The return of the Polish question
In the first quarter of 2016 even persons uninterested in Poland have likely noted a series of unfavorable articles about that country in English and German media. With breathtaking frankness, the cause of media attention was suggested by George Soros in a NYRB interview on February 11, 2016.
While ostensibly lamenting the weakening of the European Union (caused by Muslim migration, Greek financial crisis, and tensions between EU and Russia due to the invasion of Ukraine), Soros displayed considerable agitation when the interviewer mentioned the East Central European countries that are not the source of EU troubles. What seems to bother Soros is the mid-2015 presidential and parliamentary election in Poland and its aftermath: the defeat of the liberal-leftist Civic Platform Party and victory of the traditionalist Law and Justice Party. “Poland is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous countries in Europe,” says Soros with wistful disapproval. He supports Brussels’ efforts to force Poland and Hungary to accept from Germany a Brussels-appointed contingent of Muslims. But the new government in Poland and, earlier, the conservative Hungarian government have refused to obey. Soros smoothly articulates a series of insinuations: “Kaczyński [head of the victorious Law and Justice Party in Poland] was successful in painting him [the Muslim immigrant] as the devil. . . he is a canny politician and he chose migration as the central issue of his campaign.” Two untruths are present in this insinuation. First, Mr. Kaczyński did not run for any office whatever and he kept out of sight during the campaign. Second, the issue of Muslim migration was a non-issue in the election, because Poles have had more urgent matters on the agenda. Why did conservatives win in 2015? Because, 25 years after communism fell, salaries in Poland are still less than one-third of what they are in Holland or Germany. Because of two-digit unemployment during the eight-year tenure of the liberal Civic Platform. Because two million young people left Poland in search of work in recent years. Because two-thirds of enterprises that manufacture Polish exports are in foreign hands, and profits go abroad instead of into workers’ salaries. Because three-fourths of Polish newspapers are owned by German media companies. Because the Smolensk air catastrophe of 2010 (in which President of Poland and 95 members of the elite perished) was never properly investigated. Because the Civic Platform government promoted those responsible for the tragic flight instead of firing them. Because the black boxes and remnants of the plane are still in Russia, and the Civic Platform government did not consider it fit to ask NATO allies for help in investigating the catastrophe—instead, it ceded the investigation to Russian officials. Because the liberal government stopped the vetting of former communist officials and retained them in their previous positions. Poles voted the way they did because they were fed up with the government that in their opinion served the interests of Brussels and Berlin. The issue of migrants was marginal, and if Mr. Soros does not know it, it is not for a lack of available information.
In Mr. Soros’s view, Kaczyński and Orbán “seek to exploit a mix of ethnic and religious nationalism in order to perpetuate themselves in power.” The absurdity of this statement is palpable to anyone who knows the poverty and the spirit of service that characterize Mr. Kaczyński’s biography. Mr. Soros’s vision of the world implies that weaker countries are obstacles to the well-being of the stronger ones, and action must be taken to correct this. Such action used to be called imperialism, but EU leaders renamed it “European solidarity.” Poland and other East Central European nations are supposed to pay for the German mistake of inviting worldwide immigration to Europe without consulting other EU members. Mr. Soros does not blame Germany. He blames Poland. “Germany,” he says, “is going to have a Polish problem.”
But shouldn’t humanitarian consideration play a role? Chancellor Merkel’s willkommen was surely a gesture of human solidarity, perhaps a kind of expiation for Germany’s role in the twentieth century? Not if you look at the figures. In 1992, Germany’s population stood at 79 million. A quarter-century later, before the Muslim influx, it was under 81 million, with the population growth rate being minus 0.2 and immigration rate at 1.24 per 1,000, and with mother’s mean age at birth being 29.2 years (CIA World Factbook data). In other words, in spite of decades of steady influx of immigrants, German population has not grown much, and prospects are even grimmer with fertility being 1.44 births per woman. Germany is badly in need of people to work in its factories and care for its aging population.
“Germany,” Soros continues, “needs Poland to protect it from Russia.” Given Poland’s relative weakness vis-à-vis both Germany or Russia, this translates into “Germany needs Poland as a buffer state between itself and Russia.” What does it mean to be a buffer state? It means that decisions about issues vital for the country are made outside that country. This is precisely what the Polish people tried to prevent by voting for Law and Justice. The 2015 election signaled that Polish citizens are possessed of a strong identity and reject the idea of being a buffer state.
It is unlikely that a representative of the tiny conservative media in Poland will be given a chance to respond in American media to Mr. Soros’s insinuations. With rare exceptions, only representatives of the neo-Marxist and other leftist media in Poland have access to the opinion-making American periodicals. Mr. Soros finances the Batory Foundation, one of the largest and most influential foundations in Poland. Opinions such as Mr. Soros’s tend to solidify into “factoids,” which in turn breed annoyance with the uncooperative Polish government and willingness to assist those who would like to see that government removed from power by any means. “Is Poland a failing democracy?” asks the portal Politico in a recent article. A concatenation of such suggestions creates an image of the country ready for some major action by EU.
