We Need To Talk About Poland
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.
ANNE APPLEBAUM 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.
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]
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ Four years ago, I believed that I lived in a democratic country which is the heart of Europe.
DARIUSZ STOLA This is not a problem that should be given to the public prosecutor, but rather to educate is the proper answer to ignorance is education. [END CLIP]
JAROSLAW KIUSZ Okay, for this, elections were won by illiberals, but we should hope and work for the future and we should win next elections.
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. This month, impeachment hearings have laid bare the dynamic at the heart of our current political standoff. Former director for Russia and Europe at the National Security Council, Fiona Hill.
[CLIP] FIONA HILL The impacts of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart, truth is questioned. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Disinformation and the breakdown of truth. We see its effects everywhere.
LEE SMITH So once you get to Ukraine, you see the real problem is not foreign interference. The real problem is Clinton interference.
KENNEDY There is “boo koo” as we say, in Louisiana. Evidence that Ukraine tried to meddle in the 2016 election. [END CLIP]
SEAN HANNITY How can the same people all last week in the mob and the media be so outraged that President Trump, we're doing nothing zip yet totally, completely ignored. The biggest slam dunk case that Hunter Biden was making millions of millions of dollars serving on the board of a corrupt Ukrainian oil and gas company. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Other prominent Republicans, including the president, continue to sow doubt and challenge established facts.
PRESIDENT TRUMP And I still want to see that server. You know, the FBI has never gotten that server. That's a big part of this whole thing. Why did they give it to a Ukrainian company? Why-
STEVE DOOCY Are you sure they did that? Are you sure they gave it to Ukraine?
PRESIDENT TRUMP Well, that's what the word is. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Last week, Vox’s David Roberts warned us about where we could end up when we give in to conspiracies and lies.
DAVID ROBERTS You know the other way things can go is if this sort of cultish, increasingly authoritarian movement takes over the country in Russia and Turkey and Poland. It's a disturbingly longer and longer list. We see countries that we thought were democracies devolve into this. In the US, 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 democracies falling apart.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so this week, OTM producer Leah Feder takes us to one of those places. Poland, a young democracy teetering on shaky ground. There she had a close up look at how and why it's 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.
NEWS REPORT While the German army's advance from the West, the Soviets crossed Poland's Eastern Frontiers. Caught in a massive pincer, 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 corps -- was never seen alive again. Many were to die in 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 long standing 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 story started to shift as the investigation into the crash proceeded.
NEWS REPORT Investigators say pilot error was mostly to blame. [END CLIP]
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 wasn't 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, 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 are split between communists 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.
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.
NEWS REPORT Poland September 1939. The German foe begins its ruthless march of conquest and sets the stage for WWII. Poland’s 34 million inhabitants crushed, scattered and enslaved. Tens of thousands of square miles of territory shrink before the movement of lightning armoured 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 II, killing in the process some 5.6 million Poles, including 3 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 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 set into motion a national reckoning. President Alexksander Kwasniewski in 2001:
PRESIDENT ALEXKSANDER KWASNIEWSKI We can have no doubt that here in Jedwabne all 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 too bitter a pill to swallow. These citizens chose to see their nation as solely a victim of Nazi atrocities. Law and Justice, then a nascent right-wing party o f the anti-communist right, took a stand against what it called “The Politics of Shame.” Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s position has never wavered.
TRANSLATION 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 II. [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.
NEWS 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 when no help came, the Poles signed an armistice with the Nazis. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER When the museum opened, Pawel Machcewicz was working at the Institute of National Remembrance, which had dutifully investigated the Jedwabne massacre. To him, the Warsaw Rising Museum revealed some of the tensions to come.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ It was not only about the glory of heroism and not so much about the political and especially human prize, but was paid for this heroism. 200000 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 price 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, it was the first exemplification of a policy politics officer of Law and Justice, not yet on a 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 II experience, and in 2007 published an article in the liberal daily paper Gazeta 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 new museum should somehow provoke visitors to think to have their own reflection upon the past. My idea was that we should, of course, present the Polish story, but also the history of other nations who have 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 story against the 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 Polish soldiers and this criticism of this concept and later on of our exhibition that we created in Gdansk was focusing on this allegedly too humanistic, too 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--all 50,000 square feet of it--would be underground, below the complex, a nod to the ways in which history forms the foundation of our worlds, 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 a sight to convey both civilian suffering and resistance and drawing parallels across time and place.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ We have a huge 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, but 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, will 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 have 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 the government, we worked 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 KACYZNSKI The World War II 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 a new museum of 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, Agnieszka Syorka 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.
