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Jesus Rex Poloniae

Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images
The construction of the world’s largest statue of Jesus Christ, Świebodzin, Poland, November 2010

Arriving in Warsaw, I am told that Jesus Christ was recently enthroned as king of Poland. On state television, the country’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, declares: “Vox populi, vox dei!” Polish populism in a Latin nutshell. The voice of the people is the voice of God, and he, the leader who interprets the will of the people, must therefore also be doing the will of God.

The next day, I take a train to the northeastern city of Białystok, at the heart of a region that returns strong majorities for Kaczyńskis nationalist populist Law and Justice party (PiS). As we rattle through sunlit forests, a chatty lady explains that she boarded the train in Kraków very early this morning, having flown in from Lourdes, where she and her husband run a hotel. There are so many pilgrims to the site of miraculous healing that Ryanair offers two direct KrakówLourdes flights a week. I tell her I’m going to meet a priest, Father Leon Grygorczyk, in her native Białystok. Oh yes, she says, he led a Ryanair pilgrimage group to Lourdes. Such a nice man, very sympatyczny.

Soon I’m ringing the vicarage doorbell of this priest, who has caught my attention because two years ago he celebrated a mass for the National Radical Camp, a far-right, xenophobic nationalist movement whose origins go back to 1934. After some delay, the door is opened by a heavy, slow-moving man with bloodshot eyes, his trousers held up by suspenders over an ample belly. My impression is that he’s been asleep after a good lunch and has only the vaguest idea who I am.

As we sip tea under a portrait of Pope John Paul II, Father Grygorczyk laments to me how young Poles are turning away from the church; they are no longer faithful, no longer “obedient.” You see, he says, fixing me with a baleful gaze, “the West gives them a feeling of freedom.” Meanwhile, what he calls “Europe” is leading a battle against religion, and behind that battle “there must be some forces.

And what forces might those be?

Islam, certainly.

Any others?

Well, you know, always somewhere behind things you find the Jews…

There we go. I wrote it down in my black pocket notebook, and noted the time (“c1435”).

What about Jedwabne, the village just an hour’s drive from Białystok where, in dramatic circumstances following the German occupation of previously Soviet-held territory in summer 1941, a part of the Polish population drove hundreds of their Jewish neighbors into a barn and burned them alive? Ah, says Father Grygorczyk, it’s still not clear who exactly killed the Jews there. Former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, who made an official apology for the Jedwabne massacre in 2001, comes from a Jewish family, don’t you know. And Poland’s last president, Bronisław Komorowski, well, there’s that Jewish wife of his…

As for the Muslim refugees from the Middle East whom the EU wants Poland to take in, that’s obviously a German plot to, as he puts it, “weaken Europe.” But perhaps it is also a Jewish plot? My pen couldn’t keep up with the litany of paranoia.

Such a nice man, very sympatyczny.

If I stopped here, with this true but partial report, I would reinforce two old and now powerfully reemerging negative stereotypes of Poland and the Poles. There is what I might call the New York stereotype, in which the Poles are at heart Catholic, anti-Semitic nationalists. And there is the Paris stereotype, in which Poland, along with the rest of “Eastern Europe”forget about any dreams of Central Europewas never really part of the Europe of the Enlightenment and is now reverting to authoritarian, illiberal, halfway-to-Asia form.

Both are caricatures that capture only a small part of the reality. A Catholic nationalist anti-Semitic Poland certainly exists, and it was sitting right there in front of me at 2:35 PM on Friday, April 13, in all its obscene bigotry. But these days, with Donald Trump as US president and National Front leader Marine Le Pen having garnered a third of the votes in a French presidential election, a little more transcultural humility may be in order.

In truth, Poland’s nationalist populism is just one variant of a political sickness that is sweeping across the West like the influenza pandemic of 1918. As with all the other populisms, there are generic similarities and national peculiarities.

Jarosław Kaczyński is the PiS party leader and a member of parliament but holds no government office. He is a solitary, uncharismatic, but very skillful political entrepreneur who has been maneuvering to bring a right-wing party to power since the early 1990s. For decades, he worked in tandem with his twin brother, Lech, who was elected president in 2005 but died in an air crash near Smolensk in 2010, along with a large delegation, on his way to mark the anniversary of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in Katyn in 1940. His brother’s tragic death gave to his own personal politics a deeply emotional drive and stirred among PiS supporters a potent brew of nationalism, Polish messianism, and paranoia.

