LONDON — “I am afraid that with Jaroslaw Kaczynski as prime minister, Poland will become more extreme, more anti-European and a more xenophobic country,” warned Bronislaw Komorowski, a member of the opposition Civic Platform party, when the second Kaczynski twin was made prime minister by his brother, President Lech Kaczinski, in July. He could have added that Poland is becoming more anti-Semitic, more homophobic and much more vengeful toward former communists and collaborators.
The Kaczynski twins, chubby 57-year-olds whose baby faces remind everyone that they first shot to fame as child actors in the 1960s, are identical in both their appearance and their politics. They are nationalist, Catholic and conservative (as mayor of Warsaw, Lech banned gay parades and called the organizers “perverts”), which is why they appeal to the left-behinds of Polish society, the rural, the poor and the uneducated, who provided most of the votes for their Law and Justice Party last year.
Then they promised that they would never occupy both of the great offices of state, and Jaroslaw remained as party leader while Lech took the presidency. But the man he appointed as prime minister instead, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, showed an unexpected streak of independence, so two months ago Lech fired him and appointed Jaroslaw in his place.
Since then, it has gone from bad to worse: quarrels with Germany, with Russia, with the European Union that Poland joined only two years ago — and above all, a determined drive to punish everybody who served or helped the communist regime that collapsed 27 years ago.
The campaign’s most prominent victim is former president Wojciech Jaruzelski, who declared martial law in 1981 and jailed about 10,000 Solidarity members. Jaruzelski has always claimed that he did it only to forestall a Soviet invasion that would have ended in a national disaster, for the Poles would have fought back, the country would have been devastated, and all possibility of reform would have been lost for decades.
Most of Soldarity’s former leaders now accept Jaruzelski’s justification for his decision, though they spent years in jail because of it. Former president Lech Walesa, Solidarity’s founder, was publicly reconciled with Jaruzelski last year in a joint television appearance. But Jaruzelski is now charged with being the head of an “organized criminal group that aimed to perpetrate crimes that consisted of the deprivation of freedom by internment,” and at the age of 82 he faces a possible 11 years in jail. Hundreds of thousands of other Poles also face reprisals under the new law introduced by the Kaczynskis.
Under the old rules, members of Parliament, judges and top civil servants, and security officials were required to state whether they had collaborated with the communist-era secret police, but they were not automatically banned from those jobs. Under the new law, all persons in “positions of public trust” who were over 17 when Solidarity finally brought down the communists in 1989, including diplomats, local officials, school principals, lawyers and journalists, will lose their jobs if they cannot produce a certificate (to be issued by the Institute for National Remembrance) showing that they were not collaborators.
Employers who do not demand certificates from their employees will also lose their jobs. The secret police files of people who held public office under the communists will be published on the Internet, together with the names of all former secret policemen. And of course thousands of individuals will be punished in this way because of false or misleading information in those files.
Similar things happened in other countries of the former Soviet bloc just after the communist regimes were swept away by the revolutions of 1989, though nothing so extreme. But to institute such a witch hunt 17 years later, when most of the targets of this revenge are retired or nearing the end of their working lives, is vindictive and pointlessly destructive.
It is the same resentful obsession with past wrongs that caused President Kaczynski to cancel a visit to Germany recently after a small-circulation German newspaper satirized him as a “potato-head.” It gives rise to demands that Poland erect a memorial to the 1940 massacre at Katyn, in which Soviet troops murdered at least 15,000 Polish reserve officers, directly across the street from the Russian embassy. And it turns a blind eye to anti-Semitism, gay-bashing and other relics from the darker parts of Poland’s past.
Poland is highly nationalist because it has had a dreadful history of partition, conquest and oppression at the hands of its far bigger neighbors, Germany and Russia. It is the most Catholic country in Europe because its religion was a rallying point during the long decades of foreign occupation. It is socially conservative because almost half its people are still essentially rural. None of that is bad in itself, but the Kaczynskis know how to push all of Poland’s buttons, and they do it shamelessly and relentlessly.
Two million young Poles — over five percent of the population — have left the country for greener pastures in Western Europe since EU membership made it easy for them to move. The 17 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the EU, gave them a big incentive to go, but in many cases that wasn’t all that pushed them out. There is another Poland, but quite a lot of it is currently living abroad.