Difficult legacy of the President

On 14 April 2010, at the Presidential Palace, near the Monument to Adam Mickiewicz and near the Carmelite Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Warsaw, Wieslawa Lewandowska talks to Dr. Tomasz Zukowski about the truth declared untrue and Poles’ brainwave.

Wieslawa Lewandowska: – We are standing in the place that is most important these days, Poland’s heart that beats here most fervently – just a few meters from here, in the Column Hall of the Presidential Palace two coffins are lying in state…Around the palace one can see countless crowds of people who are reflecting on this event, with their eyes in tears; who have come here from all over Poland to pay tribute to the President and the First lady. What is happening here is hard to understand and describe…

Dr. Tomasz Zukowski: – …Let us add that this extraordinary ‘general levy’ began on Saturday when we heard the news about the great national tragedy at Smolensk… People truly spontaneously began coming to the Presidential Palace and lighting candles – hundreds and thousands of candles. They also gathered in the most important places in their cities, in churches… This extraordinary atmosphere of national solidarity grew day by day. It soon turned out that we dealt with a big, social experience, a manifestation of community in the face of the loss that we, citizens and Poles, had. The last such intensification of national emotions happened exactly five years ago when John Paul II died. Today Poles are behaving similarly; like then they are experiencing their identity and they are confirming it. They are speaking aloud what the essence of the Polish spirit is, as the poet would have said – the Polish soul.

– Is it really the same as five years ago?

– The sources and mechanisms of people’s emotions and behaviours are very much the same. We speak about two big national ‘movements of the extraordinary time’. Obviously, there are differences, too. For example, nowadays the difference – perhaps the most important one – is that the republican, patriotic-national references are prevailing. Poles are manifesting what the essence of republicanism is – the need of participation, adherence to national and citizens’ community. The need to refer to God is also important in this national movement. This is very natural and obvious to people… So we have Masses, prayers, church bells tolling… This is a very special time…

– Mystical…

– ... the time of unbelievable accumulation of symbols, and Poles have special adherence to symbols… This national tragedy happened on the eve of the Feast of the Divine Mercy, like the death of John Paul II five years ago… The body of the President returned to Poland on the Sunday of the Divine Mercy. For Poles the fact that the crash of the presidential plane happened during the flight to Katyn, that there was fog at the airport, will always be a unique and dramatic sign-symbol. They immediately recollect ‘Smolensk forest is steaming fog’ from the poem of Zbigniew Herbert as well as the verse ‘only buttons proved unyielding’. All these things evoke deep emotions. The need to confirm your own identity, adherence, defining your place among these extraordinary events.

– So we have another awakening of the nation?

– Now Poles are taking an exam of their Polishness; they confirm, not for the first time in their history, that their identity is a cluster of what is national, religious and finally civic, connected with the state. This is an examination of ‘extraordinary time’ and thus it is especially important. However, let us remember that such examinations, including the exams in republican citizenship, are taken every day, in ordinary times. It is worth speaking about them more during the time of mourning. Today we can say one thing: in the extraordinary times most of us managed – rejecting the divisions – to confirm what is most important: our common identity.

– That is what was most important to President Kaczynski who using the words of John Paul II always stressed the extraordinary significance of memory and national identity in building a modern state and citizens’ community.

– The President was always – even when he became a negative hero for most world media (and after them – for a considerable part of public opinion) – regarded as a fervent patriot. Even his biggest enemies, including those who shut themselves in the ‘trap of hatred’, did not refuse to mention this most important feature of his personality. They also referred to his concern for memory and identity. However, many attempted to criticise, ridicule him and call him ‘parochial’. Today one can see who was right and who was wrong. In this place of our conversation we are surrounded – quite literally – by a sea of Polish identity and memory: we can see dozen thousand people flowing, we can see thousands of lit candles and can hear bells ringing.

– These people are here, as if against those who mocked the President and his ‘parochial’ vision of Poland.

– Exactly! Today we can see best how the world of real people’s emotions of identity, especially the deepest ones, is far from the world of virtual stories depicted by the commercial media – a metaphoric monster offering people information mixed with entertainment, advertisement and propaganda…

– … covering all things with fog, through which ‘is only visible flickering nothingness’…

– … that’s right! The media monster actually resembles the monster from Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry. This fog covers the shape of the real public debate, ‘it poisons wells, destroys the constructions of mind’, offers divisions that do not let us understand but at the most let us hate and mock (shame) or imitate (be trendy). These days the fog has fallen down and people notice (this is also why this period is so extraordinary) one another, their mutual feelings, experiences, thoughts…

– And suddenly it turned out that the President was intellectually, politically and humanly sincere in what he did, in his persistent action against the flow. It was a real revelation for many fellow countrymen!

