To the question recently posed by Daniel Johnson, whether Poland has once again become a battleground for freedom and democracy, I answer in the affirmative. Yes, Poland is one of few countries in the West where freedom is still more or less secure, mostly because a lot of Poles continue to resist that mono-ideology that has taken hold of the entire Western world and that is being enforced on us and, in no small part, because we are lucky to have the conservative government led by the Law and Justice party (PiS) that has managed to steer a sane course in the world of growing insanity.
Obviously, this is not what Daniel Johnson had in mind. His view is the opposite of mine. He claims that the conservative government is an enemy of freedom and all those who oppose it are freedom fighters. If one could imagine a text that could be constructed solely of anti-Polish and anti-PiS stereotypes and falsehoods, Daniel Johnson’s is a perfect illustration. We learn that Poland is ruled by one man who after the death of his brother even increased his despotic power. He and his government ignore and dismiss the criticism and warnings from all over the world, and in particular from the EU, the US, and Donald Tusk. The government conducts socialist economic policies and is far-Right, anti-western in culture. The government betrayed the ideas and principles of the Solidarity Union; freedom and the rule of law are “embattled”. The Poles collaborated with the Germans (who are now called the Nazis) in the Holocaust and now the conservative government wants to whitewash Polish history. They also refuse to compensate the Jewish heirs of the victims of the Holocaust for the property lost or destroyed on the Polish territory.
All this, to say mildly, is not true. It would require a long text to dispel falsehoods, half-truths, and caricatures. Let me say that the spectrum of opinion in Poland is larger than in any other EU country, that in Poland you can say and write things for which you would be punished in France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, etc. As elsewhere in Europe, the dominant orientation in the media, corporations, and universities is Left and liberal, critical of and even hostile to the government. What makes Poland exceptional in Europe is the existence of conservative media, about 30 per cent of the entire market: an unheard-of phenomenon in the world in which the Left practically has the monopoly. Poland did not collaborate with the Germans in the Holocaust. The Polish government in exile and its representatives in German-occupied Poland ruled that the denouncing of the Jews to the Germans was punishable by death. The percentage of anti-Semites was certainly not higher than in France or elsewhere in Europe. The Polish government in exile did more to help the Jews during the war than other governments, certainly more than the French, British or American governments. Today’s Poland is one of the few countries in Europe that has been consistently pro-Israeli, particularly on the conservative side of Polish politics.
Let me start with a general reflection. Why did Daniel Johnson, a respected journalist and a man of many virtues, write a text so inaccurate and packed with received ideas? I am afraid he relied on rather one-sided sources of information. The problem is that it is impossible to find an impartial report on Poland. In almost every text on Poland one finds the same modules as in Daniel Johnson’s piece, and after some reshuffling from the same modules, the same construction is made. This refers not only to Poland but to all major topics of today. It is difficult to find a difference between Corriere della Sera, El Pais, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, BBC, FAZ, NYT, Financial Times, and others. The fact that they have the same agenda has nothing mysterious about it, but reflects the political profile of Western societies. The lines of division between Liberals, Socialists, and erstwhile Conservatives have evaporated over the last decades. To give an example: same-sex marriage was introduced in Britain by the Conservatives, in France by the Socialists, and in Germany by the grand coalition. (In Germany, everything is decided by the grand coalition, even Christian doctrine.) The same unifying spirit has been permeating corporations, universities, and international organisations such as the EU.
Unfortunately, it is the Left that has dictated the common agenda; the political Right ceased to exist, having long capitulated. If the European People’s Party (EPP) at Strasbourg represents today’s western conservatism, then nothing more needs to be said. All this talk about pluralism which we hear from everywhere, is an ideological self-imposed mystification covering a sadly homogenous reality. Having spent a few years in the European Parliament and having observed the behaviour of the entire political spectrum, I know what I am talking about. Either one belongs to the mainstream and sings the same tune, or one is out, surrounded by a cordon sanitaire.
The reports from Poland are one-sided because the Polish government is outside the mainstream, and their story is not worth telling. The journalists either repeat verbatim the language and arguments of the anti-government groups or use the Polish sources, which are vehemently anti-government. Since everybody knows that the PiS government is conservative, populist, authoritarian, homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynist, etc., why even pretend they have a case? In short, whoever writes about Poland on the basis of what one reads in the major media is bound to be drastically short on knowledge.
Let me now be more specific and return to Daniel Johnson’s article. He has mentioned two recent developments in Poland, which he asserts give substance to his criticism of the conservative government. First, a new law on property restitution bans claims for restitution of assets confiscated during the Communist era. “This will affect Holocaust survivors and their families: some three million Polish Jews were murdered in Nazi camps, and few of their heirs ever received compensation.”
