Is Polish current historical policy turning its back on Europe?

Whereas many European states are reluctant to carry out an active “historical policy”, preferring – or pretending – to remain neutral in historical issues and to leave them to scholars, Poland, especially since the return to power in 2015 of the ultra-conservative party Law and Justice (PiS), is not bothered to enforce such a policy in various spheres under state control, from public media to schools, diplomacy and cultural action.

President Andrzej Duda said openly that “the Polish state should carry out a historical policy as an element to build up its position in the international realm, but above all as an element to raise next generations of Poles” (conference on “Historical policy: contexts, ideas, realisations”, 16/02/2016). A video released a few months later by his services for the first anniversary of his presidency also sets the tone of this policy: “We, Poles, have a great history and we have nothing to be ashamed of. We should tell the truth, but we should also fight for truth in relation to our neighbours.

The selection of commemorated events and “heroes” – one of the key building bricks of any historical policy – is no less meaningful regarding the direction chosen by Polish authorities: they all present Poles as victims (of Nazi Germans, Ukrainian independentists, communism) or as heroes (for having saved Jews during the Second World War or as fighters standing for freedom in uprisings), but never as perpetrators, to use Raul Hilberg's typology. People who publicize such theses can be even downgraded, as with Jan Tomasz Gross, author of a conspicuous monography on the Jedwabne pogrom and threatened to have his Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland removed.

This is again in sharp contrast with contemporary trends of commemoration in Western Europe, where a culture of expiation, not to a say a “tyranny of penitence” and “masochism” (Pascal Bruckner), rather puts the focus on committed crimes, particularly in relation to the colonial past and, in the case of Germany, the Nazi period.

Attitudes towards heroes – who often had blood on their hands, even if they fought for a “right” cause – tend also to differ as the politically acknowledged necessity of European reconciliation encourages political leaders to conceal “positive” notions such as heroes and victories and to consider war as a whole as an evil to be avoided at all costs. This approach is perceptible in the freshly open House of European History in Brussels, but also the Gdańsk Museum of the Second World War whose main exhibition was mostly designed before PiS returned to power.

Therefore, it is not surprising that this museum has crystallized the opposition between a conservative vision of historical policy, aiming at strengthening the national identity and cohesion – not to say homogeneity – of a given political community, and a post-modern narrative that admits a plurality of voices on “historical truth” and blurrier border lines between “moral” roles of heroes, victims and perpetrators.