– The President never followed the rules of ‘plastic reality’ created by the media. He could not stand the picture of politics as a specific soap opera prevailing in the commercial media. He did not accept the politicians subordinated to the logic of advertisements, political marketing. Even if he knew that the increasing waves of hatred in the media ‘virtuality’ would strike him hard – and he always painfully felt the strikes he received – in the name of rightness, the reason of state and what was most important for Poland he was always ready to defend his stand. And this made him a real statesman. Today the world leaders speak respectfully about these characteristics of the President and so do the international media. That’s why, many Poles feel the dissonance: how to bring together what they eagerly accepted several days ago with what they can see and hear at the moment? Most of them are spontaneously building a republican, above any political party, community. Some – who were most strongly overwhelmed by the early negative emotions – cannot find themselves, have troubles to divide between what concerns the current political dispute and what constitutes the foundation of our republic.

– Poles received a picture of a provoking and confrontational politician and now they feel deceived first of all by the media. Why did the Polish media eagerly show this unreliable picture of the President?

– It is a very important question! How much did this phenomenon include natural political dispute and someone’s important interests and how many plans for Poland that were different from the President’s plans? It is worth returning to this matter. The meaningful thing is that now, under the pressure of the rank-and-file initiative, the media have changed (for how long?) the tone of their reports. Those that attacked the President remain silent or have joined the national mourning.

– President Kaczynski was often accused of excessive adherence to the past, looking at the past, which was – as commented thoughtlessly – old-fashioned and contrary to the spirit of contemporary world.

– Absurd. President Kaczynski knew that without the past, without the roots we could not have a good future. As sociological researches prove Poles are not bothered by their national and religious identity but identity helps them develop their country. And the President always looked for concrete instruments and ways to translate the heritage of the past into the challenges of the future. Thus he organised meetings with intellectuals in Lucien, he appointed scientists of vary different ideological options to the National Council for Development and held seminars about Polish challenges in the Belvedere Palace. He also announced the best doctoral thesis award in the problems of contemporary Poland. As one can see he also thought about the future elite of the Republic of Poland.

– Until 10 April 2010 Poles were convinced that President Kaczynski closed Poland, isolated her from the world and now it turns out that the world appreciated his distinct, patriotic and at the same time open attitude and his international involvement.

– A big injustice that our President faced was the neglect of his vision of international politics by the media. His politics focused on equality and partnership of all countries. He thought that Poland should build a community of countries of Eastern and Central Europe, all countries of the ‘eastern lung of the West’. That’s why he supported Ukraine and organised a risky but effective visit, accompanied by other EU leaders, to Georgia when her independence was threatened. That’s why he collaborated with Lithuania, the Czech Republic… He eagerly referred, obviously in a modern way, to the Jagiellonian tradition. The President was also deeply convinced that Poland should be European and Atlantic. She should be in the European Union (but EU of partnership and not dominated by the strongest members) and at the same time Poland should maintain special relationships with the United States. Poland should an effective member of NATO. Knowing the history of our continent perfectly well he was deeply convinced that the geopolitical stability and partner relationships in Europe depended on the USA to a big extent; he was convinced that our continent and the United States should co-create one Euro-Atlantic community.

– As his legacy Lech Kaczynski, in spite of what was said about him, leaves Poland an example of a modern politician, a patriot open to the world. And allegedly he did not like politics.

– He did not like politics he had and saw, politics others tried to impose on him. He always understood politics as service. His views were clear and his programme was unequivocal. It was clearly dominated by the social trait: solidarity, equality and justice. It triggered natural ideological disputes, especially with the liberals. Lech Kaczynski was in favour of effective state, which would not be an ‘Easter egg shell’. He was convinced, like many contemporary researchers of this problem, for example Francis Fukuyama, that there are such matters in the social life that only the state can solve. That only the state can effectively defend some interests of the community whereas weakening the state makes these interests impossible to realise, which can be clearly seen not only in Poland. That’s why he opted for excluding the Polish ‘pearls in the crown’, e.g. energy industry, from the privatisation programmes.

– No divisions, no differences, we are together, let us reconcile – the political opponents of the President are eagerly repeating today. What would that mean in ‘the new’ politics?

– Naturally, in the extraordinary situation, in the situation of mourning, consent is good: natural and desired. However, in everyday politics such a motto resembles the old words of moral-political unity. May it not serve as an instrument to have Poland dominated by one political party. There are some matters when we should be always together, matters that constitute the foundation of the reason of state. In such a case consent is indispensable! Democracy and republican community require an open public debate. I hope that during the debate that we will soon have we will speak about the real problems of Poland, and the problems are many, about real challenges and these are serious.

– The legacy of President Lech Kaczynski forces all people to think and as such it will be not easy to realise. The fundamental question is: will we want to ponder on it at all?

– I hope that after the experiences of these extraordinary days we, Poles, will be ourselves, we will be better citizens of the Republic of Poland. If this happens the dreams of President Kaczynski can be fulfilled.

Dr. Tomasz Zukowski works in the Institute of Political Sciences of the University of Warsaw; from the end of 2007 he was an advisor to President Lech Kaczynski.

"Niedziela" 17/2010

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl