Back to top
Submitted by Marcin Bąk on Tue, 12/17/2019 - 10:54



From the very start of the process of building an independent and sovereign Poland, there has been discussion on how the heritage of the past should be presented in the life of society. Should it be used as a basic building material, binding the community together and indicating positive models for patriotism, upbringing and ethical behaviour? Or should it be limited to school history lessons, scientific research and the activities of groups of hobbyists, looking not into the past but into the future, where more serious challenges lie: a dynamically changing reality, a modernising technological and economic world, the vanishing of differences and barriers between nations through processes of globalisation? Should the state play a part in creating a precise and logical model of historical policy, in discovering events and attitudes that have been forgotten for decades and expunged from public consciousness? Or maybe it should abdicate that role, leaving it to university history departments? What should modern patriotism be: awareness of bonds with past generations, a sense of spiritual community with figures from preceding centuries? Or perhaps just paying taxes and taking care of local homelands and micro-communities: family, neighbours, workplace, friends and acquaintances?

The role and place of Christianity in the renascent Poland has been discussed freely and openly throughout the first quarter-century of freedom. However, in the discussion on the heritage of historical memory, as well as in the political practice of previous governments, there has been a certain amount of imbalance and inconsistency. In the initial period, more or less the decade of the 1990s, there was a visible aversion dominant among politicians and national institutions towards the adoption of clear positions in historical matters. There was a lack of desire and determination to create a positive narrative, attractive to the younger generation and rejecting rigid pomposity, concerning the latest part of history. Many events, such as the activities of the armed anticommunist underground after 1945 (whose members are known as the in Poland as the cursed soldiers), or the intellectual legacy of various political camps in the Second Polish Republic (the nationalist and peasant movements, the non-communist left-wing independence tradition associated with the Polish Socialist Party), did not garner significant interest at that time from the main media and publishing houses, which limited their accounts of history to a few already well-known and obviousevents.

There was a lack of appropriate public commemoration of the major bids for independence by Poles in the twentieth century particularly the Warsaw Uprising (a museum devoted to it was opened only in 2004, while Lech Kaczyński was still mayor of Warsaw) and the heroism of our compatriots in saving the lives of Jews (as in the case of the Ulma family from Markowa). The Institute of National Remembrance, established in the late 1990s to research modern Polish history with a particular emphasis on revealing the crimes of the communist period, was only beginning to seek an appropriate formula by which to function. Meanwhile, media and authors linked to the liberal camp promulgated a narrative that focused on the misdeeds or negligence of Poles in difficult moments of history, emphasising negative and controversial events, serving to prove the thesis that we were not exclusively a nation of victims and heroic figures, but also perpetrators of evil against others. Without denying the need for open discussion covering also the darker pages of our history, it is noticeable that until a certain point that narrative was the dominant one in the media, and only in recent years has it been possible to balance it with the positive story of the sacrifice and heroism of the Polish national community during the times of terror and brutal oppression in the twentieth century.

Hence one of the main political commitments of Law and Justice after the 2015 election was to conduct an active and systematic historical policy through national institutions, and to work constantly on increasing awareness of historical memory among Poles, particularly the younger generation.

Historical policy builds the power of the state

An interesting speech on the purposefulness of conducting an active historical policy, and even one that goes on the offensive, was given by President Andrzej Duda in 2016 at a meeting of the National Development Council, an advisory body to the President in the field of education and social development. He noted that all rational states that understand their own needs, and which above all have a sense of their own statehood and dignity, operate an active and sovereign historical policy, which he described as a policy conducted consistently and professionally, with a suitable allocation of power and resources. He quoted the words of Marshal Józef Piłsudski: a nation that does not respect its past does not deserve respect for its present and does not have the right to a future.The President went on to say that in    the modern world, historical policy plays a very important role in creating states. It entails not only skilfully narrating history to citizens, but also giving an effective presentation of the countrys own narrative to the outside world.