In 2015 he scored a double political triumph, winning both an absolute majority for PiS in parliament and the country’s presidency for his modern-looking and moderate-seeming placeman, Andrzej Duda. Since then, the country has been living through what feels like an antiliberal counterrevolution, although Kaczyński and his comrades insist it is actually the completion of the revolution begun by the Solidarity movement in 1980 butthey claimleft unfinished in 1989.

There are three things we need to understand about this development. First, there is the combination of forces, motives, and emotions in Polish society that delivered PiS its double triumph, and that since 2015 has continued to give it somewhere between 32 and 44 percent support in a consolidated average of opinion polls. Second, we must be clear that, like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Kaczyński is trying to dismantle the pillars of a fragile, young, liberal and pluralistic democracy and convert it into something between a purely majoritarian democracy and a hybrid, competitive-authoritarian regime. He is doing this inside the European Union and benefiting from large inflows of EU funds. Third, we need to identify the forces, inside Poland, in Europe, and in the wider West, that may halt and reverse this process, so that Poland does not next year mark the thirtieth anniversary of its 1989 breakthrough to liberal democracy by ceasing to be a liberal democracy.

It takes many streams to make a flood, but if I had to summarize the springs of PiS support in a single word, that word would be “reaction.” This is reaction in a double sense: a reaction to thirty years of life-changing transition from communism, as well as globalization, liberalization, and Europeanization, but also one that draws on preexisting reactionary tropes.

Some on today’s Polish left like to fold their critique of Poland’s post-1989 transition to a market economy into a familiar lament about neoliberalism. But the Polish story is very different from that of the Trump-supporting rust belt or the Brexit-supporting north of England. Real wages have risen at least 50 percent since Poland joined the EU in 2004. Income inequality, as crudely measured by the Gini coefficient, has actually fallen since 2004, and is nowhere near the British and American extremes. Anglo-Saxon-type economic explanations of populism don’t get you far on the Vistula.

That said, the US and Britain experienced nothing like the traumatic transformation of a centrally planned economy into a free-market one that Poland went through after 1989. Even for those who are now better off, this meant enormous dislocation, probably losing your old job, getting used to another, changing your whole material way of life. Several authors have shown how the new culture of many factories and officesnow often under foreign ownership, or perhaps that of a former apparatchik turned millionairewas at best demanding, at worst oppressive. The locus of unfreedom moved from the state to the workplace. At the same time, as the political scientist Maciej Gdula has shown in a fascinating in-depth study of one small town, some of PiS’s support has come precisely from those who have done well and now have rising expectations.1

Unfair though some of the criticism of Poland’s “shock therapy” economic transformation may be“What was the alternative?” remains a fair questionPoland’s liberal elites are responsible for allowing “liberalism” to be reduced to purely economic liberalism (which is essentially what the word is used to mean in contemporary Polish). Crucially, they neglected social policy, especially in the years leading up to 2015, when the government could have afforded to do more to help those who had done less well out of the transition to capitalism.

With characteristic pithiness, Adam Michnik, the editor-in-chief of the left-liberal Gazeta Wyborcza, once said, “My heart is on the left, but my wallet is on the right.” Yet that heart-on-the-left of metropolitan liberal elites was scarcely visible to ordinary people, especially in small towns and poorer regions. PiS sailed triumphantly into this neglected space, with a generous social program built around its flagship policy of “500+”that is, 500 złoty ($136) a month for each second and subsequent child. Rafał Woś, the author of a fulminating left-wing critique of the Polish transformation entitled (with a hat tip to Lenin) “The Infantile Disorder of Liberalism,”2 even describes PiS’s policies to me as “progressive.

Besides the trauma of transition and the space left open for a generous social policy, the sources of Kaczyński’s support are above all cultural. In a rapidly changing, individualistic consumer society, people feel a yearning for communityand they find it in a traditionally defined national community. They are also reacting against the social liberalization that has followed integration with Western Europe. While it faces dwindling church attendance, the Polish Catholic Church has declared war against what it calls “the ideology of gender”—meaning gay and transsexual rights, civil partnerships, and so on. Oh, and by the way, Jesus Christ really was enthroned as Lord and King, with a prayer that he should “rule in our fatherland,” in a patriotic-religious ceremony attended by the president in 2016.

