vox's David Roberts noted bluntly where such a strategy, left unchecked, could lead.
DAVID ROBERTS This sort of cultish, increasingly authoritarian movement takes over the country. In Russia and Turkey, and Poland. Right, it's a disturbingly longer and longer list. We see countries that we thought were democracies devolve into this. In the U.S., so much has happened in the last few years that we thought would never happen. I think we should really loosen up our imaginations as to what can happen when a movement that is convinced that everything it knows and loves is in danger of falling apart. A movement that's thinking like that, unconnected anymore to facts or reality and got its hands on the power of the federal government is the basic recipe for democracy's falling apart.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so last fall, On the Media producer, Leah Feder, reported on one of those places - Poland. A young democracy teetering on unstable ground, and where its far right nationalist government is intent on rewriting the nation's painful history.
LEAH FEDER For almost a decade. Poland has been in the grip of a conspiracy theory. What really happened when a plane crashed in a forest in western Russia, killing Poland's president and dozens of other government officials? The plane had been en route to commemorate another Polish tragedy, a massacre that had occurred in the very same location, in 1940. A 1973 documentary explored the mystery.
DOCUMENTARY While the German army advanced from the West, the Serbia across Poland's eastern frontiers. Caught in a massive pincer, that the Polish army collapsed and surrendered. The victors divided the country down the middle and imprisoned every soldier they captured. Russia took over 200,000. 15,000, half Poland's officer corp, , were never seen alive again. Many were to die near Smolensk in a forest called Katyn. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER After decades of opacity and suspicion, an investigation in the early 90s confirmed, finally, that it was not Hitler, but Stalin who had ordered the massacre. And so when, on April 10th, 2010, a delegation of 96 Polish politicians and officials traveled from Warsaw to Smolensk. It was in service of remembrance and reconciliation. But what happened instead compounded the national pain.
NEWS REPORT Poland's Prime Minister burst into tears when he heard the news today. That his country's president was killed in a plane crash. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The pilot tried to land in a thick fog, at least twice, missing the runway and ignoring the control towers direction to divert to another city. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Not just losing the president of that country. The first lady, the head of the army, chief of staff, the national security office head, deputy parliament speaker, the deputy foreign minister. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER It was a devastating national tragedy. What's more, the symbolic layering was undeniable. A longstanding tragedy finally solved, and a new one appears in its place. And yet...
ANNE APPLEBAUM In the immediate moments and days after the crash, there was a kind of common shock.
LEAH FEDER Anne Applebaum is a journalist and academic based in Warsaw. At the time of the 2010 crash, her husband was minister of foreign affairs in the Polish government.
ANNE APPLEBAUM And there was pretty straightforward reporting about what had happened, what was immediately clear. There were people on the ground who saw the crash. So there was a kind of consensus initially about what had happened. That it was a terrible accident and that many people of value to the nation had died.
LEAH FEDER But the stories started to shift as the investigation into the crash proceeded. Investigators say pilot error was mostly to blame.
ANNE APPLEBAUM It became clear that one of the causes of the crash was the fact that the pilots were under pressure to land. The president's delegation had arrived late for the plane. They were running behind schedule as they got closer to Smolensk, which was even really an airport - it was a kind of airstrip in the forest. They began to be worried about the fog.
LEAH FEDER And the pilots weren't sure they can make the narrow landing. But according to blackbox recordings, Polish President Lech Kaczynski, head of the opposition party, directed the pilots to do it.
ANNE APPLEBAUM It was meant to be the launch of his reelection campaign. So there were cameras there, which he knew, and he was very anxious to go.
LEAH FEDER Under pressure, the pilots tried to make the landing. Instead, they hit a tree, killing all 96 people onboard.
ANNE APPLEBAUM The president's twin brother, the head of the nationalist right political party in Poland, the same party as the president. He didn't like this story. It made the president look bad. More to the point, this was a terrible crash, very near to a place where an earlier generation of Poles were murdered by the Soviet state. Because of that eeriness. People immediately began to speculate that there was actually a different, deeper story that perhaps the Russians caused the crash. Perhaps there was a bomb on the plane. And conspiracy theories began to proliferate online. The president's brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, began openly alluding to them.
LEAH FEDER Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party made unraveling the Smolensk conspiracy its key campaign promise.
