Since the crash of Polish President Lech Kaczyński’s plane in 2010, a period of renewed nationalism centred around Catholicism, conservatism, and an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality has taken hold in Poland. This wave of populism has led to an increase in division and violence.

Since Lech Kaczyński’s presidential plane crashed in Smolensk on 10th April 2010, annual commemorations held in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw have paid homage to the memory of the victims of what Lech Wałęsa describes as a “tragedy second only to Katyń”. These reactions are to be expected, as there were 96 dead, including the President, his wife, and representatives of the highest state echelons. The President left a twin brother, Jaroslaw, who has led the Law and Justice Party (PiS) since 2003; this party won the recent presidential and legislative elections in 2015.

However, after the first moments of sincere sorrow felt by all Poles, there came a time when the myth of Polish martyrdom was revived, although it should be made clear that not all of Polish society was carried along with it.

Nonetheless, historical coincidences always speak for themselves. The proximity of the crash site to the Polish delegation’s destination, the place where exactly seventy years earlier, in spring 1940, thousands of Polish officers were murdered by the NKVD, justifies the idea of a ‘second Katyń’.

At the same time, these coincidences have been used effectively to gather support for conspiracy theories about the accident, in an attempt to persuade people that it was a Russian plot or a coup attempt orchestrated by Moscow. The commemorations organised by the PiS quickly came to look like demonstrations against the government of Donald Tusk. The number of Poles thinking it may well have been a terrorist attack rather than an accident due principally to pilot error has increased every year.

This tragic date now marks a break in post-1989 Polish history, and it has helped shape a new era, as it has made for a clearer distinction between ‘us’, the exclusive bearers of national suffering, and ‘others’.

Commemorations such as military guards and many ornate plaques mounted on public buildings [1] helped establish the irrational rhetoric of sacrifice [2], which appeared to have a fundamentally political aim from the start: elevating the Smolensk disaster to the status of a founding myth of a new Poland. Even if it is still not clear which form it is to take, the spectre of authoritarianism is already looming on the horizon.

The dictatorship of the heart

Does this then mean that Poland is “in the realm of kitsch, where the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme”? [3] Milan Kundera maintained that when the heart spoke, reason raised no objections. Furthermore, the world of fixed ideas is the most fertile ground for kitsch, and kitsch is the favoured propaganda weapon of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.

And what of the aesthetic standardised by Jaroslaw Kaczyński? Using topoi such as justice, national=Catholic, and “good change”, it panders to sentimental nationalist and religious sentiments, to create a “community of feelings”. Kaczynski is aware that the collective memory is malleable and that “good” management of the nation’s feelings could consolidate communal support for a certain ideology.

It goes without saying that the PiS will find it easy to spread the ‘religion’ of Smolensk, in which the key dogmas are glorifying the deceased President Lech Kaczyński and punishing the political leaders of the ‘old’ Poland, notably Donald Tusk and his team, in the history books and teaching curricula. In addition to this, there are pressing demands for a string of monuments to be erected in memory of Smolensk, which in turn have the sole aim of helping Kaczyński’s camp mark its dominance in public life.

Can Kaczyński escape the kitsch that accompanies this cult of personality? It would certainly appear not. The film about Smolensk recently produced by the director Antoni Krauze was an utter flop, even in the eyes of Jarosław Kaczyński himself, who blocked its cinema release in Poland. The same applies for the statues of the deceased president, Lech Kaczyński, as their artistic quality leaves so much to be desired that even the most fervent supporters of the PiS have difficulty recognising ‘their’ President.

If kitsch is the dominant aesthetic for authoritarianism, in a pluralist space it sinks under the weight of irony and criticism. Kaczyński must therefore “stifle them” [4] or banish them. He seems to have been endeavouring to do just this since last November.

An end to “inculcation of shame”

Which hidden plans lie behind the kitsch spectacle of “good change” carried out unremittingly by the victors of the 2015 election?

