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,” 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,

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