ANNE APPLEBAUM Once you had bought into their idea that there was a secret conspiracy, possibly involving the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, possibly involving the Russians, and that lots of people high up in the state were implicated in some great big secret plot to kill the president. If you believe that, then you can believe a lot of other things. The point was to get people to believe in a kind of alternative reality, to doubt institutions, to doubt that the government was telling them the truth. And that was absolutely an attempt to help win an election.
LEAH FEDER But it did more than carve out a new electorate. It created new divides in Polish society. Where once Polish politics were split between communist and anti-communist, around economic policy. Now, it was over a vision of history.
ANNE APPLEBAUM It was how you see Poland's place in the world, and whether you think secret dark forces are trying to undermine your country and whether you know, you need to elect a government of patriots in order to make sure that doesn't happen. Where you fell on that dividing line affected how you would vote and how you would understand politics for the next several years.
LEAH FEDER And so, when Law and Justice won in 2015, it spawned a new kind of power. A power based on the willingness to embrace the myth.
ANNE APPLEBAUM They fired large numbers of Polish civil servants, Polish members of the foreign service, all kinds of people who worked for the government, also leaders and board members of state companies. And they replaced all of them with people whom they were sure were loyal. And one element of the loyalty test was belief in this Smolensk myth.
LEAH FEDER The Smolensk conspiracy implied that there were dark, mysterious forces continuing to try to manipulate and undermine the Polish nation. It also drew on the larger story of a Poland continually attacked by outsiders and the valiant Polish resistance to threats past and present. Law and Justice rode that narrative to electoral victory. And then rode its electoral victory to further consolidation of that narrative in service of Polish nationalism.
LEAH FEDER Coming up, a Right-Wing Nationalist Party comes to power. Its first takeover, the museums. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Leah Feder. Poland is a nation haunted by its 20th century.
DOCUMENTARY Poland, September 1939, a German foe begins its ruthless march of conquest and sets the stage for World War Two.
Poland's 34 million inhabitants crushed, scattered and enslaved. Tens of thousands of square miles of territory, shrink before the movement of Lightning Armored columns. Poland and the world learn the meaning of a grim new word, blitzkrieg. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER Germany and the Soviet Union each invaded and occupied Poland during World War Two. Killing in the process some 5.6 Million Poles, including three million Polish Jews. After the war, Poland became an independent republic within the Soviet bloc under communist rule. In 1989, it was one of the first of the Eastern European nations to break away and become a democracy. For decades, the nation has wrestled with the complicated question of how to interpret its own history. And so in 1998, Poland founded its Institute of National Remembrance, whose motto is "Our History Creates Our Identity."
JANINE HOLC The Institute for National Remembrance was initially a place where historians could pursue questions that other historians weren't pursuing.
LEAH FEDER Janine Holc is a professor of political science at Loyola University, Maryland, where her focus is Eastern Europe.
JANINE HOLC Some of these questions involved, for example, Stalinist crimes in Poland. So there was a lot of attention being given to the Holocaust and crimes against Jews. And here was a place where they could pursue questions about crimes by the Soviet Union and Soviet Union's representatives against Poland. So it was a place where history was being done consciously with a sense of can we fill in gaps? Can we find archival sources and collect archival sources that other historians aren't doing?
LEAH FEDER But within a few years of its founding, the question of what history exactly needed to be examined became a bit more complicated with the 2001 publication of a book called Neighbors, by then NYU Professor, Jan Gross. Neighbors, told the story of the 1941 year Jedwabne massacre, in which hundreds of Polish Jews were massacred by their Polish neighbors in a fashion too gruesome to repeat on this program. And it's set into motion a national reckoning. President Aleksander Kwasniewski in 2001.
PRESIDENT KRASNIEWSKI We can have no doubt, that here, in Jedwebne, Polish citizens were killed at the hands of fellow citizens. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER He continued - for this crime, we should beg for forgiveness from the souls of the dead and their families. This is why today, as both a citizen and president of the Republic of Poland, I apologize. For some other Poles, it was to bitter pill to swallow. These citizens chose to see their nation as solely a victim of Nazi atrocities. Law and Justice, than a nascent Right-Wing Party of the anti-Communist right, took a stand against what it called the politics of shame. Party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski's position has never wavered.