At the same time, Duda criticised the educational policy of the previous governments, which had reduced the quantity of history classes in schools, leading to a danger that the young would not identify with the history of their own national community.[1]

A similar point was made in a major newspaper interview by Piotr Gliński, deputy prime minister and culture and national heritage minister, who noted that for previous governments the heroes of the anticommunist underground had been inconvenient, and that for years after 1989 the truth about their activities had been distorted or left unmentioned. His own view was that such figures should form a basis for building the identity of an independent state.[2]

The goal of an active national historical policy, visible in the fields of education and culture, is as explained by prime minister Beata Szydło in her opening policy statement on 18 November 2015 –  (...) to serve the strengthening of patriotic attitudes. It must make wide use of the vast possibilities that the cultural sphere gives for the construction and reconstruction of Polish memory. Imparting value to it. Revealing the wealth of our national legacy. With the support of public means, works should be created that will tell Poland and the world about our outstanding compatriots, about our heroes. And that will be an inspiration to future generations of Poles. Let us not be ashamed to build an ethos of Polish heroes.[3]

The new role of institutional memory. Debates about the Institute of National Remembrance

The major re-adjustment of existing national historical policy also saw organisational changes within the structure of the Institute of National Remembrance. This is the most important national institution engaged in education and research, archiving, conducting criminal investigations (in the prosecution of perpetrators of Nazi and communist crimes) and examining the past communist links of public officials, equivalent to Hungarys Nemzeti Emlékezet Bizottsága (NEB).

A new law on the INR passed in spring 2016 expanded its competences, which now include the collection, processing and publication of documents on crimes committed between 8 November 1917 (the date of the Russian October Revolution) and 31 July 1990 (the disbanding of the communist political police, the SB, equivalent to Hungarys AVSZ) against people of Polish nationality and Polish citizens of other nationalities. The INR is also charged with locating the places of rest of persons who lost their lives fighting for independence during that period, including those who died as a result of the struggle against the imposed totalitarian system, totalitarian repressions or ethnic purges, such as the victims of Soviet crimes against Poles (like the extermination of Polish landowners in the eastern border regions) and the Polish victims of the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s (the Holodomor). It will also research the history of Poles in the era of partitions (17721918), including the history of Polish political emigration since the nineteenth century and Polish cultural heritage in the East.

The Institutes educational tasks include promulgating in Poland and abroad information and commentary concerning historical events of the greatest importance for Poland, promoting knowledge about the part played by Poles in both World Wars, and counteracting the dissemination of information and publications containing inaccurate historical claims that damage or defame Poland and Poles or assign them blame for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany and the communist USSR. The Institute is also obligated to commemorate historical events, places and figures in the history of Polesstruggle and sacrifice at home and abroad, and that of other nations on Polish territory.

A change was also made to the procedure for appointing the chairman of the Institute. Under the new law, this is now done by the Sejm (the lower house of parliament) with the approval of the Senate, but on a proposal of the Institutes College, which will propose candidates other than its own members. A candidate is to be selected by way of a public competition, announced by the chair of the Institutes College. A candidate must hold a doctoral or post-doctoral degree or an academic professorship. New offices have also been established within the INR, dealing with the commemoration of struggles and martyrdom, search and identification, national education, and historical research. At the same time, the Council of Protection of the Memory of Struggles and Martyrdom a separate and parallel institution existing since communist times, responsible only for the protection of sites of national memory was abolished, its competences being taken over mostly by the INR and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.[4]

The new law has given greater effectiveness and dynamism to the activities of the Institute of National Remembrance. The new organisation of its research and educational functions enables the development of efforts to ensure that young people are brought up in the ideals of patriotism and respect for their homeland.

The changes made to the INRs structure in the first year of the United Right government did not cause such serious controversy and turbulence as another new law related to that Institute, passed in January 2018. This was based on a draft by MPs from Kukiz`15 (the third largest parliamentary party) and a government bill to amend the law on the INR and certain other laws, which contained, among others, clauses on protection of the reputation of the Republic of Poland.

