Recent scholarship points to a growing political prominence of various non-liberal civil society organizations in many countries around the world. In Poland, this phenomenon is simultaneous with the emergence of political division in civil society driven by the policies of the United Right government. I argue that a wider historical perspective emphasizing reciprocal connections between civil society organizations and political parties helps to understand this recent surge. In Poland, the growing division in civil society builds upon the relationship between right-wing political parties and civil society organizations bound together since the beginning of the 1990s by the common vision of social memory. After taking power in 2015, the right-wing coalition in Poland centralized the supervision over the distribution of funds to civil society, providing financial support to organizations closer to its conservative agenda. At the same time, organizations that have been in frequent conflict with the right-wing government due to their main area of focus (human rights, anti-discrimination, women’s rights, environmental protection, and immigration) had limited access to government funding and were presented in a negative light by the government as well as its allied organizations and the state-controlled media. The argument in this article is based on secondary data about the organizational sphere of civil society and a case study of a set of right-wing civil society organizations, Gazeta Polska clubs.
In late March 2011, Gazeta Polska Club Mińsk Mazowiecki was holding a meeting with a well-known right-wing journalist. The guest presented his views on the state of media in Poland, bewailing that one would look in vain for right-wing conservative presenters and ideas on TV and radio, where many positions were still occupied by “former secretaries of the Polish United Workers’ Party, censors, and activists of socialist organizations” (Gazeta Polska Club Mińsk Mazowiecki, 2011). The meeting was organized in a public library in Mińsk Mazowiecki, a small town in the vicinity of Warsaw. At the moment of its inception in late 2010, the club was one of 134 Gazeta Polska clubs, organizations established by the readers of Gazeta Polska, a right-wing weekly. The clubs at that time were already openly supporting right-wing national conservative PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość [Law and Justice]) party (Ślarzyński, 2018). By the middle of 2020, the number of clubs would be over 450, their network covering Poland as well as many towns and cities in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
In early 2011, however, Poland was governed by a coalition led by the centrist liberal PO (Platforma Obywatelska [Civic Platform]), which was about to extend its stint in power by the next four years. Club members would have to wait until 2015 for the electoral success of ZP (Zjednoczona Prawica [United Right]), a right-wing coalition comprised of PiS and two smaller parties: Zbigniew Ziobro’s SP (Solidarna Polska [United Poland]) and Jarosław Gowin’s Porozumienie [Agreement]. This shift in power resulted in the centralization of the supervision over the distribution of funds to civil society, which enabled the government to provide financial support to organizations closer to its agenda, that is, those that promote “Christian and national or patriotic values.” At the same time, organizations that have been in frequent conflict with the right-wing government due to their main area of focus (human rights, anti-discrimination, women’s rights, environmental protection, and immigration) had limited access to government funding and were presented in a negative light by the government as well as its allied organizations and the state-controlled media (CSOSI, 2019, pp. 168–177). The political will driving this change was all the more palpable as ZP has controlled a simple majority in the Sejm (the lower house of the parliament of Poland) as well as the country’s presidency since 2015.
The sudden change in the national significance of the Gazeta Polska Club Mińsk Mazowiecki is a perfect illustration of said shift in civil society: its chairman was elected to the Sejm in 2015 as a PiS candidate and in October 2017 she became a rapporteur of the bill to establish Narodowy Instytut Wolności – Centrum Rozwoju Społeczeństwa Obywatelskiego (National Institute of Freedom – Center for Civil Society Development), a new government body whose explicit goal has been to create a “thematic” and “territorial” balance in the development of Polish civil society by supporting mainly small grassroots organizations that would nurture local and national cultures (NIW – CRSO, 2017, pp. 1–2). This institute would become one of the tools wielded by ZP to address the grievances of many patriotic, Catholic, and nationalist activists, who, before 2015, perceived themselves as being stripped of funds and government attention at the expense of liberal and left-wing organizations (Krygiel, 2015; Jabłoński et al., 2017; Arczewska & Dudkiewicz, 2019, p. 41).
The change in government not only led to a striking growth in the influence of right-wing organizations on state policies, but also marked the emergence of a division in Polish civil society following the main political divide between ZP and the liberal opposition. I argue in this article that the preexisting state of civil society prior to PiS’s rise to power strongly informs the nature of this division and the way in which it has emerged. The pre-2015 civil society sphere in Poland had been largely compartmentalized, with two types of civil society organizations playing very important roles: traditional community organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This compartmentalization was clearly visible in the context of post-1989 conflicts around social memory playing out in disputes over local and national cultures and identities. These issues were the main area of concern and activity of many local community organizations, leading to the emergence of right-wing and conservative milieus encompassing civil society activists, as well as mainstream and local politicians (Ochman, 2013; Kurczewska, 2016). This process provided a wider national mnemonic frame binding together local right-wing organizations through a shared friend-foe discourse. It also allowed right-wing political actors to articulate this politics of memory on the national level, using it to fashion a political cleavage between “true patriots” and others. These local social memory disputes were practically unattended by NGOs, however. They focused rather on building stable ties within their sector and with local authorities, for which they often served as a proxy in carrying out welfare state and other social policies (Załęski, 2012). I argue that the PiS-led government is building on this phenomenon, transforming the compartmentalization of Polish civil society into a political division by favoring right-wing organizations while marginalizing and scapegoating, through media campaigns and a denial of funds, those NGOs whose stance on policy issues differs from that of the ruling majority. This wider historical perspective on the connections between civil society organizations and political parties helps to understand the growing strength of right-wing civil society observed in the last decade not only in Poland but also, for example, in Hungary (Greskovits, 2020), Italy (Bassoli, 2017), and the United States (Skocpol & Williamson, 2012).
