Poland’s Historical Revisionism Is Pushing It Into Moscow’s Arms
The country doesn’t need an openly pro-Russian political party. Its own government’s attempts to rewrite Polish history play directly into Vladimir Putin’s hands.
After a decisive electoral victory in October 2015 by the conservative Law and Justice party (known by its Polish acronym PiS), the politics of memory became a policy priority in Poland.
Following more than two decades of negligence and avoidance when it came to the nation’s past, in which nearly all of Poland’s post-communist governments deemed it politically unrewarding to rouse historical demons and risk partisan support, the PiS government undertook an unprecedented project: re-narrating Poland’s recent history.
It definitely helped that PiS became the first party in post-communist Poland to rule without a coalition partner. Governing with no impediments, it was capable of not only producing its own narrative of Polish history but also using that historical revisionism as a tool to exacerbate the country’s already profound political polarization. Internally divided, with a society segmented into political tribes and a public space brimming with hatred, ever more distant from the core of European Union, and at loggerheads with almost all its neighbors, Poland today appears to be the antithesis of its own post-transitional success. Once a powerhouse of democratic institutions and liberal change, it is now slowly descending into a mafia-like state—much closer to the model of governance promoted by Moscow than by Brussels.
The founding myth of the PiS is the betrayal of the 1989 Round Table agreement. At the time, Poland’s democratic opposition came to terms with the communist leadership, cementing the latter’s eventual retreat from power. It’s true that the outgoing regime was indeed assured a comfortable passage into democracy, with substantial political privileges and economic handicaps still in their hands. But the agreement also provided for relinquishing power without spilling a single drop of blood, accepting democratic rules of the game, and agreeing on the country’s total independence from Moscow, despite several thousand Soviet troops still stationed there. The Round Table deal set the tone for Poland’s democratic transition that followed. It was a protracted, nonviolent process that paved the way for the first partially free democratic elections in the entire Eastern bloc, on July 4, 1989.
Yet for PiS politicians, the Round Table agreement represents a betrayal. Far from being the birthplace of Polish freedom, it was a rotten deal in which the soul of the nation was sold for political and economic privilege. Headed by PiS’s chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s politicians instituted a systemic campaign of questioning the entirety of Polish post-transitional record right after assuming power in 2015. During the first PiS government, ruling in the years 2005 to 2007, their views were much less primitive, while Kaczynski’s radicalism was tamed by his more moderate twin brother, Lech Kaczynski, then the country’s president.
In their eyes, the Round Table represents a mere change of labels, a secret, profoundly disgusting pact that the dominant, liberal-intellectual faction of the 1980s opposition—encompassing also ex-Communist Party members, Social Democrats, and former Marxists—established with the outgoing regime to allow the latter’s smooth transition into democracy. In the view of PiS, Round Table was an abandonment of the opposition, the society, and the Polish tradition of uncompromising freedom-fighting.
Kaczynski was the pivotal figure in all of this because he has played a major role both in the events of 1989 and in Poland’s recent illiberal turn. Once a co-architect of the Polish democratic framework, a high-profile functionary on Lech Walesa’s presidential team in early 1990s, Kaczynski for years suffered by being pushed onto the margins of nationwide politics by liberals and post-communists. His party’s 2015 victories allowed him to set the record straight—with his political adversaries, but most important, with history.
The rhetorical strategy of the current Polish government rests on three assumptions. First, it is profoundly revisionist. Since revisionism draws on noncognitive principles, it usually stands in direct opposition to established facts. It ignores them and serves a therapeutic purpose for society; it tells the good side of “our story” and forgets the bad one, so Poles can feel better about themselves. PiS employed historical revisionism to unilaterally define Polish-Jewish relations during World War II and in its immediate aftermath. According to PiS mythology, Poles as a nation risked their lives to give Jews shelter and safe passage, while no Polish nationals were complicit in crimes against them, despite ample historical evidence suggesting otherwise. What’s more, the government has sought to discredit the works of prominent historians and social scientists dealing with themes of Polish complicity, including Princeton University’s Jan Tomasz Gross, the University of Ottawa’s Jan Grabowski, and numerous others gathered around the world-class Center for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Second, it is exclusive in nature. PiS accepts no debate over Polish collective memory; its only goal is to make others subscribe to the party’s vision of history. All other narratives need to be delegitimized or destroyed, while those who subscribe to them are in turn unworthy of membership in the Polish nation. The determination shown by Kaczynski’s party in creating its own national mythology is remarkably ironic, because it exhibits features more typical of a communist, totalitarian movement than of a party with social-conservative roots and claims of representing Christian democracy.
Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, provided a fitting example of these processes last March during a speech at the University of Warsaw, saying that the authorities of communist Poland were “not Polish,” and referring to the Jewish citizens of the country as “members of the nation of Polish Jews,” a completely artificial ethnic category made up in order to avoid admitting that a Pole can also be a Jew.
This approach has been echoed numerous times. When speaking about the Polish communist authorities, Morawiecki called them an “alien, foreign regime,” suggesting that those in power before 1989 were somehow not really Polish, despite being Polish nationals and homegrown communists. The same goes for countless public statements of PiS politicians appealing to supposed historical injustice, including the idea that “Jews received compensation for their loss during World War II, while Poles did not.” This claim holds true only when assuming, as the PiS rhetoric seems to dictate, that a Jew (or a communist or anyone outside the narrow boundaries of PiS-defined Polishness) cannot be a Pole at the same time.
Third, PiS’s historical revisionism is all-encompassing. Memory is everywhere. It is no longer the politics of the past; it is an integral part of the politics of the present. Most important, it became a determinant of nearly all policymaking dimensions under PiS rule. One such example is Poland’s current foreign policy. Since 1989, it was governed by an overarching consensus among dominant political forces, one based on a pro-European orientation, an aspiration to be a leading agent of change in the region and a global promoter of democratic freedoms. A poster child of successful transition from communism, Poland seemed particularly well suited to perform the two last roles. It therefore came as no surprise that when the social protests against President Victor Yanukovych erupted in Ukraine in late 2013, Polish diplomats became heavily involved in high-level negotiations to help keep Ukraine on a pro-European course.
With PiS in power, Polish foreign policy saw an abrupt reorientation. Poland not only entered into open disputes with the EU over the rule of law but also saw a rapid deterioration of bilateral relations with most of its neighbors. Then-Deputy Defense Minister Bartosz Kownacki caused an uproar in Germany when in 2017, on the eve of the Warsaw Uprising anniversary, he said that “the sons and grandsons of lowlifes will not be telling [us] what democracy is,” referring to German politicians criticizing PiS’s judicial reforms. Kownacki’s words manifested a general belief that Germany of today ought to be seen through the lens of its Nazi past.
Diplomatic turbulence spread across the region later that year when the Polish Ministry of the Interior proposed a new passport design to celebrate the upcoming centennial of regaining independence. The new documents were supposed to feature watermarks of historical sites that belonged to prewar Poland but are now located in other sovereign states, including Vilnius’s Gate of Dawn in Lithuania and the Cemetery of the Defendants of Lviv in Ukraine. PiS later backed down on the project, amid strong objections from abroad, but not before the relationship with Kiev was damaged. Previously, Poland prided itself in being Ukraine’s promoter in Europe and its guide toward membership in NATO and the EU. Under PiS, the relationship with Kiev became less than secondary, while Warsaw seems to have neither a coherent strategy nor an overall interest in pursuing an East-oriented foreign policy. Such an ad hoc, conflict-prone approach pleases Russia, as it increases the chances of keeping Ukraine outside the Western sphere of influence.
This was not the only case of PiS revisionism harming Polish-Ukrainian relations. In 2016, the Polish Parliament, where PiS has an absolute majority, passed a resolution calling the killings of Polish nationals in the Volhynia region in the 1940s a genocide, placing the blame on Ukrainian nationalist militias and Ukrainian Nazi collaborators. The resolution sparked major controversies in Ukraine, where commentators accused the Polish authorities of diminishing the scale and intensity of Polish revenge killings in the same period. More recently, the two countries clashed over Polish nationals regularly attempting to set off flares in the Lviv cemetery, in a supposed act of commemorating Polish defendants of the city during World War I and its aftermath. This clash is, in a way, a case of two far-right nationalisms colliding as both sides exacerbate the tension. But only in Poland does this radicalism come from within the cabinet.
The National Movement, Poland’s most radical far-right political grouping, stood in defense of the arrested Poles. In December 2018, Adam Andruszkiewicz, a notable nationalist politician and former prominent figure inside the National Movement, was invited to join the government of PiS—a clear case of PiS co-opting more extreme nationalists and, with them, their antagonism toward Ukraine.