In the meantime in Poland, the new parliament started passing bills. One of the first addressed Poland’s catastrophic depopulation problem: on the average, Polish women bear only 1.33 children. The parliament decided to give to parents of each second and subsequent child five hundred zloties (ca. 120 dollars) tax-free, to encourage more births. In 2014, median wage in Poland was 2359 zloties, or less than six hundred dollars per month. The “five hundred zloties bill” was voted in quickly. While the opposition accused the government of “discriminating” against families with one child only, the majority of society welcomed the promise of financial relief.
Speaking of things financial, the Law and Justice Party is not a run-of-the-mill conservative party as envisaged by Western political analysts. It is conservative in morals and many of its members proclaim attachment to Poland’s Christian heritage. But it also believes in the state’s obligation to take care of citizenry impoverished by consecutive looting by foreign armies and by the communist economy. Unlike the societies where wealth has accumulated for generations, Polish society is unfamiliar with the concept of financial inheritance. Poles do not have substantial savings, securities, or other property. The vast majority still live “from paycheck to paycheck.” They have minimal savings because salaries are barely sufficient to pay the bills. If they had not received a monthly salary, a vast majority of them would starve within a few weeks. This explains the conservative party’s readiness to promise financial assistance to families, to lower retirement age, and continue universal medical care. This concern with the fate of the common man allows the opposition to claim that Law and Justice is in fact a socialist party, whereas the party of the oligarchs is progressive and advanced.
The pretext to start an attempt to get rid of the democratically elected government and parliament was soon found in the judiciary. Days before it left office, the defeated government appointed five new judges to the Constitutional Court, or the assembly of 15 judges whose task is to make sure that government decisions are in agreement with the Constitution. The appointment itself was unconventional, as it prevented the new government from having a say about 14 out of 15 judges (14 have been appointed by Civic Platform government, and only one by Law and Justice). It should be noted that the Constitutional Court was created by General Wojciech Jaruzelski during martial law in the 1980s, and its presumed task was to be the last bastion of defense for the communist government, should the parliament vote in an anticommunist bill.
Long story short, Prime Minister Beata Szydło refused to publish in government records the Constitutional Court’s decision to accredit these judges. The Parliament supports her stance. In December 2015, Poland’s new foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski was so sure of the legal propriety of these actions that he invited to Poland the Venice Commission (an EU organ assessing the legality of contestable cases). The Venice Commission was expected to end the spat by declaring the Polish government in the right. It has not. The opposition seized the opportunity and made of it an international issue. It began to organize marches and protests, the largest of them on May 7, 2016––according to police records, it had between 30,000 and 45,000 participants. Demonstrations are held not just against the Prime Minister’s decision, but against the Parliament and the democratic system that engendered it. In an Orwellian way, posters carried during these marches claim that they are “marches for democracy.” World public opinion has been mobilized to help bring the recalcitrant government to heel. The May 7 demonstration was held under the mendacious slogan that the present government wants Poland to leave the European Union and that it would soon start arresting people. No place on earth has been left untouched by propaganda. On Sunday April 16, Canberra Times (sic!) reported that “the Polish community of Canberra” demonstrated against the ruling Law and Justice Party that allegedly intends to introduce a total ban on abortions. A partial ban on abortions has been enshrined in Polish law since 1993.
In an unprecedented way, members of the European Parliament who also are members of the Civic Platform lodged a complaint with the European Commission and the European Parliament concerning their own government. Allegedly, the Constitution was broken by the government that refused to publish in a government periodical the decision of the Constitutional Court concerning the controversial judges. On April 13, 2016, the European Parliament voted in disfavor of Poland. The vote is not binding and carries no legal consequences, but it creates a troubling precedent and gives Brussels a pretext to pronounce what the Polish parliament can and cannot do.
The tactics used in the opposition campaign resemble advice given by the Marxist “community organizer” Saul Alinsky in his Manual for Radicals. According to Alinsky, to win political battles one must attack from all sides, do so continuously, and hit the enemy where he least expects. One must “keep the pressure on and never let up.”
Upon coming to power the Law and Justice government changed the directorship of state-owned media, but this was a drop in the bucket. The most popular TV channels, internet sites, newspapers and other periodicals remain in the hands of those hostile to the ruling party. Gazeta Wyborcza, once a Solidarity organ, is now a voice for postcommunist interests, defending the showcase “successes” and opposing deep reforms that promise real economic benefits. Adam Michnik, once a voice for freedom, became a voice for its opposite: submission to postcommunist engineering. Thus there are plenty of media outlets in Poland to distribute anti-government rhetoric and produce stringers for Western journalists who do not speak Polish but report from Poland for the respectable Western newspapers and portals.
