WARSAW, Poland—Jaroslaw Kurski and Piotr Stasinski embody the hope that once was Poland. They struggled against the Communist regime for years in the underground press and as Solidarity members. They built Gazeta Wyborcza, now one of the most influential newspapers in the country, after the 1989 fall of communism. They helped usher in a period of democracy and open debate, one that included cultural space for historians such as Jan Gross, a Polish-born American who courageously confronted the taboo topic of Polish complicity in the Nazi extermination of nearly all of Poland’s 3 million Jews.
And then neoliberalism, imposed by global capitalism and international banks, began to spread its poison. Legions of unemployed or underemployed were cast adrift. Two million Poles, many of them young people desperate for jobs, have left to work abroad. Governmental austerity programs devastated cultural institutions, including public schools, the arts and public broadcasting. And finally, following a familiar death spiral, the October 2015 elections brought to power the nationalists and demagogues of the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS). There is no left-wing party represented in the parliament.
Not much of Poland’s promise remains. PiS is rapidly rolling back constitutional rights. It blocks state media coverage of the fading political opposition, especially the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), which has held a series of protest demonstrations. PiS shamelessly uses the airwaves and the schools for rabid nationalist propaganda. The public broadcasting system—in which the party purged more than 100 staff members—twisted President Barack Obama’s recent criticism of the Polish government’s assault on the judiciary into praise for Polish democracy. And the ruling party has forced state institutions to cancel subscriptions to Gazeta Wyborcza and pressured distributors throughout the country not to display or sell copies of the newspaper.
“There is no longer genuine parliamentary debate,” Stasinski said when I met with him and Kurski at the Gazeta Wyborcza offices in Warsaw. “There are no longer checks and balances of power. The parliamentary system is dysfunctional. The Constitutional Court and judiciary are paralyzed. New laws passed by the parliament cannot be challenged or changed. The government is supposed to publish sentences of the Constitutional Court in The Journal of Laws [Dziennik Ustaw] for them to become legally effective. This is required by the Constitution. But the government, by not printing them, paralyzes the Constitutional Court, which has been reduced to announcing its sentences on the internet without any legal effect. It is a very dangerous time.”
“We operate under two systems of law,” said Kurski. “One is constitutional and legal. The other is unconstitutional and illegal. The problem is that the illegal and unconstitutional system runs the country.”
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the founder and head of the ruling party, governs Poland like a private fiefdom. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and President Andrzej Duda are political puppets. Kaczynski, reclusive and morbid, is referred to with fear or reverence as “the Chairman.” His words, and his obsessions, are law.
And it is not only Poland that is in trouble. Europe, especially EU countries on the fringes of the union, is devolving into proto-fascism. The Hungarian strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orban has destroyed his country’s democracy. Neofascist groups are gaining strength in France, the United Kingdom, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Greece.
These movements are rabidly xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic and homophobic, and they demonize immigrants and brand internal dissent as treason. When they take control they rely on ruthless internal security and surveillance systems—Poland has established 11 intelligence agencies—to crush dissent. They seek their identity in a terrifying new nationalism, often, as in Poland, coupled with a right-wing Catholicism. They preach hatred of the outsider and glorification of obedient and “true” patriots. This lurch to the right will be augmented in Poland later this year with the establishment of an armed militia of more than 30,000 whose loyalty, it seems certain, will be to the ruling party.
“If you are a Pole, you should be Catholic,” said Stasinski. “I’m not. So for some, I’m not a Pole.”
Poland, like Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, has rejected the European Union’s call for its nations to accept refugees fleeing the chaos in the Middle East. The ruling party in Poland employs rhetoric to describe Muslim immigrants that echoes prewar Polish anti-Semitism. Immigrants are condemned as diseased, painted as rapists and excoriated for supposedly having barbaric religious practices. When Gross, who teaches at Princeton University, decried the hate campaign against immigrants and made the links with anti-Semitism, reminding Poles that they killed more Jews than they killed Germans during the war, PiS began legal proceedings to challenge Gross’ assertions and called for his Polish Order of Merit to be revoked.
“It’s the same right-wing populist melody as in the United States,” said Stasinski. “Isolationism becomes appealing. Maybe there is something rotten in human nature. Maybe we are selfish people who don’t care about the other. Maybe this story about how we are Christian and altruistic is rubbish.
“There is a fear that grows from ignorance,” he said. “These parties manufacture and strengthen this resentment against those they allege are privileged and the powerful, as well as the European Union. They say these forces can’t tell us what to do. They say the nation-state should organize societal living, not global institutions. They say things are out of control. They say there is no real democracy. This leads to the mental and physical militarization of the society. The demagogues promise security. You are safe with us. We care about you. We care about your family. Chauvinism defines public discourse. We are a proud people. We are a proud nation. We don’t accept that other nations can humiliate us. The government devoted a hundred million zlotys to create a special foundation to defend Poland’s good name.”