Piotr Zaremba

Polish historian, writer and political journalist. Author of many publications including Armed democracy. Theodore Roosevelt and his America and Democracy at war. Woodrow Wilson and his America

The duty of “fighting” is a paradigm equal to independence in Lech Kaczynski’s legacy. Interesting how much Poles “bought it” and how that encouraged them to the insurgent sentiments. On the occasion of recollecting the success of the Warsaw Uprising Museum, one anecdote comes up. At the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Uprising... - writes Piotr Zaremba


The duty of “fighting” is a paradigm equal to independence in Lech Kaczynski’s legacy. Interesting how much Poles “bought it” and how that encouraged them to the insurgent sentiments.

On the occasion of recollecting the success of the Warsaw Uprising Museum, one anecdote comes up. At the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Uprising, the former mayor of Warsaw and politician of Civic Platform, Paweł Piskorski, was supposed to say to his party colleague, Wojciech Kozak: "Why didn’t we build it?"

They could not, because the formed in the early nineties circles of the Gdańsk and Warsaw liberals was centered around other slogans, and towards the past had   despite the Solidarity roots of most of these people -  an ambivalent, or even a mocking attitude. The political right side was different.

History constituted him

But this is not enough, because traditional right-wing circles “did not do it either”. Indeed,  the Christian-democratic government of the AWS (1997-2001) has established a very important institutional change in Poland: the formation of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). It is difficult to overestimate the importance of IPN for what we call politics of memory. . However, none of the leaders of this political formation moved forward the smoldering form the early nineties issue of constructing this very museum It was Lech Kaczyński who did it in 2004 (15 years after first partly free parliamentary elections in 1989) as a Mayor of Warsaw. It was a man who in the politics of that time was walking his own way.

On one hand, in the face of many contemporary dilemmas, Kaczyński was closer to the center than “a fighting right”, but he certainly was much more than many expressive rightists convinced of the role of history in creating or strengthening the national community. They, in fact, praised the attitude “let’s choose the future”. He never did.

But there was something else. Something else, which emerges from the memories of his co-workers and friends. Finally, from the memory of the author of this text. For him, history was not just an instrument, a material, a weapon. It was something he really lived. From what he grew out of, he was soaked with. What made him relax, what he enjoyed.

As Elżbieta Jakubiak, who worked for the president since 2002, when he became the Warsaw mayor, recalls: “I understood his approach to this subject when I saw him and listened to him during his visit to Israel in February 2004 There he presented his whole theory of historical policy, its significance for the nation and the state, although I do not remember whether he used that notion, those days not so obvious as it is today. And he did it, referring to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 and its significance for the Jewish nation,  and the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. He even used a later fashionable concept: “Warsaw – the city of two  Uprisings”.

A suggestive picture emerges from her recollections: a Polish politician sharing his history knowledge with precise dates and facts, the names of armed organizations, addressing the Jewish veterans sitting in front of him by their names. True hothead.

One could have the same impression while reading his fascinating historical debates (and sometimes  bantering) with professor Andrzej Nowak. At the same time, always a deeper thought emerged from this “show of erudition”.  Love for his own nation and sympathy for the rights of other nations. Seeking various conclusions, morals in history. But also a wider harmony, downright ethical. Sense.

Community hollowed

This was very much in spite of everything that was happening in Poland. The nineties brought a dramatic collapse here - its element was both a relatively fast triumph of the forces of the old order, which quite recently would form an antinational system, as well as the escape of new elites and a broadly understood world of pop culture from their own tradition. The manifestations of “veteranship” and “martyrology” were tracked and reproached both by serious “Gazeta Wyborcza” journalists, as well as radio DJs.

I associate this era with a TV Polsat show, from somewhere near the end of the first decade of the Third Republic of Poland (which started in 1989) during which Jolanta Kwaśniewska (the wife of the post- communist President of Poland 1995-2005), Marek Siwiec (a post-communist activist, a minister in President Kwasniewski’s presidential office), but also a Solidarity veteran (however, with a problematic  security clearance) Lech Falandysz were gathered. The climax of their chat was a joint parody of partisan chants from the time of the last war.

The commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising in 1994? They were organized, true, but most of us do not remember anything from these celebrations. What we do remember, however,  is not only the futile pushing for building the museum,  but also a publication of Michał Cichy from “Gazeta Wyborcza” (at that time a main opinion-making newspaper), who used this50th anniversary to tell stories about killing the Jews by the insurgents.

Regardless the question about the representativeness and reliability of these stories, the deconstructive character of this publication is striking. At that time the insurgents constituted a force. They had the right to expect that the free Poland will appreciate and honor them. Instead of being honored them, they got something else. For them and for the rest of the Poles it was a great lesson of nihilism.

