First President of the Supreme Court Małgorzata Gersdorf addresses protesters in July 2018. Source: Reuters/M. Gocłowski.
By Stanley Bill
Since winning power in October 2015, the Polish government led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party has introduced a raft of changes to all levels of the country’s judicial system. Domestic opponents, along with the European Commission and the Venice Commission, have accused them of undermining the rule of law and flouting the Constitution. Protesters have filled the streets at regular intervals. Yet the abstract nature of the changes and the unappealing involvement of the parliamentary opposition have made it difficult for the resistance movement to gain any real popular momentum. Many Poles find the new laws excessive, but most also feel that the judicial system genuinely needs reform.
My aim in this article is to put the key changes and their consequences together to show the big picture. Both the expert Venice Commission and the European Commission have emphasized that the cumulative effect of the reforms significantly exacerbates their potential consequences. Most of the measures are concerning in themselves, but some are arguably defensible in isolation. Only when the changes are viewed together does the true scale of the threat to rule of law in Poland become clear.
Rywka Wajnberg and Małka Wakslicht, Polish Jews in hiding in Biłgoraj during the Second World War. Image Source: Gazeta Wyborcza.
By Stanley Bill
In 2018, the Polish government’s politics of memory have been a public relations disaster for the country. A declared intention to defend the good name of “the nation” against false accusations of collaboration in the Holocaust has instead created a wave of international outrage and negative media coverage of Poland’s past and present. From the misconceived formulation of the so-called “Holocaust law” to clumsy public statements from Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s leaders have drawn international attention to the vexed question of Polish complicity with German crimes instead of clarifying a complex and painful history in which Polish Jews and non-Jewish Poles suffered on an enormous scale. It is true that Western understandings of Poland’s history under the German occupation are often inaccurate, but the government has only exacerbated the problem through a mixture of tone-deaf incompetence and cynical manipulation of domestic emotions. In belated response to the public relations fiasco, the Polish parliament ratified a hasty “correction” to the law this week, but the damage to Poland’s reputation had already been done.
Underground print shop during martial law. Unknown photographer from KARTA.
By Siobhan Doucette
In June of 1989 semi-free elections were held in Poland; the results surprised onlookers around the world in that they were an unequivocal victory for the Solidarity-led opposition to the ruling communist government. In Books Are Weapons: The Polish Opposition Press and the Overthrow of Communism (Pittsburgh University Press, 2017), I argue that this victory had been made possible in large part due to a nationwide network of activists who expressed themselves through the independent press, which between 1976 and 1989 mirrored and, at times, provided the sinews connecting the Polish democratic opposition. Continue reading
Professor Robert Frost at the University of Cambridge in 2015.
By Andrzej Nowak and Robert Frost
This week, prominent historians Professor Andrzej Nowak (Jagiellonian University) and Professor Robert Frost (University of Aberdeen) wrote a public letter to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on the recent controversy over the new law regulating historical discourse in Poland. Earlier this year, the two historians won prestigious prizes from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the best books promoting Polish history. They first published their letter in Polish on conservative news websites wPolityce.pl and Do Rzeczy. The letter emerged from the participation of both professors in a lively discussion of the new law at the recent Belvedere Polish-British Forum in London, in which the Notes from Poland team also took part. Notes from Poland is pleased to publish the official English version of the letter here.
By Daniel Tilles
Poland’s proposed law deserves to be criticised, but the country is not the only one that should be asking itself questions about its actions during the Holocaust. The United States and Britain have largely ignored this shameful episode in their own histories.
The last few days have seen a bitter dispute over the Polish government’s decision to push ahead with a law that would criminalise those who falsely assign the Polish nation or state responsibility for the crimes of the German Third Reich.
Debate has focused on the use of the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ and, as I’ve written on this blog before, I fully support efforts to discourage the term, which is not only factually inaccurate but also deeply offensive, given that Poles were, after Jews, numerically the greatest victims of the German Nazi camps. More broadly, Poles justifiably feel that their experience of and actions during the war are little recognised, and sometimes misrepresented, outside their own country.
A cabinet reshuffle suggests that the new prime minister is no puppet and indicates a new direction of travel at home and abroad – one with potentially great rewards for PiS, but also significant risks.
By Daniel Tilles with Stanley Bill
Poland’s cabinet, which has remained almost unchanged in the two years since Law and Justice (PiS) returned to power, underwent a major reshuffle today, with a third of its ministers replaced. While all of the individual decisions had been rumoured, some for quite a long time, the scale of the overall change, and the decisive manner in which it transforms the nature of the government, still came as something of a shock.
Previously, Jarosław Kaczyński, the country’s unofficial but de facto ruler, has carefully and successfully balanced the various factions within the ruling camp (which, as well as his own PiS party, includes the smaller Solidarna Polska and Porozumienie). But he has now granted clear dominance to the more moderate, business-friendly wing. Meanwhile, major figures associated with PiS’s traditional national-conservative and religious base have been demoted or removed entirely. Continue reading
By Stanley Bill
After two years of finger-wagging, the European Commission has finally taken decisive action against Poland’s government for undermining the rule of law. Today the Commission triggered the “nuclear option” of Article 7 in response to two recent judicial reform bills. If four-fifths of the EU’s member states support the move – which seems possible given earlier declarations from both Germany and France – then Poland will receive a formal warning for the ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ of EU law. The next steps in the process could eventually lead to the suspension of EU voting rights, though such a move would require a unanimity that remains unlikely in the face of a promised Hungarian veto. Nevertheless, the Commission’s unprecedented decision represents the most serious of many recent blows to the country’s international image and standing. A shining symbol of transformational success only a few years ago, Poland is now officially a major internal problem for Europe.