In order to present my argument, I first summarize the empirical evidence showing the emergence of a partisan division in Polish civil society after 2015 and the analytical framework used in this article. I then focus on the characteristics of Polish civil society and explain why it was possible for PiS to construct a coalition with civil society organizations before the 2015 elections. To understand how this alliance between the government and right-wing civil society has shaped political discourse and conflict in the country after 2015, I discuss a defining characteristic of right-wing civil society activities in the last three decades: their focus on politics of memory. I use the case of Gazeta Polska clubs as an illustration of these processes.
The Partisan Divide in Polish Civil Society: Analytical Framework and Empirical Evidence
In this article, I am expanding on civil society and memory studies. Among works on civil society, I draw on the literature that examines the ties between civil society organizations and political parties, as well as studies focusing on various right-wing initiatives. The former body of works shows how institutional arrangements can limit the activities of civil society organizations in different political regimes and imply various degrees of state domination over the public sphere (Carothers & Brechenmacher, 2014; Anheier et al., 2019). In authoritarian regimes, governments need civil society organizations to establish and maintain their discursive dominance over society by either engaging or repressing selected organizations or creating their own government-organized nongovernmental organizations (Lewis, 2013; Hasmath et al., 2019). In hybrid regimes, selective government support of organizations sows divisions in the sphere of civil society (Falkenhain, 2020). Institutional incentives also shape the actions of NGOs in democracies, where organizations receiving financing from the state are less likely to engage in political disputes, so as not to jeopardize their source of income (Bloodgood & Tremblay-Boire, 2017). By showing how the field where particular civil society organizations operate and how the institutional arrangements structuring that field influence the behavior of organizations, these works help explain the compartmentalized state of Polish civil society before 2015, as well as the role of the state in its subsequent transformation.
Many civil society scholars have studied the reasons behind the growing influence of various non-liberal organizations and movements. The first level of discussion in this field has been about the term that should be used to designate this phenomenon. Among those used were “uncivil society,” “bad civil society” (Ruzza, 2020), “conservative civil society” (Marczewski, 2018), and “patriotic and religious civil society organisations” (Greskovits, 2020, p. 263), as well as the terminology pertaining to the field of social movements and contentious politics (e.g., “conservative social movement” in Dietrich 2014 in reference to the Tea Party). Because this phenomenon challenges the liberal concept of civil society in various ways, its categorization raised such questions as whether to include openly antidemocratic or exclusionary activities under the umbrella of “civil” and to what extent to engage with the scholarship on contentious politics (Jacobsson & Korolczuk, 2017; Ruzza, 2020).
In this article, “right-wing civil society” is an umbrella term referring to various organizations (associations, clubs, foundations, different kinds of church-supported organizations, all of them of local or national scale) and initiatives (e.g., protests, movements). In line with said debate, I ascribe the term “civil society” to the studied phenomenon due to its largely grassroots character and reliance on voluntary activity. I use the term “right-wing” in this article for two main reasons, first of them being the often-open self-identification of many organizations, including Gazeta Polska clubs, as being on the right side of political conflict, that is, running in counter to “liberals,” “leftists,” and “communists.” The second reason is that I focus in this article on organizations that indeed have been standing on the right side of political division in Poland. In post-1989 Poland, “right-wing” as a political stance implies anti-communism, an emphasis on the important role of the Catholic Church in the present time and in the history of the Polish nation and traditions, as well as the prevalence of national sovereignty (displayed, for example, in moderate or radical Euroscepticism) in political discourse (Szawiel, 2002; Żerkowska-Balas et al., 2016).
With respect to the debate on the reasons behind the rise of illiberal politics in the recent decade, I turn to the analysis of activities of local elites whose long-term engagement in local activism often blurs the border between civil society and partisan involvement. Such a perspective implies that to explain the rise of right-wing civil society we must take into account grassroots organizing, as well as the activities of the national-level political actors (Skocpol & Williamson, 2012; Greskovits, 2020). I follow this approach, showing how politicians and civil society activists in Poland have been jointly articulating a “nostalgic” (Kończal & Wawrzyniak, 2018, p. 398) politics of memory.
Memory studies come in contact with the literature on civil society in works on social memory, which discuss the relationship between collective historical memory and social identities. In Poland, this body of studies (Nijakowski, 2010; Malicki, 2012; Szacka, 2006; Kwiatkowski, 2008; Szpociński & Kwiatkowski, 2006) sheds light on the way in which the country has been divided into communities of remembrance, highlighting the salience of social memory in local and national politics, as well as the involvement of local organizations in conflicts over its content. Some of the works on social memory also analyze the role of political parties and other actors active in the public sphere in organizing social memory around “reminding objects” of cultural memory such as monuments, literature, and films (Assmann, 2008) as well as bodily practices, for example, commemorative rituals (Connerton, 1989).