But perhaps the strongest manifestation of Polish revisionism harming the country’s international position and benefiting Russia was the 2018 bill on the Institute of National Remembrance, dubbed the “Holocaust law.” The law made headlines globally due to a provision of up to three years in prison for anyone publicly accusing “the Polish Nation or the Polish State” of complicity in Nazi crimes against Jews during World War II. But the document contained far more dangerous regulations with regard to matters concerning Ukraine. Upon the initiative of Kukiz’15, a populist parliamentary group often acting as satellite to PiS, the law criminalized the propagation of “Banderism,” a Ukrainian nationalist ideology named after its wartime leader, Stepan Bandera.
Previously, such penalties in the Polish legal system applied only to advocates of totalitarian regimes such as Nazism, communism, and fascism. Moreover, the wording of the document itself invited further controversies, as it included phrases such as the prewar “Eastern Lesser Poland” used in reference to current territories of western Ukraine. For many in Ukraine, it was a violation of the country’s sovereignty and a direct invitation on behalf of the Polish government to redefine Ukrainian borders—something Russian President Vladimir Putin has been continuously doing for the past five years. The law came under fire almost everywhere in the world, with the notable exception of Russia, where it received widespread praise. Sergiej Zelezniak, a member of the Duma from Putin’s United Russia party, referred to it as a “measure to combat fascism in Western Ukraine.”
Poland remains one of very few countries in Eastern Europe that does not have a mainstream political party openly backed by the Kremlin. But it does not need one. The revisionist politics of the current Polish government plays right into Moscow’s hands. A rejection of multilateralism, strife with the EU, and growing antagonism with neighbors, notably Germany and Ukraine—all these features of Polish foreign policy appear to be taken out of Putin’s geopolitical playbook. It is legitimate to ask to what extent PiS’s pro-Russian revisionism is either a deliberate strategy or an unintended consequence.
An openly pro-Russian political party would never succeed in Poland because Polish society is extremely wary of Russian imperialism and has a high degree of skepticism toward Moscow that is deeply rooted in its history. Polish authorities longing for a dangerously close relationship with Russia, however, is no novelty. The prewar Polish nationalists, who largely remain a frame of reference for Kaczynski, in the early 20th century already assumed Poland should not stay in a total opposition to Russia, because the biggest existential threat would always come from Berlin.
Hence, they argued, a relationship with Moscow needs to be cultivated, while they possess the exclusive legitimacy to conduct it. Today’s PiS is largely a reproduction of this line of thinking. Germany in their view is an eternal enemy, which needs to be dealt with first; the Russian account, so the thinking goes, can be settled later.
This rationale can be seen most clearly in the controversies surrounding the 2010 Smolensk plane crash, which killed many top Polish officials, including Kaczynski’s twin brother, Lech. Although there is a widespread belief in Poland that there was a Russian conspiracy to bring the plane down, for Kaczynski the primary culprit is not Putin but European Council President Donald Tusk, his long-standing domestic rival.
When the crash occurred, Tusk was Poland’s prime minister, and Lech Kaczynski was president. Within the Polish institutional realm, the president is considered head of state, but the real executive power lies with the prime minister. Tusk travelled to Smolensk a couple of days earlier. Lech Kaczynski did not have to go himself, but he organized a separate presidential visit to meet personally with the Russian president and, most of all, to manifest his importance. Since his brother’s death, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his acolytes have claimed that there were major logistical errors on the part of the prime minister’s office that led to the plane crashing. His claim was that the negligence of Tusk’s chief of staff, Tomasz Arabski, led to the catastrophe. The accusations towards Arabski remain unconfirmed by the courts and have been dismissed by other, parallel investigations.
In symbolic terms, it was deemed a conspiracy of Tusk and the Russians, but since it is much easier and politically more profitable to blame a domestic rival, Tusk became the protagonist of the plot in the eyes of Kaczynski. He needed a smoking gun to once and for all marginalize Tusk politically, and Smolensk gave him that missing piece.
This year, Poland will celebrate 30 years since the Round Table talks and 15 years of membership in the European Union—an entity now headed on the word stage by Tusk. Both continue to enjoy broad societal backing—84 percent of Poles support EU membership, while, according to a recent CBOS opinion poll, only 15 percent view the consequences of the Round Table agreement negatively. Thus the government will not be able to afford an all-out denial of their importance.
The deeper problem is that Poland is now trying to move forward by looking backward to its past. And by doing so, it might soon find itself, without even noticing, in the warm yet unescapable embrace of Russia.