PiS ideologists denounce Western European multiculturalism in general and Muslim immigration in particular. The party mobilized a wide swath of public opinion against a German-led EU demand that the country take in a few thousand refugees, as part of an attempt to relieve the pressure on countries like Germany, Italy, and Greece by redistributing quotas of refugees to other member states. Meanwhile, Poland’s real problem is not immigration but emigration. Its labor market and civil society are sorely missing the more than two million Poles who now live and work in countries such as Britain, Ireland, and Germany.

In the pathology of contemporary populisms, the inequality of attention and respect is at least as important as any economic inequality.3 Like people living in the US rust belt or the post-industrial towns of northern England, millions of ordinary PiS voters living in the countryside and small towns of eastern and southeastern Poland can fairly complain that they have been largely and sometimes contemptuously ignored by urban, liberal elites and media. In Poland, this inequality of respect has a particular cultural pedigree. The son of a leading PiS politician who died in the Smolensk air crash complains to me about “the salon.” A term with a long history in Polish culture, “the salon” today refers to privileged, cosmopolitan elites in cities like Warsaw and Kraków who look down their noses at countryfolk and smalltown plodders. The historian Karol Modzelewski detects in these condescending attitudes the heritage of the Polish gentry, the szlachta, who formed the core of the country’s modern intelligentsia.

In response, in reaction, PiS ideologists call for the “redistribution of prestige” and the “redistribution of dignity.” Like populists elsewhere, they speak in the name of a pure, healthy, native people against corrupt, remote, liberal elites. In fact, they are just replacing one elite with another. Over the years, the Polish right has built an entire counterelite, with its own world of right-wing magazines, newspapers, publicists, think tanks, radio stations (notably the Catholic reactionary Radio Maryja), and, importantly, online mediaall of them too long underestimated by my good friends in the salon.

Even the shortest list of ingredients of Polish populism must also include the politics of memory, known here as polityka historyczna, meaning both the politics of history and historical policy. The Polish right denounces the negotiated revolution of 1989 as a corrupt “deal” or “stitch-up” between the red and the pink: communists giving up political power in return for a head start to economic privilege, while left-liberal (and sometimes ex-communist) leaders of Solidarity made deals with them in back rooms. The interpretation is both conspiratorial and deeply unhistorical.

Reaching further back, this version of history highlights heroes of anti-fascist and anti-communist struggles for independence. One of the ruling party’s ideological foundation stones is the Warsaw Rising Museum, which celebrates the 1944 uprising against Nazi occupation as the precursor of an independent Poland. Much attention is now given to the so-called accursed soldiers, those who went directly from fighting Nazis to fighting communists, and paid a high price. The Institute of National Remembrance recently produced a video presenting a cartoon version of Poland’s genuinely heroic history of resistance. It has a voice-over delivered with such labored pathos that one almost suspects parody.

The problem with this heroic narrative is less what it asserts than what it ignores. In Białystok, I was shown plans for a museum dedicated to Poles deported to Siberia and other parts of the Soviet Union, and told that this fate may have been suffered by as many as one in every five pre-war inhabitants of the city. This commemoration is entirely appropriate, indeed long overdue. But what about the more than two out of every five inhabitants of pre-war Białystok who were Jewish, most of whom perished in the Holocaust?

Where the German populists of the Alternative für Deutschland decry liberal democratic Germany’s Schuldkult, its “guilt cult” about Nazi crimes, Poland’s PiS populists decry symbolic actions like President Kwaśniewski’s apology for the Jedwabne massacre as a “pedagogy of shame.” And so we come to the amendment to the law on national memory introduced earlier this year. Its most controversial provision criminalized any assertion that the Polish nation or state was responsible or partly responsible for the Holocaust or other crimes against humanity. This was explicitly justified as defending the “good name” of Poland in the world, but nothing in recent years has done more to damage that good name. (Following widespread protests, at home and abroad, the amendment was subsequently itself amended, removing the offending article.)

