The main square of Krakow, Poland (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Ask any Pole about the Round Table and what you’ll hear, instead of the story of King Arthur, is one about the dozens of intellectuals and politicians—some Communist, some not—who met in Warsaw over the course of two months in 1989. Gathered around a massive (and memorably photographed) oak table, dissidents from the legendary Solidarity movement and their former jailers, the leadership of Poland’s Communist Party, hashed out a series of deals that set Central and Eastern Europe down the path of the peaceful revolution that delivered the region from Communism. 

Yet today, Poles are split over the legacy of the Round Table. Invoking it may elicit whispers of respect for the founding fathers of Poland’s Third Republic, or generate expletive-filled tirades about the “traitors” responsible for the “fifth partition of Poland.” (The first three came in the late 1700s at the hands of Austria, Prussia, and Russia; the fourth refers to the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement of 1939 between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich.)

When Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the Round Table negotiator and later prime minister who shepherded Poland from Communism to liberal democracy, died in the fall of 2013, right-wing extremists wasted little time in reminding Poles of his reputed “Jewish” roots. As it happened, Mazowiecki was a Roman Catholic scion of the Polish gentry—not simply Catholic, but in fact one of the leading intellectuals of twentieth-century Polish Catholicism: friend to Pope John Paul II and longtime editor of one of the few religiously inspired journals (a monthly named Więź, or Bond) that flourished behind the Iron Curtain.

Whether or not Mazowiecki had a Jewish background is entirely beside the point. The impulse to impute Jewish heritage as a way of tarnishing a public figure’s image—resurrected from the 1930s, before the ovens of Auschwitz burned in Nazi-occupied Poland—has, since 1989, often targeted twentieth-century Poland’s counterparts to James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Many of the founding fathers of the Third Republic (dated from December 1989, when the country dropped the abused Communist term “people’s” from its name) had also been cofounders of Solidarity. In the 1980s, the movement had evolved from Communist Europe’s only independent labor union into a ready-made political opposition; along the way, its leadership endured jail and internment during a period of martial law from 1981 to 1983.

By 1989, having brought Poland to the brink of economic collapse, Communist leaders were looking for someone to share the blame for whatever might go wrong next. The choices were obvious: Mazowiecki, Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa, and others who had been willing to negotiate with the Communist regime in 1980 in order to create the independent trade union in the first place. Instead of finding themselves elevated to a hallowed pantheon, like the American federalists or the French lumières, these pioneering dissidents suffered a last revenge of the Communist system. In the historical memory of post-Communist Poland, they have come to be seen as traitors or, at best, as men who merely followed the unromantic path of compromise in the interest of the public good. “Compromise” can seem like a dirty word from a twenty-first-century Polish vantage point. But as early as the 1960s, Mazowiecki, one of Poland’s leading Catholic social thinkers, would put it differently: “No living social phenomenon, no meaningful intellectual current, can persist in isolation.” His watchword was already “dialogue.” In the 1980s, given the opportunity to remake the Polish social order in that spirit, he could not refuse.


Poland now finds itself celebrating the centennial of its statehood: reborn in 1918 and 1919 out of the catastrophe of the First World War, glued back together from three eighteenth-century partitions.

Still, from today’s perspective, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mazowiecki—certainly with respect to his own legacy—made the wrong choice. Poland now finds itself celebrating the centennial of its statehood: reborn in 1918 and 1919 out of the catastrophe of the First World War, glued back together from three eighteenth-century partitions. Yet who spearheads these celebrations, and who actually participates in them? The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) controls both Poland’s presidency and its parliament. But instead of pursuing a bold agenda of its own, it uses a blueprint imported from abroad. Following the lead of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, PiS has dismantled the independent judiciary, assaulted freedom of the press, and replaced trained professionals throughout the apparatus of the Polish state with lackeys entirely unsuited to the task.