Elbieta Jakubiak doubts whether in 2004 Lech Kaczyński spoke about "historical politics". It is possible that he did not wave around with this concept. But it was not only known back then, but already covered with “battle dust”. In the battle, in which the forces were dramatically unequal. After SLD (the post-communists, since 1989  - social democrats) regained power in 2001, “Tygodnik Powszechny” (a liberal weekly) invited  Magdalena Środa (an ultra-leftist, the key feminist figure in Poland) to judge on its pages a relatively modest action of photographing old  patriots - this program, called “The Patriotism of tomorrow” was made under the patronage of  the right-wing minister of culture, Kazimierz Ujazdowski, assisted  by the group of  the creators of the Museum. Professor Środa associated the concept of historical policy alone with totalitarianism, fascism. The opinion was shared by the “Nie” magazine (an obscene weekly), led by Jerzy Urban (the former spokesman of Communist government during the martial law in Poland in 1981-83) as well as the subtle critic of visual arts, Andrzej Osęka from “Gazeta Wyborcza”. There is nothing more to say.

The elites were scowling and shaking their heads. Kaczyński, however, treated this museum as a great task to accomplish, not for old museum experts, but for young and inventive ones, who earlier participated in operations like “The Patriotism of Tomorrow”. It was created in 13 months, it turned out to be modern, in the style of western "interactive" institutions of this type. But perhaps even more important than the exhibition itself was the quite unique atmosphere of a great social mobilization. 

Thousands of people were driven towards the museum. Some brought family memorabilia and stories, others wanted to help as volunteers. This is how the real historical policy should be built. This is how you incite pride from your own past. By collecting thousands of stories  from fractions of memory. This is how a community is built.

A new Polish tradition

Jan Ołdakowski, the director of this quickly-built museum, in turn, mentions his horror, when the mayor of Warsaw added him one more challenge to all the other ones: organizing the most possibly colorful and interesting commemorations that were to become a model, a leaven of a tradition for the upcoming years.

And again, it is worth referring to personal memories. In 2003 I published, together with Michał Karnowski, a book, entitled the “Alphabet of Rokita”.  Rokita, the former leader of the conservative PO wing, the hero of the Rywin’s case commission of inquiry, among his numerous diagnoses and observations, complained about the lack of culture commemorating our historical anniversaries. He contrasted, for example, the bit “sleepy” official ritual in front of the Grave of the Unknown Soldier with the ingenuity and energy of the American parades or reconstruction events.

Celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising in 2004, later on enriched with subsequent elements, were a breakthrough in this respect. After that  nothing was the same anymore. Before that, the tradition of vehicles stopping in the streets of Warsaw on August 1 at 5 p.m. when the sound of the alarm siren reminded the hour of the Uprising outbreak, started to vanish.  Kaczyński’s predecessor, mayor Piskorski, already allowed the public transport not to stop at that time.

And after 2004 not only everyone in Warsaw stopped and got up, some gathered at the Dmowski’s roundabout, but a similar tradition started to appear in other cities, often remote ones  - not only geographically but also socially. Numerous accompanying events, such as singing of insurrection songs on Piłsudski’s Square, also need to be mentioned. The capital started to regain its soul, and the whole country along with it.

Everything has changed. It is difficult to present in one journalistic text all the consequences of the appearance and subsequent expansion of the historical policy initiated by establishment of  Museum of the Warsaw Uprising and commemoration of the Uprising’s 50th anniversary. Adam Michnik had allegedly denied ever visiting the museum, explaining briefly: "They (i.e. the Kaczyński brothers) started it all". If this story is not apocryphal, Michnik was most probably referring to the shift in political sentiments. The loss of the reign of souls , the increase of importance of the political right .

But the consequences were manifold. Soon, the historical community started to be formed, a little bit exceeding the political and ideological divisions. A great spurt of patriotic events and history-aimed  books, films, even comics, started from a characteristic red brick building at the Warsaw Wola district. A building that became the center of hundreds of ventures. Which after many years did not cease to live and shine. This phenomenon is well illustrated by the evolution of the position of “Gazeta Wyborcza” itself. For a very long time the war with the museum was accepted there. They fought with typical arguments from old discussions about the sense of inducing  the Uprising. “I do not want such a goddamn myth if 200,000 people died”, - the expert  on this matter, Jarosław Kurski,  thundered (despite numerous interviews with Jan Nowak Jeziorański, he did not understand anything from a wise attitude of the courier from London to this event). The museum was accused of spreading fiction, depicting the Uprising as the victory of Poles , and ignoring the sufferings of the civilian population.  In this debate, immediacy was extremely important. The PIS project and Lech Kaczyński as its patron were attacked.

Meanwhile, people were voting “with their feet”. They did not want to hear that the participation in reconstructions of the Uprising  strengthened harmful myths of fighting till the end, and according to  “Krytyka Polityczna” magazine, it works in favor of militarism and machoism. And over time, the opponents had to let go.