JAROSLAW KACZYNSKI this whole pedagogy of shame. This push to accept guilt has led to a situation where our nation has to face the unthinkable. I mean, our nation has to fight to stop accusations that we are guilty of the horrors of World War Two. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER At the time, Jaroslaw's brother, Lech Kaczynski, the law and justice leader who would later serve as president and then perish in the Smolensk crash, was mayor of Warsaw. Where he led the construction of a world renowned museum that offered a more valiant story of Polish resistance. It's called the Warsaw Rising Museum, named for the 63 day military operation started in the summer of 1944, in which the Polish home army fought to wrest control of Warsaw from the Nazis. With no outside assistance, the Poles were defeated. 200,000 people died.
NEW REPORT Germans bombed and shelled sections held by the Poles and finally were able to move tanks and heavy equipment into the recaptured city. A two month long revolt was a bloody and heroic battle, and starving poles stripped, dead horses for food. Forced to capitulate, but no help came, the Pole's signed an armistice with the Nazi's. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER When the museum opened, Pawel Machcewicz was working at the Institute of National Remembrance, which had dutifully investigated the Jedwadne massacre. To him, the Warsaw Rising Museum revealed some of the tensions to come.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ It was only about the glory of heroism and not so much about her political and especially human prize, but was paid for this heroism. Two hundred thousand people were killed during the uprising and the great majority of them civilians. For me, it was one of the greatest tragedies in the Polish history and we should, of course, commemorate this event. But I think that our obligation is also to discuss the prize that was paid for this heroism and also all the political context. Why the decision to start the uprising was taken? Was it a wise decision? Was it a huge mistake, perhaps? All that was ignored in this exhibition. Was the first exemplification of politics of history of Law and Justice. Not yet on the national level, but on the level of of Warsaw on the level of the capital of Poland.
LEAH FEDER He favored a more nuanced view of Poland's World War Two experience. And in 2007, published an article in the liberal Daily Paper Gazete Wyborcza, proposing another museum, one that would be built in Gdansk and told the overall narrative about the Second World War.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ A very broad picture of the past, not hiding sensitive parts of our history and also the museum should somehow provoke visitors to think. To have their own reflection upon their past. My idea was that we should, of course, present the Polish history, but also the history of other nations who suffered in the war, who fought in the war.
LEAH FEDER And that idea got some serious pushback.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ I fought and I still think that the best way to make people from abroad understand our history is to present this history against a broader background. And only against this broader international background of specific features of a Polish story could be understood.
LEAH FEDER To leaders on the right, this dismissal of Polish exceptionalism was an attempt to destroy the nation in service of a foreign agenda. The intended museum's decision to focus more on civilians than the military was also denounced.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ The Second World War was different from all previous conflicts because it affected mostly the civilians. And in the Polish case, it was even more striking because 90 percent of Polish citizens who died in the war were civilians. This approach was also rejected. It was labeled as pacifistic, as somehow denigrating the achievements of the Polish soldiers. And this criticism of this concept and later on of our exhibition that we created in Diek was focusing on this allegedly too humanistic to pacifistic and anti-war approach of our exhibition.
LEAH FEDER And yet, despite all this, the museum moved forward. The design was singular, a green landscaped plaza surrounding a bright red complex that featured a 40 meter tipped tower rising to the sky, representing the future and housing the museum's educational facilities. The permanent exhibition itself of 50000 square feet of it would be underground, below the complex. A nod to the ways in which history forms the foundation of our world; below the surface. The experience of the museum was to feel both enlightened and entombed, ringed by tall walls of concrete and pulled in by video touch screens, wall text and original artifacts through which the museum sought to convey both civilian suffering and resistance and drawing parallels across time and place.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ We have her foot section of the exhibition devoted to the occupation of Europe, and of Asia by Germany, by the Soviet Union, by Japan. We have also a huge section of exhibition devoted to the Holocaust. And this is about not only what happened in Poland, but about many other nations. Our approach was that we try to include as much as possible about Poland and Eastern Europe within the exhibition. But we tried to make it in a consistent way, a part of a broader story. So every visitor would notice that Poland is present, in fact, everywhere in this exhibition. But always in connection with other nations, with other cases of terror, of extermination, of resistance.
