Polish Nationalists Try to Rewrite History

The ruling party’s inability to come to terms with Poland’s past is hurting its relations with the rest of Europe.

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki visits the statue of Józef Bem in Budapest, Hungary, January 26
Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki visits the statue of Józef Bem in Budapest, Hungary, January 26 (PiS)

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is trying to rewrite history — and it’s hurting Polish relations with the rest of Europe.

Ukraine

Gabriele Woidelko reports for Carnegie Europe that different interpretations of World War II atrocities committed by Ukrainians against Poles are poisoning relations between the two countries.

Poland considers the massacre of ethnic Poles in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe a genocide. Ukrainian remembrance is more complicated, because the perpetrators also fought the Nazis and the Soviets.

For almost twenty years, writes Woidelko, reconciliation with Ukraine was an integral part of Poland’s self-perception as a free and independent nation state. Now Ukraine, at war with Russia, has rediscovered its historical fight for independence while Poland emphasizes the historical role of Poles as freedom fighters against external oppression. Two different varieties of victimhood confront each other.

Lech Wałęsa

The Wall Street Journal reports that Law and Justice is trying to write Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the anti-Soviet Solidarity movement, out of the history books.

Wałęsa, an outspoken opponent of the Law and Justice government, is now accused of betraying the revolution and ushering in a technocratic republic that is elitist, corrupt and insufficiently patriotic.

Holocaust

Another controversy stems from a bill that would make it illegal to argue Poland shares responsibility for the Holocaust.

Law and Justice has for years objected to the term “Polish death camps,” arguing — not unreasonably — that it suggests Poles, rather than Germans, were responsible for the extermination of Jews.

However, Israel’s minister for education and diaspora affairs, Naftali Bennett — a hardline conservative himself — points out that Poles did abet the Nazi regime. The proposed legislation would criminalize such factual statements as well.

Victimhood

Law and Justice’s historical revisionism is not unique.

The valorization of victimhood is a staple of nationalist movements everywhere.

So is the portrayal of the own nation as surrounded by enemies, requiring unquestioning loyalty to the state.

Poland’s leaders differ little in this sense from their nemesis in Moscow. Like Russian autocrats before him, Vladimir Putin portrays his country as perennially under siege to argue Russians must trade freedom for security.

At loggerheads

The difference is that Poland, as a member of the European Union, cannot get away with it so easily.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the Law and Justice party leader, has demanded:

  • War reparations from Germany; and
  • More voting weight in the EU to account for the citizens Poland lost in World War II.

He is getting neither.

It does Poland no good for Law and Justice to keep milking these issues, especially when it is already at loggerheads with the EU over its politicization of the judiciary and refusal to take in refugees.