Insight Poland

The politicization of appointments in Poland’s academic sphere

Michał Bilewicz has now been waiting for more than a year for Polish President Andrzej Duda to officially approve his nomination as Professor, the highest academic title in Poland.

Although a mere formality requiring a simple signature, the process has been dragging on for an unusually long time, and Bilewicz fears that Polish authorities will, once more, turn a deaf ear to the nomination. An expert on anti-Semitism, xenophobia and hate speech, Bilewicz found himself in the spotlight, in 2018, following a lecture he gave at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. poland academic

Bilewicz’s case illustrative of academic battles in Poland

Commenting on the anti-Semitic campaign launched by the communist leadership in March 1968, Bilewicz drew a parallel with the rising hate speech one can witness in Poland today. His claim was quickly labelled as “anti-Polish” by a number of commentators and officials. Two senators from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party even called out the Culture Minister regarding the academic’s “lack of objectivity”.

Michał Bilewicz’s non-appointment – reminiscent of the case of Dariusz Stola, the former head of the Polin Museum – serves as a clear reminder that the Holocaust remains a highly controversial historical topic in Poland to this day.

In February 2018, the Senate passed a law imposing fines and even jail sentences to anyone implying that the Polish nation or state were responsible, or co-responsible, for the crimes committed by the Third Reich on Polish soil during World War II.

After facing a backlash from the international community, the bill was eventually amended and watered down a few months later. The move nonetheless deteriorated diplomatic relations with Israel, which didn’t send any representatives to attend the commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII in Warsaw, last September. poland academic

Poland coming to terms with its history

More broadly, the PiS-led government has been trying, for several years, to co-opt the national narrative, including by keeping, as much as possible, the academic sphere on a tight leash – for instance, by taking control of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), drafting new school programs or launching several national museums (see, among others, the Westerplatte controversy).

History plays a crucial part in Polish society, a key role stemming, among other factors, from the numerous tragedies that marked the country’s history, as well as from the stranglehold on historical discourse imposed by the Communist regime during nearly half a century.

Over the last thirty years, Poland has been rediscovering its own history, an unpreventable source of controversies and disagreements. It’s critical for Polish society to go through this process – which is still, whether we’re talking about the 1940s-1950s or the 1980s-1990s, far from over. But to come to terms with its past without polarizing society even more or rewriting Polish history with distorted facts, Poland has to do so without restricting personal freedoms nor exploiting the issue for political purposes.

This article was written by Solène Mboussa and originally published in French by Euro Créative, an official partner of Kafkadesk.