Populism, historical discourse and foreign policy: the case of Poland’s Law and Justice government

Abstract

This article analyses how, in Poland, the populist political orientation of the ruling party (Law and Justice—PiS) has coloured the historical discourse of the government and has affected, in turn, its foreign policy and diplomatic relations. We argue that the historical discourse of the PiS government is a reflection of the party’s reliance on populism as a political mode of articulation in that it seeks to promote a Manichean, dichotomic and totalizing re-definition of the categories of victim, hero and perpetrator—and of Poland’s roles in this trinity. The article details the direct and indirect repercussions of PiS populist-inspired historical posture on Poland’s foreign policy by analysing its policies towards—and relations with—Ukraine and Germany. As such, the article sheds light on the under-explored links between populism and historical memory and makes a contribution to the nascent scholarship on the foreign policy of populist governments.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Russia became prominent in the historical discourse of the PiS government as of 2019 and in the context of a historical dispute over the causes of World War II and responsibility for the Holocaust largely triggered by Vladimir Putin. See: ‘Russia and Poland’s Holocaust War of Words, in Quotes’, The Moscow Times, 20 January 2020. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/01/28/russia-and-polands-holocaust-war-of-words-in-quotes-a69066.

  2. 2.

    This is true, for instance, of the emphasis on Poland’s martyrdom and heroism in WW2, the adherence to the totalitarian paradigm equating Nazism and Communism or the belief in a special Polish role in Europe’s history (see: Siddi and Gaweda 2019, 4).

  3. 3.

    ‘Premier: nie będzie zgody na wypłatę odszkodowań z naszej strony’, PolskieRadio24, 05/05/2019. https://polskieradio24.pl/5/1222/Artykul/2303654,Premier-nie-bedzie-zgody-na-wyplate-odszkodowan-z-naszej-strony.

  4. 4.

    For instance, in taking over the Gdansk WWII museum, which had been initially conceived by an historian close to the PO in line with the memory politics of the previous government, the PiS Deputy Minister of Culture Jarosław Sellin argued that ‘changes were necessary because the original exhibition purportedly adopted a German point of view’ (Siddi and Gaweda 2019, 10), while the former PO leader Donald Tusk, a member of the borderland Kashubian minority, is often depicted as a Nazi in PiS-related fringe right media.

  5. 5.

    ‘Podczas Okrągłego Stołu komuniści podzielili się władzą z własnymi agentami? Zybertowicz wyjaśnia’, Dziennik.pl, 07/02/2019. https://wiadomosci.dziennik.pl/polityka/artykuly/590761,zybertowicz-walesa-okragly-stol-komunisci-agenci-wladza-prl-solidarnosc.html.

  6. 6.

    ‘Kaczyński do PO: “Jesteście partią zewnętrzną”’, Gazeta Prawna, 09/03/2017. http://www.gazetaprawna.pl/artykuly/1026095,kaczynski-do-po-partia-zewnetrzna-pis.html.

  7. 7.

    Cited in: ‘Minister Krzysztof Szczerski proponuje wystawianie Polakom katolickich paszportów’, Newsweek Polska, 24/04/2019. https://www.newsweek.pl/polska/minister-krzysztof-szczerski-proponuje-wystawianie-polakom-katolickich-paszportow-to/gr2e23s.

  8. 8.

    ‘Trump and Poland: From Love to Hate in Under Nine Months’, Daily Beast, 03/09/2018. https://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-and-poland-from-love-to-hate-in-under-nine-months.

  9. 9.

    See: https://www.msz.gov.pl/en/foreign_policy/german_concentration_camps/.

  10. 10.

    For instance, in replacement of the expression ‘Polish death camp’, the Polish MFA has proposed the following on its aforementioned dedicated webpage: ‘German (Nazi) concentration camp/extermination camp in the territory of German-occupied Poland’. See: https://www.msz.gov.pl/en/foreign_policy/german_concentration_camps/.

  11. 11.

    See the interview with the director of President Duda’s press office: ‘Zawsze będziemy krajem Wschodu: Z Markiem Magierowskim rozmawia Łukasz Pawłowski’, Kultura Liberalna, 24/05/2016. https://kulturaliberalna.pl/2016/05/24/marek-magierowski-andrzej-duda-ocena-prezydent/.

  12. 12.

    Prometheanism emerged already under Poland’s century long partitions and ascribed a pivotal role to Poland as the Prometheus of Eastern Europe, carrying the flame of freedom to its fellow nations to the East.

  13. 13.

    ‘Polskie ekshumacje wciąż zakazane’, Rzeczpospolita, 26/10/2017. https://www.rp.pl/Polityka/310269815-Polskie-ekshumacje-wciaz-zakazane.html.

  14. 14.

    ‘Tyklo u Nas’, wPolityce.pl, 04/11/2017. https://wpolityce.pl/polityka/365514-tylko-u-nas-waszczykowski-o-oswiadczeniu-ukrainskiego-msz-dosc-niefrasobliwie-kopiuja-droge-ktora-polscy-biskupi-zaproponowali-niemcom.

  15. 15.

    ‘Witold Waszczykowski na Ukrainie: "Komu przeszkadzały te lwy? Kto wszczyna problemy?"’, Gazeta Prawna, 05/11/2017. https://www.gazetaprawna.pl/artykuly/1082778,ukraina-witold-waszczykowski-zlozyl-hold-obroncom-lwowa-na-cmentarzu-orlat.html. Also known as the «Eaglet Cemetery» and constituting a part of Lviv’s largest historic cemetery, the Defenders of Lwów memorial is the burial site for the Polish soldiers and volunteers, as well as American and French allies, who died during the Polish–Ukrainian conflict over Lwów/Lviv in 1918 and the Polish–Soviet War of 1920.

  16. 16.

    The proposed amendment to Article 2, while passed through the Sejm with the support of the PiS majority, was proposed by the nationalist wing of the right-wing populist Kukiz’15 Movement.

  17. 17.

    Paweł Wroński, ‘Dalej wspieramy Ukrainę’, Gazeta Wyborcza, 16/12/2015. http://wyborcza.pl/1,75968,19351493,dalej-wspieramy-ukraine.html?disableRedirects=true.

  18. 18.

    See: https://natemat.pl/224975,zdumiewajaca-wypowiedz-szefa-gabinetu-witolda-waszczykowskiego-istnienie-ukrainy-nie-jest-warunkiem-istnienia-wolnej-polski.

  19. 19.

    ‘Waszczykowski dla "wSieci" o stosunkach polsko-ukraińskich: Nasz przekaz jest bardzo jasny: z Banderą do Europy nie wejdziecie’, wPolityce.pl, 3/07/2017. https://wpolityce.pl/polityka/347083-waszczykowski-dla-wsieci-o-stosunkach-polsko-ukrainskich-nasz-przekaz-jest-bardzo-jasny-z-bandera-do-europy-nie-wejdziecie.

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Acknowledgements

David Cadier has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant No. 769886.

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Cadier, D., Szulecki, K. Populism, historical discourse and foreign policy: the case of Poland’s Law and Justice government. Int Polit (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41311-020-00252-6

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Keywords

  • Populism
  • Foreign policy
  • Memory
  • Poland
  • Germany
  • Ukraine