Poland in the News
Poland has been a focal point of European and US foreign policy since the fall of the USSR. Billions in foreign aid and investment has poured into the country, creating a dynamic economy, rising middle class, and a young European democracy. Poland has historically been a borderland for conflicts between European powers and Russia, giving it a complex relationship with all its neighbors and unique perspectives on state security.
Poland, however, despite its historic and strategic importance is often overlooked in most media reports and treated as background in many histories and current analysis of the European situation. This resource serves to introduce a wider audience to Poland’s modern economic state, culture, politics, and society.
Poland Celebrates Fat Thursday
On Thursday, February 4th, Poland observed Fat Thursday, which is held on the final Thursday prior to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The exact origins of this holiday are largely unknown, but it’s developed into a tradition of indulgence prior to the period of fasting during Lent, whether or not a person observes Lent.
The Polish tradition dates back to the Middle Ages and is traditionally celebrated by eating massive amounts of donuts. Today, Poles celebrate by eating at least one on this day. Donut sales have reached over 100 million. In Polish, the donuts are known as “pączki” (pronounced paunchki), and are typically filled with jam (in particular rose jam) or flavored creams or puddings. After that, they’ll be topped with icing or powdered sugar, and fruit zest or nuts.
Controversy over “Inflammatory” Magazine Cover
The terrible mass of violent and sexual assaults that occurred on New Year’s Eve in Germany have caused an escalation in arguments over what Poland’s policies to the refugee and migrant crisis should be.
On the cover of the conservative weekly magazine wSieci (The Network), there was the image of a blonde woman wearing a European Union flag being grabbed by three pairs of male hands with dark skin. It was titled “The Islamic Rape of Europe.”
The image introduced the magazine’s report that concerned the “problems arising from the massive influx of immigrants.” It claims to show “what the Brussels elite are hiding from the citizens of the European Union.” Since the majority takeover of the conservative Law and Justice Party, Poland has both postponed refugee and migrant acceptance as well as decreased the number they’re willing to take in.
One twitter user commented on the report that: “change ‘Islamic’ to ‘Jewish’ and it’s Poland in the late 1930’s.” Others compared it to Mussolini-era Italian propaganda, as well as posters from Nazi Germany.
Poland Strengthens Ties with UK as “Brexit” Refrendum Looms
This upcoming June, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on whether or not to remain a part of the EU, and preparations are being made in many EU countries to be ready for either result.
Various meetings were held between the British and Polish heads of state in December and January. Then, Prime Minister David Cameron, as part of an EU tour, met with Jarosław Kacziński, the leader of Law and Justice, despite not holding a political position at this time, as well as Prime Minister Beata Szydło.
During the meeting, deals were proposed to reform EU policies to the benefit the UK to make it more appealing for the UK to remain in the EU. These concerned labor migration from Poland to the UK, as Poles are one of the largest labor minorities in Britain, as well as maintaining a NATO presence on Poland’s eastern border. As both Poland and the UK are EU countries that have their own currency as opposed to the Euro, agreements were made to ensure they’re not “put at a disadvantage” because of it. UK citizens who are for leaving the EU are often concerned that a supranational alliance decreases individual national sovereignty, and so the deals also ensure “more powers for national parliaments” and the option to “opt-out from moves towards political union.”
After the meetings, PM Szydło stated that the agreements were “satisfactory for Poland and satisfactory for the EU.”
A recent survey of EU citizens by the Sun newspaper found that over 60% of the Polish population surveyed were in favor of the UK remaining in the EU.
The Deputy Justice Minister of Poland has expressed desires to introduce a law to reprimand media outlets which site Poland as a cause of the Holocaust in any way, saying that foreign media need to “stop attributing to Poland the role of ‘Holocaust author.’”
Some outlets and public officials have used and published the term “Polish death camps,” despite the fact that although the camps were within Poland’s borders, and accounted for much of genocide that took place, the camps (including Auschwitz) were built by Nazi occupiers and the genocide was the policy of the Third Reich. Thus, the camps and genocide were Nazi in origin and referring to them as Polish is incorrect.
