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Right-Wing Nationalism in Poland: A threat to human rights?
When Krzysztof Bosak – a Polish MP representing the conservative League of Polish Families – speaks about Polish nationalism his voice becomes steady, calm, and proud. “It is a synthesis of rational patriotism, Christian and Catholic values,” Bosak says reflectively. Many, however, would argue that nationalism isn’t quite that simple, or benign.
Jacek Purski, a full time volunteer and activist for Poland’s anti-racism Never Again Association, is not so steady and calm when it comes to the topic of nationalism in Poland. He argues that Bosak’s enthusiastic brand of religious nationalism is nothing to be proud of, but rather something to fear, perhaps even intensely. “It’s one step away from fascism in my mind,” Purski says.
Down With Liberalism!
Rational or fascist, we have yet to explore, but rigidly anti-liberal Polish nationalism certainly is. Nationalism as an ideology does not intrinsically rest upon a commitment to universal rights or democratic values, but rather it depends upon a strong investment in fighting all that threatens nationhood and some ideal of a national identity. In a nation such as Poland, where democracy has a spotty history and constitutional principles are hardly tied to a national or cultural identity, nationalism includes a relatively narrow conception of who proud Polish citizens may be, and what a proud Polish nation may represent. Broad and expansive liberties are not part of this picture.
It is not uncommon for post-communist transitional democratic states like Poland to experience a resurgence of anti-liberal populism once the widespread euphoria (in celebration of the fall of the ancien régime) begins to wane. “The rise of populism” is in fact sweeping much of Eastern Europe, according to Jacques Rupnik, a writer for the New Republic, who notes that “Right-wing populists in Poland and left-wing populists in Slovakia govern with extremist parties as part of their coalitions. In Hungary, the main opposition party, Fidesz, threatened last October to bring down the country’s democratically elected government through a wave of street demonstrations. Bulgaria’s recent presidential election pitted an ex-communist against a protofascist who says that he hates Turks, Gypsies, and Jews.” The exact brand of populism (right-wing vs. left-wing, economically socialist vs. economically liberal, etc.) and the character of the oft-accompanying extremism naturally varies from country to country. Populist politicians and parties frame their populist policies using language and symbols that, as one would assume, have massive ‘popular’ appeal.
The Polish populism of the current ruling coalition patently falls on the right-hand side of the political spectrum, and “has been a trendsetter for the region since the conservative Kaczyński twins assumed power – one as president, the other as prime minister – in 2005 and 2006. Their association in government with the League of Polish Families produced a political program based on the assumption that Catholic and national values should prevail over permissive liberalism on issues like abortion and gay rights,” according to Rupnik. The ruling parliamentary coalition in Poland, consisting of the Kaczynski brothers’ Law and Justice Party (PiS), the aforementioned right-wing League of Polish Families (LPR), and the Self-Defense of the Republic of Poland (Samoobrona), an agrarian, economically socialist yet socially Catholic conservative party, has tapped into the powerful resource of right-wing Polish nationalism in an effort to gain political popularity.
According to this right-wing brand of Polish nationalism, who does the "Polish identity" include, and who does it exclude? What are the implications of propagating this ideology, and how popular has it already become?
All In the (Polish) Family
The League of Polish Families, with its political roots in the historical tradition of right-wing Polish nationalism, tends to dominate the discourse on nationalism today. Although they represent the most mainstream version of right-wing Polish nationalism, their radical character is evidenced by their campaigns against “all that threatens the moral fabric of society. This means abortion, divorce, feminism, homosexuality and consumerism, among other things,” says Adam Ostolski, a political critic for the monthly magazine Krytyka Polityczna. The socially conservative Krzysztof Bosak, who prior to his MP days served as the chairman of All Polish Youth – a smaller but not insignificant Polish nationalist organization that is more intensely right-wing than LPR – opined that “new left” movements are harmful to Polish society and national identity, partly because they can quickly gain momentum and popularity and “cannot be constrained in a legal fashion.” He claims that “these movements are based on the false concepts of human dignity and freedom. They are evil because they propagate their ideas and brainwash people. They propose laws that weaken society, destroy traditions and institutions, which leads to the disintegration of society and a dilution of the Polish identity.”
