Rethinking Europe

Polish Democracy: Fighting Ghosts of the Past

Is Poland turning into another South Africa, where strong suspicions disable the country and hollow out the economy?

Credit: Victor Maschek Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Is Poland like South Africa, where strong suspicions disable the country and hollow out the economy?
  • Can Polish democrats protect democracy that has served Poland well?
  • Brussels is telling Warsaw: Patriotism must guard democracy before fighting the ghosts of the past.

The 20th century was dominated by debate over Germany’s place in Europe. Two world wars and a cold war over divided Europe ended with German unification. In the end, the “German Question” was answered.

Now, the debate over the future of Europe has moved eastward and landed in Poland – despite the ever-expanding European Union with its peace and prosperity policy.

The new government’s series of actions, all steered by former Prime Minister (and the ruling party’s current chairman) Jaroslaw Kaczynski – mainly against the constitutional court and the media begs the question: Is Polish democracy being actively and maliciously undermined? Or are we witnessing a long-awaited and ultimately inescapable confrontation with remnants of its communist past?

In addition, traditional fears of a resurgent Germany, it seems, have not been laid to rest.

Undermining democracy

Recent media reports that the Polish Peace and Justice Party (PiS) is abandoning democracy have raised alarm in many European capitals that Poland, back in Kaczynski’s hands, is undermining democracy.

That turn of events disturbed me on several fronts. At the same time, I realize and appreciate that Poland is a proud nation that has survived historic domination and even disappearances from the map of Europe at the hands of Germans and Russians.

Given the increasing polarization of the political landscape, I wanted to know if patriotism transcends parties – or was limited to all the true believers inside the PiS (Peace and Justice party).

A former Senator’s perspective

I called on a former Civic Platform (CP) Ideology Senator and chairman of the Senate Defense Committee to dig deeper into the story, Franciszek Adamczyk, whom I had gotten to know years earlier when he was Polish Consul General in Chicago.

Despite his own affiliation with Civic Platform, he responded to my concerns with some sympathy for the concerns of the new ruling party in defense of Poland.

Indeed, Adamczyk’s defense of PiS – at least in its apparent search for ex-communists lurking within the state – revealed a fight many thought had been settled.

In 1992, just after Poland was again free of foreign influence (most recently Soviet), the parliament demanded a list of members of the government and parliament that had been identified as secret agents of the communist secret police.

Then-Minister of Internal Affairs, Antoni Macierewicz, who is today the Minister of National Defense, provided a list.

It included two names that set off alarm bells: then-President Lech Wałęsa and Wiesław Chrzanowski, the Marshall (=Speaker) of the Sejm, Poland’s parliament.

My friend, former Senator Adamczyk recalled that the parliament decided to bury the list of names Minister Macierewicz had presented and made a deal to keep the files closed and allow the communist collaborators to burrow into positions in the new government.

Opposition parties shortly afterward in 1992 brought down that government to preserve the deal.

The new government has reopened that old political wound, at what seems like very steep costs to be paid by Polish democracy.

The ghost that lurks in the background is the Polish communist link to the Soivet Union, which is evidently far from settled in the minds of the PiS leaders and followers.

Germany’s role

Hovering in Polish history is also Germany. Poles reject criticism coming from Germans – Martin Schulz and Gottfried Oettinger — even if, or perhaps because they demonize the Germans as leading the European Union against Polish interests.

The ghost of German domination of Poland lies deep in Polish memory and is conflated to EU domination by Germany. Already in the conversation we were touching a nerve to discuss the criticism about the PiS attack on Polish institutions.

The key question is whether Poland isn’t turning into another South Africa, where despite the truth and conciliation commissions, suspicions are still very strong, disabling the country and hollowing out the economy.

Unlike Germany, where there is no significant fear of ex-Nazis or ex-Communists from the east returning to power or lurking in the civil service, Poland is headed down a dangerous path in its effort to exorcize these ghosts.

Democracy-building

Do the PiS leaders’ fears of burrowed-in communist bureaucrats and politicians end with comparisons with Orban’s Hungary’s rising nationalism? Will Poland’s new governing party end up rejecting the European Union? Can the Polish democrats protect democracy that has served Poland well?

Poland has a proud history in democracy building. Poland’s Solidarity Movement, through which Kaczynski and Macierewicz challenged the Soviet Union, helped Poland win the battle for democracy.

The Solidarity movement in Poland also inspired East Germans to tear down the Berlin Wall and helped unify Germany and Europe.

Working in the U.S. Embassy to East Germany in the early 1990s during the Peaceful Revolution and Germany unity talks, I saw the close ties East Germans had with the Tadeusz Mazowiecki government and how Foreign Minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski and East German Foreign Minister Markus Meckel worked to achieve German unity.

Poland sought and achieved its national security as the first new member of NATO because it was a democracy. Undermining democracy now puts Polish security at risk of losing NATO support, particularly after the new government interfered at a NATO office in Poland. NATO is a political as well as military alliance.

Losing its leadership role

In addition, Poland’s leadership in Central Europe risks becoming collateral damage in this effort to re-fight communists who burrowed into the government a quarter century ago.

The European Commission seems determined to play an active role in defending the rule of law in Poland. Unlike Hungary, which is not a linchpin of European integration, Poland really matters.

Plus, the Commission has apparently learned the lessons of its hesitation to speak out loud and clear in Hungary’s case, which includes the need to act (and not just talk).

Possible actions could theoretically go as far as Poland losing its EU voting rights on matters that concern the entire 28-nation bloc.

The message from Brussels is straightforward: Patriotism needs to protect democracy first before seeking to overcome the ghosts of the past. Only then can Poland protect democracy and secure a prosperous future.

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About J.D. Bindenagel

J.D. Bindenagel is a former U.S. Ambassador and currently the Henry Kissinger Professor for Governance and International Security, University of Bonn. [Germany]

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