When Poland gets criticized for such measures in the international media, sometimes with undifferentiated use of those New York or Paris stereotypes, there is a furious defensive reaction from many Poles. Being victims of history themselvesremember the nineteenth-century romantic self-image of Poland as the “Christ among nations”how could Poles possibly also have been victimizers? As Dariusz Stola, the director of Warsaw’s excellent Museum of the History of Polish Jews, puts it to me, there is a kind of red button pressed in Polish minds when Poles feel themselves accused of being in any way responsible for the Holocaust.

And so anti-Semitism in parts of Polish society is again stirred up. Decades of patient efforts at truth-telling, education, and Polish-Jewish reconciliation are undermined. Negative stereotypes from outside and inside reinforce each other. And people like Father Grygorczyk are laughing all the way to the altar.

At Warsaw’s cavernous railway station, I pick up a sheaf of magazines, including a right-wing newsweekly called Sieci. Inside I find an article clearsightedly describing how Viktor Orbán controls Hungary (“currently 100% of local newspapers are in the hands of Hungarian capital friendly to Fidesz”) and a companion piece entitled “Hungarian Lesson for Poland,” explaining how Poland must follow his playbook.

Following Orbán, Kaczyński wants to create a hard majoritarian or hybrid, competitive-authoritarian political system, exploiting for this purpose the largest financial transfers currently made by the EU. Wherever I went in Poland, I saw roads, bridges, marketplaces, and railway lines being modernized with EU money, which, staggeringly, has in recent years accounted for more than half of all public investment in Poland and Hungary. At a joint press conference with Kaczyński in 2016, Orbán quoted a Hungarian proverb to the effect that if you trust somebody, “you can steal horses together.” Kaczyński replied, “There are a few stables, and one particularly large one called the EU, where we can steal horses with the Hungarians.

Thus far, Warsaw has only got halfway to Budapest, but what has already happened is shocking enough. As Poland’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Adam Bodnar, has carefully documented, the PiS leadership, ruthlessly exploiting its absolute majority in parliament and helped by a weak, partisan president, has effectively emasculated the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, now is close to doing the same to the Supreme Court, and has dramatically reduced the independence of the judiciary. In one six-month period, no fewer than 194 out of 730 court presidents or deputies were summarily removed. The European Commission has identified systemic threats to the rule of law. Earlier this year, an Irish judge refused to extradite a Polish suspect to Poland on precisely those grounds, in a case that subsequently went to the European Court of Justice.

Public service television and radio, which have never been as BBC -style independent as they should have been, have now been turned into party propaganda organs. I receive Polish public service television by satellite in Oxford, and after PiS came to power I watched how cast and script changed almost overnight, as if in an opera house: yesterday it was Don Giovanni, today, Götterdämmerung.

Poland’s never sufficiently neutral civil service and security services have been robbed of any last threads of independence from the ruling party. Liberal-minded magazines, theaters, and cultural institutions struggle as public subsidies are withdrawn. Even after three decades of freedom, civil society turns out not to be half as independent of the state as we had hoped. In public institutions such as schools and universities, particularly in PiS -dominated areas, you see the first icicles of self-censorship. When one gutsy left-wing academic at a provincial university mentioned this to me, I asked her for an example. I was shocked when she replied, “Well, for instance, when I’m with colleagues in my department I hesitate to mention that I read Gazeta Wyborcza.”

All this in less than three years of Polish Orbánization. But the system is not as consolidated as in Hungary (and even there, it is not secure). Kaczyński has declared that “we must certainly control the information sphere,” but he doesn’t yet. A major independent television channel, TVN, has added viewers while state television has lost them. Fortunately, TVN is owned by the Discovery Channel, so will be (or at least, should be) hard to subordinate without offending the United States, an ally vital for Poland’s security. Agora, the multimedia holding company of Gazeta Wyborcza, is hanging in there, despite the loss of state advertising and subscriptions. Quality independent journalism can be found online at sites such as oko.press and onet.pl.

Opposition parties still function more or less normally, although their leadership is distinctly unimpressive. Unlike Orbán’s Fidesz, PiS does not have a two-thirds majority in parliament, so it cannot simply change the constitution. Nor has it yet managed to follow the Hungarian example by changing the electoral law to its own advantage. One of the most successful Polish reforms of the post-1989 era was to give significant autonomy to local government. I met some impressive mayors and city councillors, several of whom are now running as independents.

