Politics of memory

How PiS re-interprets Polish history

Context 2016-07-19
PiS will try to change the dominant narrative on the subjects such as Jedwabne, the cursed soldiers and Solidarność.

18 July 2016

It is Jarosław Szarek, who holds a PhD in history from Kraków's Jagiellonian University and works in the Institute's branch there. His candidacy was recommended yesterday to the Sejm by the IPN college. According to the college deputy head, Sławomir Cienckiewicz, the selection was unanimous, and Szarek convinced the college with his criticism of the current IPN management. During yesterday's hearing of the candidates he added that the words "memory" and "nation" were recently treated as burden and it should not be taking place. Read more on PiS's politics of memory in our analysis.



18 February 2016

EVENT: According to a statement by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) a personnel and work files of a secret cooperator pseudonym „Bolek” of the Security Service (SB) was found in former communist MinWew, general Czesław Kiszczak’s house.  Amongst the documents from the 1970-76 period there was a handwritten obligation of cooperation signed Lech Wałęsa „Bolek” and a signed receipt and notes from meetings with a SB officers. According to head of IPN Łukasz Kamiński, expert analysis have authenticated the documents.

Key Points

Re-examination of Jedwabne. PiS declares that it wants to do away with a "pedagogy of shame," as it calls the remembrance of the crimes committed by Poles against Jews. Both the most famous examples - the burning of approx. 300 people in a barn in Jedwabne in 1941, and the Kielce pogrom in 1946 – according to PiS require re-examination. The ruling party's politicians, including MinEdu Anna Zalewska, do not want to admit that Poles were the perpetrators of the murders – the role of the Germans is being emphasised (Jedwabne), as well as that of the communist authorities (Kielce). PiS focuses on the Polish merits (The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews has recently been opened in Markowa). At the same time, the ruling party cares about the Polish-Jewish relations at the official level - anti-Semitism was condemned by both Jarosław Kaczyński and Andrzej Duda.

Commemoration of the cursed soldiers. The Warsaw Uprising triggers opposing sentiments within the right wing circles - Sławomir Cenckiewicz of the Institute of National Remembrance college (IPN) criticises it, and deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński accused the surviving insurgents of being "under the ideological supervision of one political option". PiS more willingly highlights the achievements of the so-called cursed soldiers rather than the National Army's (AK). The cursed soldiers were the post-war partisans opposing Poland's sovietisation – the president has recently called them "a role model for young people" and "the foundation of a strong, independent Poland". PiS accuses the previous government of blurring the memory of the cursed soldiers and criticises historians accusing the anti-communist underground of anti-Semitism and the murders of Jews, Belarusians and Poles.

The takeover of the memory of "Solidarność". PiS is trying to change the perception of "Solidarność" and especially to destroy the legend of Lech Wałęsa, highlighting the fact of his several-year long cooperation with the communist secret services (SB) in the 1970s. In order to create a counterweight to Wałęsa, PiS exposes the role of rank and file activists, and from among the leaders, in the foreground are Wałęsa's opponents within the "Solidarność": Anna Walentynowicz and Andrzej Gwiazda, who co-created the first Free Trade Unions and criticised the 1989 Roundtable talks. PiS also emphasises the merits of Lech Kaczyński as an important activist and later the deputy head of "Solidarność", while depreciating the role of Henryka Krzywonos, now PO MP.

To settle accounts with post-communists. The right wing believes that the liberal-left wing of "Solidarność" betrayed the ideals of the opposition, coming to an agreement with the communists in 1898. This informal deal was meant to ensure the inviolability of the nomenclature, maintenance of its property and influence after 1989, while the opposition members cooperating with it would be allowed to become rich and obliterate their own collaboration with the regime. According to PiS, after the fall of communism in Poland, there were only two periods of freedom: the first half of 1992, when Jan Olszewski was prime minister, and the rule of PiS in 2005-2007. This was the reason why the last year's double victory of PiS was treated not so much an electoral triumph but as Poland's regained sovereignty. At the same time, the right wing ignores the fact that both Kaczyński brothers participated in the Roundtable talks.

To explain the Smolensk crash. The PiS politicians rarely use the word "assassination" with regard to the death of Lech Kaczyński. The crash victims are however called "killed in action", there is talk about explosions on board the presidential airplane and of Donald Tusk's "moral responsibility" for the crash. According to the ruling party’s dominating narrative, the tragedy has not been explained because the PO-PSL government handed over the investigation to the Russians. For this reason, a new team for the explanation of the crash has been appointed at the Prosecutor's Office, MinDef Antoni Macierewicz has also established a sub-committee on the matter. MinEdu Zalewska has already announced that the Smolensk crash will become part of the new core curriculum for schools. PiS also wants the victims to be mentioned in the form of a roll of honour on the occasions of major celebrations.


Politics of memory is one of the key areas of the PiS government's activities. While in the years 2005-2007, it was limited to sharp speeches and symbolic gestures, currently, the ruling party reaches for holistic tools: changing the tasks and powers of the IPN, opening up and developing new museums, announcing competitions for historical productions, and changing the educational curriculum. Revision of history is expected to, on the one hand, shape a new, more conservative and patriotic generation of Poles, on the other – to legitimise the current political activities. For example, the thesis that Poland had so far not been sovereign and had been based on the post-communists' alliance with the part of the former opposition, is used to justify the changing of the constitution and to create the image of a "patriotic" PiS in opposition to the "post-communist" PO and the left.

Juliusz Skibicki, Wojciech Szacki contributed to this analysis.

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Joanna Sawicka
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