In most of Europe, the anniversary of the start of World War II was little more than a historical curio. But in Poland, the place where the conflict began, September 1, 1939 still casts a long shadow.
“My mother’s family lost everything back then,” Grzegorz Berendt, the recently appointed deputy director of the Museum of WWII in Gdansk, northern Poland, told me. “My father’s house was destroyed, too, and the population was robbed systematically, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. Between 1939 and 1945, Poland lost one-third of its territory and at least six million of its citizens, killed or murdered.”
It is not surprising that a conflict of such unimaginable brutality should still echo down the years. Yet, since the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) was elected in 2015, those echoes have undoubtedly grown louder and more pointed. “German-Polish relations are overshadowed by the German aggression of 1939,” Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski announced just a few days after this September’s anniversary. He went on to claim that Germany owed Poland around $1 trillion in wartime reparations.
Waszczykowski’s comments came after several months of increasingly bitter exchanges between Warsaw and Berlin, as well as between Warsaw and Paris and Warsaw and Brussels. These disputes have involved a series of issues, ranging from PiS moves that the EU sees as interfering with judicial independence to a refusal by Warsaw to settle its fair share of refugees. French President Emmanuel Macron has even seen fit to describe the Polish government as being “in conflict” with the “European values” of democracy and public freedom.
The relatively sudden downturn in the relationship surprised many, as in the years following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, Poland had become something of a model European country. In 1999, it joined NATO and in 2004 the EU. German-Polish relations had never been as good; innumerable economic, cultural, and social ties had been built up between the two countries, with reconciliation the overriding theme.
“A few years ago, we’d have all confidently said that questions of World War II, German-Polish reconciliation, and Poland’s place in the EU and the Transatlantic alliance were pretty much resolved,” Michal Baranowski, the director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office, told me. “But now, I think we might have been a little optimistic.”
SOUND OF THE GUNS
Gdansk and its WWII museum—the country’s most modern and lavish—is a clear focal point in that overly optimistic view of post-1989 Poland.
Formerly known as Danzig, a “Free City” with a largely German population before the war, Gdansk is where one of the most public casualties of what local press dubs the “memory wars” took place. The museum’s first director, Pavel Machcewicz, an appointee of the previous government led by the liberal Civic Platform (PO), was recently fired after being criticized by the PiS government for failing to make the museum sufficiently patriotic. Of particular concern to the PiS was what it saw as a lack of material on Poland’s oppression or highlighting of the more heroic episodes in its resistance.
Berendt, Machcewicz’s replacement, promises to “present more of the history of Poland in WWII in part of what was the temporary exhibition space at the museum.” He says that the new displays “will show the economic exploitation, the terror, the suffering, the military activity of Poles under German occupation, and tell a story unknown to many foreigners and to many Polish citizens born after the war.”
Few would dispute the scale of the suffering—as a proportion of its population, Poland lost proportionately more citizens in the war than any other country—but it has not been part of the public narrative for many decades. Instead, in Poland, histories of the conflict have tended to underplay any national viewpoint. Under the post-1945 communist regime, socialist unity was the theme of the day. In 1953, the government even renounced all future claims for reparations from Germany, likely because Poland was then allied with the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) within the Soviet bloc and Moscow wanted all its satellites on friendly terms. The so-called elite that the PiS despises is also highly pro-EU, which the PiS associates with the old enemy, Germany.
Then, after 1989, capitalist Poland took up the cause of European solidarity—and thus reconciliation with European power-house Germany. Under Machcewicz, the new museum in Gdansk therefore emphasized the universal suffering of war, particularly with reference to the civilian populations of many different countries. Other museums, such as the one in nearby Elblag, have likewise emphasized local pre-war history when the town was part of German East Prussia. In doing so, they have highlighted the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural history of the region.
For many PiS supporters, the underplaying of Poland’s own unique national narrative is yet another sign of Poland’s subjugation to a foreign, globalizing agenda under previous, liberal PO governments.
At the same time, PiS supporters often allege that the institutions built after 1989—largely by those PO administrations—have been staffed by people tainted by their association with the communists. The current dispute over judicial independence is a case in point. The government argues that its moves to gain control of how jurists are appointed are necessary because the judiciary remains dominated by such officials, who have never had to answer for their association with the repressive communist state. Currently, judges are appointed by the National Council for the Judiciary, which was set up in 1989 by the last communist government. While many of its communist-era appointed members have since retired, the PiS sees it as perpetuating the old system and of a left-wing bias. Opposition parties and groups, including the PO, claim that the PiS is exaggerating in an attempt to control the legal system.
PiS also argues that previous governments run by PO, which was in power for most of the post-1989 period, accommodated not only old Communist Party men but also old attitudes of condescension toward ordinary Poles. The old Communist Party had been used to seeing itself as an elite, granting itself privileges and enjoying higher standards of living than ordinary Poles. This charge was underscored by a scandal in 2014 in which a series of taped conversations between PO officials at a Warsaw restaurant revealed some shocking attitudes toward the general public. Known as Waitergate, over lavish and expensive meals—paid for by the taxpayer—one senior official was recorded dismissing a 6,000 zloty a month wage (about $1,600) as something “only an idiot or a thief” would work for. Currently, that figure is well above Poland’s average monthly salary.
PiS thus taps into a sense of grievance at a transition felt by many to be illegitimate, as many members of the old, despised communist regime continue to hold power in the new, capitalist state and a feeling that the Polish nationalist narrative has been continuously buried under foreign agendas. The so-called elite that the PiS despises is also highly pro-EU, which the PiS associates with the old enemy, Germany.
Promoting this viewpoint, the PiS won the 2015 election with a large majority over the PO. This domestic political shift toward Polish right-wing nationalism, dubbed the dobra zmiana, or “good change” by the government, has wider implications, too. PiS has already advocated what some in Berlin and Brussels see as a new axis of power in Eastern Europe. The effort is led by the “Three Seas” initiative, launched by Poland and Croatia in 2016, which seeks to bring together the littoral states of the Baltic, Black Sea, and Adriatic Sea. Poland has also been supportive of the “Bucharest 9,” a grouping of all the Eastern European and Baltic states within the EU, set up in 2014, which recently held its second foreign ministerial meeting in Warsaw.
At the same time, the PiS government has been taking an entirely different attitude toward NATO. It is one of only five NATO members to meet its defense spending target of two percent of GDP, while aiming to raise the figure to 2.5 percent by 2030. “Poland is absolutely the center of gravity of NATO’s eastern flank,” Baranowski told me. The United States, for its part, is supportive of Poland, with the Trump administration giving its full backing to the PiS government during the president’s recent visit. Behind this, both countries’ traditional fears of another country—Russia—play an important role. Growing Russian assertiveness causes alarm for many Poles, and it has also strengthened NATO’s commitment to the country.
Fears of Russia are also behind Warsaw’s recent move to establish an armed “territorial defense force,” a volunteer militia, in many eastern towns and villages. Yet such moves, when placed in the context of other PiS actions, are causing considerable alarm elsewhere in Europe—and among opposition groups in Poland. As a result, such initiatives may also eventually undermine the solid NATO defense that President Trump is looking for.
“They are heading down a dark road,” says Longhurst. “A very dark road.” Indeed, in this part of Europe, the catastrophe that extreme nationalism unleashed some 78 years ago can still be a cause of great concern today.