MAZZINI: A three-dimensional conflict over Poland’s collective memory

Historical revisionism in Poland continues to cover more and more areas of the country’s recent history

The recent political changes in Poland and Hungary have resulted in memory politics beginning to play a much greater role in policymaking. The governments of Viktor Orbàn in Hungary and Beata Szydło in Poland both proved that the mnemonic conflict in their respective countries constitutes, for them, a key instrument of building political support and consolidating power. Moreover, not only the very role of the politics of memory has changed, but also the way it is being implemented. Specifically, it has become a tool employed in effort to redefine the meaning of nationhood and national identity.

For the first time within the post-transitional realm, a mnemonic actor has emerged which uses memory policies as a vehicle of exclusionary politics. Such an approach renders the existing typologies of memory actors obsolete and creates the need to establish a new analytical category. By using examples of memory politics which have been implemented under the Law and Justice (PiS) government from the years 2015-2017, this paper prove proves that Poland’s current government ought to be classified as memory excluder. A detailed analysis of available evidence will demonstrate that the said exclusion is taking place on nearly all policy levels through a three-dimensional model of enlarging the mnemonic conflict.

Collective memory is understood here as more than merely the sum of singular experiences and recollections of all individuals within a community. Drawing from the works of Jeffrey Olick, who opposes such an atomized framework, this paper distinguishes between the psychological and interpretative approach to defining collective memory. Olick argues that, contrary to “collected memory”, that is, the aggregate sum of memories of the community members, collective memory is largely shaped by the group in which it operates, given that “groups provide the definitions, as well as the divisions, by which particular events are subjectively defined as consequential[1]”. Subsequently, these definitions trigger, or result in, different interpretative phenomena. Collectivities have memories, just like they have identities. The latter observation is therefore crucial in examining Poland’s current mnemonic policy, as it allows to capture and examine the particular approaches to collective memory and events from the country’s recent history in specific social groupings as well as within the society as a whole.

The second crucial theoretical framework in examining mnemonic policies is the so-called alternative approach to use memory politics. In line with this, numerous scholars have argued that political parties have a perennial tendency to use politics of memory as a replacement to present-day issues, a type of smokescreen for current partisan agenda. In other words, it refers to a modality when politics of the past is employed instead of politics of the present. A particularly illustrative definition of this process is provided by Helga Welsh, who writes that in the mnemonic policies of post-communist countries “the weight of the past is being replaced by its current political burden[2]”. The meaning which citizens attribute to the events from a community’s recent history is being used exclusively as a tool for building partisan support. Be that as it may, the alternative approach proves insufficient as an explanatory tool to fully grasp the current mnemonic landscape in Poland[3]. This is exemplified by the policies implemented by the current PiS government which prove memory politics are not replacing politics of the present, but they become an integral part of it instead. Therefore, in the analysis that follows, a cumulative approach to studying politics of memory will be employed, as it locates politics of the past as one of the fundamental elements of the present-day partisan agenda.

The historical revisionism ushered in by PiS in Poland calls for the establishment of a new analytical category within the existing typology of mnemonic actors. The most exhausting taxonomy of such entrepreneurs has so far been developed by Jan Kubik and Michael Bernhard (2014), who singled out four basic types of mnemonic actors: warriors, abnegators, prospectivists and pluralists. For purposes of this paper, only the two former categories are relevant; thus, the prospectivists and pluralists will be left out of the forthcoming analysis.

For memory abnegators the politics of memory constitutes a politically unrewarding area; therefore, it is entirely absent from their partisan and policymaking agenda. It is most often determined by the fact that abnegators see no direct political gain from any mnemonic initiative. As rightly observed by Kubik in his analysis of commemorative strategies towards the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Round Table Agreements, one of the flagship examples of a memory abnegator was Poland’s Civic Platform (PO), which ruled the country for two consecutive terms (2007-2015) and systematically ignored memory politics as policymaking dimension[4].