Orbán controls the media through a carefully cultivated network of business associates, whom he rewards with government contracts and EU funds. Although Polish business leaders are generally cautious, Kaczyński does not yet have anything like Orbán’s oligarchical camarilla. And then there is the extraordinary fact that this entire antiliberal strategy is masterminded by one solitary bachelor in his late sixties, reportedly not in the best of health, who holds no government position and since the deaths of his twin brother and mother seems to have nothing left in his life but politics and anger.

Already analysts identify several factions vying for position in a post-Kaczyński PiS, one around the president, others around the prime minister, the justice minister, the culture minister, and so on. I met younger PiS activists who have more nuanced, modern attitudes on some issues, and even expressed impatience with the old man. A recent revelation that ministers have paid themselves generous bonuses feeds a growing public understanding that this is not actually “the people” taking over from “elites.

And then there are the Poles on the streets being, well, Polishthat is to say, insubordinate, contrary, never wittingly silenced. On my first evening in Warsaw, a friend took me to see a small demonstration in front of parliament. At one point, the police tried to stop people walking along the pavement and, with sublime maladroitness, picked on a casually dressed man who turned out to be an opposition MP. A theatrical scene ensued, with the MP holding aloft his parliamentary pass and berating the police commander: “I’m an elected representative of the people! This is a democracy! You should apologize!”

Impressively large “black protests” of women of all ages, so called because they all dressed in black, compelled the government to back down on its planned tightening of an already restrictive abortion law. There are some indications that the attack on the constitution is itself encouraging a kind of constitutional patriotism. Demonstrators now often cry “The constitution! The constitution!” A few months ago, I even caught a glimpse of a crowd in Kraków chanting “Triple separation of powers! Triple separation of powers!”

Over the next couple of years there will be four elections in Poland: local, European, parliamentary, and presidential. By the end of 2020, Poland might be increasingly illiberal, following Hungary, or it might pull back toward a more liberal, pluralist democracy. Which way the country goes will depend mainly on the Poles themselves. But it will also depend on the attentions of othersin Europe, in the United States, and in the rest of the West. For what makes this Polish struggle different from all that have preceded it over the centuries is that the Republic of Poland is now for the first time fully part of the West, being a member of the EU, NATO, and all the other institutions of Western liberal internationalism.

The EU obviously matters most. Brussels has been tougher on Poland than on Hungary, partly because Poland is the largest country in East-Central Europe, but also because Orbán has skillfully retained the goodwill of important Western European leaders by being a loyal member of the European People’s Party, the major grouping of center-right parties. For the first time in its history, the EU has activated—against Poland, but not yet against Hungary—Article 7 of its basic treaty, which, in response to a systematic violation of the union’s proclaimed values, envisages sanctions notionally up to and including suspension from its main decision-making body. The European Commission is threatening to take Poland to the European Court of Justice over the emasculation of the country’s Supreme Court. It has also proposed a mechanism by which, in the seven-year European budget starting in 2021, EU funding could actually be stopped if a member state is found to have “generalized deficiencies” in its legal system.

The full Article 7 suspension will never happen, since it requires unanimity among the other EU member states, and Hungary will have Poland’s back. Any linkage between European values and European money, even if approved and deployed, will take years to show visible effect.

Nonetheless, the voice of Europe really counts in a country where support for EU membership holds rock solid at over 80 percent in the opinion polls. So does the voice of the US, and those of other democracies around the world. The moment is critical. Poland is not yet lost, but its future as a liberal democracy hangs in the balance.

July 18, 2018

  1. 1

    Maciej Gdula, Dobra zmiana w miastku. Neoautorytaryzm w polskiej polityce z perspektywy małego miasta (Warsaw: Krytyka Polityczna/Instytut Studiów Zaawansowanych/Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2017).  

  2. 2

    Dziecięca choroba liberalizmu (Warsaw: Studio Emka, 2014). 

  3. 3

    See my analysis of German populism in “It’s the Kultur, Stupid” in these pages, December 7, 2017.