AGNIESZKA SYORKA You either sign it or not. And those who did sign could, you know, follow the path.
LEAH FEDER Why did you refuse to sign?
AGNIESZKA SYORKA Along with the historical fact that you can read from the label, being a guide is also my opinion and my attitude and myself in this, and I didn't want to be forced to change the history.
LEAH FEDER And when you refused to sign, what happened?.
AGNIESZKA SYORKA So the moment you don't sign, you didn't get the proper ID to enter the exhibition. And you know, there are guards at the entrance. So we were informed that these guides who are not approved by the new management won't have the IDs 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. Agnieszka says the changes in the museum's narrative have been hard to watch.
AGNIESZKA SYORKA You know there was a balance in this museum. There were good Poles and bad Poles. Now in the museum, there are only good Poles.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ There were almost 20 new elements introduced or some elements of the exhibition that were removed.
LEAH FEDER Pawel Machcewicz
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ All these changes implement a certain vision over history. And they go in two directions. One about removing this part of exhibition which are regarded as too international and a 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 know that this is a false number because not more than 30 to 50 thousand Jews even survived the German occupation in the occupied Poland. The most invasive, the most aggressive change, this is removing of film that was presented in the last room of the exhibition. It was a sort of footage of archival films and archival photographs about wars, conflicts, violence that happened after we entered the Second World War until nowadays.
LEAH FEDER The film begins with the news of the end of the Nuremberg Trials, followed by an announcement about Stalin and then by globe-spanning shots from the Korean War, East Berlin, the UK, Turkey, from Martin Luther King and Occupy Wall Street. The final scenes depict the wars in Ukraine and Syria and refugees.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ This feeling was criticized by the right wing as too pacifistic, anti-war, and the new director of the museum declared that the 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.
FILM 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 end.
FILM ...workers’ strike spread throughout Poland, the communists lose, the Iron Curtain falls. The war is over. We prevail. Because we do not beg for freedom, we fight for it. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER It's not strictly a lie. It's Poland story through a tightly focused lens seen today in the World War Two Museum in Gdansk open 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 rages around another institution.
NEWS REPORT Polin, the Warsaw Museum for the History of Polish Jews is currently looking for a new director. The cultural minister has a say in who will get the job and is looking for someone who wants to improve on, as he calls it “historical policy.” [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER Polin’s museum director Dariusz Stola sits 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 must be approved by the country's minister of culture, Piotr Glinskiy. Glinskiy hasn't done it nor explained why. But there are theories. In 2018, the Polish government passed an amendment related to history
NEWS REPORT Poland's new Holocaust speech law It was passed this year and it bans any claims that the country collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II. 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. was Dariusz Stola 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. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER So that's one theory for why Stola’s appointment as UN holds. Here's another. Last March, 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 13000 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 Wladyslaw 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. Meanwhile, Stola's reappointment as museum director is still unsigned. Pawel Machcewicz.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ The law 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. And it's already approximately half a year after Dariusz Stola was elected by a jury to become the director of this museum.
LEAH FEDER Monuments and museums, especially those that trace the nation's past as a story, often are 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 finds Poland's use of state funded museums to retell history, deeply worrying.
PAWEL MACHCEWICZ Four years ago, I believed that I lived 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 historic 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 that autonomy of history, autonomy of the culture, which was something elementary, basic to me, would become quite a tough issue, which would be connected to a price that you have to pay for it.
LEAH FEDER And thus, the Institute of National Remembrance, where 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. The 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 delegitimize 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 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 was this threat of Syrian refugees. Far right magazines put pictures of the refugees on the cover and sort of Muslims murdering Christians. And 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.