Even more troubling, the celebration of the centennial is open only to some Poles, while others—“Poles of the worst sort,” in the immortal phrase of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński—are deemed ineligible to share in it. This exclusionary paradigm has also proven convenient for explaining away the various blemishes of contemporary Polish history, from autocracy to ethnic cleansing and pogroms. The wartime killing of Polish Jews by their Catholic neighbors, exposed by Princeton historian Jan T. Gross in his groundbreaking 2001 study Neighbors, is by now well known. The pogroms continued even after the Holocaust itself was over. Hundreds of Holocaust survivors returned to Poland after World War II only to be murdered there.

Two decades later, in 1968, Polish Jews once again found themselves targeted by purges and persecution, launched this time by Communists. And yet, on the fiftieth anniversary of these events, one Polish historian (currently a PiS senator) blamed “foreign” elements for the purges of ’68. It would hardly be a stretch to conclude that he was blaming the Jews themselves (via Moscow), in the spirit of the “Judeo-Bolshevik myth” Paul Hanebrink writes about in his new book, A Specter Haunting Europe (see James J. Sheehan’s review, “From Trotsky to Soros,” March 8).

The same Polish historian also played a prominent role in a campaign launched in 2015 by the newly elected PiS government against the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk. The museum took a decade to come to fruition, benefiting from the efforts of a cross-section of Poland’s greatest humanistic and curatorial talent, led by eminent historian Paweł Machcewicz. Among its goals was not only to document Poland’s decisive place in global affairs, but—above all—to spotlight how dramatically civilian suffering eclipsed military heroism in a global conflagration marked by mass violence and genocide on an unprecedented scale. The museum would also bestow recognition on its host city. Of shared German-Polish heritage before World War II, Gdańsk is where war broke out on September 1, 1939. Four decades later, this same city played host to the birth of Solidarity. Yet a now-infamous critique prepared in 2016 for the PiS-controlled Ministry of Culture derided the museum’s founding curators for seeking to impart lessons that transcend the Polish experience: “The collective focus is the evil of war and its consequences. This lesson, due to the trains of thought that it sublimates, proves to be so general as to be infantile.”

For a city synonymous with Solidarity, such a critique is anything but neutral. When PiS tried to remove the leadership of the museum after taking over the reins of national government, Mayor Paweł Adamowicz threatened legal action. Gdańsk had provided the land for the museum, and so the city was able to hold the Ministry of Culture at bay long enough for the museum to open in its originally intended form. But then, in January of this year, Adamowicz was assassinated—stabbed onstage at a charity event by an ex-con who declared that he was killing the mayor in order to avenge injustices experienced at the hands of PiS’s political opponent, the Civic Platform.

There’s also the ongoing controversy over the European Solidarity Center, also in Gdańsk, and also long championed by Adamowicz. In the months since his assassination, it has found itself in the Culture Ministry’s crosshairs, its state support at risk unless the advisory board surrenders control over a decisive portion of executive appointments (a solution since rejected by both the Center and the city of Gdańsk). The worry here extends beyond the politicization of an apolitical institution. Rather, the ministry’s terms represent an attempt to co-opt a national institution intended to unite Poles in shared remembrance of their past and, instead, to pit them against one another. The PiS government has taken advantage of Adamowicz’s death to press attacks on the institutions he once protected, calling into question what remains of the “solidarity” of the 1980s.

The word “solidarity” is no mere slogan here. Just as Mazowiecki has been slandered in death for cofounding the union and then creating a government on its behalf in 1989, so has the effort to recognize Gdańsk as an important European crossroads been demonized. Political scientist David Ost has written movingly of the “defeat of Solidarity” in post-Communist Poland, yet what we see in 2019 takes us beyond the story of post-Communist countries’ neglect of their industrial and agricultural laborers. As the largest nation of post-Communist Europe celebrates the centenary of the restoration of its national sovereignty, Poland is failing to rise to the challenge of preserving the values forged in its struggles against the Third Reich and the Soviet Union.

Published in the April 12, 2019 issue: View Contents

Piotr H. Kosicki is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland and a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. His latest book (with Kyrill Kunakhovich) is The Long 1989: Decades of Global Revolution (2019).

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