Keeping the fires burning: Poland's government cultivates a siege mentality to its benefit

How do you douse the fires of controversy? You light a new blaze right next to it. Or perhaps two.

Ruling Law and Justice party is polling just under 50% approval, way up from last election in 2015

Members of the Solidarity trade union in Warsaw protest against EU objections to a new law by Poland's right-wing government lowering the retirement age. Relations with the European Union have been tense. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

How do you douse the fires of controversy? You light a new blaze right next to it. Or perhaps two.

That seems to be the approach of the Polish government in the wake of the controversy unleashed by a new law criminalizing the use of words like "Polish death camps" to describe the Holocaust and the death of six million Jews during the Second World War.

The death camps situated in Poland were not Polish, the government says, but Nazi. To say otherwise is now to break the law in Poland.

International criticism was swift.

The World Jewish Congress, in addressing the law, said it had set off a "firestorm of ill will." The new Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, tried to deflect the criticism but only made things worse when he referred to "Jewish perpetrators" who had been guilty, along with others, of Holocaust crimes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that was "unacceptable."

The Polish government backpedalled, suggesting the new law was in a sort of state of suspended animation while the country's constitutional court looked at it.

But to keep the flames burning, the government has put an animal rights bill before Parliament that would effectively ban the kosher slaughter of meat for religious Jews in the country and for export.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki says anti-Polish sentiment around the world has been gaining power because Poles haven't reacted enough. Now it's reacting. (Thomas Kienzle/AFP/Getty Images)

And, lighting another fire, Poland's senior senator, Stanislaw Karczewski, sent out an open letter telling Poles abroad to document any "slander" of their nation and report it.

"Please document and react to all anti-Polish hostility, expressions and opinions that harm us. Notify our embassies, consulates and honorary consuls of any slander affecting the good reputation of Poland," Mr Karczewski's letter said.

The intensity of the reaction to these moves may have surprised Poland's  governing Law and Justice Party, but not overly so. It sees the outside world as hostile.

"Anti-Polonism around the world has been gaining in power because of a lack of reaction from Poland and the weakness of this reaction for the last 10 years." Those are the words of Prime Minister Morawiecki in the wake of the recent uproar.

Polish trade unionist Lech Walesa with a crowd of workers in Zyrandow, Poland, on Dec. 18, 1981. A heroic figure at the time, Walesa and his peers have lately been described by Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski as 'Poles of the worst sort' who served foreign interests. (Keystone/Getty Images)

And one of the authors of the Holocaust bill, deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki, welcomed the fight. "There comes a time when our country needs catharsis," he said.

None of this has hurt the country's leadership in the polls. On the contrary, more than half of voters say they are satisfied with the president and the prime minister and those numbers are climbing.

And the ruling Law and Justice Party, profiting from a booming economy and increased social welfare payments to constituents, is polling just under 50 per cent approval. That's way above the 35 per cent it won in elections in 2015.

This right-wing Polish government cultivates a siege mentality.

To be fair, it actually is under siege — from its big political brother, the European Union. Poland is a member, one of 28, of the EU, and with a population of 38.5 million, it's a major player.

It's also a difficult player.

Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski's core conviction is that the entire Polish elite after the fall of communism in 1990 betrayed the country, a failure characterized by 'post-communist pathologies.' (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

The present government has refused to take its quota of refugees agreed to by the EU in 2016. The country, it believes, must remain Catholic and white.

It has also taken aim at its own court system after moving quickly to bring to heel the country's public television networks. They are now run by party loyalists.

The ruling party first set out to replace the country's highest judges with its own nominees. It radically lowered the retirement age for supreme court judges to 65, which would remove 40 per cent of them. It also moved to take control of the judicial council that appoints judges.

Threat of sanctions

Ministers say the legal system is too slow, with judges overpaid and infected with ideas from the past.

These moves alarmed the EU. It has taken Poland, along with Hungary and the Czech Republic, to court for refusing to respect the agreement on refugees. And for the first time the European Commission has invoked Article 7 of the EU constitution against Poland.

It argues Poland is failing to uphold the democratic norms it agreed to when it joined in 2004.

On Feb. 27, the commission renewed its threat of sanctions — the loss of voting rights and possibly European subsidies. That could be major, since Poland is the biggest EU beneficiary with a total of $130 billion Cdn in subsidies scheduled between 2014 and 2020.

"The clock is ticking," the German European Affairs Minister Michael Roth said. "The EU is very concerned about the rule of law situation."

The Polish government seems much less concerned. "Europe has run out of gas," Prime Minister Morawiecki told the German magazine Der Spiegel in February.

In the next breath he insisted Poland doesn't want to imitate Britain by leaving the union. It simply wants a more decentralized, less intrusive EU. And he offered no concessions.

That's because it knows it has an ally, Hungary, which has said it's ready to veto any attempt to penalize Poland.

The Polish government also believes it's on a mission, directed by Law and Justice Party Leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Kaczynski's core conviction is that the entire Polish elite after the fall of communism in 1990 betrayed the country.

'Treason in their genes'

The last 28 years have been, in his words "a failure" characterized by "post-communist pathologies."

The men and women who led the country, including Lech Walesa, Poland's first post-communist leader, were "Poles of the worst sort" with "treason in their genes."

They set up a para-democracy serving foreign interests, he believes. The EU is a Trojan horse serving those interests. The judges his government wants to get rid of are infected with these pathologies.

The Polish Holocaust law was born from the same drive to correct the past. Poland, in the eyes of its government, was a "victim nation" and its reputation is spattered with unthinking association with death camps.

"He who controls the past controls the future," George Orwell once wrote ironically in the book 1984. It's a dictum Poland's ruling party takes completely seriously.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.