Coming up, when the state controls the story, how can you tell a different one? This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Leah Feder on the struggle for Poland's past and future. Before the anti liberal right, there was liberal democracy, which took hold in Poland formally in the summer of 1989.
NEWS REPORT Poland appeared today on the verge of having a non- Communist government. Pres. Wozczek Jaruleski met with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa... [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER A few years later after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a famous book called “The End of History and the Last Man.”
FRANCIS FUKUYAMA “The End of History” refers to the what I think still remains a question of whether that process is one that you know finally culminates in a certain kind of civilization. [END CLIP]
LEAH FEDER Fukuyama on C-SPAN in 2001.
FRANCIS 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 embraces 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 ill liberalism, a mindset that sees democracy as possible without those freedoms and protections. Democracy, in this view, is a winner take all game in which minority rights are subordinate and subject to the will of the majority. It restyles the “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”, but 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 in Poland.
LEAH FEDER The past four years, the illiberal Law and Justice Party has subdued its judicial opponents and gained increasing control over the courts. It's enacted harsh measures against immigrants and the LGBT community. In 2016, 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 become increasingly enmeshed with the Catholic Church. But it's also done something else.
ANNE APPLEBAUM They have used economics--
LEAH FEDER 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 Law and Justice to a secret sauce of xenophobia, nationalism and those economic policies. Meanwhile, the battle for the future of Poland raged last summer in Warsaw, giving birth to a new left wing political coalition.
Lewica, Polish for “left,” allied Poland’s three left wing parties: Razem, SLD and Spring. Until recently, they’ve been mostly on the fringes of a Polish political landscape divided between the far-right Law and Justice party and the center-right Civic Platform. I went to Lewica’s inaugural rally with Igor Stokfiszewski, a literary critic and activist with the left wing publication and network Krytyka Polityczna. A slight man with a shaved head in his 40s, he walked me by some buildings claimed by squatters in downtown Warsaw, occupied by a mix of locals and immigrants.
We pass a poster with the face of an older woman named Jolanta Brzeska, an activist murdered in 2012. Now a symbol of the housing movement in Warsaw. Igor says the city is plastered with them. Warsaw is a city with symbols of resistance throughout a theater with the words “Feminism, not Fascism” spray painted across its marquee. And a mayor who's openly opposed to Law and Justice as central government.
IGOR STOKFISZEWSKI He signs so-called LGBT charter, which proposes a concrete solutions for LGBT community to feel safe. And so on, so on.
LEAH FEDER The traffic got very loud here, but what he told me was that during the last round of municipal elections in October 2018, the opposition trounced Law and Justice. Turnout was up almost 20 percent and although the ruling party made gains in rural areas, it won just four of the 107 mayoral races. It's a curious thing this divide. On one hand, nationalism is on the rise as evident at this month's annual Independence March, where tens of thousands of Poles took to the streets and organizers chanted “Glory to great Poland and God, honor and homeland” from the stage. So is homophobia, evidenced when thousands of anti-gay protesters attacked this summer's LGBT Pride March in Bialystok.
On the other hand, the October parliamentary elections failed to deliver Law and Justice a consolidated victory. Yes, the party retain national control, but it not only failed to achieve a constitutional majority. It lost the upper house of Parliament, thus losing the ability to pass new laws, Lewica, the left wing coalition, went from having no representatives in parliament to having 45. Here’s Jaroslaw Kiusz, editor in chief of the centrist media think tank Kultura Liberalna.
JAROSLAW KIUSZ 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 center right, and the conservative nationalist right from the Law and Justice. So now it is more colorful--
LEAH FEDER Kiusz gives us some of the credit to the activism of the Polish opposition. But there's something else afoot. Right before the elections Krytyka Polityczna and a couple other organizations released a study called “Political Cynicism: The Case of Poland,” which found that Law and Justice voters are not entirely aligned behind the idea of an unchecked majority for their party. After the elections, I checked back in with Igor, who explained that these voters are likely responsible for Law and Justice’s electoral setbacks.
IGOR STOKFISZEWSKI They have more trust in political pluralism than in their own party. So it is not the opposition or the oppositional voter who stopped Law and Justice from having a constitutional majority. It's a Law and Justice voter who stopped them.