The second development is “the media law, or lex TVN, … that no organisation outside the European Economic Area (including the EU and the UK) may own a media company in Poland. While the PiS claims the law will limit Russian or Chinese influence, its main impact will be on the US-owned TVN group, whose news channel TVN3 offers a platform to critics of the government.” Daniel Johnson concludes: “The new laws look like a mortal threat to liberty and, yes, law and justice. … One thing is for sure: the fight for freedom that has been fought so bravely by Poles for centuries is not about to end now.”
Let me start with the law concerning property. This is based on the ruling of the Constitutional Court in 2015 (before the PiS won the elections), to the effect that the property claims resulting from the Communist confiscations cannot be effective ad infinitum, and a time limit must be established. The background behind this ruling was what the Poles called “wild privatisation”: as a result, racketeers grabbed more than 4,000 houses in Warsaw, and 55,000 people lost their homes. The latest decision of the parliament puts an end to wild privatisation.
This has little to do with the heirs of the Polish citizens of Jewish origin who lost their lives in the Holocaust or died afterwards. Their heirs never met with obstructions from the Polish courts or from Polish law. The furious reactions of the Israeli government and Jewish organisations were caused by something else, namely, the problem of heirless property. Demands were made that the Polish government compensate “the Jewish community” for the property of Polish citizens of Jewish origin who left no heirs. However one looks at it, this demand is outrageous, completely lawless, and shockingly immoral.
In 1939 the Germans invaded Poland and occupied a large part of it until 1945. During that time, they ravaged the country, confiscated our property, destroyed our cities, some of them such as Warsaw almost entirely, killed six million Polish citizens, of whom half were of Jewish origin. Now the Israeli government, as well as some Jewish organisations, plus American politicians, demand that the Poles should pay the Jews to compensate them for German crimes. Heirless property in Poland and everywhere else becomes the state’s property, and it does not matter whether the person who left no heir is Polish, Jewish, American, or any other. If someone should compensate for this heirless property of the murdered Polish citizens of Jewish origin, it is Germany. Certainly not Poland.
Daniel Johnson writes that “this harsh statute of limitations for injustices committed more than 30 years ago is hardly compatible with the Polish government’s demand in 2019 that Germany pay £777 billion in compensation for Nazi atrocities committed more than 75 years ago.” This is a truly amazing statement. It implies that demanding that Germany pay the Polish people compensation for the destruction of Poland by Hitlerite Germany is on a par with demanding that Poland pays the Jewish people compensation for the destruction of Poland and her Jewish citizens by the very same Hitlerite Germany. And all this to condemn the Polish government. Language fails me to express my indignation.
Let us take Daniel Johnson’s second example, the media law. The legal background is the law passed in 1992 stating that radio and television broadcasting in Poland should be majority-owned and controlled by entities only from the European Economic Area. No more than 49 per cent of the shares of broadcasters in Poland may be owned by entities from outside the EU. Requirements such as this are not unique to Poland, existing, for example, in Austria and France.
In complete disregard of this law, various companies bought and sold TVN television: first a majority of shares and then the entire package. The law had been bent for several years until in 2021, the Polish Broadcasting Council reacted after the reports that the current owner Discovery is to merge with Warner Media. The Parliament and the Broadcasting Council are doing what Polish law has required for many years and what has been shamelessly violated, with the tacit consent of previous Polish governments and the European Commission. Many Poles have asked themselves the question on this and several similar occasions: why do binding and uncontroversial regulations in other countries, such as those on media ownership or the judicial system, become an international scandal when the Polish government tries to do something similar in Poland?
The general answer to this is that in the modern world, as also in the EU, all countries are equal but some are more equal than others. Those that are not so equal are the “New Europe” countries — that is, those from the eastern part of the continent. Their Western partners still consider them as slightly inferior and not completely trustworthy. The not so equal, of course, are also those with conservative governments. It does not matter that freedom of speech is conspicuously greater in Poland than in any West European country. The problem is that the left/liberal monopoly is not complete and has lost big chunks of the market. Not until it becomes complete will Poland be readmitted to the community of the civilised countries. If such is the current state of mind in Europe, then it is Europe we should be worried about, not Poland.
A final point. In both cases, the property regulation and the media regulation are perfectly in accordance with Polish law and common sense. To support his view that the matter is dodgy, Daniel Johnson says that the property law was condemned by the foreign ministers of the US and Israel, and in response to the media regulation President Biden threatened to withdraw the American troops stationed in Poland. I see these threats differently. The heavyweights are bullying the government of a politically weaker country that acts within its competencies and dares not to kowtow to brutal pressure, violating its own laws to the detriment of its own people. I know that bullying can be effective in politics, but I was hoping it would not be praised.