Poland's President Andrzej Duda JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Poland’s Child-Like State

The Polish government's wholesale refusal to admit any guilt or own up to mistakes speaks to a deep-seated immaturity. Recently, when the US secretary of state called President Andrzej Duda to oppose the government's controversial historical memory law, Duda wouldn't answer the phone, essentially sticking his fingers in his ears.

WARSAW – According to recent reports, the US Department of State warned Poland’s foreign ministry that it would suspend high-level meetings if the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party enacted a new law making it illegal to insinuate Polish culpability in crimes committed by the Nazis. The PiS government enacted the law anyway.

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Shortly before signing the legislation, Polish President Andrzej Duda refused even to take a call from then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Seventy-two years after Winston Churchill declared that an “iron curtain” was descending across Eastern Europe, a new sort of border is being erected – a curtain of shame.

Whereas Western European countries are mature enough to handle and even learn from past sins – including those committed by the Nazis – Eastern Europe apparently is not. As the Russian intellectual historian Nikolay Koposov recently observed, the “memory laws” being enacted there “differ fundamentally from memory laws in Western Europe, because they actively protect the memory of the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of state-sponsored crimes.”

The PiS’s politicization of history is similar to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose regime has taken to glorifying medieval autocrats such as Ivan the Terrible. But Poland was supposed to be different. Russia’s authoritarianism and political culture are rooted in its imperial past. By contrast, when Poland was liberated from the Soviet version of the Russian imperial yoke, it was seemingly eager to put as much cultural distance between itself and Russia as possible. That meant embracing liberal democracy and the rule of law, and joining the West and its institutions – namely, NATO and the European Union – as quickly as possible.

In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe did seem to be integrating itself into Western political culture. Part of that process involved resurfacing elements of national history that had been obfuscated or repressed under communism. It is not surprising that the Soviets denied for decades that Stalin ordered the Katyn massacre of tens of thousands of Polish officers in 1940. But it is surprising that a Polish government a half-century later would be no less evasive about the past.

Since 1989, historians have documented the facts about Polish society during World War II. As Yale University’s Timothy Snyder has pointed out , “Poles behaved more or less like other people under similar circumstances.” That is hardly an indictment of the Polish people as a whole, so one can only wonder why today’s Poles feel so ashamed that they would support criminalizing certain utterances about this period.

Similarly, one wonders why so many Poles refuse to accept responsibility for the 2010 death of then-President Lech Kaczyński in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia. Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jarosław, who is now the PiS leader and Poland’s de facto ruler, continues to weave conspiracy theories about the incident, even though an official investigation concluded that the crash, which killed all 96 people aboard, was caused by mistakes on the part of the pilots and air traffic controllers.

The PiS’s wholesale refusal to admit any guilt or own up to mistakes speaks to a deep-seated immaturity. After all, only small children would insist that, “It wasn’t me, it was him,” even in the face of irrefutable evidence. When Poland’s most important ally called, Duda essentially stuck his fingers in his ears.

The PiS leadership is also child-like in its ruthlessness toward those whom it perceives as weak – namely, refugees – or guilty. For example, the PiS vilifies Ukrainians for the role played by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in the 1943 ethnic cleansing of Nazi-occupied Volhynia.

As the pioneering child psychologist Jean Piaget showed, children in the early stages of development go through a phase of egocentrism: they naturally focus on their own needs, and they don’t think about the rules. A child might snatch another child’s toy, break it, and then deny having done so. Rather than admit to breaking the rules, they lie to reconcile the inconsistency. To the child’s mind, he is not in the wrong; the world is simply misinformed. And because the child believes that everyone operates under his particular definitions of right and wrong, he cannot comprehend that someone else might see things differently.

Maturity comes only when a child starts to understand that rules and norms are not just something arbitrarily imposed by adults, but rather reflections of a shared moral understanding. The child comes to realize that a deed is good not because it goes unpunished, but because it is good in itself, and facilitates cooperation with others.

Joanna Tokarska-Bakir of the Polish Academy of Sciences goes even further: “In a psychoanalytical sense, [PiS] policies – running away from shame and responsibility – are dragging us back into childhood, even into the womb, in which the child is indistinguishably entwined with its host – the nation.” She notes that children are “uncritical and innocent,” and that “shame only comes with socialization.” A national “pedagogy of pride,” on the other hand, “amounts to reversing socialization back to a fetal state.” The result is the “sinless nation” envisioned by the PiS.

The PiS is infantilizing Poland through its infatuation with authority, rejection of cooperation, denial of guilt, and refusal to countenance heterodox ideas and those who think them. To be sure, no person or party represents all of Polish society. And the similarity between the PiS’s behavior and that of small children may be just a coincidence. But that makes it no less striking.

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