As a populist nationalist party, the PiS embodies the idea of a nation with essentially Catholic roots, as Kaczyński recalls, and it becomes the harbinger of the politics of restored national pride. It thus intends to put an end to the politics of submission supposedly implemented by previous governments both towards the EU and other foreign partners. To be clear, it is a case of ending what the party leaders call “inculcation of shame”, which has hitherto stopped the Polish nation occupying its rightful place on the European and international stage and prevented the awakening of the “great power that sleeps within it [5]”. It also means no longer accepting that others can question the heroism of the Polish nation, and rejecting “questioning and criticism [6]” of the anti-Semitic attitude of the Poles before, during and after the Shoah.

In the course of his crusade against post-89 Poland, Kaczyński has benefited from strong support from the Catholic Church (which has intervened increasingly in political affairs despite strong opposition both from some bishops and priests and from some of the faithful themselves) and from its ultra-radical media, which also provided strong backing during the electoral campaign. It is also necessary to comprehensively “cleanse” all state structures and administrative bodies, to knock people like Walesa, Michnik and Geremek off their pedestals and to use new foundations to build a “healthy” and “strong” Poland that nobody else can humiliate. According to Kaczyński, Poland should be Catholic, conservative and inward-looking.

The animal element

At the moment, neither pressure from Europe or America nor pressure from within the country, in the form of heightened citizens’ resistance and an increasing number of demonstrations against violations of the rule of law, have succeeded in ending the triumphal march of the Polish populist nationalists. Furthermore, they do not consider any criticism of their politics to be valid. On the contrary!

The leaders of the PiS are quick to claim a monopoly on patriotism and virtue, while denying it to anyone who does not share their political vision or their plan for a new Poland.

Thus, according to Jaroslaw Kaczyński, in opposition to “the true Poles” there are “the worst kind of Poles”, namely those who “carry the gene of treachery”. These “traitors” blacken the image of Poland abroad by talking to foreign institutions and press.

But what is there to say about these remarks, which were immediately chorused by his entourage, and which go so far as to rob his opponents of their human qualities? Alas, to further compromise all those who dare to oppose him, they are physically dehumanised.

In this way, during a televised interview, he described his opponents as “the animal element” of the nation, who have been pushed away from the “trough” after his party’s victory, like pigs deprived of their food (which they did not deserve). Pigs’ heads were brandished by PiS sympathisers as well, on the fringes of demonstrations by the Committee for Defence of Democracy.[7] A reference to pigs also appears in the neologism “panświnizm”,[8] the “invasion of the impure”, a term used to distinguish everything that does not constitute the “true” roots of Polish identity, (Catholicism). The term was sometimes used to describe programmes broadcast by the public media before they came under the control of the PiS.

Speaking in this way is fatal for unity in Polish society. It creates a climate of enmity or hatred amongst Poles, by creating an insurmountable rift between the Poland of Jaroslaw Kaczyński and the one that opposes him. With the rise of far right movements, which Mr Kaczyński’s party will always try to win over, there is a great risk that these attacks, which have so far been verbal, will escalate into direct violence.

It is already clear that in various towns in Poland physical attacks on foreigners are being carried out by representatives of far-right movements or their sympathisers. Kaczyński himself set the tone in his campaign. He attacked the outside enemies of Poland. The influx of refugees and the resulting European crisis came like manna from heaven for his party. Mr Kaczyński came to prominence by forcefully underlining his refusal to accept refugees. This tactic proved successful for his party, which largely owes its electoral victory to his campaign to incite fear at the heart of Polish society as it faces the arrival of large numbers of Muslim refugees.

Bitterness and anger

Today in Poland there is bitterness and despondency due to the squandering of all the work put in over the last 25 years to construct a liberal democracy, and there is also a deep sense of indignation. Discontent is growing and there is a stronger rumble of anger than at any time since 1989. For paradoxically, if Mr Kaczyński has achieved one thing over several months of indirect government, it has been to mobilise a large section of Polish society against the national trend towards authoritarianism.

From the first tussle with the Constitutional Court shortly after the PiS victory, when the party tried to prevent it from contesting the new government’s reforms, civil society started to mobilise, notably through a movement called the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD). The KOD quickly expanded right across country.