Scholarly works on the politics of memory show that interpretations of the past delineate borders between political communities and can be used as a framework for partisan mobilization (Greskovits, 2020, pp. 257–258). In Poland, the politics of memory has indeed been used by different political actors in national and local debates over the shape of official memory to mobilize politicians as well as numerous grassroots initiatives for the restructuration of their respective localities through both local activities and national-level parliamentary initiatives (Ochman, 2013). In this article, I focus mainly on PiS, which Bernhard and Kubik (2014) described as a “mnemonic warrior” for its anti-pluralist and radical stance on social memory, which advocates a “moral revolution” amounting to no less than changing the political regime to leave the tainted project of III RP (III Rzeczpospolita [Third Polish Republic]) behind. This vision, mythical and “nostalgic” in its emphasis on the heroic role of Poles in history, legitimizes its proponents’ claim to power as carriers of the truth (Kubik & Bernhard, 2014, pp. 14–15).
Ekiert et al. (2017a, p. 347; 2017b) have argued that the establishment by the PiS-led government of clientelist ties with selected civil society organizations is leading to political polarization in civil society in Poland. The emergence of this political divide since 2016 is empirically identifiable on the basis of survey data, large-scale comparative datasets, and expert reports. Survey data (Pacewicz, 2018) show a strong relationship between one’s partisan preference and declared support for specific civil society organizations, initiatives, and social movements.1 The transfer of the political division from the partisan scene to civil society after 2016 was acknowledged by employees of civil society organizations as well, both those that gained and those that lost out on the political change (Arczewska & Dudkiewicz, 2019, pp. 42, 52–53). This shift is also reflected in V-Dem data, CSOSI (Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index), and Freedom House data (see Figures 2, 3, and 4).2
While agreeing with Ekiert et al. about the role of the ruling right-wing coalition in this process of partisan polarization, I expand on and qualify their claim by pointing out that some of the civil society organizations currently favored by ZP had supported it already before its electoral success in 2015. This leads me to agree with the claim that the current state of politically divided civil society is largely a consequence of patterns of political engagement before 2015 (Korolczuk, 2017, p. 3). This process, however, was much stronger on the right—the amplification of left-wing and liberal political engagement took place only after ZP had taken power—and consisted in reciprocal relations between civil society and parties going many years into the past. The PiS-led government’s financial support for many right-wing civil society organizations after 2015 shows that in order to build a dominant position in the civil society sphere the party had to, at least initially, rely on a programmatic alliance with organizations and initiatives that supported it during its years in the opposition (Ślarzyński, 2018). Starting from this observation, I make two contributions. First, I claim that in creating a quasi-movement composed of right-wing parties, initiatives and civil society organizations that helped it accede to power, PiS built on a preexisting feature of Polish civil society: the established pattern of cooperation between traditional civil society organizations and political parties. The post-1989 connections between right-wing politicians and political parties with various local and national civil society organizations, initiatives, and media have meant that the borders between these groups were often porous. The idea of clientelism, implying separation between parties and civil society, as well as an asymmetric relation between these patrons and clients, obscures the fact that the relationship between right-wing civil society and politicians has often been reciprocal. My second contribution is to show this dynamic of mutual support by focusing on the “nostalgic” politics of memory that right-wing politicians and civil society have been advocating since 1989, often through direct, if usually local-level, cooperation. I claim that the centrality of social memory—the conflict over what and how to remember and forget—for today’s political division is an achievement of both right-wing politicians and civil society organizations.
Civil Society Organizations and Political Parties in Poland After 1989: Main Patterns of Cooperation and Separation
The involvement of civil society organizations in politics has been common in Poland since the early years of the transformation (Ekiert & Kubik, 1999). The partisan involvement of right-wing civil society organizations is, therefore, not an innovation: it follows a pattern characteristic of traditional community organizations (Kurczewski & Kurczewska, 2001), which often play the role of “political communities” (Sowa, 2012, pp. 56–57). Open to the discussions on the shape of local and national social memory (Kurczewska, 2016), these organizations are often involved in politics, being, therefore, different from NGOs, which are a post-1989 phenomenon and have focused on other issues, purposefully maintaining an apolitical stance (Jezierska, 2018). This compartmentalization—that is, involvement in politics by the former category of organizations and separation from politics among NGOs—is not just an ideological difference: it also means that, on the local level, prior to 2015 members of these organizations were active in different fields and present in different spaces. The lack of institutional connections, especially between NGOs and numerous right-wing civil society organizations that gained state support after 2015, is also evident on the basis of the interviews with employees of NGOs (Arczewska & Dudkiewicz, 2019). The third symptom of the separation, implying a self-explanatory distinct status of NGOs in the civil society field, is the explicit exclusion of OSP (Ochotnicze Straże Pożarne [Volunteer Fire Departments]) from large-scale reports on Polish civil society (e.g., Klon/Jawor, 2018).
The categories of traditional community organizations and NGOs do not exhaust the diversity of the field of Polish civil society. The latter is a much more clear-cut category due to its professionalized character, mode of financing, and goals, which are often tied with the functioning of the state (Bartkowski, 2003; Jezierska, 2018, p. 355). The former includes a vast array of meso-level actors, sometimes active in informal or semiformal frameworks, that focus on the local social memory. These include parish organizations, various organizations cultivating local cultures and history, often taking care of local museums, usually called “associations of friends of [town name]” (Kurczewski et al., 2003), as well as KGW (Koła Gospodyń Wiejskich [Farmers’ Wives’ Associations]) (Szczepańska & Szczepański, 2019). Some mass organizations, such as veteran associations, prominent especially in the 1990s, and nationwide sets of local organizations like OSP also engage in social memory practices, for example, by taking part in commemoration ceremonies. Therefore, in my categorization, they play the role of traditional community organizations. However, I focus mainly on right-wing civil society actors that consequently made social memory into one of their main fields and frameworks of activity.
