A Battle For the Past

3 May 2012, 16:05

Ukraine’s policy of national memory has been reduced to marginal status in the past two years. Apart from historical gestures addressed to Russia, the government has systematically ignored the problems of its totalitarian heritage. Meanwhile, Polish experience shows how productive and efficient the battle against the vestiges of communism can be. The Ukrainian Week discussed the topic with Prof. Jerzy Eisler, director of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw. Eisler will soon visit Ukraine as part of the “European Experience: Poland” project, a joint effort by YE Bookstore and the Polish Institute in Kyiv.

U.W.: What is a "policy on national memory" – the know-how of post-communist countries in the late 20th century or an established post-WWII practice in developed Western countries?

In my opinion, it is not a 20th-century invention. This type of policy on history (or a battle for historical memory) has existed in virtually all systems and under all regimes, but it did not have the name we call it now. It was always important to pharaohs, kings, Caesars, tsars, sultans and so on to present themselves in the best possible light not only before their subjects and the international community but also for later generations. It was largely about what was good, wise and nice under their rule rather than the evil, bad and disgusting.

Today we often refer to this type of activity as manipulation or propaganda, even though we sometimes want to make it sound positive by calling it ‘historical policy’. Sometimes we search for what fits our convictions within its boundaries. For example, it can be seen in the battle over who gets the credit for the victory of the Allied forces in the Second World War. Until recently, the West did not fully acknowledge the role the Soviet Union played in defeating the Third Reich. Conversely, very little was spoken in the USSR about the aid the Red Army received from the Americans and the British or about the Allies' military accomplishments in the West.

U.W.: What role does historical memory play in the development of contemporary Polish society? Has the state policy in this area become an efficient tool of de-sovietization?

It is often said that a people without history and memory is doomed to oblivion. I do not know whether it is true in all cases, but it is definitely so, as far as Poland is concerned. It will not be an exaggeration to say that history is important in the life of our society, at least its most educated part, and it is often a factor of national consciousness. I am not fully convinced that the historical policy that has been pursued in the recent past has led or is leading to the de-sovietization of Poland. On the one hand, despite these efforts some people admire films, comics, songs and accessories from the communist past, particularly from the more liberal 1970s. On the other hand, we have not been able to convincingly prove that an intensified historical policy would greatly limit the influence of any so-called post-soviet mentality on the Poles. I think that a change of times and generations plays the greatest part in this process. For obvious reasons, with each passing year there are increasingly fewer people who have first-hand experience of communism. At the same time, there are more young people to whom it is the fossilized past.

U.W.: What obstacles and problems is the Institute of National Remembrance facing? Are there any parties that want to have it closed down?

The post-communist leftists are, fundamentally, the only political force which has almost always had some representatives calling for the Institute to be closed.

U.W.: What needs to be done to overcome the painful heritage of totalitarianism?

It is a long process that will not end in the foreseeable future. It is extremely important to avoid transferring our complexes, stereotypes, phobias and biases to the younger generation. Yes, we need to teach the young to be frank, interested in the world and tolerant of other people, positions, views and so on. But we also need to show that the surrounding world is not black and white. It is never the case that only one of the confronting sides is to blame for everything. Perhaps we need to try and instil empathy not only among youth.

U.W.: How has Polish society's attitude on the activities of the Institute changed in the 13 years it has been around? Does the Institute have an impact on the everyday life of Polish citizens today?

It seems to me that the evaluation of the Institute’s activities has been fairly stable. In general, those who were convinced of the need to set it up from day one have not changed their opinion. Moreover, we have been able to win over some people who were initially opposed to the idea. You can fairly often hear: “I thought you were only involved in lustration and investigating communist crimes, which I don't think possible or necessary, but you are also doing a lot of good things to study modern history and popularize the results of research. And this is something I definitely consider a good and necessary cause.”

U.W.: As a student of French collaborationism during the Second World War, do you see similarities between the collaboration of the Poles with the communist regime in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRP) and French collaboration under Philippe Pétain? What legal issues arise when the treacherous practices of the Nazi period are extrapolated to the communist era?

I am just one of a number of Polish historians who see certain similarities despite numerous differences between the PRP and France in 1940-42. In both cases we are dealing with states which were formally independent, but which were not sovereign in reality. Remember that after the defeat of 1940 Vichy France seemingly had more attributes of an independent state. Based on a capitulation agreement, some powers were handed over to old Marshall Philippe Pétain in southern France, an area not occupied by the Germans or Italians. The French administration, the police, schools and the legal system were all there. The French also kept a 100,000-strong army and the world’s fourth largest military fleet based in Toulon. Moreover, the Vichy Government preserved its dominion over a large part of the French colonial empire. France had, at least initially, diplomatic relations with 32 countries, including the Soviet Union (until June 1941), the USA (until November 1942) and the Vatican. Consular offices of occupied countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland) operated in Vichy France until the autumn of 1940, even though the Germans demanded their closure at the beginning. Likewise, communist Poland was formally independent but no longer sovereign. It had its own government (but not one that was freely elected), an army (which was dependent on the Soviet Union), a currency (which, however, could not be exchanged anywhere), the mandatory official Polish language and such necessary attributes of sovereignty as the anthem, the flag and the emblem. (Unlike the symbols of other socialist camp states, the Polish national emblem was changed only slightly – the white eagle was stripped of its crown.) Most tellingly, Poland was a member of many international organizations, primarily the UN, and maintained diplomatic relations with some 100 countries of the world, but it was not sovereign either in the internal or in the international dimension.

Apart from these things that the PRP and Vichy France had in common, it is hard to speak about any direct analogies between the French collaboration policy with the Germans during the Second World War and the cooperation of millions of Poles with the communist government imposed on them by Stalin with the military support of the Red Army and the NKVD. It does not seem to me that the French postwar experience of dealing with collaborators is suitable for Poland after we changed the system of government in 1989. Let us remember that France never honestly settled accounts with its troubled past – in 1953, there was no inmate in French prison convicted of collaboration, not even those who had been sentenced to life imprisonment. From this standpoint, France cannot be seen as an example for Poland and other post-communist countries to follow.


Od monarchizmu do faszyzmu. Koncepcje polityczno-społeczne prawicy francuskiej 1918 – 1940 (From Monarchism to Fascism. Sociopolitical Conceptions of the French Right 1918-1940) (1987)

Kolaboracja we Francji 1940-1944 (Collaboration in France 1940-1944) (1989)

Marzec 1968. Geneza – przebieg – konsekwencje (March 1968. The Genesis, Development and Consequences) (1991)

Zarys dziejów politycznych Polski 1944-1989 (An Outline of the Political History of Poland in 1944-1989) (1992)

Grudzień 1970. Geneza – przebieg – konsekwencje (December 1970. The Genesis, Development and Consequences) (2000)

Polski rok 1968 (Polish Year 1968) (2006)

"Polskie miesiące" czyli kryzys(y) w PRL (“Polish Months,” or the Crisis(es) in the PRP) (2008)

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