LEAH FEDER Several years, and tens of millions of dollars later, it was almost ready. But in 2015, Law and Justice won the national elections. Machcewicz and his team were just months from the opening when in April 2016, word came down from the central government, that the museum would be liquidated and merged with the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939, a museum in Gdansk that had not yet been built.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ The museum did not employ a single employee, did not have an address, did not have even a telephone number. And on this Friday night, it was announced that the biggest historical museum in Poland, the Museum of the Second World War, which was almost ready to be opened to the public, would simply disappear, swallowed by a fictional ghost museum.
LEAH FEDER Machcewicz had the multi-year contract guaranteed to all museum directors in Poland. Firing him outright would've been illegal. The so-called merger was a ruse. But since there was a legally mandated three month waiting period before any liquidations or mergers, Machcewicz worked to speed up construction and shore up his base.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ Despite all the obstacles created by our government, we work in an incredible pace trying to speed up everything and at the same time we were attacked by the Law and Justice propaganda, by the Law and Justice politicians. And we were accused of being not real Poles. Of acting on the orders of Berlin or Brussels.
LEAH FEDER Machcewicz was accused of financial irregularities. Jaroslaw Kaczynski declared on TV that the museum was not a Polish museum, but one imposed by Germany upon Poland.
JAROSLAW KACZYNSKI The World War Two Museum in Gdansk, a sort of gift to Angela Merkel from Donald Tusk is nothing more than an endorsement of Germany's politics of history. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER In the meantime, protesters came out to show their support for Machcewicz, and he and his team mounted legal challenges. In late March 2017, the museum opened. But only two weeks later, a letter came down from the Supreme Administrative Court giving the minister of culture full license to do with it what it wanted.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ The museum was eventually liquidated. I was not even fired because simply the museum whose director I was ceased to exist. The minister of culture, on the same day founded the new Museum of the Second World War. But the name was the same. But legally, it was a new institution of culture. So the new director was nominated on the first day in office. He declared that the exhibition would be changed.
LEAH FEDER At the time, Angieszka Syroka, was training as a tour guide at the museum. She and dozens of other guides had been preparing for months. But when the management changed, the guides were presented with a choice. Sign a document stating that they would follow the museum's new script, no editorializing, or leave.
ANGIESZKA SYROKA You either sign it or not. And those that did sign, could, you know, follow the path.
LEAH FEDER Why did you refuse to sign?
ANGIESZKA SYROKA Along with the historical fact that you can read from the label, being a guide, is also my opinion and my attitude, in myself in this. And I didn't want to be forced to change history.
LEAH FEDER And when you refused to sign, what happened?
ANGIESZKA SYROKA So the moment you don't sign, you didn't get the proper I.D. to enter the exhibition. You know, there are guards at the entrance. So we were informed that these guys who are not approved by the new management won't have the I.D. to enter. So if you want to enter, you have to buy yourself a ticket.
LEAH FEDER About two thirds of the guides refused to sign. And about six months after taking over, the new management began instituting changes to the exhibitions. Angieszka says the changes in the museum's narrative have been hard to watch.
ANGIESZKA SYROKA There was a balance in this museum. There were good Poles and bad Poles. Now, in the museum, there are only good polls.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ There were almost 20 new elements introduced or some elements of exhibition that were removed.
LEAH FEDER Pawel Machcewicz.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ All these changes, implement a certain vision of history and they go in two directions. One, about removing these part of exhibition which are regarded as too international. And the second, adding new elements. A new installation was added about Poles saving Jews. And such as the Poles, saved over 100,000 Jews and historians and all that. This is a false number because not more than 30 to 50,000 Jews, even survived the German occupation in the occupied Poland. The most invasive, the most aggressive change, this is removing of a film that was presented in the last room of exhibition. It was a sort of footage of archival films and archival photographs about wars, conflicts, violence that happened after the end of the Second World War until nowadays.
LEAH FEDER The film begins with news of the end of the Nurnberg trials, followed by an announcement about Stalin and then by globe spanning shots from the Korean War, East Berlin, the U.K., Turkey from Martin Luther King and Occupy Wall Street. The final scenes depict the wars in Ukraine and Syria and refugees.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ This film was criticized by the right wing as too pacifistic, anti-war, and the new director of the museum declared that museum should somehow encourage Poles to defend their country instead of presenting the war as a great tragedy.