In 2002–18, NGOs, defined by their legal status as associations and foundations (Jezierska, 2015, p. 844), relatively rarely had regular relations with political parties. Since the 1990s, NGOs have established closer ties with local governments and other NGOs (Figure 1). Civil society actors often raised this issue, emphasizing fruitful cooperation within the sector, as well as the will to separate their activities not only from those of political parties but also often from those of economic actors (Mirońska & Zaborek, 2019; Bies, 2010, p. 1077).
In other parts of Polish civil society, involvement in politics has been an inherent part of social activities. Some organizations focused solely on culture; others were active only during electoral campaigns whereas yet others joined both. Some politically involved civil society organizations created their own local electoral lists for town councils or participated in lists that united several local associations into a coalition. Others supported their members running in elections as candidates of mainstream parties (Kurczewski & Kurczewska, 2001). The character of the connection between civil society organizations and political parties can be partly explained by the institutional legacies of the socialist regime. SLD (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej [Democratic Left Alliance]) and PSL (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe [Polish People’s Party]) inherited several nationwide organizations from their institutional predecessors that were, respectively, PZPR (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza [Polish United Workers’ Party]) and ZSL (Zjednoczone Stronnictwo Ludowe [United People’s Party]). SLD kept close ties with the previously state-controlled retiree3 and veteran4 organizations, which it often joined in local electoral coalitions in the 1990s (Łaciak, 2003, p. 110). Veterans’ associations, often cooperating with organizations of former political prisoners, were among the main civil society organizations active on the local level in the 1990s, and had a considerable impact on local cultures and politics. OSP, with almost 17,000 local branches and 690,000 members, has been keeping close ties with PSL, playing a similar role (Burdyka & Burdyka, 2014; Klon/Jawor, 2016b; Bartkowski, 2003, pp. 265–267; Bartkowski, 2006; GUS, 2017). Ties going back to times before 1989 were also observed with respect to post-Solidarity parties, which connected on the local level with, for example, professional associations (Łaciak, 2003a, p. 135), like the liberal UW (Unia Wolności [Freedom Union]), and Catholic organizations creating coalitions with AWS (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność [Solidarity Electoral Action]) (Zakrzewski & Łajtar, 2003, p. 195).
Since the early 1990s, there have been many right-wing and conservative organizations and initiatives separated from political parties by very porous borders. This situation had its origin as much in the common pre-1989 biographies and networks of people actively involved in civil society organizations and political parties in III RP (Mielczarek, 2006; Gliński, 2006, p. 72), as in the extreme fragmentation of right-wing post-Solidarity parties in the beginning of the 1990s. This atomization resulted in many small parties without expansive national organizations, especially in comparison to SLD, PSL, and NSZZ “S” (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy “Solidarność” [Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity”]). To function and to exist, these small parties relied heavily on civil society involvement in the form of discussion clubs or church organizations. The 1993 parliamentary elections were a turning point, resulting in the SLD-PSL coalition and in all right-wing and center-right parties but one being left out of parliament. On the one hand, it was a shock for the right-wing post-Solidarity milieu, preceded by the collapse of the Jan Olszewski government over one year earlier. The latter event was politically dramatized by Olszewski, who made sure that the vote of no confidence looked as a direct result of his government wanting to carry out the vetting of the political elite, including Lech Wałęsa (Krasowski, 2012, pp. 207–243). On the other hand, the electoral defeat was a cautionary tale showing that, in order to win, right-wing parties would have to unite, a move that would, inevitably, also involve civil society organizations. The combined potential of such unification was very high; if we include KPN (Konfederacja Polski Niepodległej [Confederacy of the Independent Poland]), which was able to pass the 5% electoral threshold, right-wing post-Solidarity parties together gathered around 30% of the vote in 1993.
In the 1990s, a very important player among right-wing organizations was Liga Republikańska (Republican League), which was responsible for the organization of an exhibition on Polish post–World War II anti-Soviet partisan groups and was the first one to refer to them as “cursed soldiers.” Since the 2000s, especially since 2015, this term has become the most successful invention of historical politics on the right (Kończal 2020). Other organizations included Pamiętamy (We Remember),5 Gazeta Polska clubs, and, after the 2010 Smolensk airplane crash, Solidarni20106 and RDI (Reduta Dobrego Imienia – Polska Liga przeciw Zniesławieniom [The Good Name Redoubt – Polish League Against Defamation]).7 Numerous radical nationalist organizations responsible for the organizational success of the Independence March are also worth mentioning here (Kotwas & Kubik, 2019, pp. 452–458), although this initiative is politically closer to the right-wing Konfederacja (Confederacy).
In this article, I focus on arguably the most prominent and long-lasting of these right-wing civil society organizations active in post-1989 Poland, that is, Gazeta Polska clubs. The clubs were initially founded to promote the right-wing weekly Gazeta Polska. A club could be established by a group of individuals who, conditional on agreeing to conduct activities in line with the policy of the weekly, would be granted the right to officially use the name and logo of Gazeta Polska (“Gazeta Polska Club Warsaw,” “Gazeta Polska Club Cracow,” etc.). This right could be taken away by the editorial team if some of the rules were violated by club members. These limitations, initially based on an unwritten set of rules, were collected and formalized into the Charter of Gazeta Polska Clubs in 2010.