New left movements, then, which appeal to liberal democratic principles in an effort to expand legal conceptions of rights and their subsequent defense, have no place in Bosak's ideal Poland. If you believe that your human rights are being violated by the Polish state, maybe because you are a homosexual being discriminated against and possibly violently targeted, or you are woman fighting for equal pay in the workplace, you must simply be mistaken. You are not truly Polish, and you don’t truly have rights.
Anti-Semitism and Nationalism, Yesterday and Today
Although mainstream right-wing Polish nationalism today has moved away from its formerly primary focus on ethnic and religious homogeneity that marked right-wing nationalism in the past, anti-Semitism still thrives openly within fringe nationalist movements and behind closed doors within mainstream political parties, according to Ostolski. Politicians have observed the growing taboo against public anti-Semitic claims, from both the national and international community, and have wisely removed them, or most of them, from the public sphere. Crude anti-Semitism, however, still has its place in private meetings, and watered-down versions of it continue to appear publicly.
Krzysztof Bosak tends to defend the pre-war ‘All Polish Youth’ and their anti-Semitic actions aimed at limiting the number of Jewish students who could attend Warsaw University as “a struggle for student rights and fair competition in a multi-national country.” The LPR has changed their official rhetoric about Jews but they still deny past and present instances of Polish discrimination and violence against Jews. In 2001, Ryszard Bender, one of the founders of the LPR, publicly denied many of the recently uncovered facts of the Jedwabne Massacre, a Polish pogrom against Jews in 1941, and accused the former President Kwaśniewski of bowing to Jewish interest groups by attending a commemoration ceremony for the pogrom. While the LPR restricts its use of flagrant anti-Semitism in the national public sphere, it still clearly tolerates the historical role of anti-Semitism in the construction of a Polish national identity.
Unfortunately, anti-Semitism of a cruder form that is revealed in the international political scene continues to enjoy a certain level of toleration from Poles that it seems to have lost domestically. The LPR, for example, has a higher tolerance for extreme behavior and attitudes among its representatives on the European Parliamentary level than it does on the national level. According to journalist Dinah Spritzer, Professor Maciej Giertych, a Polish LPR representative in the European Parliament, published a booklet earlier this year in which he suggested that “Jews are unethical, are obsessed with separateness, and are a ‘tragic community’ because they don’t accept Jesus as the messiah.” Professor Giertych is an influential member of the League of Polish families and his son, Roman, is now the head of the party. Spritzer writes that the short booklet “aims to prove that European culture, education and morality should be the province of only one civilization. Poland and other parts of Europe are depicted as having a Catholic core which cannot coexist with what he depicts as the Jews’ Torah-based civilization.”
The more overtly rigid rhetoric of Polish nationalism on the European front is tolerated, according to Ostolski, partly because it is off the radar of the average Pole and partly because the public mechanism for response to international political issues is slower and less well-organized. “The media and social consequences for making extreme comments, specifically anti-Semitic in nature, are weakened on the European level,” notes Ostolski.
Morality-Colored Glasses and a New 'Them'
Much more so than Jews, homosexuals, feminists, and pro-choice advocates, are the most openly targeted groups by today’s Polish nationalists. For mainstream right-wing nationalist movements, “the gay rights movement is really their primary target,” says Ostolski. According to Purski, the social and political persecution of these groups is not taboo, nor is it on its way to becoming taboo. On the contrary, Purski notes that “since the last elections there has been a bigger and bigger societal acceptance of right-wing behavior.” Purski notes that there have been a number of incidents over the past few years in which openly racist and homophobic statements and slogans have been used during right-wing demonstrations in Cracow and the police did nothing to stop it (according to Polish law prohibiting “hate speech” the police should have intervened). “As right-wing campaigns against homosexuals get more and more extreme, they also seem to be becoming more and more mainstream,” says Purski.
The LPR doesn’t limit its work against the gay rights movement to the framework of social campaigns and demonstrations. The parliamentary appointed Minister of Education in Poland, Roman Giertych (mentioned above – the son of Professor Maciej Giertych), is an LPR member who has lobbied hard for a ban on “open” homosexuals from teaching positions in Polish schools. Bosak aired his own concern about the presence of open homosexuals in schools as well. “Yes, they can teach at schools, but if they openly demonstrate their homosexuality we should not tolerate that. They brainwash young people when they demonstrate their sexual disorder. Teachers should set a good example for children… Homosexuals are abnormal.”
