In politics all is rarely well when the most heated debates erupt over symbolic acts, not policies. When disagreements about flags, declarations and history are in the news, tempestuous times often lie ahead.
How quickly a symbolic act, carried out in the full conviction of acting rightly, can turn into rioting and international tensions was demonstrated by the Estonian authorities a few days ago. Chaos and unnecessary misery ensued when Estonia announced its intention to remove memorials to Soviet soliders who had freed the country from Nazi rule during World War II. Any sober mind that followed this sorry spectacle might have concluded that, at least when they are hardly about to wake up and bite you, it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.
The Polish government, however – in any case not particularly renowned for its soberness – seems to have drawn the opposite conclusion. Engaged in what has justly been described as a “witch hunt” against intellectuals who have co-operated – or, as likely, been forced into pretending to co-operate – with Communist authorities, it took the events in Estonia as inspiration to take its unhealthy obsessions another step further. As a result, the catalogue of unsavoury and dangerous measures against ideologically "suspect" Poles is growing day by day.
The Kaczynski twins, respectively President and Prime Minister of Poland, have for some time been orchestrating a “lustration law”, according to which all state employees (including university professors) and figures of public life (including journalists) have to sign a declaration about whether they had any involvement with the Polish secret services during communism. In case they refuse to fill out the government questionnaire, or are judged to have lied, they will be suspended from their work for 10 years.
The eminent British historian Norman Davies has rightly called this a “threat to freedom”. Not, however, because a serious investigation of crimes committed during communism is unnecessary; but rather because under a surveillance system akin to that depicted in The Lives of Others countless people were pressurised into signing declarations that they would co-operate with secret services, yet never passed on any information. Superficial glimpses into secret service archives are therefore bad guides to historical guilt. What is worse, the de facto declaration of allegiance demanded by the “lustration law” replicates Communist rituals of ideological cleansing – and runs the danger of being used primarily as a partisan weapon against political opponents.
In the last days the Polish government has taken further, equally worrying, steps, which demonstrate that in its fanatical fight against all things communist it will not leave untouched even the battle against fascism. First, it tentativley followed the Estonian example by loudly considering to authorise local government agencies to remove monuments to Soviet World War II soldiers. Now, it is removing veteran status from Poles who had fought against fascism on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war.
A great majority of those unjustly dishonoured by this symbolic step have died long since – only five Polish veterans from the Spanish Civil War are still alive.
A declaration signed by important intellectuals in Poland and abroad, and published in the country's most important daily, the Gazeta Wyborcza, has called upon the government to reconsider its policies. “We appeal to public opinion throughout the democratic world: don't turn your eyes away from what is happening in Poland. For the sake of your, and our, freedom”.
Indeed world, and especially European, opinion will have to decide how to confront the Polish government's actions. Whilst the European Union appears unwilling to meddle with the way its member states deal with their past, it cannot turn a blind eye to the ideological prosecution of individuals unfolding within its territory.
Neither can the EU remain silent about other policies activley pursued by the Kaczynski brothers, such as legislative projects which clearly discriminate against homosexuals. According to a law currently under consideration by the governing coalition, for example, school teachers could be dismissed if they publicly admitted to their homosexuality.
If the EU is to be a society defined by shared values, rather than merely a common market, it will have to find effective means to stop these ideas from becoming law. If public opinion in other European countries fails to rise to this challenge, the Polish government's pyromaniac penchant for symbolic politics could burn down a piece of the European project as well as political freedom within Poland itself.
The authors of the recent declaration are right. All of us must engage with current events in Poland to safeguard liberty – and to protect the credibility of the European project.