In Gdansk, the walk to the museum takes me past the Patriotic Clothing Store. Two blonde, blue-eyed dolls stand in the window, wearing little T-shirts saying: ‘My parents are 100% Polish.’ They have their wee fists raised in what a visiting journalist from Warsaw suggested, a bit unfairly, was a fascist ‘Heil’. Inside, the shop is small and dour. Racks of grown-up T-shirts with the anchor emblem of the 1944 Warsaw Rising. You can buy Velcro shoulder patches – ‘Death to the Enemies of My Country’ – in red, brown or blue. Further on is the Poczta, a heavy building of red Prussian brick. Here was the Polish Post Office, in the years when Danzig was a Free City under the League of Nations. The Germans besieged it on the first day of the war in 1939, and after the postmen surrendered, shot them all.
The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 39 No. 23 · 30 November 2017
Neal Ascherson writes that in the years following the fall of communism in Poland in 1989 the political influence of the Catholic Church ‘seemed to be waning’, only then to be restored (LRB, 19 October). In fact there was no waning. It was in those years that the Church strengthened its position and secured it for the decades to come. As early as May 1989, after the Round Table talks between the government and opposition groups but before the first democratic elections, the outgoing communist parliament passed a law concerning ‘the relation of the state to the Catholic Church’. On the basis of that document more than 65,000 hectares of land, confiscated by the postwar regime, were restored to the Church, along with 490 buildings; on top of that, some 140 million Polish złoty (roughly 33.5 million euros) was paid in compensation for property that wasn’t returned. The same law also confirmed the Catholic Church’s ownership of Orthodox and Protestant church buildings handed over to it by the communist government.
In 1990, the teaching of religion was reintroduced in all state schools. In theory this means any denomination chosen by a student or their parents, but Catholicism is usually the only religion that can supply the numbers needed to form a class, except in some largely Orthodox communities in the east of the country and Lutheran ones in Silesia. Students who don’t take religion are offered a subject called Ethics. (A European Court of Human Rights judgment in 2010 was necessary for this alternative to be made available in all schools.) State schools take three days off for ‘retreat’ during Lent; nine-year-olds go to first communion with their class. The Polish state pays the salaries of some 14,000 teachers of religion, as well as those of army, police and hospital chaplains.
In 1991, the first Catholic radio stations were licensed and began broadcasting, among them Radio Maryja, which went on to be criticised for airing anti-Semitic comments. The first Catholic TV station, TV Niepokalanów, licensed since 1997, enjoys the same tax breaks as public television. In 1993, one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in Europe was passed in Poland, banning abortion except when the pregnancy results from rape or endangers the woman’s life or health, or when the foetus is seriously malformed.
At the time these concessions to the Catholic Church were made, some political leaders welcomed them; others may have been worried, but chose not to jeopardise their chances of re-election by opposing a Church still led by the widely idolised John Paul II. Some may have felt it would be churlish to act against an organisation which not so long before had helped them and their families when they were political prisoners. So it is only now that we are beginning to grasp the full impact of the advantages granted to the Church after 1989. To take one example: in a recent opinion poll on abortion, the younger the respondent, the less likely they were to favour a liberalised law. A total ban on abortion had greatest support among 18-24-year-olds. Today’s young people all went to school after 1989. Many will have been shown anti-abortion films such as The Silent Scream, not in religion lessons, but in ‘Education for Family Life’ – the curriculum and textbooks for which, while not officially supervised by the Church, are strongly conservative in outlook.
The disturbing rise of Polish nationalism, which Ascherson describes so well, also has a religious angle to it. On 11 November, participants in the nationalist/fascist (depending on who you’re talking to) ‘independence march’ in Warsaw carried banners declaring ‘White Europe’ and ‘Death to the Enemies of the Motherland’, as well as ‘We Want God’. The latter is a line from a religious song that sees the presence of God in every aspect of life. I am not suggesting the Catholic Church endorses fascists; but it has certainly made big steps towards granting the wishes on those banners.