Bosak adds that although he does not agree with Wojciech Wierzejski, another MP from LPR who said publicly that “most homosexuals are pedophiles,” he does claim that “there is other research showing that there is a correlation between occurrences of homosexuality and pedophilia. Most of the criminal offenses committed by pedophiles are homosexual in nature.”
Krzysztof Bosak’s concerns about the promotion of homosexuality in Polish society apply not only to gay rights activists, but to other left-wing groups as well. “The Green Movements don’t care very much about ecology,” Bosak said, but rather “they’d prefer to propagate leftist myths and promote homosexuality.”
Homosexuals are not the only segment of the “New Left” that concerns Bosak and the LPR. Feminism strikes him as particularly “evil” as well. “It launches propaganda campaigns advocating the killing of unborn children, which stands in defiance of natural law. Feminism is also evil because it believes that quotas would diminish social discrepancies and it proposes a reinterpretation of culture based on getting rid of prejudices, promoting gender studies, and the search for sexist patterns and behaviors in society. Unfortunately, some people buy it,” he bemoans.
As the sculptors of Polish nationalism have increasingly directed official rhetoric away from what average Poles would recognize as anti-Semitism, the ideology itself still functions within the age-old binary framework that attempts to distinguish “us” from “them,” those who are loyal to Poland from those who are traitorous. As the LPR has transferred its energies away from fighting for ethnic national purity in Poland over the past two decades, it has clearly directed them towards struggles that can be marketed more easily as questions of morality (i.e. abortion, gay rights, etc.), questions that may have even more mass appeal than struggles for ethnic purity. As for the full implications of the adoption of these new targets, and the staying power of these new 'moral' struggles, we will have to wait and see.
Seeking the ‘Right’ Right
There are a number of organizations and associations that sit to the right of the LPR on the political continuum that offer even more rigid versions of Polish nationalism than the one we’ve been exploring thus far. Some are small and marginalized, like neo-Nazi groups, and perhaps pose a threat to the stability of Polish society not because of their mass appeal but rather because of the infrequent but violent acts that they incite. Between said groups – such as the National Revival of Poland (NOP), the National Radical Camp (ONR), and on the most radical side of things, the Polish faction of Blood and Honor – and the LPR, sits the All Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska, or MW), which, until recently, was officially affiliated with the LPR as their youth wing.
The MW has technically existed in Poland since 1922 and has historically been an extreme, right-wing nationalist movement. It was officially disbanded for a number of decades, but in 1989, an 18-year-old Roman Giertych (the current head of the LPR) revived the movement, which in the 1930s functioned as a militant youth organization affiliated with the former nationalist and anti-Semitic National Party (SN). This newly revived All Polish Youth uses a number of fascist symbols, including the Hitlergruß (the “heil Hitler” salute), which spurred a bit of a scandal earlier this year but was immediately condemned by the leaders of the organization. A photograph taken at a private MW meeting was leaked to the public and appeared to capture MW members mid- Hitlergruß. The members defended themselves by claiming that they were simply holding their arms and fingers out to order five beers at a bar. They also argued that this salute was a widespread greeting among nationalist movements far before Hitler’s time. Since the gesture was taken over by the Nazis, it was abandoned by the Polish nationalists due its negative connotations, according to the MW. Purski finds it disconcerting that, for the most part, “the Polish people treated this incident as a joke, rather than reacting in a serious way that could have ended the public careers of these All Polish Youth members, as it should have been.” The All Polish Youth manifesto, from 1989, declares that the group stands in staunch opposition to “doctrines promoting liberalism, tolerance, and relativism.”
It is disturbing to think that the League of Polish Families, while obviously right-wing, far from propagates the most radical brand of Polish nationalism out there today. Perhaps even more disconcerting is the evidence of ties, unofficial or not, between the League of Polish Families and organizations such as the All Polish Youth, and the absence of a reaction among the Polish populace forcing organizations that stand proudly against "tolerance" quickly into the margins. While active support for extreme Polish nationalism may not be shockingly broad, a nation needs only the power of the few and the complacency of the many to violate essential human rights.
Priming the Poles
Poland’s complicated and difficult history can help to explain some of the appeal of right-wing nationalism in Poland, although activists like Purski feel that investigations into “why right-wing nationalism sells” can be dangerous since they can easily be interpreted as legitimizing what he views as fascist ideologies. Ostolski, however, attempts to explain some of the particular aspects of Polish history that have made a portion of the Polish people ripe for this kind of right-wing ideology.