In the recent years, “Wyborcza” daily rather makes money on insurgent songbooks, and the “Agora’ editorial house even on a great film, made of insurgent chronicles, than maintains the former dispute.  Since new fronts have developed. Today, “Wyborcza” ‘defends’ supposedly underestimated insurgents from the cursed soldiers, who allegedly are obscuring them. It illustrates the large instrumentalism of that debate. At the same time, however, Lech Kaczyński as a man who moved Poland to new, meta-political tracks, was not apologized to by those people, indeed, or even appreciated. And because of his death in 2010, he could not see his great victory.


A story of independence.

Of course, new phenomena appeared which he cannot see as well. For instance, the offensive of the revisionists, from different backgrounds, also the right-wing ones. They are no longer conducting a serious debate about the sense of the outbreak of the Uprising, in which such figures as Wiesław Chrzanowski, Jan Ciechanowski and Stefan Kisielewski were involved. They insist to disgust the successive anniversaries for the insurgents with such viciousness as Radosław Sikorski. Or poke them with scandalous books like "Madness". To issue arbitrary judgments from cozy armchairs, with a cup of hot coffee in their hands, about dramatic decisions, from the times when there were no good solutions. Certainly Kaczyński, also an insurgent’s son, would feel pain.

It must be said that he did not push himself into the forefront of the debate, he did not try to dominate it. As a man of action, he made sure that everything was done, almost burning out because of it.  I remember our conversation about Museum in the office of the Warsaw mayor.  Nervously puffing a cigarette, he was analyzing the technical details of the venture. That is how he was.

But when he spoke, he was a supporter of the thesis that the Uprising was inevitable, and its meaning could be understood only years later, in the context of later fate of  Poland. He considered - this is what connects us very much - that it was the sum of Polish resistance movement what influenced the after-war-Poland. For example, the relative gentleness of Polish communism.

Surely he must have had more than one discussion on this subject - also with himself, he carried out not one calculation, not once and not twice weighed the reasons. He was a man, who tackled history just like modern problems. For him, for example, the great debate between Roman Dmowski and Józef Piłsudski was still very actual. Not to mention debates and dilemmas of the Solidarity movement, which he always recreated in a very objective way, taking into account all the nuances and complications. I do not think he would deny this to the heroes of the last war.

At the same time, he was deeply attached to the insurrectionary attitude, to the "Polish duty", which they, together with his brother began to fulfill in 1968 – by attending anti-regime students demonstrations and then in the mid-seventies, by joining the anti-communist opposition. The insurgent’s attitude, the duty “to fight”  was for him a paradigm,  synonymous with the Independence. And an important factor conditioning the contemporary behavior and community choices. He mentioned this in his speech of July 31, 2004, which preceded the opening of the Museum.

It contained very politically incorrect thoughts. I wonder how many of them have the listeners accepted as far-reaching conclusions. After all, this politician encouraged them effectively to insurgent sentiments.

 “The Independence is not only a legal and factual state referring to the state and the nation. It

 is also the realistic shape of this nation and its consciousness. Everything,  that legitimizes the continuity of the state, which continues it as a moral quality, but also - and this is especially important in today's world - what others know about the nation and state, that is, shortly speaking, how the Poles and their history are perceived by other nations. At this point, it is impossible not to ask the question: why so late? It is obvious why the Communists did not want to build this Museum. The Uprising was directed at their principals, and therefore against them (...)

Why, however, are we opening this museum on the 60th anniversary, and  not the 50thanniversary of the uprising? The answer to this question coincides with the answer to another question, about the meaning of the concept of an act of independence. The special character of 1989 and the subsequent years meant that in our lives there are still powerful forces for which the Polish independence, present in Polish hearts and minds, is not a value but a threat. Forces for which it is better to slander the Uprising than to fight for its reminding to the world, for reminding the facts,  obvious for all of us, but unknown for other nations or, even worse, completely falsified.

These words sounded so strongly, warningly. . As much as a reminder of the German crimes, made in the presence of the Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. And at the same time...

And at the same time, Lech Kaczynski’s insurrectionary perspective overlapped with his romantic attitude under the title "for our freedom and yours" - with this thought he rushed to save Georgia in 2008. And with his undoubted democracy, also social - he understood, with all his sentiments to Piłsudski that the post-war Poland, built by insurgents, would be a different Poland from the Second Republic, more just. Also for the dislike of nationalism.

It also overlapped with his desire to reconcile with other nations: the Ukrainians or the Czechs, to whom he apologized for the annexation of Zaolzie. It is no coincidence that while visiting Israel, he fondly recalled the times when Polish was spoken in the Knesset . Additionally  the creation of the Museum of the Polish Jews was another of his important priorities.

One can discuss how much is left of Lech Kaczyński’s spirit in the contemporary Polish right wing. I strongly believe that just as his spirit won in the today generally accepted and binding the Polish commonwealth myth of the Warsaw Uprising, the other elements of his thoughts, his spiritual testament, will one day become an undisputed confession of the vast majority of Poles.

Translated by: Karolina Linda-Potocka

Source: Sieci weekly https://www.wsieciprawdy.pl/