The first of these concerned crimes committed by Ukrainian nationalists and members of Ukrainian groups collaborating with Nazi Germany before 1939 and up to the early 1950s, when armed Ukrainian organisations were active in the Subcarpathia and Bieszczady regions. More precisely, it concerned acts of violence, terror or other violations of human rights committed in the years 19251950 against individuals or groups of the population, as well as involvement in the extermination of the Jewish population and genocide against citizens  of the Second Polish Republic in the Wołyń (Volhynia) and East Lesser Poland regions from the 1940s. The question of the Wołyń atrocities and the events in the eastern border regions (Kresy) from 1943 onwards still casts a shadow over PolishUkrainian relations, hampering reconciliation between the two neighbouring countries. Under the new law, the collection, processing and publication of documents concerning these crimes is subject to legal regulation in Poland.

The government bill, in turn, proposed more effective regulation of the issue of the protection of the reputation of the Polish Republic and the Polish nation. The greatest emotions were aroused by the new Article 55a, which read: Who publicly and contrary to fact ascribes to the Polish Nation or the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich () or for other offences constituting crimes against peace or humanity or war crimes, or in any other manner grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of those crimes, shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. Artistic and scientific activity were specifically excluded from the scope of this provision.[5]

The law of January 2018 encountered a lack of understanding in many countries, including Israel and the United States. The Polish government thus proposed a further change to the law, removing the main source of contention. In late June 2018 a new bill amending the law on the INR passed rapidly through the Sejm. In setting out the intentions of the bill, Michał Dworczyk, Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, gave an assurance that in the case of the January law the government had not intended in any way to restrict freedom of speech and scientific enquiry, and said that the changes had been incorrectly interpreted. A similar view was expressed by the deputy speaker of the Sejm, Ryszard Terlecki, who noted that the changes related to unfairly defamatory opinions; nonetheless the government did not wish them to encumber foreign policy, and thus a decision had been taken to amend the law and to revoke those provisions under which courts could impose punishments for the presentation of untrue information or opinions concerning historical policy.

The new law was supported by 388 MPs, with 25 against and five abstaining. It was immediately sent to the Senate, which passed it without amendments, and shortly afterwards it received the presidential signature. Following the passing of the new law, the prime ministers of Poland and Israel signed a simultaneous joint statement in their respective countries, in which they condemned all violence against committed against Jews by Nazi Germany and its allies during World War II. They also underlined the positive role played by the Polish Underground State in saving Jews during wartime. Both governments condemned all forms of anti-Semitism and negative national stereotypes. It should be noted that the joint statement of the Polish and Israeli prime ministers was the first international document of such rank which acknowledged the existence of anti-Polonism.[6]

() We reject the actions aimed at blaming Poland or the Polish nation as a whole for the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators of different nations. Unfortunately, the sad fact is that some people regardless of their origin, religion or worldview revealed their darkest side at that time. We acknowledge the fact that structures of the Polish underground state supervised by the Polish government-in-exile created a mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people, and its courts sentenced Poles for collaborating with the German occupation authorities, including for denouncing Jews (...). Both governments vehemently condemn all forms of anti-Semitism and express their commitment to oppose any of its manifestations. Both governments also express their rejection of anti-Polonism and other negative national stereotypes. The governments of Poland and Israel call for a return to civil and respectful dialogue in the public discourse.[7] These words are quoted from the joint statement signed by prime ministers Mateusz Morawiecki and Benjamin Netanyahu.

To remember the forgotten

An important aspect of historical policy and memory is the commemoration of heroes and figures of the past not only those that serve as a model for new generations, but also those who have been unjustly forgotten or unacknowledged for many years. This aim is served by further initiatives undertaken by Law and Justice during the parliament of 20152019.