“Ridicule is the most powerful weapon,” notes Alinsky. What in Poland is called “the industry of contempt” (przemysł pogardy) has been successfully activated. Just as the late President Kaczyński was ridiculed by his left-leaning enemies, so is his surviving twin brother Jarosław Kaczyński an object of contemptuous comparisons and epithets. “Go after people and not the institutions,” Alinsky advises: in addition to Kaczyński, President Duda and his wife are relentlessly ridiculed in the media that, I repeat, are either strongly leftist or foreign-owned, or both. These media question not only the decision concerning the judges, but the entire political status quo in Poland, creating a false impression that something went wrong in the process of democratic selection of leaders and the 2015 election was a monumental mistake. On April 14, 2016, President Duda delivered a speech on the occasion of 1050th anniversary of the baptism of Poland (996). Opposition member Ryszard Petru criticized it as backward and unacceptable, a loser’s speech; the implication was that President Duda should be ousted from office as soon as possible. The voices from Brussels and Berlin provide sympathetic support for this kind of wanton criticism. The atmosphere is being created of an urgent need to replace the present government with one from the ranks of the opposition. Suggestions of approaching totalitarianism are frequent: banners carried during the May 7 demonstration warned that arrests would soon begin, that democracy ceased to function in Poland and dictatorship has set in. Media noise and cacophony of accusatory statements, gestures, actions create an impression that the opposition is big and powerful, and that it has momentum. “Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have,” advises Alinsky.
One might ask why the European Parliament chose to occupy itself with such a relatively trivial matter as to whether the Polish Parliament acted according to the Constitution in appointing and refusing to appoint the judges, and what procedures should be observed in the country’s highest legislative body. In my opinion, a good amount of the hostility directed at Jarosław Kaczyński, President Duda, Prime Minister Szydło, and the party that brought them to power, is grounded, if only subconsciously, in the hostility to Poland as the last “backwardly Catholic” country in Europe that tries to assert itself as a sovereign state between two countries with hegemonic ambitions: Germany and Russia. EU was founded on principles deriving from the Enlightenment rather than from Europe’s Christian tradition, whereas Poland is trying to preserve its Christian continuity. Furthermore, the fact that after the two world wars Germany ceded so much land to Poland must breed resentment toward Poles in quite a few Germans: hence their approval of the opposition whose record in accommodating German interests has been positive. Finally, Russian leaders look with disapproval at the present Polish government’s efforts to return to the 2010 Smolensk crash and initiate a proper investigation. They would prefer that Poland said nothing about the crash and its aftermath. Not to speak of the grim historical record of Polish-Russian relations.
Thus the sources of conflict are ideological, and the issue of judges is only a pretext. The new parliament and government act out their vision of what is good for the country and the world, keeping in mind the principle of subsidiarity. The European leaders wish to remake Poland into an entity resembling secular societies of Western Europe. Brussels bureaucrats are uninterested in Polish identity and culture; they are interested in the social engineering project they have embraced. They want everyone else to embrace it. They allowed Hungary, enfant terrible of EU, to go its conservative way, but Poland is four times larger that Hungary and might provide a bad example to other EU states if allowed to proceed along the conservative path. Polish society must be reeducated and forced into the Procrustean bed of progressivism; Gazeta Wyborcza has been working on it for decades, and it is assisted in this task by the German-owned media. This desire to engineer an ideal society according to Enlightenment precepts is the root cause of the present disagreement between Poland and EU bureaucrats. So far, the Polish government is holding firm, being aware that it got a mandate to institute reforms and pass new laws, but one wonders how long can it withstand the pressure from individuals and institutions armed in strategies and tactics proven effective elsewhere.
Some European politicians share George Soros’s view that Poland’s place is to be a Russian or German satellite, a buffer state providing workforce reserves and serving as a dumping place for otherwise unmarketable goods produced in Germany. The big players in Europe and America have long laughed off the role of Poland as a bastion of Christianity in Europe. The Venice Commission visit confirmed the persistence of the view that, in the former French President Chirac’s words, Poland should learn how to keep quiet and allow its more powerful neighbors to decide the course of events. This is different from G.K. Chesterton’s opinion that a strong Poland is necessary for the proper balance of power on the European continent.
The present EU and world public opinion intervention in Polish internal affairs is an ongoing tale. It plays into the hands of those who would like to see Poland fail and the German-Russian alliance solidify its grip on Europe. For a small fraction of Polish society, life would be much better if Poland consented to be a joint fiefdom of Germany and Russia. A good percentage of Germans and Russians would probably endorse it as well. However, such an alliance guarantees unrest in non-Germanic Central Europe, for Poland and other countries of the region are unlikely to willingly return to semi-colonial status. Not to speak of the lessons learned from history: the German-Russian alliance has a record of which neither country can be proud.
Ewa Thompson is a Research Professor of Slavic Studies at Rice University.
Source: "The Return of the Polish Question," Chesterton Review, vol. 42, nos.1/2 (Spring/Summer 2016), pp. 280-288. Web address: https://www.pdcnet.org/pdc/bvdb.nsf/purchase?openform&fp=chesterton&id=chesterton_2016_0042_42371_0280_0288