The history of the clubs8 can be divided into two periods: 1994–1997 and from 2005 to the present. In both periods, Gazeta Polska clubs were functioning as nonregistered associations and were therefore not tracked by official registries. In 2012, when the Foundation of Gazeta Polska Clubs was created, they gained the right to finance their activities through the collection of donations, something that the clubs themselves could not be involved in due to their legal status. Clubs active in the 21st century were similar to their former incarnations in terms of their goals and repertoires of activities: the local promotion of the weekly and of right-wing politicians, both of which were bound together by a common vision of social memory. Support for the weekly included help in expanding the reader base of Gazeta Polska through, for example, club members’ personal day-to-day responsibility for sharing information on the periodical with their family and friends, or making sure that it is available in newsstands. Apart from that, clubs have organized various events, especially meetings with public figures, as well as protests and exhibitions. Since 2005, politicians taking part in clubs’ events have come predominantly from PiS, usually as invited guests or co-organizers. The status of these politicians ranged from rank-and-file parliamentarians or town councilors to party president Jarosław Kaczyński himself. In numerous instances, club members officially supported PiS in local, parliamentary, and presidential elections.
Gazeta Polska Clubs and Right-Wing Political Parties: the Role of Civil Society in Historical Politics
The first issue of Gazeta Polska was published in March 1993.9 Shortly afterward, the first set of Gazeta Polska clubs became active. The idea to form such clubs came from the editorial team of the weekly. In an article titled “Let’s Overcome Powerlessness and Found Gazeta Polska Clubs,” published on 17 February 1994 by the then deputy editor-in-chief, the need for the clubs was presented as closely connected with the consequences of the 1993 parliamentary elections. In general terms, the projected goals of the clubs consisted in the unification of scattered political representation of the Right and oppositional activities directed against the SLD-PSL coalition government, portrayed in the weekly as a malicious and corrupt post-communist group of politicians using public media to forward their agenda.
After the publishing of the abovementioned appeal, clubs started to appear on the map of Poland. The first one of them was founded in Bytom in the middle of February 1994 by a group connected with the local Solidarity Commission. At the end of 1996, there were 104 clubs in Poland, with an additional 16 associations active abroad, half of them in the United States. Considering the frequency of the weekly reports on clubs’ organizational activities published in Gazeta Polska, their level of activity started to decline in 1997. Klubowy serwis informacyjny (The Clubs’ Information Service), a section of the weekly devoted to the associations, appeared for the last time in May 1997.
Between 1994 and 1997, clubs were explicitly supporting right-wing parties. The character of this political engagement was visible also in the internal elections organized among the members of the editorial team in September 1993. The first place was taken by Jarosław Kaczyński’s PC (Porozumienie Centrum [Center Alliance]), the third one by Olszewski’s RdR (Ruch dla Rzeczpospolitej [Coalition for the Republic]), whereas the second one went to the conservative UPR (Unia Polityki Realnej [Real Politics Union]) advocating laissez-faire economic policies. This support was also evident before and after the 1993 parliamentary elections: many members of PC, RdR, and UPR were called “friends” and “people who are valued by us,” and after February 1994 they were frequently invited as guests to open meetings organized by the clubs.
In 1993, the main problems faced by the SLD-PSL government were related to economic and foreign policy challenges. In consequence, there was no clear articulation of politics of memory. Local actors, however, tried to promote their visions of the appropriate way of remembering the past in society. Already in the 1990s, even though there was no centrally imposed legal requirement, local politicians started to eliminate the symbolic links between III RP and the communist regime by relocating Red Army monuments and changing street names (Hałas, 2004). There was also an increased interest in studying those pages of Polish history that were marginalized or simply forbidden under state socialism (Polish-Jewish relations, the 1939–41 Soviet occupation, the contentious liberation of Poland by the Red Army in 1944–45, and the ethnic cleansing of Poles by Ukrainians in Volhynia in 1943–45).
Gazeta Polska clubs were among civil society organizations that took part in these local and national memory disputes. As early as 1994, they organized events such as lectures and commemoration ceremonies dedicated to historical milestones such as the Battle of Warsaw, the Soviet attack on Poland on 17 September 1939, the Katyn massacre, the Constitution of 3 May 1791, and Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. One of these events, organized in November 1994 by Gazeta Polska Club Poznań, initiated a committee aiming to appeal to the leaders of right-wing parties to come together. It was named, somewhat prophetically, “the United Right.”
Events held by the clubs indeed attracted various right-wing organizations. Those were NSZZ “S,” which was the most common partner of the clubs; Civitas Christiana, Klub Myśli Patriotycznej (Club of Patriotic Thought), Rodziny Radia Maryja (Radio Maryja Families); right-wing periodicals (Najwyższy Czas and Tygodnik Solidarność); as well as political parties10 and many, often informal, local organizations, and initiatives. As for the commemorative landscapes, clubs supported and organized the placing of plaques to commemorate victims of communism and sporadic protests against the public presence of Red Army monuments. The majority of commemorated events, even those dating back to World War II, were symbolically directed against one aggressor: the Soviet Russia. The contemporary political context, that is, the cabinet comprised of two post-communist parties regarded by the right-wing forces as their main foe, had therefore a very big influence on the content of clubs’ politics of memory.