LEAH FEDER The film that replaced it has a different tone.
MOVIE CLIP Nobody thought the war and its effects would last half a century for Poland. First, Germany attacks. Then Soviet Russia. We don't give up despite being left on our own. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER It continues in this vein until it's rousing and...
MOVIE CLIP Worker strike's spread throughout Poland. The communists lose. The Iron Curtain falls. The war is over. We prevailed. Because we do not beg for freedom. We fight for it. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER It's not strictly a lie. It's Poland's story through a tightly focused lens. Seen today in the World War two museum in Gdansk opened to the public under the leadership of the Law and Justice Party. Leadership, from which we unsuccessfully sought comment - many times. Meanwhile, Poland's culture war moved on to another institution.
NEWS REPORT Poland, The Warsaw Museum for the History of Polish Jews is currently looking for a new director. The culture minister has a say in who will get the job, and he is looking for someone who wants to improve on, as he calls it, historical policy.
LEAH FEDER For a year, Polin's museum director Dariusz Stola sat in limbo. After his first five year term as director, an independent committee asked him to stay on for another five, but to make it official, his appointment would have to be approved by the country's minister of culture, Piotr Glinski. Glinski didn't do it, nor did he explain why. But there are theories. In 2018, the Polish government passed an amendment related to history.
NEWS REPORT Poland's new Holocaust speech law was passed this year, and it bans any claims that the country collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War Two. Specifically, the legislation prohibits references to wartime Nazi death camps in the country as being Polish. Those in violation of that law, face up to three years behind bars. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER After outcry from the international community, the amendment was tempered. The law demoted from a criminal to a civil offense, with violators no longer risking jail time. Dariusz Stola was among those who criticized the law.
DARIUSZ STOLA This is not a problem that should be given to the public prosecutor, but rather to educate us that the proper answer to ignorance is education.
LEAH FEDER So that's one theory for why Stoller's appointment was never confirmed - here's another. In March 2018, Polin hosted an exhibit called Estranged, looking at the March 1968 anti-Semitic campaign to purge Poland of its Jews once and for all, during which roughly 13,000 Jews were driven out.
In the exhibit featured on the Polin website, friends wander through an exhibit and are disappeared one by one. While the anti-Semitic words of Vladislav Gomulka, the communist leader of Poland from 1956 to 1970, drone in the background. The exhibit ends at a wall of anti-Semitic quotes from 1968 and 2018. At least two of which belong to members of the Law and Justice Party. Pavel Machcewicz.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ Although, it does not say how much time the Minister of Culture has got to sign the contract because it seemed quite obvious to everyone when this law was adopted that it should happen without any delay.
LEAH FEDER This February, Stola formally stepped aside, allowing the interim director to stay on for another three years. In a statement, the new director vowed to follow the course that Stola had mapped out for the museum. Monuments and museums, especially those that trace the nation's past as a story, are often prey to political argument. Call it a testament to their continued relevance. Especially the increasingly popular narrative museums that array artifacts, photographs and installations to illuminate or to mislead.
In Nagasaki, Japan there's the Atomic Bomb Museum, where in 1996, material about the Japanese army's 1937 murder of a quarter million Chinese war prisoners and civilians was removed. In Budapest, Hungary There's the House of Terror built to show parallels and continuity between Nazis and Hungarian fascists and the communists. But the museum dedicates only a fifth of its content to the war. Despite the half million Hungarian Jews murdered during the Holocaust and makes no mention of Hungarian cooperation with the Nazis in sending Jews to Auschwitz. Machcewicz find's Poland's use of state funded museums to retell history deeply worrying.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ Four years ago, a belief that a lift in a democratic country, which is a part of the European Union, which is in the heart of europe. I, of course, knew that the confrontation between historians and politicians could be difficult sometimes, but I could not foresee that my country would somehow slide into a sort of a hybrid regime, which is not any more of a liberal democracy, which is somehow moving towards a certain form of authoritarian regime. And that history, and especially historical museums, would be in the core of all the controversies. And that my life as a historian and as a citizen would almost overnight turn upside down. And that defending the autonomy of history. Autonomy over culture, which was something elementary, basic to me, would become quite a tough issue, which would be connected to a prize that you have to pay for it.