In November 2017 parliament passed a law establishing an Institute of Solidarity and Valour, a new body carrying out research activity. Its tasks include the initiation, undertaking and support of actions to commemorate and honour the living, dead and murdered who have served the nation at home or abroad, by cultivating the memory of or bringing assistance to people of Polish nationality or Polish citizens of other nationalities who were victims of Soviet or German crimes or those committed by members of other nations for nationalist motives, or other offences constituting war crimes or crimes against peace or humanity. In the case of such people, active between 8 November 1917 and 31 July 1990, the Institute will be empowered to make financial awards and to propose them as recipients of the Western or Eastern Cross (special honours established in 2017 for foreigners who in the years 19391989 brought assistance to people of Polish nationality in Eastern and Western Europe). There was also a new honour established, Virtus et Fraternitas (meaning Virtue and Brotherhood), to be awarded by the President of Poland to deserving persons proposed by the Institute. The Institute received a one-off grant of 75 million zloty from the national budget, although Piotr Gliński, deputy prime minister and culture and national heritage minister, promised that such a grant would not be given for one year only.

Explaining the reasons for establishing the Institute of Solidarity and Valour, deputy prime minister Gliński said that for several decades no research had been done in Poland into some very important periods in its history. We must make up for this lost time, and therefore we need a serious scholarly institution to research Polish history, as well as helping to shape a responsible historical policy, he explained. His deputy minister, Magdalena Gawin, emphasised that the country had a huge debt of gratitude to the people who saved our compatriots during the war, and who have never been rewarded for doing so. The Institute might therefore reward Ukrainians who helped the Polish victims of the Wołyń ethnic purges of 1943.[8]

In early spring 2018 the Sejm established a National Day of Remembrance for Poles who saved Jews during the German occupation. It will be celebrated annually on 24 March, and will be designated a day of national commemoration. It pays tribute to all citizens of the Polish Republic (including those whose names are not known) who risked their lives and those of their families to give assistance to Jews during the Nazi persecution. In occupied Poland during World War II, anyone providing any assistance to Jews in hiding could be executed. Each case of assistance given to Jews, which to be effective normally required the involvement of multiple families of Poles, was a manifestation of enormous heroism. Work on the new law was initiated by President Andrzej Duda at a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the Żegota Council to Aid Jews, which operated as part of the structures of the Polish Underground State.

The date of 24 March was a deliberate choice: it was on that day in 1944 that the Germans executed the Ulma family, who lived in the village of Markowa in Subcarpathia. Józef Ulma, his pregnant wife Wiktoria and six of their children were executed for assisting Jews, along with eight Jews whom they had been hiding.[9]

Another day of commemoration, established by the Polish parliament in autumn 2018, is the National Day of Remembrance of Invincible Clerics. It will be celebrated annually on 19 October (on the anniversary of the martyrs death of the famous Solidarity priest of the 1980s, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, murdered in 1984 by members of the communist security forces). It will pay tribute to clerics who by their actions expressed their faith in Jesus Christ, as well as valour and an indomitable patriotic stance, and in many cases shed their blood in defence of their Christian motherland of Poland. The act states that since the beginnings of the history of Poland there have been unbending, heroic clergy for whom Christian ideas and faith in God are a basis for evangelism, devout living and striving for holiness, but also provide an additional motivation to act for the earthly motherland its development, sovereignty and well-being. The draft law lists many clergy, noting that, particularly in the period when Poland was absent from the map of Europe, they were often the depositaries of lost statehood. As a result of amendments proposed by MPs of other parties, the parliamentary motion commemorates not only Roman Catholic clergy, but also those of other Christian denominations that have been present in Poland for centuries.

Since the times of the partitions, clergy have engaged in the wide-ranging struggle for Polish identity in the social, cultural and journalistic spheres, but also sometimes under arms, standing alongside their compatriots to do battle with the enemy. They played the role of educators, preparing the country for freedom. The Invincible Priests in Stalinist times were, like the Cursed Soldiers, oppressed, imprisoned and murdered, argues the parliamentary motion on the National Day of Remembrance of Invincible Clerics.[10]

The parliamentary majority that has governed since 2015 has not forgotten either about the latest heroes of Polish independence: members of the democratic opposition to the communist regime. In summer 2017 the Sejm passed a new law on opposition activists under the Polish Peoples Republic. It contains very concrete material and social provisions.