Ostolski believes that the appeal of right-wing nationalism among the Polish populace, or at least the lack of ubiquitous shock as mainstream nationalism has recently become stronger and more radical in nature, can be partially attributed to a few formative historical facts during the development of Poland as a nation. A history of partitioning and occupation by foreign nations and cultures that, for the most part, denied both Polish and Catholic identities to Poles created a situation in which “family became the fortress from which Polish national identity could be defended,” says Ostolski. With the denial of public and political space for Polish identity and Polish-Catholic traditions, “the family became sacred.” It became the vanguard of nationalism from which people could fight for the two biggest bastions of their identity: land for the family (the basis of nationhood) and their ethnic and religious traditions (the Catholic element of the Polish identity).
Ostolski believes that after decades of suffering through the threat, and often the reality, of the destruction of both Poland’s nationhood and Catholicism’s religious and traditional predominance, Poles are poised to interpret outside influences of many different kinds as threatening to the Polish identity. When the League of Polish Families frames the discussion on homosexuality using language that portrays gay rights as endangering the traditional, Catholic, Polish family model, then said movements easily appear un-Polish, or even anti-Polish. The same goes for pro-choice abortion movements, pro-right-to-divorce movements, and feminist movements generally.
New Words, Same Ideas
Purski spoke about an interesting trend among contemporary Polish nationalists that makes the rhetoric, language, and symbols of nationalism more mild and palatable, but maintains the underlying discriminatory nature of the movements themselves. “Politicians can talk about ‘unemployment’ and mean to advocate for closing down borders,” Purski said. “They can talk about ‘Polish independence within the EU’ and mean to argue against the influence that Jews have in transnational European organizations.”
Jan Wróbel, from the Daily News newspaper, may exemplify the shift in nationalist rhetoric that Purski observes. He believes that “nationalism” as a concept doesn’t actually exist in Poland and, even if it did, it wouldn’t enjoy any legitimization. “There are neither nationalistic movements in Poland nor nationalistic political platforms to vote for. Why didn’t the League of Polish Families decide to call themselves ‘the League of Polish Nations’? Simply because nobody would support them and they would never be able to get to the political mainstream,” Wróbel argued. Purski might think that Wróbel’s statement reflects not a move away from nationalism in and of itself, but rather a move away from the historic language of nationalism that has developed a number of negative connotations over the years.
According to Jan Wróbel, fascist nationalism isn’t currently and hasn’t historically been popular in Poland not only because of the Catholic values that pervade Polish society and stand in opposition to fascist ideology, but also because fascism was officially and unofficially condemned in post-WWII Poland. “We weren’t allowed to openly hate communism or Russia, but to hate Germany, Italy and all fascist ideologies – that was perceived very well,” he says. “What’s more, it wasn’t easy to be nationalistic because right away you would be ascribed to the disgraceful traditions of pogroms, anti-Semitism and chauvinism. That’s why in contemporary Poland the term ‘nationalism’ has pretty negative connotations. – It is much better to refer to conservatism. To identify as nationalistic is like identifying as Hitler’s younger brother, whereas to be ‘conservative’ is like being Margaret Thatcher’s younger brother.”
Nationalism? Never Again!
The Never Again association was set up in response to the threat of racism, chauvinism and neo-Nazism in Poland. Purski distinguishes “nationalism” from “patriotism,” considering “nationalism to be something that should always be resisted whereas patriotism, for me, can mean the fight against nationalism, fascism, and racism.” The organization acts as a watchdog group, keeping tabs on politicians and activists that use prejudices and stereotypes to incite hatred towards people of different race, religion or culture. They frequently claim that diversity of any kind presents the biggest and most important obstacle to fascism and fascist movements, implying that fascism has the potential to threaten anyone and everyone. On their web site they publish what they call their “Brown Book” in which they keep meticulous records of all fascist acts, events, and occurrences throughout Poland.
They subscribe to a strong and detailed set of principles and consistently make efforts not to break their ethical code of procedural conduct. They never take part in media programs, debates, and/or discussions involving those from their opposition who they consider to be fascist. To do so, according to them, would only provide additional legitimacy to the ideologies they aim to discredit. In their eyes the term “fascist” or “neo-fascist” refers not only to extreme right-wing political parties and associations like The National Rebirth of Poland (NOP) or The National-Radical Camp (ONR) referenced above, but also to the more mainstream movements and politicians they have identified as such. This includes both the League of Polish Families and the All Polish-Youth. When Jacek Purski from the Never Again association discovered that we the authors had also interviewed Krzysztof Bosak from the LPR, he required considerable dissuasion from canceling the meeting to which he had earlier agreed. He calls this philosophy “no platform.” According to Purski, we could have bypassed interviewing ‘the Right’ for this article in an act of resistance and an effort to deny organizations like the LPR free publicity of the platform they wish to promote. In the end, he made an exception to his “no platform” philosophy and granted us an interview in an effort to argue against the right-wingers given a voice in this article.
Purski describes the Polish political right on a continuum with three major parts. The first and most extreme is the “neo-nazi scene” which Purski estimates can claim approximately 2,000 active members. It consists of extremely radical international organizations like “Blood and Honour” (Red Watch), the Church of the Creator and the Ku Klux Klan. Purski considers the middle part to be Polish-Fascist in nature, although they do not self-identify as such. This group includes two extreme right political parties – NOP and the Polish National Party – and ONR, a political association that lacks legal status as a party. The third group is described by Purski as Polish Nationalists and consists of the League of Polish Families and the All-Polish Youth association. When asked if these three broad categories have anything in common, Purski responded, “Yes, they all have closed minds.”
Democracy? It’s Nothing to Idolize…
Are Polish nationalist or radical-conservative organizations dangerous? Do they pose any threat to the Polish political system? The Never Again association thinks so, and in an effort to convince others of the same they meticulously document every "dangerous" activity these groups are involved in. Journalists, however, appear to be more skeptical of this.
“I can’t imagine Krzysztof Bosak beating me up but I can imagine his followers inciting some public violence and clashes, particularly at the stadiums. So in that sense they could be dangerous,” comments Wróbel.
“When it comes to the mainstream national political party the League of Polish Families – as long as they accept the rules of the democratic game, everything is ok. And the other more radical far-right groups are too marginal to have any influence,” argues Pawel Wroński, a reporter from the largest Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
Bosak, however, hems and haws a bit when it comes to his, and his party’s, investment in democracy as a form of government: “As John Paul the Second said, ‘democracy without values turns into evident or hidden totalitarianism.’ These values are the natural law and devotion to community, not to hedonistic ideas.”
“We accept democracy as a system of governance but this is not any sort of ideology we strictly stick to,” Bosak explains. “We certainly do not treat it as an idol that we should worship.”
Contemporary Polish nationalism, defended and propagated not just by marginalized extremist groups but by members of today’s ruling coalition, visibly lacks any loyalty to liberal democratic traditions. As prominent politicians like Bosak demonstrate, certain "values" take precedence, and some of these values have the capacity to erode the universal rights and liberties that activists like Jacek Purski, and many in the EU, are attempting to bolster. It can be dangerous to make claims like the ones Bosak has made above, iterating that concepts such as "human dignity and freedom" are false, or that new left movements weaken society and dilute the Polish identity. As Poland fights to establish itself within the EU, it will be faced with an ever-evolving Polish identity as questions of immigration, migration, and religious, ethnic, cultural, and sexual diversity inevitably bubble to the surface of political debates. Politicians in Poland will have to make some critical decisions about whether or not they are willing to expand their conception of a Polish identity in an effort to protect the rights of those who do not fit nicely into the historical model of a heterosexual, Catholic family. If they choose the right-wing nationalism that exists today, the one that appeals to fear and insecurity, that excludes rather than includes, that rigidly promotes religious conservatism, they risk violating a great many human rights of a great many people by allowing discrimination, fostering inequality, and denying that which each and every one of us deserves: human dignity.
Rupnik, Jaques: ‘Eastern Europe’s Turn Right’, in: The New Republic (February 19, 2007)
http://www.spme.net/cgi-bin/articles.cgi?ID=1848 (Last visit: June 29, 2007; 14.00): Spritzer, Dinah: Maciej Giertych’s ‘Civilization at War in Europe’ (February 15, 2007)
Bosak, Krzysztof: Politician, MP for League of Polish Families (June 23, 2007)
Ostolski, Adam: Journalist for “Krytyka Polityczna” (June 22, 2007)
Purski, Jacek: “Never Again” association (June 26, 2007)
Wróbel, Jan: Journalist for “Daily News” (June 27, 2007)
Wroński, Paweł: Journalist for “Gazeta Wyborcza” (June 26, 2007)
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