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The Shadow of Poland's Past

How the PiS Uses Grievance to Govern

Poles pray on Kasprowy Wierch mountain during a mass prayer on the country's borders, October 2017. Agenca Gazeta / Reuters

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,”

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