1. A key element of Polish identity?
BSSB.BE neweasterneurope.eu 30.05.2018
Danube Ex-USSR Germany The Baltic Poland
* The ruling party has pushed several memory laws related to decommunisation in Poland
The mass renaming of streets reflects the current pulse of identity politics in Europe. France is considering changing street names associated with the historical slave trade. The Netherlands ponders how to confront its colonial past inscribed in public spaces. Spanish municipalities and communes have started implementing the 2007 Law on Historical Memory on a larger scale, replacing Franco-era street names to honour women in Spanish history and victims of terrorist attacks. In 2015, Ukraine adopted a package of decommunisation laws that included mass street renaming.
Most recently, the implementation of the new street decommunisation law in Poland, which came into effect last year, is yet another bone of contention in Poland’s divided society. It has raised concern over the quality of democratic participation and respect for minority rights and political pluralism in a country undergoing a major transformation under the leadership of the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.
New state – old society
While the reformist PiS does not have a constitutional majority, it has managed to profoundly change the character of democracy in Poland through a series of laws adopted in regular vote. Major changes include effectively subordinating the Constitutional Tribunal and a strong part of the judicial branch to the legislative and executive powers which has led to an ongoing dispute between the European Commission and the Polish government. Other developments include turning the state broadcaster into a promoter of state policies, launching a smear campaign against particular NGOs as well as threatening the freedom of assembly and women’s rights.
The current ruling party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, has demonstrated its vision to profoundly change not only the Polish state but also to assure that the majority of society continues adhering to conservative values and worldviews against a perceived threat of Europeanisation conflated with progressivism. Therefore PiS has concentrated a lot of effort and public money on cultural policies aimed at preserving a certain vision of Polish identity through a particular understanding of the nation’s history.
The most discussed element of this project has been the 2018 amendment to the Law on the Institute of National Remembrance, which criminalises ascribing responsibility for the crimes committed during the Second World War to the Polish state when it is contrary to established historical facts.
Despite guaranteeing artistic and academic exceptions, this law may inhibit debates about the darker chapters of Polish history. It has already provoked tensions with Israel, Ukraine and the United States – and has been blamed for provoking a few antisemitic outbursts in Poland.
Like many governments in history, the current government has been no stranger to regulating historical interpretations through law. The party pushed several “memory laws” related to decommunisation of the Polish state almost three decades after its transition to democracy. While the renaming of streets was launched shortly after 1989, in 2016 lawmakers estimated that approximately 1,000 street names across the country would fall into remit of the new law prohibiting the propagation of communism or other totalitarian regimes through the names of buildings, objects and other public facilities.
The law was adopted in 2016 and took effect on September 1st 2017, mandating local authorities to change the names as indicated by the Institute of the National Remembrance (IPN). The IPN list of 130 names includes those that refer to, among others, the Red Army, the Polish People’s Army, the Polish Workers’ Party, as well as the likes of Karl Marx or Rosa Luxemburg (who was born in 1871 in Zamość).
After the deadline was set for local authorities, the centrally-appointed governors of the Polish provinces were responsible for issuing a replacement order to rename selected streets in their provinces. Initially, the local authorities had three months to appeal the decision to the administrative court, or overrule it in a regular vote in the local council. However, due to several protests against the governors’ decisions, the law was amended in December 2017, making it more difficult for the local authorities to object. The councils then required the permission of the IPN and the provincial governor to overrule any decisions.
Local struggles for memory
While there were cases when the IPN opinion was favourable to dissenting local communities, the 2017 amendment remains an alarming development. It reflects a growing trend of governance by decree, where the central government pays little regard to local history. In a democratic state, citizens have a right to remember, including the right to mourn and commemorate, but they are not obliged to comply with a duty to remember something imposed by the state. Citizens should not be forced to mourn or commemorate against their will. The street renaming programme is thus a powerful symbolic intrusion into the life of local communities.
Some local council members and local residents protested against the unabashedly partisan choice of new street patrons. One factor in this process was that many local councils are still dominated by the opposition party, Civic Platform (PO). The next local elections are scheduled to take place later this autumn.
The local struggles in Katowice and Łódź illustrate this point. IPN had advised renaming all the Wilhelm Szewczyk streets across the country. Szewczyk was a writer and supporter of the Silesian regional identity, was a communist party member and long-time MP in the parliament of the Polish People’s Republic. His street in Katowice was renamed Maria and Lech Kaczyński Street, the presidential couple who tragically died in the airplane crash in 2010.
More recently, Szewczyk Street in another town in Silesia, Ruda Śląska, was changed to honour the late local PiS politician Jerzy Drażyk. In Łódź, the central Victory Square, which since 1945 had commemorated the victory against Hitler’s fascism, was briefly renamed Lech Kaczyński Square. The local city council out manoeuvred the government by declaring that from 2018 onwards Victory Square will commemorate a different historical triumph – the victory of the Polish Army over Bolshevik forces in the 1920s.
Extensive commemoration practices of the late presidential couple divide public opinion. For some, it stands as a welcomed extension of the national pantheon, while for others it bears elements of an imposed cult of the Kaczyński namesake, which began to rise in 2010 with the burial of the late president and his wife in the Royal Wawel Castle in Kraków, next to Polish kings, saints and nobles. Lech Kaczyński has been commemorated with 40 streets and Lech and Maria Kaczyński jointly with 17 – a modest, but possibly growing number.
Uladzislau Belavusau is a senior researcher in European Law at the TMC Asser Institute in The Hague – University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands). He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley (USA). His most recent book is Law and Memory (co-edited with A. Gliszczyńska-Grabias, Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Anna Wójcik is an assistant researcher and PhD candidate at the Institute of Law Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences within the MELA (Memory Laws in European and Comparative Perspective) research consortium.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: neweasterneurope.eu