Culture As A Cudgel


When the Law and Justice Party (PiS) gained complete control of the major branches of the Polish government in the October 2015 parliamentary elections, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Its platform and the public statements of party leaders including President Andrzej Duda extol the virtues of “national community,” a phrase that some believe is a code word for the kind of “blood and soil” nationalism that characterizes ultraconservative governments, a queasy mix of mystical, irredentist and racialist ideology.

Duda has made the right noises in public, praising the heritage of Polish Jews and offering unstinting support for Israel. He has waffled on immigration, accusing newcomers to Poland of causing “epidemics,” while expressing sympathy for the beleaguered Syrian refugees. Unfortunately, the Sejm, the Polish parliament, is less concerned with the niceties of public relations and has provided Duda with excuses for the sharp curtailing of checks and balances in the nation’s government, undercutting the judiciary, seizing control of the media and, most recently, trying to rewrite the history of the Shoah.

In December the other shoe dropped.

Early in the month, Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska, director of the Polish Cultural Institute in Berlin, was told one morning to have her desk cleaned out by the end of the day. Although her contract would expire this summer, the Warsaw government decided to sack her without warning. The Berlin newspaper Taz reported that the cause of her firing was that she programmed too much Jewish content. The Polish embassy denied the charge but internal memoranda, including a scathing evaluation of her work by embassy officials, suggests otherwise.

Taz obtained a memo in which Andrzej Przylebski, the Polish ambassador, criticized her for promoting a “culture of shame” regarding the Shoah and for insufficient attention to Polish self-respect. He also took a potshot at Polish artists who he called “blind imitators of nihilistic and hedonistic trends.”

Undoubtedly the turning point for the embattled Wielga-Skolimowska came when she was told to arrange screenings of a new Polish film, “Smolensk.” Many of those who have viewed the film have said it is little more than a propaganda piece that argues that the 2010 plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and other high-ranking members of the conservative political leadership was nothing less than the work of the Russian government. Berlin critics who saw the film were virtually unanimous in dismissing it as a very bad movie.

Not surprisingly, Wielga-Skolimowska was unable to find a Berlin theater willing to show the film. She opted to replace with Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” a brilliant film about a young Polish nun who discovers she is Jewish in the early 1960s.

One could argue that it was a deliberately provocative choice by the curator. The PiS has been ill-disposed towards the film, despite its glowing reviews, multiple awards and deeply negative view of the old Communist leadership. At any rate, it was a decision that probably helped grease the rails under Wielga-Skolimowska.

At first glance, then, you could make the case that her dismissal was little more than punishment for her attitude.

However, Wielga-Skolmowska is neither the first nor last director of a Polish Cultural Institute to be fired by the government. As of this writing, 14 of the 24 directors have been fired in the past year. In Vienna the Institute was forced to break off its relationship with a local journalist whose articles criticized PiS. The head of the Madrid office, on the other hand, was dismissed for not programming enough Chopin.

What’s going on here?

Duda is clearly on the same page as Victor Orban, the Hungarian leader, and other ultra-nationalists on the rise across Europe, from Vladimir Putin to Marine Le Pen. Some might lump in Bibi Netanyahu on the strength of his empowering of Culture Minister Miri Regev and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett. And some of Donald Trump’s pronouncements and his attacks on the mainstream press may land him in this category as well.

Regardless of how one characterizes these people, you can argue that in their view culture exists at least in part as a blunt instrument to be used to promote a very narrow political agenda, embracing a troubling version of nationhood.

But there are certain key elements necessary to a democratic society that are anathema to all of these political formations: the existence of a civil society whose institutions are independent and watchful of the government; a free press; protection of minorities, whether racial, ethnic, sexual, religious or, perhaps most important, political. Each of these governing groups and individuals has shown a considerable disregard for independent media, NGOs and the whole range of minorities.

Free elections are nice. They are a significant element in a democracy. But without the other elements, as inconvenient as they may be for people in power, what you have is Putin’s Russia or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. 

George Robinson writes about film and music for the paper.