Memory warriors are, in turn, political formations believing themselves to have an ultimate monopoly on shaping a community’s collective memory narratives. When involved in a mnemonic conflict, their stance allows no room for compromise, as the only acceptable interpretation of collective memory is for them the one they project themselves. The only aim of memory warriors in such debate is to persuade other entrepreneurs and community members to subscribe to their rhetoric – any differing approach is deemed unacceptable in public space. An example of this is to be found within the policies of the first PiS government, in power between 2005 and 2007[5].

What is, therefore, they key difference between the current Polish incumbent and the party’s previous framework, dating back to a decade ago? The memory excluder reaches far deeper into politically motivated historical revisionism than the memory warrior. The former’s narrative in memory policy is entirely exclusionary – subscribing to any competing interpretation of collective memory, not only by expressing it publicly, but even by practicing it in one’s private environment, is synonymous with being excluded from the community. In short, a memory warrior excludes opposed mnemonic rhetoric from public life, the excluder – from the nationhood.

This exclusionary modality was best exemplified by Jarosław Kaczyński in a widely commented interview given to TV Republika on December 11, 2015, when he famously divided the nation into the so-called “better and worse sort of Poles”. In the context of this paper’s analysis, however, most important are the words that followed. Kaczynski stated that this division constitutes a loyal reflection of the composition of the Polish society, given that “a tradition of betrayal is genetically embedded within the worse sort of Poles”. These sentiments were echoed in statements made by other PiS politicians, such as MP Dominik Tarczyński, who said in an interview for, an online news outlet, that the conflict between the current government and opposition parties is practically a reflection, if not a continuation, of the fight between the 1980s democratic opposition and the communist regime.

Both statements encompass two of the most prominent features of mnemonic excluders. First, the excluder takes on a quasi-Darwinist approach to describing the social structure, drawing the dividing cleavages along the lines of interpretations of recent history. Secondly, the excluder systematically enlarges the scope of the mnemonic conflict by incorporating new areas and historical events.

The expansion of the mnemonic conflict takes place primarily in three dimensions. The first one, the horizontal dimension, refers to the widening of the conflict’s time frame. Historical revisionism practiced by PiS is covering more and more chapters from Poland’s recent history, hijacking those which until now enjoyed a relatively undisputed public interpretation or simply have not been present in the public debate on collective memory. The second dimension is the vertical one, that is, the one referring to the mnemonic conflict covering new dimensions of policymaking, such as Poland’s post-transitional foreign policy. The third dimension concerns the depth of mnemonic conflict. Memory excluders reach deeper into the specifics of collective memory narrative creation, touching upon more detailed elements, not just the fundamental, large-scale processes.

The horizontal enlargement is perhaps easiest to capture. As described before, within the exclusionary approach to collective memory there is no room in public space for competing interpretations of history. This is best evidenced with the example of commemorations of the Warsaw Uprising. Though there remains an ongoing debate among historians about the sense and purpose of the uprising itself, the commemoration of the victims had been kept outside the mnemonic conflict, as a cross-partisan, nationwide consensus existed on the matter. Nonetheless, in 2016 PiS decided to merge two historically unrelated events, adding a roll-call dedicated to the victims of the Smolensk presidential plane crash of April 10, 2010, to the celebrations of the Uprising’s anniversary. Such a move triggered a wave of controversies not only within public opinion, but especially among the uprising’s veterans, traditionally given much respect and gravitas by politicians of all ideological provenances. Since the 1989 democratic transition, the memory of the Uprising has been free from present-day political agenda, yet in 2016 it had a new component integrated into it. Politics of the past became integrated both into the politics of the present and the partisan manifestos.

The vertical enlargement occurs when those policy areas which, from the memory angle, had been free from mutually conflictive interpretations, are now incorporated within the mnemonic conflict. An example of this process is PiS’s historical revisionism ushered in towards Poland’s post-transitional foreign policy, particularly of the 1990s. When Warsaw hosted the NATO Summit in July 2016, the incumbent government opened a public exhibition held within the premises of the National Stadium, devoted to the history of Polish NATO accession. According to the historical interpretation presented there, it was Jarosław Kaczyński himself as well as the current MFA chief of staff, Jan Parys, and former PM Jan Olszewski that were the architects of Poland joining the Alliance, while the then-dominant liberal political elite, headed by PM Tadeusz Mazowiecki and, most of all, president Lech Wałęsa, were in fact vigorously opposing the idea of accession. For most of the post-transitional period, an interpretative consensus prevailed that all the democratic governments, including the post-communist SLD, unanimously agreed to conduct a Western-oriented foreign policy, the pillars of which were to be EU and NATO accessions. Today, this consensus in being openly put into question and deemed false.