LEAH FEDER And thus, the Institute of National Remembrance, where a Machcewicz got his start, and which was created to expose and examine the most uncomfortable parts of Poland's past, is now the cudgel of the Law and Justice Party. Policing debates about Polish culpability and quashing party critics. Janine Holc.
JANINE HOLC As this nationalist government came to power, this institute began to first of all, downplay any historical projects that the government did not support, and amplify its role not only in publishing historical work, but then actually creating policy based on that historical work. So they were crucial in creating a policy in which citizens could look up other citizens secret police files. That Institute for National Remembrance set up a process by which the government could identify individual citizens and then expose any of the files the secret police had on them, accusing them of being informant, including dates and including people who they were accused of informing against. And this was an incredibly powerful tool because it could be used to de legitimize their political opponents. And they indeed used it for that.
LEAH FEDER As law and justice uses state institutions to censor and suppress, it nudges the country ever further from the tenets of pluralism and democracy.
JANINE HOLC This political party became very emboldened by the numbers of votes it was getting in the elections and the types of support it was seeing for its rhetoric. And from that emboldened stance, it has pursued a number of increasingly authoritarian policies. One of these is cracking down on academic freedom. Another one is cracking down on LGBT rights, and another one is being much more assertive about museums and public spaces in Poland and what they can and cannot show.
LEAH FEDER But with Poland no longer under existential threat from Germany or the Soviet Union, how does it sell its defensive nationalist posture? Anne Applebaum.
ANNE APPLEBAUM What they've tried to do is create threats. One of the threats they created famously it was this threat of Syrian refugees. Far right magazines put pictures of the refugees on the cover and sort of Muslims murdering Christians. And so I would say it had some effect in Poland, but it didn't last very long, partly because there aren't any refugees in Poland and there aren't really any who want to get in there. How long can you go on about a non-existent threat? The second thing they tried, which appears to have been more successful, was an argument that Poland is threatened by gay ideology coming from the West. They called LGBT, which actually makes it sound weird. I mean, people don't even know what LGBT stands for, if that's an English acronym, but they use it in Polish. And it sounds like a weird disease from the West.
LEAH FEDER Law and Justice is using its control of Poland's historical narrative to shape its current and future one. The present story, one in which Poland stands apart from other nations unique in the existential threats it faces, threats the party believes exempt it from Europe's shared commitment to human rights. But obviously, Poland is not unique. Many nations claim similar hardships as they pursue similar paths and not just in Europe. The lessons of Poland are relevant oceans away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE After the break, OTM producer Leah Feder updates her story on how Poland's far right seized control of the historical narrative to fuel its rise. Coming up, what Poland's presidential election last month portends for the future of a pluralistic democracy. This is On the Media.
LEAH FEDER This is On the Media. I'm Leah Feder reporting on the struggle over how Poland tells its history and shapes its future.
Before the anti-liberal right, there was liberal democracy which officially took hold in Poland in the summer of 1989.
NEWS REPORT Poland appeared today on the verge of having a non communist government. President Wojciech Jaruzelski met with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER A few years later after the Soviet bloc collapsed. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a famous book called The End of History and The Last Man.
FUKUYAMA The End of History refers to what I think still remains a question of whether that process is one that finally culminates in a certain kind of civilization. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER Fukuyama on C-SPAN in 2001.
FUKUYAMA You know, the last civilization that mankind will achieve, because in a certain sense, it's the you know, it's the right one. It's the one that fits human nature. What I argue in the book is that liberal democracy comes much closer to fitting human nature in that sense than virtually any type of higher form of government or political organization or social organization. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER It was a seductive idea. That liberal democracy, which embraced human rights and equal protection along with popular representation, was humanity's natural landing point. But it's been severely challenged by the rise of iliberalism, a mindset that sees democracy as possible without those rights and protections. In this view, democracy is a winner take all game in which minority rights are subordinate to the will of the majority. It restyles the quote "will of the people" into something fierce, absolutist. And it's a rising trend. Fareed Zakaria.
