The first scene of Alfred Jarry’s parody of Macbeth is set in Poland — a place the play’s stage directions describe as “nowhere.” (“Pologne, c’est a dire, nulle part.”) Ubu Roi was spectacularly unsuccessful. It closed after an opening night that shocked its audience with its absurdism and obscenity. Its scene setting, though, is more tragic than comic. When Jarry’s play opened in 1896, Poland was indeed “nowhere,” a people without a state, divided since 1795 among Russia, Austria and Prussia.
Poland has long been a victim of the greater powers around it. The nation regained nationhood after World War One, only to lose it again to the Nazi and Soviet invasions at the start of World War Two. When the Red Army liberated the country at the end of the war, Moscow brusquely enfolded it into the Soviet Union.
Poland was liberated again in 1989 — this time by the Solidarity trade union, the most dynamic driver of freedom from Soviet rule. Solidarity’s most prominent intellectual, the former dissident, historian and foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek, subsequently hailed Poland’s accession to the European Union as “the ‘end of the division of Europe.’‘’ But Geremek, who died in a car accident in 2008, was wrong. It’s Poland that has become one of the leaders — along with Hungary — in re-dividing Europe.
Eastern Europe’s first post-Soviet governments, whether center-left or center-right, were largely liberal, secular and enthusiastically European. But Poland’s ruling right-wing conservative Law and Justice party, which won parliamentary majorities last year, is strongly patriotic, staunchly Catholic and deeply Eurosceptic. It needs EU subsidies, so it won’t follow the United Kingdom out of the union, but for party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, taking money from Brussels doesn't mean subordination to it.
Both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are concerned about Warsaw’s attacks on such institutions as the courts, the media and the security services. But perhaps it’s these two vignettes that best illustrate Poland’s new fundamentalist-conservative approach:
The previous government had planned a World War Two museum in Gdansk to be the most comprehensive in the world. The American historian Timothy Snyder, a consultant on the project, wrote of it that while other war museums were national only, “the Gdańsk museum has set out to show the perspectives of societies around the world.” It was at once an act of remembrance of a savagery from which Poland suffered more than any other Central European state, and one of inclusiveness, juxtaposing the Polish experience of occupation with those of other countries.
No longer. From being open to multiple perspectives, the museum, set to open next year, now seems destined to be closed to all but a certain sensibility. Its centerpiece is likely to be another museum, to be built around the Battle of Westerplatte – a heroic one-week stand by a 200-strong garrison against German shelling from land and sea at the start of the Nazi invasion. The new direction would allow Culture Minister Piotr Glinski, who announced the change, to argue that the combined museums would be a new institution and require historian-director Pawel Machcewicz to be replaced. Snyder wrote that “the preemptive liquidation of the museum is nothing less than a violent blow to the world’s cultural heritage.”
The second instance involves another tragedy. In April 2010, a high-ranking group of Polish officials died in a plane crash on their way back from a trip to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Soviet massacre of some 25,000 Polish officers in the woods of Katyn, an atrocity long blamed by the Soviets on the Nazis. The dead included then-president Lech Kaczynski and his wife, the chief of the Polish general staff and several ministers. A subsequent report found that the Tupolev jet carrying the party, flown by a Polish crew, attempted to land in a thick fog on its way to an airport that lacked up-to-date landing systems. It hit trees and crashed, killing all.
Russian and Polish investigators, using conversations recorded on the plane’s black box, both agreed that it was an accident. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Lech’s twin brother, has never accepted that conclusion. Now he is urging Poles to see Smolensk, a nominally fictional movie that suggests the crash was another Russian murder. At the same time, a new report by a commission accuses Poland’s previous government of "falsifying, manipulating, avoiding and hiding" the truth about the crash.
I spoke some days ago to a minister in the former government, who was in despair at both the museum’s change of course and the film. Speaking off the record, he said that, “there is no doubt that it [the plane crash] was an accident – you could hear the general on the black-box recording telling the pilots to land.” Nonetheless, Poles, including schoolchildren, he said, are being urged to see the movie as a patriotic duty.
The Polish government is seeking to rekindle hatred toward the two tyrannies that crushed Poland – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The country’s historic victimhood gives the government the basis for its construction of an “authentic” Poland – one in which the church and its teachings are revered, homosexuality is regarded as a perversion and foreign influences are shunned. (The Law and Justice party did suffer a rare setback this week, when street protests by thousands of women prompted it to withdraw plans for a near-total ban on abortion, but Kaczynski went on to tell parliament his party would “continue to take action in this respect.”)
Hungary, too, is part of the Central European faction that characterizes the EU as a cosmopolitan despot. Britain’s vote in July to leave the union, though a different phenomenon, has encouraged it: Hungary’s referendum on Sunday, which showed almost 100 percent of voters determined to keep out migrants (though invalid because voter turnout was below 50 percent) is a sign of nations emboldened to defy the EU.
A different-minded Hungarian, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, believes that a dissolution of the European Union is “practically irreversible.” The EU grew out of a conviction that the continent must put the tragedy of total war behind it. Kaczynski has shown that such international idealism is now weak, and each state must nurse the memories of its own war. Tragedy, once the moral basis for unity in Europe, is being nationalized.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics. He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.