Understanding the Rise of the Right in Poland

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First of two parts

Polish Rightists demonstrate in Warsaw on November 11.

On November 11, Poland’s Independence Day, some 60,000 people converged in a Warsaw demonstration organized by Polish extreme-right nationalist groups; large banners proclaimed slogans including “Pure Blood” and “White Europe.” The Interior Minister of the ruling Law and Justice Party (its Polish initials are PiS), in power since October 2015 elections, called the march “a beautiful sight.” While held annually since 2009, this year’s event was much larger than in the past, and attracted international attention and condemnation as a manifestation of the xenophobic and intolerant orientation of the new government.

Anti-fascist counter-demonstators in Warsaw, November 11.

Four days later, the European Parliament voted 438-152 to start the process to invoke Article 7 of the treaty that undergirds the European Union (EU), which could ultimately, if violations of fundamental European principles of democracy and human rights are found, lead to Poland losing its voting rights. While the demonstration was referenced in the resolution, it had already been in the works for months, a reaction to PiS’s moves against the independence of judges and prosecutors, as well as that of the media and the civil service. Article 7 has never been implemented against any member state, though the process was also initiated in May against Hungary, due to its government’s refusal to accept its assigned quota of refugees, and to its harassment of independent civil society groups. But for the time being, PiS has little to worry about: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has pledged to block any final sanction decision, which would have to be unanimous.

Two countries’ historical alliance. Caption reads “Pole, Hungarian, two brothers, they fight and drink together.”

Solidarity between the two countries, both of which struggled for centuries for independence against oppressive empires, has a long historical pedigree; citizens of each can likely recite the catchphrase “Pole, Hungarian, two brothers!” in the other’s language. But the current political parallels go further. Like Orbán’s Fidesz party, PiS had a previous cycle in power, which gained it legitimacy although it was not strong enough to push through the anti-democratic “national revolution” now in progress. Both charge the liberal elites who dominated government since the fall of Communism in 1989 with enabling the thriving of the former “red bourgeoisie,” officials of the old system, in the new one, and claim that only now that they are fully in power-and not in 1989/90—has true liberation commenced. Both stoke panic about their culture and way of life being overrun by Muslim migrants and liberal “political correctness,” and both rail against “colonization” by the EU, banks and international institutions. Both rode a solid minority support—PiS was elected with 37.5% of the vote—to power in the face of the collapse of pro-EU, liberal parties as a political force. PiS’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, even stated, soon after Orbán took power in 2010, that he wanted to create “Budapest in Poland.”

A satirical image, showing the ugly side of the historical alliance.

But Poland, with a population of 38 million, almost four times Hungary’s, constitutes a much more serious defection from the EU order of human rights and democracy aside a relatively free rein for markets and capital. The New York Times, in a long profile of PiS a year ago, lamented the impending demise of “the great success story of the former Eastern bloc,” ignoring the many losers, in Poland and across the region, in the transition to capitalism. Poland’s rural areas, especially in eastern and southern regions, and many workers felt left out of the 25% growth of the economy trumpeted as the fruit of the eight years of center-right rule that preceded PiS’s election. And many conservative, devoutly religious Poles feel marginalized by the secular liberal orthodoxy promulgated by the EU. The Polish populist right has been calling for a “redistribution of prestige” as a central part of its appeal, in addition to economic security for those struggling to keep up.

Poland was divvied up between Russia, Prussia and Austria between 1773 and 1795.

Poles form a proud nation that measures the length of its independence struggle not in years but in centuries. Their national tragedy was the late 18th century “partitions,” when what was once the largest nation in Europe (as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) was carved up by the Russian, Prussian and Habsburg Empires. It was wiped off the map for 123 years, before its resurrection in 1918 (the anniversary being celebrated on November 11). The concept of układ, denoting an alliance between selfish elites and foreign powers aimed against the nation, originated in the Partition period and has become current again in rightist discourse. This sense was only strengthened by the travails of the mid-20th century, when the country was once again carved up as a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact, its citizens abused, deported or killed, before an even more brutal Nazi occupation and abandonment to the Soviet sphere at the end of the war. This sense of a very tenuous national sovereignty, that must always be defended, informs the antipathy to the EU’s attempts to move “beyond nationalism.”

In September 1939, the Nazis and Soviets again partitioned Poland.

Kaczyński has a very personal reason to access this historical sense of victimization. His long political rise, including the founding of PiS, was undertaken together with his twin brother Lech, the more personable and appealing public face of the pair. In 2010, during the party’s first stint in power, Prime Minister Lech, his wife and numerous other political and military leaders were en route to Smolensk, Russia for a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the murder of some 20,000 officers, the cream of Polish society at the time, in Katyn forest by Soviet forces (though blamed on the Nazis right up until the fall of the Soviet system). Hitting heavy fog on landing, their plane crashed, killing all on board. Although separate Polish and Russian investigations at the time blamed flight crew error for the tragedy, Jarosław and his party continue to insist on Russian foul play—Lech and his wife’s bodies were recently exhumed, in order to check for residue of a bomb; the existence of fog-making machines purposely destroying visibility has also been claimed. This event further fertilized the ground for conspiracy theories, and allowed PiS to claim the mantle of the “party of national mourning.” (Alongside the historical Russian-Polish enmity, this issue complicates the role of President Putin, who in Poland as elsewhere in Europe has been funding and fomenting far-right, anti-EU movements—and has established close ties to Orbán.)

The 2010 funeral for Lech Kaczyński.

Religion is another pillar of Polish nationalism. The overall slogan of the Independence Day march was “My Chcemy Boga,” “We Want God,” a phrase from an old Polish religious song that Donald Trump made the centerpiece of his July speech in Poland. The country’s Catholic Church and the 1979 visit of the “Polish Pope,” John Paul II (born Karol Wojtyła) played major roles in sustaining the nation’s morale during the Communist period. But for centuries before, Poland was heroicized as the “Christ of Nations” for its sacrifices in defending Christian Europe from Muslim invaders. An October mobilization, “Rosary on the Borders,” brought hundreds of thousands of devout Poles to pray along the country’s 2000-mile-long frontier for the country’s salvation and against secularization and Islam. The occasion marked the anniversary of the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, when the Pope mobilized a naval armada to stop the Ottoman Empire’s incursions.

Poster for the October 8 “Rosary on the Borders” mobilization.

Defenders of the rule of law and inclusive, tolerant ideas of democracy threatened by the rising tide of nationalist authoritarianism would do well, especially in the case of Poland, to consider the deep historical and cultural roots of those who have been alienated by the rush to neoliberalism and top-down EU integration. Poles, like Hungarians, may tend towards a persecution complex, but they and their nation have indeed been persecuted for centuries, and especially in the one recently concluded. In my next article, I will examine the current state of affairs in Poland, the role of Hungary as a model, how these rightist projects impact the EU, and counter the simplistic view that characterizes Western media coverage.

About Richard Esbenshade

12-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; contract not renewed due to budget cuts, currently self-employed; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.

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