Martin Pollack’s skewed depiction of Poland

Martin Pollack presents an unfair picture of Poland. Here is the answer to the allegations he makes in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard.

Poland is Martin Pollack's second homeland. Polish Studies in Vienna, a university degree in Warsaw, a PhD on Eliza Orzeszkowa (inspired by the Jewish question she addressed), student friendships, cooperation with the democratic opposition, translation of Polish authors – all this illustrates the writer’s emotional relationship with Poland; his Poland is embodied by the elites of the Third Polish Republic which formed after the 1989 Round Table Agreement, held between the communists and a part of the opposition that took a more conciliatory line. Just like in the case of other Western intellectuals who have links to our country, such as Norman Davies, Timothy Garton Ash, and Timothy Snyder, Poland owes him a lot.

The fact that Martin Pollack admitted to being a son of a Nazi soldier and made it the backbone of his literary work commands great respect. His criticism of Poland is not opportunistic, based on the principle of condemning others and white-washing one’s own nation in order to present oneself in a better light. Still, the image of Poland he depicts is not true.

In one of his articles, the writer asks whether his Poland is already dead. In his latest essay, titled “Poland: the friend–enemy scheme” (Polen: Das Freund-Feind-Schema) he claims that after PiS took power, a world ended. Democracy, however, is based on the fact that governments change as a result of elections. In the West, a change of government is a manifestation of democracy, and not of its absence. Why would it be different in Poland?

In his article “The friend-enemy scheme,” published in Der Standard on 30 April, Pollack equates the conservative trend in the Polish Church with nationalism, while in fact the scale of support for nationalists is low, compared with Western European countries. The National-Radical Camp’s march in Bialystok, described by the author, brought together several hundred people. The Camp, however, has nothing to do with the Catholic circles gathered around Radio Maryja, which during the Civic Platform’s term in power managed to mobilise tens of thousands of demonstrators to defend TV Trwam.

In the presidential election, a representative of the National Movement, Marian Kowalski, obtained 0.8% of the vote, while the anti-EU party of MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke did not pass the 5% threshold and failed to enter parliament. What a contrast compared with the support received by Norbert Hofer and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the French National Front or the Alternative for Germany! Indeed it is not Polish nationalists who are a threat to Europe today.

The author deplores the fact that a discussion flared up again in Poland on the causes of the plane crash in Smolensk, which killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and senior government officials. He does not find it astonishing that the investigation carried out for the last six years has not brought us any closer to explaining its causes, and that Poland cannot recover the plane wreckage, which still remains on Russia’s territory. Yet the European Parliament has adopted a resolution on this matter. The task of the government’s committee is to provide an accurate explanation of the disaster, which is a sine qua non condition for reconciliation in Poland. This is not about revenge – as Pollack suggests – but about the truth, not about perpetuating conspiracy theories, but about ending them. The author also claims that PiS supporters want to impose the death penalty on Donald Tusk for his alleged part in the Smolensk catastrophe. However, in reality this issue is not being discussed in Poland – what is being debated is whether the government should support Tusk in his efforts to seek a second term as President of the European Council.

The issue of migrants

Poles have unanimously criticized EU policies on migrants. In their view, sending them to places that they do not want to go to is not a good solution. Therefore, they are opposed to setting migrant quotas for each country. The author ignores the voices from the political camp with which he identifies himself. These include Aleksander Hall, who in the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper defends the homogeneous nature of the Polish nation in fear of immigrants. Today, the political scene in Poland is not black and white.

This does not mean that Poland does not show solidarity with EU countries. The country has experience with refugees from Muslim countries. Since the first Chechen war in 1994, over 80,000 Muslim Chechens have come to Poland, and in the record year 2013 – 15,000. However, less than 10% have remained in the country. The rest went further to the West. A ruling by the Constitutional Court of Karlsruhe, which equated social benefits for immigrants with those received by German citizens, was a strong magnet. It is hardly surprising that refugees – either Chechens or Syrians –choose to go to where the standard of living is higher. It’s obvious for Poles, of whom over 2 million have gone abroad in recent years.

