Poland continues purging history books to the beat of PiS drum

Leader of the PiS ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczynski (2-R), his niece Marta Kaczynska (L) with daughter and Polish President Andrzej Duda (R) after unveiling a monument to the victims of the 2010 plane crash. [EPA-EFE/Jacek Turczyk]

Poland, and the ruling PiS party in particular, attaches great importance to history. It is therefore no wonder that it continues to change its history and the names of those who made it, with the help of the state-controlled media. EURACTIV’s media partner Gazeta Wyborcza reports.

The foreign ministries of Poland and the Netherlands have for eight years commemorated Professor Bronisław Geremek – a Polish politician, MEP and former foreign minister, who died in a car accident in 2008 – by organising memorial lectures and inviting distinguished columnists and experts to talk about Europe’s problems and its future.

These issues were the focus of Geremek’s life.

In 2017, the Geremek Lecture took place at the University of Utrecht. This year it was in Warsaw, at the National School of Public Administration, which prepares staff for the Polish civil service.

The speaker, Professor Ryszard Legutko, an MEP with the Law and Justice Party (PiS) which has ruled Poland for the past two years, made no reference to Geremek’s legacy.

The fact that it was a lecture in honour of the former Polish foreign minister was ignored. But this was no coincidence.

Under the PiS government, some names are being pushed out of the public space and the pages of history textbooks, and new ones are being substituted in their place.

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Two years ago, when a NATO summit was held in Warsaw,  Geremek was nowhere to be found on the display boards of an exhibition prepared by the Polish defence ministry to present Poland’s road to NATO.

The famous photograph from 12 March 1999, in which Geremek, as the head of the Polish foreign ministry, signs the NATO accession documents in the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, was nowhere to be found.

Why were Geremek and other well-deserving figures from Polish politics banned the exhibition? The Defence ministry, headed by Antoni Macierewicz at the time, claimed that it had decided to show the lesser-known people.

Ten years earlier Macierewicz had called Geremek a Russian agent. The state media, controlled by the PiS government and providing it with shameless publicity, broadcast material suggesting that the idea of Poland joining NATO was first promoted in the 1980s by a certain opposition activist, who later became an influential PiS politician.

This year, the defence ministry published a special video to mark the anniversary of NATO accession. It shows President Andrzej Duda and the current defence minister. Geremek went unmentioned.

Lech Wałęsa treated the same way

Lech Wałęsa, the legendary leader of Solidarity, is treated by the current regime in much the same way. The PiS head, Jarosław Kaczyński, worked closely but briefly with Wałęsa in the early 1990s, but the two later fell out completely. At present, Wałęsa is one of the most severe critics of PiS.

State media portray Wałęsa as an agent of the communist security services, a traitor and a loser. They also suggest – contrary to facts – that he was not the real founder of Solidarity, instead ascribing that feat to Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin-brother who later went on to become the president (until his death in the Smolensk air crash).

Wałęsa’s achievements for Poland go unmentioned in official broadcasts.

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Name removals take place even at the lowest local level. The authorities of Krapkowice, near Opole in southern Poland, decided to name a roundabout after the late Professor Władysław Bartoszewski, a former prisoner of the Auschwitz concentration camp, a soldier of the underground and an anti-communist activist who became one of the most important Polish intellectuals after 1989.

But the regional directorate of roads and highways refused, claiming Bartoszewski was a controversial figure. He happened to be another critic of the Kaczyńskis’ party and was treated by the party as an enemy for many years. A public television presenter actually went as far as to suggest that Bartoszewski had been released from Auschwitz because he collaborated with the Germans.

PiS attaches great importance to history, and especially to propagating its own heroic version of it. So much so that a law was passed two months ago making it possible to get a three-year jail sentence for saying that Poland or Poles participated in the Holocaust or in other crimes that took place in the twentieth century.

If I were to write that Poland had committed a crime against peace by taking part in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, I would have prosecutors at my back. At the same time, removing the names of people unpopular with the current authorities from public space and Polish history is legal, and at present even recommended.

Recognising his merits, the European Parliament dedicated a square near its headquarters in Strasbourg to Bronisław Geremek in 2009. For that reason, I think that – whatever PiS might do – it will not be able to falsify history completely.

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