The political decision that radically changed the framework of discourse about social memory in Poland was the one to establish IPN (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej [Institute of National Memory]). The law passed by AWS in 1998 defined the Polish People’s Republic as a totalitarian state and allowed to prosecute its culprits (Koczanowicz, 2008, p. 6). The legal attempts by national actors to shape social memory on the local level started in 2000–2001, when Kazimierz Ujazdowski, the then-minister of culture and national heritage in the AWS government, attempted to introduce a decommunization law. Its purpose was to erase all signs of the former regime from the public spaces of Polish municipalities (Ochman, 2013, pp. 149–150). This action, however, did not bring the critique of III RP into the center of public attention, where III RP was portrayed as merely a continuation of the communist regime, manifesting itself in the domination of the overarching “dark network” (układ) over Poland. This “semantic revolution” started after 2003 and was marked by the growing resonance of the term of “historical politics” (polityka historyczna) appropriated by PiS (Matyja, 2009). The political shift was an outcome of several events happening one after another: the Rywin Affair, election of Lech Kaczyński as the mayor of Warsaw, accession to the EU, and double electoral success of PiS in 2005. The corruption affair, which was brought to public attention in the middle of 2002, triggered a decline of support for SLD and was used by the right-wing forces as the primary reason to overcome the legacies of communism by deep restructuration of state institutions. When Lech Kaczyński, as the mayor of Warsaw, built the Warsaw Rising Museum in 2004, this put the emphasis on the national martyrdom, associated mostly with the Warsaw Uprising and the Katyn massacre (Łuczewski, 2016). The EU accession initiated attempts of post-communist CEE countries to make their experience of the Soviet regime part of the European historical and institutional memory (Mälksoo, 2009). The 2005 electoral success of PiS marked the start of a period when two post-Solidarity parties fought for the primacy of their version of social memory, which included the way in which World War II, the period of communism as well as NSZZ “S,” should be remembered (Bielasiak, 2010; Bernhard & Kubik, 2014). The importance of the “memory activists” for the Right was made apparent when PiS appointed Janusz Kurtyka, who had worked with WiN (Wolność i Niezawisłość [Freedom and Independence]), which had been responsible for commemorating “cursed soldiers” since the early 1990s, as the director of IPN (Kończal, 2020, p. 72).
The clubs supported the PiS-led government during the whole 2005–7 term. Except for associations that had been continuously active since the 1990s (in this case, only one example can be identified with certainty), 2005 also marks the foundation of the first new local association. In February 2020, the number of those associations in Poland amounted to 371, with an overwhelming majority operating in small and middle-size towns and big cities, and 71 abroad (KlubyGP). The clubs’ revival in the 21st century began with the attempt by the newly appointed Gazeta Polska editor-in-chief, Tomasz Sakiewicz, to seek support for the periodical in the face of its uncertain financial situation. Sakiewicz assumed his new position in 2005, after an internal conflict over the ownership of the journal, which resulted in Piotr Wierzbicki, who had been the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Polska since 1993, and Elżbieta Isakiewicz, his deputy, leaving the editorial team.
Arguably the most divisive issue to stir up a political debate during that period was the revived discussion on the process of vetting (lustracja) and decommunization. Throughout the period of heated public discussions on the necessity and nature of the procedures, the clubs organized frequent meetings with guests such as historians from the IPN to promote the idea of a thorough reckoning with the past. Other events, such as movie screenings and lectures, usually had the goal of presenting and emphasizing morally reprehensible deeds by police and secret service officers in the period of the Polish People’s Republic. For example, when the PiS-led coalition government was subjected to harsh criticism from the opposition and a large part of the media in 2006, the clubs from across the country organized a manifestation in Warsaw to support PiS and defend its idea of the Fourth Polish Republic. Clubs’ engagement in the local promotion of the national politics of memory agenda, put forward through IPN, shows ties between state institutions and civil society organizations.
The watershed date for the Gazeta Polska clubs, however, was the tragedy that took place near the Russian city of Smolensk. On 10 April 2010, Polish president Lech Kaczyński, his wife, and 94 other passengers died in a plane crash on their way to the Katyn war cemetery in Russia in order to commemorate the estimated 22,000 Poles executed by the NKVD in April and May 1940. In the first months after the disaster, club members initiated a tradition of holding monthly commemorations of the tragedy in Warsaw and other parts of Poland. They started to gather funds for monuments and plaques commemorating the victims of the plane crash. The clubs also organized public screenings of documentary films dedicated to the tragedy. From 2005 to 2015, the clubs organized more than 5,000 events of various kinds, mostly open meetings with guests, but also protests, marches, and exhibitions, not counting monthly commemorations of the Smolensk tragedy.