The Austrian writer suggests that Poland is evolving into an authoritarian regime, as evidenced by tightening security laws. Meanwhile, after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, also in Poland the concern for security is greater. Introduction of regulations which apply in other countries concerning, e.g., the registration of SIM cards sold, does not mean that the system is becoming authoritarian.

Martin Pollack does not like the introduction of restrictions on selling land in Poland. However, the new legislation is aimed not at nationalising agricultural land, but – like in Austria – at reducing speculative purchases. Poland often experiences the existence of double standards: it cannot do what is a normal practice in “old” EU member countries.

In Austria, the homeland of Hans Kelsen, the Constitutional Court plays an important role in the political system. This is also the case in our country, where, as opposed to Austria, the Court judges are elected by the Sejm by a simple majority. This system has revealed its weaknesses, as there is in fact a strong link between the position taken by the judges and the policies of the party which has proposed them. When a party is in power for two terms, it may select the majority of the judges, who then block the reforms undertaken by the next government. A few months before the election, the Civic Platform changed the law so as to select five judges before the end of the Sejm’s term. It would then have 14, out of 15 Court judges. The new Sejm annulled this election and selected new judges, which in turn was partly challenged by the Constitutional Court.

Dispute over the Constitutional Court

This marked the beginning of the constitutional crisis that prompted the European Commission to launch the rule-of-law procedure against Poland, in particular with regard to the separation of powers. However, the EC did not react when democracy in Poland was brought to shame in the local elections in 2014, in which more than 17% of the votes were invalid and, in some constituencies, the number of invalid votes exceeded the number of valid ones.

Comments by the vice-president of the European Commission Frans Timmermans on the functioning of the Constitutional Court are badly received in Poland. In the Netherlands, which is where Mr Timmermans comes from, not only is there no Constitutional Court, but the courts are also banned by the Constitution from controlling the laws made by parliament. This raises questions about applying double standards to Poland.

The Sejm adopted a resolution on defending Poland’s sovereignty, which called on the government to reject interference in solving the Constitutional Court dispute as well as attempts to impose decisions on Poland regarding the migrant issue.

The parliamentary majority believes that the Court should be balanced in terms of the views presented. Jarosław Kaczyński proposed a solution which would enable the opposition to maintain influence on the selection of a majority of the judges. However, the opposition prefers to prolong the current crisis, which results in stigmatising Poland as a country that allegedly violates democratic standards.

Martin Pollack is not the only one to compare Poland to Putin's Russia. This comparison may be due to the West’s sense of guilt. Poland advocates the non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea and the division of Ukraine, as well as the maintenance of sanctions against Russia. In this case, Pollack would probably agree with this position. In one of the interviews, in fact, he said he was disappointed that Austria welcomes Putin with standing ovations. Today, the Poles are asking: is this the normative power of the European Union, which was supposed to attract others by the compliance of its actions with the professed moral principles? By stating that international law has to be respected, Poland disturbs those who put their own benefit first.

Poles have a favourable view of the country’s membership in the European Union. Jarosław Kaczyński described the idea of ​​holding a referendum on the issue, raised by the opposition, as political adventurism. Today, the majority of French are in favour of a referendum on France’s further membership, and 41% would vote to leave the EU. In turn, only 22% of Poles are in favour of leaving the European Union. The source of disintegration threats to the European Union today lies not in Poland.

The image of contemporary Poland painted by Martin Pollack is unreliable and unfair. Ironically, his article serves those against whom the author has fought all his life. Western societies soothe their conscience in accordance with the principle that, although their countries are not doing exactly fine, Poland is even worse. Such opinions become a pretext for undermining the EU's solidarity e.g. in matters of ensuring energy security and doing business with Russia on its own. Since authoritarianism looms over Poland, why shouldn’t we collaborate with the regime of Vladimir Putin?


The author is a political analyst and a professor at the Institute of European Studies of the University of Warsaw. In the 1970s and 80s he was a democratic opposition activist, among others a member of the Citizens' Committee, founded by Lech Wałęsa. He writes for Rzeczpospolita and Do Rzeczy.

Do Rzeczy Source: Do Rzeczy