The third enlargement refers to the deepening of the mnemonic conflict or the degree to which it penetrates society. According to Kubik and Bernhard’s taxonomy of memory regimes, Poland post-1989 is classified as a fractured regime[6]. No dominant all-encompassing narrative of collective memory exists in the society, one which would accommodate all the conflictive interpretative demands. Previously, however, these disputes referred mostly to general, wider themes in Poland’s recent history, such as the ongoing conflict between liberals and right-wing parties over the degree of concessions given to the communist party in the Round Table agreements. Since 2015, the matter in question has become much more detailed. Historical revisionism is affecting particular events and singular notions and processes – such as the incumbent education minister, Anna Zalewska, openly questioning the participation of local population of the Świętokrzyskie region in the infamous Kielce pogrom. Moreover, revisionism affects nowadays not just entire, nameless groups of people (such as “Cursed Soldiers”), but particular protagonists and historical personalities, as evidenced by the exhumations of Zygmunt Szendzielarz “Łupaszka” and Danuta Siedzikówna “Inka”. Similarly, the Polish NATO accession is no longer portrayed as an accomplishment of a political faction or community, but specific individuals – Kaczyński, Parys, and Olszewski.

Although the processes described here are still ongoing – which renders it impossible to predict their final outcome – the possible consequences to the Polish society can be sketched out. Such multi-dimensional enlargement of the mnemonic conflict results in the opening of another sub-front of this memory war. It moves from a nationwide, more abstract level to one with a much more local, personal dimension. It is a conscious strategy of the memory excluder, as it is perhaps the only way to establish a total monopoly over collective memory narratives. Be that as it may, such strategies may prove counterproductive, as fighting too many battles within the mnemonic conflict can result in the excluder developing a chaotic narrative and losing control over the memory debate. It is impossible to fully predict the consequences of attempting to rewrite a community’s collective memory as a whole. The group can as well reject the newly implanted approach and strengthen a narrative which the memory excluder opposes.

Law and Justice as a memory excluder is playing with fire in a very delicate dimension of collective memory and identity politics. These initiatives have the potential to bring about either a major success or a total failure. Regardless of their final outcomes, however, they will translate into exacerbating political polarization, weakening further the already damaged social cohesion and sense of unity.

Mateusz Mazzinisociologist, latin americanist, doctoral candidate in sociology of memory at the Polish Academy of Sciences, where he researches the impact of memory policies on post-transitional youth political activism in Poland and Chile. Graduate of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, visiting research fellow at University College London. He publishes regularly and works with Gazeta Wyborcza, Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs.

The article was first published in “Res Publica Nowa” nr 3/2017 and translated into English with support from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education’s research dissemination funds (contract no. 692/P-DUN/217).

[1] Olick, Jeffrey K., and Joyce Robbins. „Social Memory Studies: From “Collective Memory” to the Historical Sociology of Mnemonic Practices.” Annual Review of Sociology 24, no. 1 (1998): 123.

[2] Welsh, Helga A. „Political Transition Processes in Central and Eastern Europe.” Comparative Politics 26, no. 4 (1994): 421.

[3] Szczerbiak, Aleks. „Book Review: Political Parties in New Democracies: Party Organization in Southern and East-Central Europe.” Party Politics12, no. 6 (2006): 771-73

[4] Bernhard, Michael H., and Jan Kubik. Twenty years after communism: the politics of memory and commemoration. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[5] Bernhard, Michael H., and Jan Kubik. Twenty years after communism: the politics of memory and commemoration. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016: 60-70

[6] Bernhard, Michael H., and Jan Kubik. Twenty years after communism: the politics of memory and commemoration. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016: 45

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