Poland After 2015: The Rise of Right-Wing Civil Society
Gazeta Polska clubs, as well as many other right-wing organizations and initiatives, benefited from the power shift in 2015. Building on their pre-2015 repertoire, the clubs have been openly supporting the policies of the PiS-led government, organizing meetings, protests, and anti-protests around those. The first manifestations took place at the end of January 2016, when representatives of the clubs from Poland and abroad protested in front of the European Parliament in Strasburg as well as in front of German embassies and consulates in Europe, the US and Canada, to show their support for ZP’s controversial changes to the Constitutional Court, defending them against the criticism by the Council of Europe and many members of the European Parliament. As the PiS-led government introduced changes in the judiciary immediately after coming to power, the clubs became a countervailing force in the field of civil society against KOD, founded in early December 2015, and other organizations that accused PiS of breaking democratic rules (Dejneka, 2016). Both organizations even met face-to-face during one of the manifestations on 13 December 2016, when the clubs, together with PiS, were commemorating the 35th anniversary of the introduction of martial law in Poland. KOD was using this occasion to organize a march under the slogan “Stop the Devastation of Poland.” The presence of club members was also visible during Donald Trump’s visit to Poland: hundreds of members of the local associations came to Warsaw to witness the speech by the 45th president of the United States, delivered on 5 July 2017 on the Krasińskich Square. Club members reacted enthusiastically to Trump’s speech, its content being perfectly in line with the heroic vision of Polish history promoted by the associations.
Following the electoral victory of the Right, the clubs also gained financial support from the state. Their annual rallies organized in 2016–21 were co-sponsored by state-owned companies. In 2018, the Foundation of Gazeta Polska Clubs received funds from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to promote Poland abroad (MSZ, 2018). In 2017, 2018, and 2019, the foundation was among organizations that received money from the Senate to engage with the Polish diaspora (Senate, 2018, 2019, 2020). The clubs were also able to influence the personal composition of public bodies. Following the amendments to the law on the KRS (Krajowa Rada Sądownictwa [National Council of the Judiciary]) in 2017, the clubs proposed their own candidate to KRS, who was supported by the government majority in 2018 (KRS, 2018; KlubyGP KRS, 2018). In addition, 14 and 10 club members were elected to parliament in 2015 and 2019, respectively.
The trail blazed by Gazeta Polska clubs, from civil society to state institutions, was followed by other organizations and their members. Noteworthy among those is the founder and chairman of RDI, who was chairman of the board of PFN (Polska Fundacja Narodowa [Polish National Foundation]) in 2016–19. The foundation, established in 2016, with an annual budget of around PLN 100 million financed by a number of state-owned companies, was tasked with promoting the brand of Poland around the world (PFN, 2021).
The organizational and political success of Gazeta Polska clubs stands in contrast with the trajectory of NGOs focusing on the “protection of human rights and freedoms, protection of minorities, care for equal opportunities, anti-discrimination, advocating for equal rights of women and men,” which lost the support of state institutions. Their self-reported situation is deteriorating, not just relative to organizations that are ideologically close to the current government, but also to NGOs focusing on other issues. The growing difficulties with acquiring financing from government ministries and state institutions undermine the stability of these organizations. Whereas this situation is sometimes perceived as an incentive to find other sources of financing through fundraising, tightening relations with local authorities, and applying to international institutions for financing, such initiatives cannot fully resolve the problems because the operations of those NGOs are being scapegoated by the state-controlled media and government politicians, which is coupled with frequent inspections and raids carried out by police and other state institutions (Arczewska et al., 2019). Political attacks on said organizations have sometimes been backed and even spearheaded by organizations active within the orbit of the ZP government. One vivid example is the report published by the Instytut na Rzecz Kultury Prawnej Ordo Iuris (Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture), a foundation, belonging to the phenomenon of the Global Christian Right (Curanović, 2021), with ties to Ziobro’s SP and opposition right-wing Konfederacja. The report contains a list of organizations cooperating with schools to provide sex education classes that were highlighted as suspicious. The work of those organizations was called into question based on the suspicion that they promote “customs of LGBTQ groups, identify with the gender ideology, promote a permissive model of sex education” (Ordo Iuris, 2018, p. 3).
Worth mentioning are also the government’s attempts at engaging organizations that had not taken part in its pre-2015 political movement. The most prominent of these are OSP and the KGW, already mentioned in this article, which were made dependent on central ministries, a move that put an end to their relative independence. The financial decisions of OSP were made dependent on the State Fire Service whereas KGW, by virtue of a new law adopted in 2018, is now obliged to register with the Agency for Restructuring and Modernization of Agriculture. These actions were accompanied by the growing transfers of public funds to these organizations (Sienicki, 2019; Ferfecki, 2020).
Discussion and Conclusion
In this article, I focused on the causes of the growing political divide in Polish civil society and reasons behind the surging influence of right-wing organizations. I argued that the preexisting characteristics of Polish civil society made it possible for PiS to engage and incorporate various organizations in a quasi-movement that, after 2015, benefited from the political change. The activities adopted by PiS have been changing the compartmentalized civil society in Poland into a politically divided one, where patriotic, nationalist, and Catholic organizations increasingly find state support. At the same time, organizations fighting for minority rights and women’s rights increasingly have become discouraged and have refrained from seeking such support, turning to alternative modes of financing such as business activity, fundraising, growing reliance on voluntary work, and applying for EU financing or other international grant schemes (CSOSI, 2019, pp. 168–177; Arczewska & Dudkiewicz, 2019, p. 51). ZP, however, is not only cementing the connections with organizations that supported it when the Right was in opposition. It is also pulling many traditional community organizations out of their local and thematic niches, bringing them closer to the state and, as a result, to the right-wing government under the umbrella of, vastly extended under ZP, tenders and competitions run by ministries and other state institutions. The already discussed cases of OSP and KGW are very good examples of this process.