In 2012, even President Obama mistakenly said “Polish death camps.” Facing wide backlash, the White House explained that “Polish” was intended as a geographical locator rather than used to imply ownership. However, Polish officials were still displeased and reluctant to accept the apology. Donald Tusk, then Prime Minister of Poland, now President of the European Council, said that this mistake distorts history, and portrays the Holocaust “as if there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, as if there was no Hitler.”
The Auschwitz Museum has responded to the recurring situation by introducing a text-editing program called “Remember.” The program is an add-on for most text writing applications, similar to a spell-checker, which is designed to prevent writers from using the phrases “Polish death camps” or “Polish extermination camps” by underlining the phrases as incorrect if used. The program is sensitive to these phrases in 16 different languages.
The website for the program states that the incorrect phrasing has been used online (without context analysis) about 3000 times online in January-February 2016 alone. The website encourages visitors to send its link to writers and editors who are “falsifying history,” by attributing German war crimes to Polish victims.
Law and Justice Marks 100 Days in Power, Thousands Protest
On February 27, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD) held their largest march and protest yet with 50,000 to 80,000 people (the number is disputed). Since the conservative Law and Justice Party won a majority in Poland’s legislature, KOD has promoted pro-democratic and pro-European Union ideology in regular peaceful protests in most major cities across Poland.
Former Polish president Lech Wałęsa (pronounced Lekh Vawensa) has become the face of the KOD opposition movement. Marchers carried signs saying “Solidarity with Lech” and “We, the People.” In the final two decades of communist Poland, Wałęsa was an activist in labor strikes, and later the co-founder and leader of the Solidarność (Solidarity) Free Trade Union 1980, the first trade union in the Warsaw Pact area that was outside of communist party control. Later in 1990, he won the presidential election in newly independent Poland, and had a successful term during Poland’s transitional period until 1995, and is generally looked back upon favorably as an icon for Polish democracy. At this most recent demonstration, his image was touted across banners and signs, on paper masks, and referred to by some wearing fake mustaches in his image.
“We, the People” (My Narod, in Polish) is a call by the Law and Justice Party to come together against “one hundred days of breaking the law,” particularly against controversial changes made to Poland’s Constitutional Court. The phrase is a clear reference to the US constitution; Wałęsa used the phrase when he spoke to the US Congress in 1989.
The demonstration was non-violent and secure. Since the beginning of their movement, KOD has used only peaceful methods of public protest in careful coordination with the city itself. Many sets of police officers were lining the route, keeping watch over the march.
The protest began near the National Stadium, on the eastern side of the Vistula River which splits Warsaw in two. The route ran from the stadium, across the Poniatowski Bridge (a primary communication vein between the two sides), toward the city center, in front of the Palace of Culture on Marszałkowska street, and ended at Piłsudskiego Square; thus, people marched a total of about 2.7 miles. Each of the roads involved were closed to all traffic during the time of the march, from about 2 until 5.30 pm, notably on two of the busiest roads in the city, al. Jerozolimskie (which includes the bridge), and ul. Marszałkowska. During this time, public transit on these roads was suspended, in the case of trams, and a number of buses were redirected to alternate routes.
People of all ages were in attendance: students and working age people, children and elderly, men and women. At various places on the route, Polish and EU flags of all sizes were for sale as well as air horns and KOD posters and signs. Some people who work for or volunteer with KOD carried banners as “information points,” giving out pamphlets and stickers, and receiving donations. Marchers carried signs with slogans against Kacziński, Szydło, and Law and Justice, to the sounds of screaming air horns and whistles.
At the end of the route at Piłsudskiego Square, a stage and sound system was arranged for multiple speakers to address everyone. Some encouraged chants like “I’m with Lech” and one speaker asked the crowd to hold hands together and raise them up high, as a show of solidarity. The gathering at the square lasted well over an hour, and by that time the sun was beginning to set. As the temperature dropped, understandably, so did attendance. By the event’s official end at 6pm, there remained only a fraction of the numbers they began with. Still, the demonstration certainly voiced its cause very well, having made headlines on a number of major national television networks and online news agencies as well as internationally.
More photos of the event can be found at KOD’s official Facebook page, one of its primary organizing tools.