For many years previously, such former activists were able to apply for a money grant of 400 zloty monthly for a period of one year, providing they fulfilled an income criterion. Under the new law, such awards may be made without time limit and regardless of the persons current income. New rules have also been introduced for the granting of financial assistance to former opposition members. It will be given not only in the form of one-off aid (now, in special cases, up to 300% of the minimum monthly old-age pension), but also as periodic assistance for up to half a year, to a monthly amount of 100% of the minimum pension. Periodic assistance may be given, for instance, to cover living and healthcare expenses in case of long illness, for the purchase of medicines and medical and hygiene products, and for costs of travel to medical centres.

The new law also extends the definition of repressed persons, to include those subjected to overt and covert repression up to 31 July 1990. In determining a repressed persons entitlement to an old-age or disability pension, periods of imprisonment after 31 December 1956, or internment during martial law (198183), will be counted double. The new law also provides for the appointment of a special Council for Anticommunist Opposition Activists and Persons Repressed for Political Reasons.[11]


Another step taken in this regard was the adoption by the Sejm in January 2018 of rules giving compensation to the children of women subjected to repression for pro-independence activity. These were supported by the great majority of MPs, from both the governing majority and the opposition. Financial compensation will be payable to persons whose mothers were repressed by means of imprisonment or isolation at the time of their birth or during pregnancy.[12]

An element of the restoration of collective memory about figures of the anticommunist underground in postwar Poland was a funeral ceremony held for two young heroes of the armed resistance movement, Danuta Siedzikówna (codename Inka) and Feliks Selmanowicz  (Zagończyk), who were shot by the communist regime in 1946. The ceremony was held on the exact 70th anniversary of their tragic death, in June 2016 in Gdańsk. The liturgy was attended by the most senior officials, including the President, the Prime Minister, representatives of parliament and other ministers.

This is not just a funeral, but also a political manifestation of the states doing its duty towards its heroes. After 27 years, the Polish state is regaining its dignity, the President said during the ceremony. These words referred to the problems experienced by Poland in the first period of the transformation, when it was still not able fully to come to terms with the baggage of its tragic postwar history and the crimes committed by the communist apparatus of violence. For many years the new elites were not capable of bringing the perpetrators to account, while the latter lived comfortably and undisturbed, continuing to draw large pensions.[13]

The new ways of commemorating the heroes of the struggles for Polands independence and sovereignty, introduced by the United Right parliamentary majority, were in harmony with the already existing regular commemorations, such as the National Day of Remembrance of Cursed Soldiers. This has been celebrated annually in Poland since 2014, on the first of March.

Efforts towards complete decommunisation

Even though almost three decades have passed since the fall of the communist system in Poland, relics of the totalitarian past can still be found in public life in our country. This largely concerns the names of certain streets, town squares, structures and public buildings. In April 2016, when the parliamentary majority took steps towards the complete decommunisation of public space, MPsanalyses estimated that in the whole of Poland there were still around 1300 public places with names linked to figures associated with the  totalitarian system communist soldiers, members of the communist state apparatus, and even former Eastern Bloc leaders, such as Georgi Dimitrov(!) in the town of Bogatynia in western Poland. This state of affairs means that the streets of true heroes intersect with those of their communist oppressors and executioners, said Law and Justice MP Jarosław Krajewski in a report to the Sejm. He added that the proposed law prohibiting local authorities from giving names to structures and public places that commemorate or promote people, organisations, events or dates symbolising communism or another totalitarian system would be a further step towards restoring historical truth and strengthening the sense of national community.[14]

The provisions of the law passed in 2016 were made more precise by an amending act of December 2017. However, difficulties were encountered in some Polish towns and districts in putting the provisions into effect. Local authorities were given several months to change names that symbolised or promoted communism or another totalitarian system. In case of failure to take such action, the voivode (provincial governor appointed by the central government) was empowered, on obtaining the opinion of the Institute of National Remembrance, to issue an order establishing a new name in accordance with the terms of the act.[15]