LEAH FEDER Turns out that Law and Justice voters, like all voters, vary in the whys and wherefores of their party affiliation. The so-called old Law and Justice electorate, the hardliners may be motivated by their loathing for intellectuals, Europe and urban elites. But the new Law and Justice voters, those whose votes decided this election are largely in it for the money, especially the government's ever expanding child benefit. And in the run up to the most recent election, yet more.
ANNE APPLEBAUM They announced they would distribute an extra month's pension, a kind of so-called 13th month to all pensioners.
LEAH FEDER Anne Applebaum.
ANNE APPLEBAUM In the end, they got about 43 percent of the vote, of which I'd say about half is still true believers and half are people who liked the spending policy.
LEAH FEDER But obviously, these popular populist policies come at a price.
ANNE APPLEBAUM I mean, it's come at the cost of investment. They've stopped investing in roads. They've stopped investing in the health care system. They're raising taxes--
LEAH FEDER All of which calls into question how long this particular strategy will continue to pay off. Law and Justice voters are transactional and transactional voters can shift. For a better deal or a better story. The illiberal narrative seized and shaped by Law and Justice of exceptionalism and cultural encroachment, much like America's current White House story has served it well. What's an effective liberal response?
JAROSLAW KIUSZ Maybe we should talk about the last 50 years as the process of ups and downs because it would be less mythical.
LEAH FEDER Jaroslaw Kiusz is describing history not as the unvarnished glory of liberal democracy, but as an ongoing effort to gain and retain freedom.
JAROSLAW KIUSZ 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 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 is value in actually reclaiming some of that communist past.
JAROSLAW KIUSZ 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 in the 20th century was and how it ended up eventually with this wonderful event of entering the European Union. And we should start to teach it to the new generations as a history that is 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 KIUSZ So now we entered this 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 or there. It's like, okay, so these elections were won by illiberals. But we should hope and work for the future and we should win the next elections.
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 is being wielded in service of opposing visions of the future. And the question of who will inherit the future? That comes down to who's willing to fight for it and what stories they tell. For On the Media, I'm Leah Feder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Next week, we return to American shores, where illiberalism has overtaken the Reagan era coalition of tax cutters and foreign policy hawks, social conservatives and libertarians that made up the conservative movement. Here's a taste of my talk with Commonweal’s Matthew Sitman, who's followed the debate on the American right. He says newly empowered liberals declare that old consensus dead, and though they lack it's big numbers. They don't think numbers matter anymore.
MATTHEW SITMAN You don't see any of these intellectuals really appealing to democracy. They think they're entitled to power, but they also are not grappling with the fact that they might not really have a majority behind them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There hasn't been a poll taken that suggests that they do.
MATTHEW SITMAN Right. So we know Trump won three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. We know that due to gerrymandering and assaults on voting rights, Republicans have more representation in Congress than they should based on the amount of support they have. We know that our political institutions are fairly undemocratic, especially the Senate and the Electoral College. You can see a situation arising in which Republicans keep trying to hold onto power despite not being a majority. And my concern is that these conservative intellectuals are creating the conditions, are giving themselves permission to go along with what amounts to authoritarian rule by a political party that doesn't have anywhere close to the support of a majority of Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You quoted from Damon Linker: “When social conservatives thought that they were the moral majority, it made sense for them to dream of exercising real political power. When they recognized that they were a minority, it made sense for them to resign themselves to adopting a defensive posture and preparing to live out their days in a country as dissenters from the reigning liberal consensus. What makes no sense is for social conservatives to think that they can be both weak and strong at the same time. A minority that wields the power of a majority. Unless, of course, social conservatives no longer care about democracy.”
MATTHEW SITMAN He put it very well that the key is to implement the highest good and the ways you get there matter less.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Next week, the rest of that conversation.
This week's show was reported and produced by Leah Feder. On the Media is also produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, John Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Charlotte Gartenberg and our show was edited by me and Katya. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineer this week was Sam Bair. Special thanks to WNYC archivist Andy Lanset, as well as Wojciech Olesiak and Wiktor Dynarski. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
UNDERWRITING On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.