01. Jul 2020 - Maciej Górny

The pandemic is an extraordinary situation, one that has disrupted the known order of things and ruined our confidence in the future. People’s reactions follow known historical patterns, from panic to laugh therapy. This was no different in 1918/1919 when the Spanish flu visited Poland (an episode brilliantly analysed by Łukasz Mieszkowski). Now, as before, there is every reason to feel disoriented and to make the claim that Poland will not excel in fighting the virus head-on (testing, testing, testing…) but rather prefers the tactics of attrition (to wait until it is all gone). And now, as before, the Catholic Church has delivered some confusing instances of hostility towards modern epidemiology. In 1919, the Lwów bishop, Józef Bilczewski, ordered his priests to organize a procession to pray for the flu to go away; nowadays newspapers keep publishing stories about Polish priests who insist on attending Mass and using holy water as if nothing extraordinary had happened.

To a historian’s ear all this seems to be a well-established story. Two narratives – the one of the epidemic and the one of Eastern Europe’s backwardness – combine into a story of half-hearted efforts, incompetence and a lack of resources. None of this will surprise anyone with a basic idea about the region’s past. Yet Poland would deny its history, if it did not have something really extraordinary to offer. Perhaps the most striking element of the current pandemic in my country is how little attention is paid to the pandemic itself. Sure, new cases and notably new deaths are painstakingly recorded, while media content is comprised of original and translated material devoted to epidemiology. All this is covered by a thick layer of political news which has little or nothing to do with what is seemingly the most important issue. It does, however, have very much to do with history and does invite historical analogies.

Recently, Poland gained recognition as a country which not only failed to organize presidential elections but even failed to call them off. The situation is complicated, nevertheless, it can be explained. The incumbent president, Andrzej Duda, represents the ruling right-populist party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS). Duda’s chances of winning the elections grew considerably under the extraordinary conditions of the pandemic, but they will almost surely be reduced as soon as the adverse economic outcome of the pandemic begins to be widely felt. This reasoning moved his party (of which the aging Jarosław Kaczyński is the sole and supreme leader) to fight for the earliest possible date for elections. With eyebrow-raising arrogance PiS ignored both the constitution and the virus to push the country into malformed voting at a time when public gatherings remained strictly forbidden. That this plan failed was not due to their modification of democracy but rather to internal strife within the ruling party (which consists of three right-wing parties). Currently, after some more factional infighting behind the closed doors of the party offices, election day has been settled. With no certainty as to where traditional voting will be allowed (with the districts hit by the epidemic voting by post) and many doubts concerning the credibility of counting, Poland is heading toward elections of a potentially questionable legal status.     

The common element of such manipulations to established practice is that they remain detached from the Polish constitutional order. It is the ruling party’s will (or the compromise achieved with one of its allies) that sets the new rules for democratic mechanisms. Polish constitutionalists univocally condemn all these provisory solutions. The only meaning to be derived is not to let a pandemic pass without achieving some political gain for the ruling populists.

What are the historical dimensions of all of this? Well, to anyone who has some knowledge of Poland’s history, the links seem more than obvious. The ‘May Coup’, Józef Piłsudski’s seizure of power in 1926, is the clear reference, and is acknowledged as such by many. The ‘original’ coup was preceded by the campaign directed against the ‘degeneration’ of the parliamentary system and followed by a mockery of the constitutional order. And it resulted in an increasingly authoritarian system in the late interwar period from the arrests of the opposition leaders all the way to the introduction of numerus clausus.

Other analogies are also at play, including that of Germany in 1933. Indeed, much of it – save extreme violence – is also present in Poland in 2020. Perhaps the most disastrous among these analogies is the destruction of the legal system, the negligence of procedures and the tendency towards personal rule, all of which are strongly reminiscent of the Polish Sanacja regime of the 1930s. Added to this is the ruling party’s open hostility towards the constitution which, according to their plans, should be replaced by another one. Something similar happened in 1935 when, by breaking legal and parliamentary regulations, the democratic March Constitution (of 1921) was replaced by a presidential-cum-authoritarian one.

Historical analogies up to the present moment have missed one crucial element: the tragic background of the Great War and the Great Crisis. The current pandemic might fill in this gap.             

About the author

Maciej Górny is Professor at the Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences

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