The relationship between ZP and Gazeta Polska clubs after 2015 illustrates the reconfiguration of state after the alliance of a political party and civil society organizations has taken control over it. The defunding and open attacks on the abovementioned NGOs are used as a political act of fighting with the enemies of “tradition” and “Polishness.” NGOs, often portrayed as foreign entities, are used by the government to raise the stakes of cultural conflict. This is often done with the support of right-wing organizations and other state institutions. In this way, the pre-2015 compartmentalization of Polish civil society is evolving into a political conflict. Many organizations are no longer active in their own separate niches: the openly anti-pluralist stance of the current government forces them to take sides in specific realizations of the political conflict such as in the case of Czarny Protest (Black Protest) and numerous events taking place around Poland in 2016 in protest against the tightening of the abortion law.
By focusing on the case of Poland, I provide a perspective on a country that has been undergoing gradual regime transformation resulting in democratic backsliding (Markowski, 2018). The transformation of civil society has been a part, and to some extent also a driver, of the ongoing regime change. This process unfolding in Poland resembles Fidesz-driven regime change in Hungary, where organized civil society played an important role in legitimizing Viktor Orbán’s project, especially in its initial stages. Both cases show that the growing influence of right-wing civil society should not be regarded as dependent solely on political parties’ agency. Paying attention to long-term local-level relationships between politicians and civil society actors, particularly in the context of discussions on social memory, sheds light on the origins of political projects of the Right, and their strength. This claim to incorporate in the analytical framework the category of politics of memory is especially pertinent in the studies of post-communist CEE countries that joined the EU in 2004. The explicit stance on World War II and the period of state socialism is one of the ways in which politicians in Poland, Hungary, as well as the Baltic states “place” their countries in international community, thus constructing their particular security projects (Mälksoo, 2009, pp. 654–655). These projects, being a source of contention in national politics, inform the character of political divisions.
I would like to thank Melis G. Laebens, Joshua K. Dubrow, as well as the editors and two anonymous reviewers for insightful comments on different versions of this article. I presented the first iteration of this work during a conference, “Pivotal Ideas of the Last 30 Years: Democracy, Society and Markets at the Turn of the Century,” held at the Graduate School for Social Research at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in October 2018. I am grateful to its organizers for that opportunity.
One of the questions answered in the survey was “If you were to get involved in a movement or a socio-political organization, which one would you feel closest to?” PiS supporters’ preferences are diametrically different from those expressed by the rest of the respondents. Whereas PiS electorate indicated primarily Radio Maryja Families (18%) and Gazeta Polska clubs (16%), Poles supporting other parties chose Black Protest (13%), KOD (Komitet Obrony Demokracji [Committee for the Defense of Democracy]) (13%), and ORP (Obywatele RP [Citizens of Poland]) (7%) (Pacewicz, 2018).
V-Dem (Coppedge et al., 2019, Pemstein et al., 2019) marks the upward trend in the level of repression of civil society organizations in Poland, the growth of governmental control over the entry and exit of civil society organizations into public life, and the growing influence of religious (Catholic) organizations on public policy. A similar trend concerning the limits set on the sphere of associational activity in Poland is also visible in the measures used by CSOSI (CSO Sustainability Index Explorer 1997–2020) and Freedom House (Freedom in the World, 2017, pp. 413–419; Freedom in the World, 2018, pp. 783–791). V-Dem, CSOSI, and Freedom House data show that changes in the civil society sector in Poland are not the result of an international trend, but of internal policies pursued by PiS—in both cases, Poland does not follow the regional trends.
Polski Związek Emerytów, Rencistów i Inwalidów (Polish Society of Retirees, Rentiers and Disabled Persons), created in 1975 and gathering around 400,000 members in approximately 2,400 local and regional chapters in 2017.
Związek Kombatantów RP i Byłych Więźniów Politycznych (Association of Veterans of the Republic of Poland and Former Political Prisoners), a post-1989 organizational continuator of the party-controlled Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokrację (Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy), with local and regional chapters, had around 40,000 members as of the end of 2015, a number that was over ten times smaller than 25 years earlier.
A foundation active since the 1990s, carrying out commemorations of “cursed soldiers,” mostly by erecting monuments and placing plaques (Kończal, 2020, p. 72).
An association registered in 2011, organizing different events commemorating the victims of the Smolensk plane crash (Solidarni, 2010).
Foundation created in 2012 initiating and supporting “actions aimed at correcting false information on Poland’s history, in particular the Second World War, the role of Poles in the war, Polish people’s attitude to Jews, and German concentration camps” (Reduta, 2012). The foundation, among other activities, regularly publishes reports on how Polish history is portrayed in foreign media.
Information on clubs’ activities is in large part based on the analysis of the Gazeta Polska weekly from the period 1993–2020.
The following two sections of the article are based on the analysis of information about clubs made available in Gazeta Polska weekly issues published between 1993 and 2020 unless specified otherwise with a reference. Information on Gazeta Polska clubs was usually limited to a recurring section of the weekly Klubowy serwis informacyjny (The Clubs’ Information Service) but sometimes appeared in different types of texts, for example, editorials and opinion sections.
PC, RdR (later Ruch Odbudowy Polski [Movement for Reconstruction of Poland]), ZChN (Zjednoczenie Chrześcijańsko-Narodowe [Christian National Union]), and KPN.