For the sake of a good name

Polish President Andrzej Duda speaking at the Polish Army Day. Credits: KPRP

Polish President Andrzej Duda speaking at the Polish Army Day. Credits: KPRP

He filled the glasses and raised his own glass by the stem.

“To the past,” said Winston.

“The past is more important,” agreed O’Brien gravely.

1984. G. Orwell


Much has been written about historical politics in Poland over the past months, especially since the parliamentary elections in November 2015. This is tied first of all to the many provocative statements made by Poland’s leading governmental figures, However, this has less to do with Poland fighting for  historical memory within its own borders and more with its endeavours to convince other countries to adopt its point of view.

“All rational states which understand their needs and, above all, have a sense of their own worth, actively manage a historical policy,” stated President Andrzej Duda in particular. In his opinion, the state must create the “real” image of Poles and Polish history in the international arena. However, the newly arrived authorities’ attempts to shift the focus onto certain episodes from the past makes it seem like a search for ways to put pressure on internal and external opponents.

How it works

Many decisions related to historical policy were made as far back as fifteen – even twenty years ago as a result of the active decommunisation phase. Thus, the State Institute of National Remembrance, engaged in the collection and dissemination of information on the activities of the state security apparatuses in Poland, was created in 1998. In 2007 it received the additional authority to conduct lustration. The Sejm appoints its president.

Since 2004 the country’s Foreign Ministry has been working full-time to combat “insulting and false public claims about ‘Polish concentration camps/Polish death camps’”. In the words of former Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna, diplomats had to react to such phrases, customarily called “defective memory codes”, over 150 times in 2014 alone.

For 2015, one can find 28 of the most glaring examples of various such denials on Poland’s Foreign Ministry website. Addressees of the official letters have been the editorships of such media outlets as the Guardian, CNN, Allgemeine Zeitung, and many more. Among the incidents was also a public discussion between the Polish Embassy in Moscow and the Russian news website about how to properly refer to the infamous concentration camp – Auschwitz or Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In late January 2016, when presenting the foreign policy priorities of Poland’s new government, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski specifically addressed the importance of historical issues. In his estimation, they are on par with national interests and culture. He called the 20 million Poles living abroad and the Polish institutes to actively work to defend the country’s “good name”. “I ask you to be the ambassadors of Poland and Polishness,” he said to his emigrant compatriots. At the same time, the Polish institute, as reported on the Foreign Ministry website, also cooperates on a daily basis with other national cultural organisations – the Polish Film Institute, the Fryderyk Chopin Institute and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.

During the minister’s presentation was also heard the phrase “historical diplomacy”. According to him, the means for this is, first of all, hosting international events dedicated to anniversary or celebratory dates as well as ones to do with the most varied of reasons, as long as they make it possible to draw attention to the country’s history and its “correct” understanding. The second method is to open in Poland museums created to showcase specific historical episodes, which also promote positive roles played by Poland and the Polish. The third is working on social opinion via “media diplomacy”, the publishing of articles and refutations in authoritative periodicals.

poland_history_engIn an interview with radio Zet in October of last year, the current Deputy Culture Minister Jarosław Sellin suggested that bringing lawsuits against those who skew facts could be a useful tool in the struggle for historical truth. “One, two or three cases won would be sufficient to stop the use of such phrases (about “Polish camps” – Ed.) around the world because they will cost a great deal of money,” he said. The deputy minister also proposed the promotion of “accurate” films in Hollywood. Finally, in a different interview he called for the construction and restoration of museums, as well as increasing the number of hours spent on teaching history in schools.

Meanwhile, nothing yet has been heard of any high-profile cases. In 2015, much was written about the Polish government’s readiness to take American historian Jan Gross to court because he claimed that the Poles killed more Jews than the Germans, as well as the FBI Director James Comey for putting Poland in the same boat with Germany and Hungary as “murderers and accomplices.” But no actual legal steps have yet been taken, and it appears the whole affair has gone no further than loud proclamations.

The principle of historical policy in Poland is quite simple: choose a negative episode from the past and have researchers, politicians and the mass media work on it, focusing attention either on a different interpretation, or on positive happenings, or on the “truly” guilty foreigners (Russians, Germans or Ukrainians). Currently in the policy’s crosshairs is WWII and events surrounding it. The list of problematic issues here is very long – Katyn, “Polish camps”, the USSR’s role before the war overall, Germany’s wartime role, the persecution of Jews, and the Volyn Tragedy.

The struggle against the Soviet legacy continues in a routine fashion. Recently accusations have been aired against former president Lech Wałęsa for collaborating with state security agencies, and there have been rumours concerning the removal of many of the military’s upper brass due to their Soviet past, the tearing down of monuments and the glorification of “cursed soldiers” and political prisoners.

However, none of these themes signify the emergence of some kind of new historical policy in Poland. Despite the bold statements, “diplomacy”, “PR-offensive”, “myth-busting”, and other eloquent designations, no fundamentally new programs or framework legislation have been implemented. Each subsequent speech naturally lines up with decisions taken fifteen, twenty years ago. There may be an increased intensity to the speeches, but this serves only to attract the society’s attention.

It’s not so simple

For members of the opposition and a number of experts, the new government’s calls carry a different meaning. In them they see the authorities’ wish not so much as to change something in the historical policy but rather as to equip themselves with yet another weapon against internal and external competitors.

“Mister Duda said in February that it is necessary to conduct an ‘active’ historical policy that serves as an element in the strengthening of our national position in the international arena… That is great. But do we really have to rewrite history over again in order to accomplish this, scrubbing the heroes of the previous government out with washing powder and placing our own heroes on a pedestal? That is, must we really re-certify the populace’s knowledge of history every four or five years?” noted KORWiN party politician Lilia Moszeczkowa in comments to Europe Insight.

“In fact, what we have here is not so much a change [of historical policy] but a more radical form of [its] development, and in its place one can even speak of the political construction of the present and about playing with Poland’s future,” said Polish social activist Conrad Renkas in conversation with Europe Insight. He is convinced that changes in state policy regarding the past have less historical dimension and will serve mostly to escalate relations with Russia and Belarus.

Historian Maria Lipinska agrees with Renkas’s position. “That the Law and Justice party’s government raises historically contentious issues and even as some say, ‘tries to rewrite history’, is not due to concerns about national memory. Rather it is an attempt to put political pressure on Russia and domestic political opponents – chiefly Civic Platform, which could be called a negligent attitude towards history,” she told Europe Insight.

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