The images were poisonous for Poland's international reputation. "Pure blood, clear heads," "Europe will be white, or it will be empty," "For a white European brotherhood."
These were the catchphrases seen on placards in Warsaw this past Saturday on the anniversary of Polish independence. The demonstration was organized by far-right extremist groups under the motto "We want God." It was a shocking combination: The Christian religious tenet of brotherly love interspersed with slogans of hatred. And that in a country that suffered like no other under the boot of Germany's National Socialists and their racial fanaticism.
Although only a small portion of those 60,000 people who participated in the anniversary marches were thought to have been members of radical far-right organizations, the shameful images will remain in the collective conscience of the wider world.
Therefore, it is only right that Polish President Andrzej Duda and the de facto leader of the country, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who heads the country's ruling nationalist-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, both criticized the racist sentiments expressed at the rally. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that it was Kaczynski's anti-Islamic rhetoric that made such racist slogans socially acceptable in the first place.
Although the PiS itself is not a right-wing extremist party, it often treats radical nationalists with great leniency — as if to not turn off far-right voters. That is a very dangerous approach. Allies of this kind are unpredictable, as exemplified by the lesson of Germany in the early 1930s. We all remember: Adolf Hitler and the Nazis supposedly were to be kept in check by other less radical parties. Yet once the Nazis seized power, they refused to let go of it.
Isolated abroad, appreciated at home
Two years on, the PiS balance sheet is mixed. Poland, a European Union member, has increasingly isolated itself abroad. The PiS has initiated a restructuring of the state under the motto "the ends justify the means." The controversial push to overhaul the country's constitutional court and reform the judiciary, as well as the ruthless transformation of public media outlets into instruments of governmental propaganda dissemination, have led to serious conflicts with Brussels.
The once-warm relations between Poland and Germany, which began in the early 1990s, have cooled considerably of late. The claim to reparations that Kaczynski raised regarding damages and losses incurred through German occupation during the Second World War may be popular with supporters, but they have been disastrous for bilateral relations. That, however, phases no one in Poland, where foreign policy has become a tool for domestic policy.
The PiS government is also responsible for the dramatic schism within Polish society, a divide that has even cleaved families. The country has not experienced a similar situation since 1989, when rising revolutions and the first free elections helped usher in the end of communist rule. The blame can be squarely placed on the divisive rhetoric used by Kaczynski and other PiS politicians, who speak of traitors and scoundrels, of "true Poles" and "Poles of a worse kind."
Social and economic success
On the other hand, the PiS government has found success with its social and economic policies. The introduction of child benefits was a blessing for many poor families who had largely lost out during the country's transformation to democracy and who were given back some of their dignity as a result. Those benefits were made possible by Poland's booming economy. Moreover, financial authorities have become more efficient and corruption is on the wane.
These also happen to be the areas in which voters measure PiS success. And the plan seems to be working: With a 45 percent approval rating, the PiS is more popular than ever before. Furthermore, it is profiting greatly due to the lack of any formidable opposition, which — especially since Donald Tusk left for Brussels to become President of the European Council in 2014 — has been unable to challenge Kaczynski's PiS, both in terms of personnel and political policy.
The rightward lurch that has happened under the PiS shows that democratic development is a slow process and that upheavals, mistakes and crises happen along the way. It is naive to think that one could simply leapfrog over certain democratic and social maturation processes. The biggest problem, however, is that Eastern and Western Europe are not only at different stages of development economically but also mentally, societally and politically — all of which is plausible when viewed against the arc of history in Eastern and Central Europe.
No need for arrogance and moralizing
Therefore, western EU countries, and especially Germany, would do well to refrain from reacting with pointing fingers and arrogant airs. It must not be forgotten that policies put forth by Berlin were in large part responsible for the rightward shift that occurred in Poland in November 2015 — for instance, Berlin's insistence on building the Baltic Sea pipeline to Russia against strong opposition from Warsaw, and more important still, Angela Merkel's go-it-alone decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees to enter the Schengen Zone.
Although it may appear to Western observers as if the PiS government is living in another era altogether, Poland nevertheless deserves respect as a nation. It has contributed greatly to European culture and history. Particularly the Germans have reason to be thankful. Without the Polish people's desire for freedom, without Pope John Paul II or Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement, there would be no reunified Germany. Even if right-wing extremist slogans shouted on the streets of Warsaw are shocking, we should never forget that Poland is more than that.