However, this process was resisted by some local authorities and provincial administrative courts, which in Warsaw alone overturned the change of name of 12 streets that alluded to the communist past. The administrative courts most often based their verdicts on the laconic natureof the opinions issued by the INR or voivodes.[16]


Another measure that cannot go unmentioned is the law passed in December 2016 that reduced the pensions of members of the communist security apparatus. This lowered the old-age and disability pensions paid to those who performed service for the totalitarian state in the period from 22 July 1944 (the creation by Stalin of a puppet communist government, celebrated until 1989 as a national holiday of the Polish Peoples Republic) to 31 July 1990. The pensions received by such persons cannot now be greater than the average pension paid by ZUS, the national social security institution (equivalent to Hungarys ONYF). By way of a decision in specially justified casesthe home affairs minister will be able to exclude individuals from the provisions of the act on the grounds that they served the totalitarian state only for a short time before 31 July 1990 and conscientiously discharged their duties after 12 September 1989 (the appointment of the government of the first non-communist prime minister), particularly in cases where they put their lives at risk. The act lists the bodies whose members will be regarded as having performed service for the totalitarian state. These include units of the communist Ministry of Internal Affairs, the communist political police (the SB, equivalent to the Hungarian AVSZ), and units responsible for SB training, discipline, staffing and ideology. MPs of the governing majority underlined that the act was intended not as revenge, but as fulfilment of the principle of justice.[17]


Museum projects

Warsaw still lacks large museums and educational centres recalling the times of struggle against communism, in the style of Budapests Terror Háza. The Law and Justice government has taken steps to correct this. In 2016, under the patronage of the justice ministry, which will oversee the future establishment, a competition was announced for the construction of a museum devoted to the Cursed Soldiers and political prisoners of the communist period. Entries were submitted by more than seventy teams of architects from all over Poland. The building will be completed in March 2019. The museum will present such figures as Captain Witold Pilecki (19011948), who organised a resistance movement at the Auschwitz concentration camp, and after the war was sentenced to death by the communist regime.[18]


In November 2018, on the occasion of the centenary celebrations of Polands independence, a similar museum was opened in the city of Ostrołęka, north of Warsaw. The institution commemorates soldiers of the pro-independence underground from central and eastern regions of Poland. It was funded by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.[19]


A significant budget of more than 750 million zloty has been allotted by the same ministry for the building of a Museum of Polish History in Warsaw. For the last eight years of the previous coalition government, the building of the museum, already planned in the first decade of this century, remained blocked. It will be built in the old citadel fort, which dates from the times of Russian rule in the nineteenth century. It will be connected to the Polish Army Museum. The Museum of Polish History will give accounts of our history both chronologically and by subject area. Epochs will be presented through their most characteristic cultural features, or through accounts relating to the most important events in our history. This will be a beautiful story of our history and our identity, said the deputy prime minister and minister of culture. The museum will be completed in 2020, the year of the centenary of the battle known as the Miracle on the Vistula.


[4]              Kronika Sejmowa no. 13 (832), 30 April 2016, pp. 3–4.


[5]              Ibidem, no. 54 (873), 31 January 2018.

[6]              Ibidem, no. 64 (883), 30 June 2018.


[7]              Bilateral statement of 26 July 2018…

[8]              Ibidem, no. 49 (868), 15 November 2017, p. 7.


[9]              Ibidem, no. 57 (876), 15 March 2018, p. 3.


[11]             Kronika Sejmowa, no. 39 (858), 15 June 2017.

[12]             Ibidem, no. 54 (873), 31 January 2018, p. 27.


[14]             Kronika Sejmowa, no. 12 (831), 15 April 2016, pp. 11-12.


[15]             Ibidem, no. 51 (870), 15 December 2017, p. 40.


[17]             Kronika Sejmowa, no. 27/28 (846/847), 31 December 2016.