FAREED ZAKARIA These two traditions, liberty and law on the one hand and popular participation on the other became intertwined, creating what we call liberal democracy. In a number of countries, from Hungary to Russia to Turkey to Iraq to the Philippines - the two strands have come apart. Democracy persists in many cases, but liberty is under siege [END CLIP. ].
LEAH FEDER In Poland, for the past five years, the Illiberal Law and Justice Party has quelled its judicial opponents and expanded its control over the courts. It's enacted harsh measures against immigrants and the LGBT community.
Four years ago, it tried for a complete ban on abortion, but backed down after a wave of strikes. It's turned the state TV network into a party mouthpiece and is increasingly enmeshed with the Catholic Church. It's also done something else.
ANNE APPLEBAUM They have used economics.
LEAH FEDER Journalist and historian Anne Applebaum.
ANNE APPLEBAUM Poland went from having one of the smaller welfare states in Europe to having its either the largest or one of the top two or three as a proportion of GDP. They basically created a welfare state, and for people in the provinces, it was so generous that about a million people left the labor market altogether. It was a big economic giveaway,.
LEAH FEDER The kind of giveaway usually associated with social Democrats. Political analysts credit the success of the Law and Justice Party to a secret source of xenophobia, nationalism and those economic policies.
The battle for the future of Poland was raging last summer when I visited Warsaw. That day, my guide was Igor Stokfiszewski, a slight man in his 40s with a shaved head. He is a literary critic and activist with the Left-Wing publication and network, Krytyka Polityczna. We walked downtown Passan buildings claimed by squatters, a mix of locals and immigrants. We passed the poster with the face of an older woman named Jolanta Brzeska, an activist murdered in 2012 and now a symbol of the housing movement in Warsaw. Igor says the city is plastered with them. Warsaw is replete with symbols of resistance, a theater with the words feminism, not fascism, spray painted across its marquee. A mayor openly opposed to the Law and Justice government.
IGOR STOKFISZEWSKI He signed so-called LGBT charter, which proposes a concrete solutions for LGBT community to feel safe.
LEAH FEDER And so if they're openly antagonistic to the national government. How does how does the national government respond to Warsaw?
IGOR STOKFISZEWSKI Wow. They are trying to respond - now you have to turn right !
LEAH FEDER OK! Here the traffic got loud, but he told me that during the last round of municipal elections, held in October 2018, the opposition trounced Law and Justice. Turnout was up almost 20 percent. And though the ruling party made gains in rural areas, it won just four of the 107 mayoral races.
IGOR STOKFISZEWSKI They completely lost local elections in October 2018.
LEAH FEDER It's a curious thing, this divide. On one hand, nationalism has a foothold, as evident at November's annual independence march, where tens of thousands of Poles filled the streets and organizers chanted Glory to great Poland in God, honor and homeland from the stage. So does homophobia as when thousands of anti-gay protesters attacked last summer's LGBT pride march in Bialystok.
On the other hand, when we first aired the show last fall, recent parliamentary elections had failed to deliver Law and Justice a consolidated victory. Yes, the party retained national control, but it failed to achieve a constitutional majority and lost the upper house of parliament. Here's how Jaroslaw Kuisz, editor in chief of the centrist media think tank Kultury Liberalnej and coauthor of the new book, The End of the Liberal Mind Poland's New Politics, explained it.
KUISZ We have quite a new political narrative now that seems to be more pluralistic than for the last four years when we had only the opposition that was mainly from the camp of the previous government, more or less the center right and the conservative nationalist right from the Law and Justice. So now we this more colorful.
LEAH FEDER New parties, new potential, a continual battle for the future while wrestling over the past, because the persistent narrative of exceptionalism and cultural encroachment shaped by Law and Justice calls for an ongoing response.
JAROSLAW KUISZ Maybe we should talk about the last 30 years as the process of ups and the downs because it would be less mythical.
LEAH FEDER Jaroslaw Kuisz describing history not as the unvarnished glory of liberal democracy, but as an ongoing effort to gain and retain freedom.
JAROSLAW KUISZ We have the first generations of Poles that were born and brought up in their own independent state. Something like this did not happen since the 18th century. If something is to be celebrated, it is that - I think. Now ,you have a lot of young citizens that do not remember communism.
