Kacper Pempel / REUTERS

PiS and Polish History

How the Party Uses the Past to Shape the Present

On April 5, Poland’s Supreme Administrative Court issued a ruling allowing the government to merge the country’s Museum of the Second World War, in Gdansk, with the Westerplatte Museum, a smaller institution commemorating the war’s first battle between German and Polish troops in the same city. The Museum of the Second World War was created by the liberal government of former Prime Minister Donald Tusk in 2008, and it presents the conflict from an international perspective, attempting to reflect the universalism of the suffering it caused. Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party has rejected this framing, arguing, in the words of Culture Minister Piotr Glinski, that it does not put “enough stress on the Polish point of view.”

The court’s decision was the latest episode in an ongoing struggle between Poland’s liberal-minded Europhiles and its Euroskeptic conservatives over how to approach Polish history. Since PiS took power in late 2015, it has criticized the role of Poland’s liberals in the late communist era and framed the record of Poland’s post-transition leadership in catastrophic terms. The party has succeeded in doing so in part because Polish liberals have themselves failed to deal with their country’s thorny past, seeing few political benefits in, for example, formally commemorating its democratic transition. This has created a vacuum that PiS has now filled in service of its own ends.

PAST MASTERS

Since PiS took power, Poland has been swept by a wave of official historical revisionism. First, a number of PiS politicians started to suggest that prominent transition figures who now serve as opposition lawmakers were in fact in league with the former communist authorities. In December 2015, speaking at an event commemorating Poland’s 1970 riots, Polish President Andrzej Duda suggested that the country’s post-transition leaders had treated “communist criminals” as “men of honor.” His comments have been echoed by other PiS officials, such as the deputy internal affairs minister, Jaroslaw Zielinski, who accused the Senate Deputy Speaker Solidarity, of protecting communist informants during a more recent vote on reducing pensions for former Secret Service functionaries.

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