In Poland, ‘alternative facts’ provide a new national narrative

Jaroslaw Kaczynski endorses ideological view that the real world is ‘very brutal’

That these are changing times for Europe and Poland was clear this week as I gazed out the window of the Berlin-Warsaw express.

On Tuesday, Warsaw's national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government, traditionally not Berlin's best friend, gave a conspicuously warm welcome to chancellor Angela Merkel.

The reason appeared obvious as my train trundled across the river Oder into Poland: a German military build-up on the border.

The shock lifted when I realised the Bundeswehr army vehicles were not heading into but out of the country after assisting with the recent Nato rollout across Poland and the Baltics.


Alliances are changing, loyalties shifting, and Warsaw’s welcome to Merkel and Taoiseach Enda Kenny this week suggests that PiS and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, see a strategic benefit in constructive engagement with its EU partners.

But how far will Warsaw go? Kaczynski is already at work using the absolute majority his party scored in 2015 as a mandate for a conservative counter-revolution.

The state prosecutor, public media and the constitutional court are now all on-message.

Poland’s ruling party could give Kellyanne Conway alternative fact lessons on pushing a new national narrative.

For PiS, Poland begins, not in the shipyards of Gdansk in 1980, but in the tragic Smolensk air crash 30 years later, which claimed the lives of dozens of leading Polish politicians and officials.

Two inquiries have found the crash was caused by a tragic combination of bad weather and bad judgment. But Kaczynski, who lost his twin brother Lech, then president, in the crash, sees in Smolensk a murder conspiracy involving artificial fog and bombs.

If Kaczynski believes this, then everyone in PiS, the party he cofounded and dominates like no other, believes it too.

To confirm the bomb theory, bodies of Smolensk victims were exhumed last year.

There is no news yet on any traces of explosives, but that is immaterial: in Poland’s post-factual age, Smolensk is supposed to supplant Solidarity and its negotiated transition to democracy.

Walesa nemesis

Few in Poland would say the 1989 choice of evolution over revolution was perfect. But Kaczynski claims the transition under his nemesis, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, allowed a subsequent carve-up of power and wealth between Polish communists and liberals.

The PiS leader promises to rebaptise democratic Poland and cleanse it of the 1989 original sin.

But what happens when his far-reaching counter-revolution comes into conflict with realpolitik? It was clear this week that prime minister Beata Szydlo and other PiS moderates were distancing themselves from the party’s traditional anti-German, anti-EU rhetoric.

But these old favourites will be whipped out again whenever Kaczynski and his PiS hardliners – Poland’s real political force – see domestic political gain in doing so.

While Szydlo took a constructive approach with her German visitor this week, her boss dismissed Merkel’s hopes for refugee burden-sharing as “un-Polish” and backed Donald Trump’s view of the EU as a “vehicle for Germany”.

The prime minister's attempts to push a constructive, post-Brexit EU reform dialogue are secondary to the PiS vendetta against ex-prime minister Donald Tusk, now president of the European Council in Brussels.

In the rest of the EU, Tusk is the man who kept Poland – alone in the EU – out of recession in the financial crisis. In Poland, he is portrayed by PiS as their “lying Hillary” who “ruined” the country.

PiS is struggling to explain how Germany, which it recently charged was building a new “axis” to Russia, is now Warsaw’s staunchest ally against Vladimir Putin.

And why is Trump, championed by PiS, spouting Russian rhetoric that undermines a quarter-century of Polish trust in the US as its greatest protector?

German Machiavelli

In a revealing interview this week with the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily, Kaczynski named as one his major influences Carl Schmitt, Germany's answer to Machiavelli.

The PiS leader insisted he doesn’t share all of Schmitt’s views, but agrees with its realistic view of politics that “sees the world as it is, sometimes very brutal”.

His admiration is troubling, given how the German theorist has delivered the authoritarian ideological justification for the worst Nazi crimes.

Effective government, according to Schmitt, requires a strong dictatorial element that embraces permanent crisis to free the executive of normal legal restraints.

These are the trademarks of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s politics and his means to the absolute end of his new Poland.

Any conciliatory noises – to Berlin, the EU, Ireland – are window dressing as long as the influential PiS leader has the last word in Warsaw.