LEAH FEDER I know that the communist past has been manipulated in a lot of different ways and particularly the anti-communist sentiment. I'm wondering if you think there's value in actually reclaiming some of that communist past.
JAROSLAW KUISZ I tend to think after all those experiments with political history, that we should remember more. That it was a political mistake of liberals to leave the historical issues to the right. What could be the solution is to rather to teach how complex Polish history into 20th century was and how we ended up eventually with this wonderful event of entering the European Union. And we should start to teach it to the new generations as history that is a very complex one. And then, maybe, we could have some conclusions for the future.
ANNE APPLEBAUM I mean, I would not say that we're definitely heading for authoritarianism.
LEAH FEDER Anne Applebaum.
ANNE APPLEBAUM Nor would I say that liberal democracy has won and will definitely beat this thing off and it'll be fine. I mean, this this, I think is now what politics is. The assumption that we had finished with those arguments and that we'd all learned the lessons of the Second World War or whatever piece of history you want to point to was wrong.
JAROSLAW KUISZ So, no, we entered the stage in which we have a kind of permanent battle and skirmishes one after another. It's not going to be the war that would be over here. It's like, okay, so this elections were won by liberals, but we should hope and work for the future and we should win next elections.
LEAH FEDER Last month, new elections were held, this time elections for the country's presidency.
NEWS CLIP In Poland, conservative president Andrzej Duda has narrowly won a second term after he defeated Warsaw's liberal mayor in Sunday's vote. [END CLIP]
NEWS CLIP This is the tightest race we've seen in the Polish presidential election since 1989. Also the highest turnout because both candidates did present a very distinct vision for the future of Poland. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER The Law and Justice president is empowered to approve and implement policy from the law and justice controlled parliament, furthering its ability to attack independent institutions and consolidate control over the media. I asked Kuisz if the results had changed his perspective.
JAROSLAW KUISZ Obviously, the Law and Justice ruling party won. This is the main point. There will be the continuation of politics of the illiberal turn. No doubt about it.
LEAH FEDER But he says that's not the whole story. The opposition party's civic platform had nominated an exceptionally weak candidate who polled dismally. But then fate in the form of COVID-19, intervened. The elections were postponed by seven weeks, and that candidate was replaced with that very popular Warsaw mayor, Rafael Trzaskowski. In just four weeks, he garnered millions of additional votes.
JAROSLAW KUISZ Rafal Trzaskowski had three four weeks only and he was able to gather 10 million votes. The opposition gained a true leader that launched his career, not only as mayor of Warsaw as before, but now as Polands new opposition leader,.
LEAH FEDER Trzaskowski, having lost the election by a razor thin margin, now he's trying to turn the millions who voted for him into a movement of NGOs, local government, think tanks and individuals to defend civil society.
JAROSLAW KUISZ Their new solidarity movement, that's the name that Rafal Trzaskowski gave to his to his project, will be announced at the end of August or at the beginning of September. The date is symbolic to refer to the old solidarity movement.
LEAH FEDER The old solidarity was a self-governing trade union that became a social movement credited with toppling communism in Poland. Trzaskowski hopes to tap into its legacy of unity and change. For Kuisz, the latest election is a setback, not a defeat. No, he says, this wasn't a fair campaign. Law and Justice clearly tipped the scales of state media. But it was a legitimate one. Votes were counted. So that just means the fight continues.
JAROSLAW KUISZ What would happen in three years? My goodness, who knows? We have a lot of fears for the future, but at the same time, what could we do? We should start to work from below. We should really rethink the frames of our political world. We should take seriously Law and Justice, success and better support and start to work again and again.
LEAH FEDER It was foolish to think a generation ago that we were at the end of history, and it would be equally foolish to think that the story is done now. In Poland, as in the United States, history has been wielded in service of opposing visions of the future. And the question of who will inherit that future, that comes down to who is willing to fight for it and what stories they tell. For On the Media. I'm Leah Feder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This week's show was reported and produced by Leah Feder. On The Media, is also produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Jon Hanrahan, Xandra Ellin and Eloise Blondiau. We had more help from Eleanor Nash and our show was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen, our engineer this week was Sam Bair. Special thanks to WNYC archivist Andy Lanset, as well as Voychick Aldecheck and Victor Dynarski. [Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On The Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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