Aware that the PiS will not stop grabbing control of the levers of power any time soon, an increasing number of Poles have come to back the actions of the KOD. A poll in May 2016 put its support at 53%: a trend strengthened by the danger that this process of authoritarian domination will persist. The PiS is already preparing new electoral tools (gerrymandering and changing the electoral system) to hold onto power well beyond the mandate of four years.

It is no longer possible to view this Catholic-nationalist, anti-European trend as just succumbing to illiberal democracy. It must rather be seen as a plan to install a lasting autocracy or ‘sovereign democracy’, apparently modelled on Putin’s Russia, at least as much as Orbán’s Hungary. At such as time, citizens’ mobilisations are a great source of hope for Polish democrats. If they do not have an immediate impact on the way the current government exercises its power, they will destabilise it to the extent that it will have to set up an entire propaganda machine to belittle them and to caricature their mass support and democratic claims.

In a Europe beset by the dangerous spread of populist movements and the far right, which all want to render the European Union inoperative to some extent, the cases of Poland, Hungary and other countries in the region represent a real threat to the democratic foundations of the European Union.

To face up to the ‘tyranny of the majority’, now more than ever Poland needs the support of Europe and Europeans. Maybe in this way we can work together to avoid further division, which could prove fatal for the EU.

Finally, the fact that it is a kitsch spectacle will perhaps be the Achilles heel of this force that fears nothing more than laughter and satire.

With their unfailing sense of humour, the Poles are consoling themselves and finding the remedy for their own ills by telling anecdotes about the reality that surrounds them; helped by social media. For as they learnt from Zbigniew Herbert, their foremost poet during the testing times of communism, it is a “question of taste”.[9]


[1]. The monument to Lech Kaczyński erected in 2016 in front of Warsaw Town Hall bears the following inscription: “In memory of President Lech Kaczyński, fallen [sic] in the service of the fatherland”. The term is the one used for soldiers who have died in combat.

[2] After the partitioning of Poland (1772, 1792 and most recently in 1796, marking the end of the Kingdom), the repeated collapse of national sovereignty and failed insurrections, a consoling myth of a nation destined for Christ-like sacrifice was created. “Polish Messianism” is a movement principally identified with a Polish Romantic thinker, Andrzej Towiański, and the foremost poet of Polish Romanticism, Adam Mickiewicz.

[3]. Milan Kundera,The Unbearable Lightness of Being, collection Folio, Malesherbes, April 2010, p. 361.

[4]. Cezary Michalski, “Misjonarze religii smoleńskiej”, [The missionaries of the religion of Smolensk], Newsweek Polska, 24th April 2016, p. 24-26.

[5]. Speech by President Duda during celebrations of the 1050th anniversary of the Christianisation of Poland, Gniezno, 22nd March 2016.

[6]. Idem.

[7]. The KOD, Committee for Defence of Democracy, created by a computer engineer, Mateusz Kijowski, in November 2015 in reaction to what he perceived to be the destruction of democratic institutions.

[8]. “Panświnizm” is a neologism made up of two elements: the prefix “pan-” indicates it is all-encompassing, and “świnizm” (a term based on the word for pig in Polish) refers to the phenomenon of the spread of obscenity, which could be called by extension “the invasion of the impure”. A speech by Jaroslaw Kaczyński in support of Anna Maria Anders, a candidate in the partial senatorial elections, given during her campaign on 20th February 2016, in Suwałki (a town in the North-East of Poland). Also during a lecture in Włocławek (in the centre of the country) on the role of the “national” media, organised by a Catholic organisation on 22nd April 2016.

[9]. Zbigniew Herbert, “Potęga smaku”, [The power of taste], in Raport z oblezonego miasta i inne wiersze [Report from the besieged city and other poems], Paris, Institut Littéraire, 1983 (in Polish). Translated into French by Jacques Donguy and Michel Maslowski. Joanna Nowicki (ed.), “Hermès, La Revue”, C.N.R.S. Éditions, 2010/3, no. 58,  p. 23-28.

“This did not demand great character

We had only the necessary amount of courage

But essentially it was a question of taste

Yes, of taste

That makes us pull a face, murmur something sarcastic

Even if this was to be followed by the crumbling of the inestimable

capital of the body, the head.”

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