Insight Poland

The Polish Institute of National Remembrance, or the danger of politicising history


Krakow, Poland – In 1998, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) was created, in their own words, to “popularize modern Polish history” and “investigate crimes committed” during the periods of totalitarian oppression.

However, from the notorious “memory laws” to former president Lech Wałęsa’s public fall from grace, the IPN has grown to play a critical, yet shadowy role in the shaping of Poland’s current political climate.         

What is the IPN, and why should we care?

The idea of a “memory institute” is by no means unique to Poland, in fact, several similar institutions sprang-up in Central and Eastern Europe – including in the Czech Republic and Ukraine – following the fall of communism and during the democratic transition.

However, a key task of Poland’s institute has been to lead the process of “decommunization” and what is referred to as “lustration.” In effect these programs are defined by revealing and prosecuting, in various ways, the crimes and criminals of the former communist regime. But owing to its distinctly peaceful transition from communism (see the Round Table Debate) it was only a fine line which distinguished those who were and were not “criminally” involved with the former regime, a fact which has haunted Polish politics for over three decades.

This blurry distinction, where former nomenklatura cleanly integrated into the new democratic system, has often made it difficult for IPN to determine who exactly should be held accountable.

At the same time, this initially conciliatory approach to transition greatly broadened the pool of potential suspects in the future. In 2007 this was only exacerbated, when the short-lived Law and Justice (PiS) led government expanded the list of those who could be investigated. Almost simultaneously, this period highlighted the potential political use of IPN, whose methods of “decommunization” were, at best, subjective, and at worst akin to partisan witch-hunts. 

In 2016, directly after the Law and Justice party again swept into power, IPN took a new and distinctly political turn when PiS appointed the controversial Jarosław Szarek as director. Szarek quickly became famous for his mismanagement of the institute and his links to the ultranationalist ONR party. Since then, the mission of the IPN was expanded to include the upholding of “memory law,” which, like decommunization, is a largely subjective category.

Through these programs, the IPN has in many ways become an overt political instrument of “purging” and/or discrediting government officials and political adversaries, fuelling the institute’s notorious reputation today.

Wałęsa and the judges

Though there are many instances where handiwork of the post-2016 IPN is visible, there are a few examples which stand out and demonstrate the political instrument the IPN has become.

For many, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former Polish president Lech Wałęsa was a key actor in the Solidarność democratic movement and remains one of the most internationally known Polish politicians. Yet, despite Wałęsa’s relatively low political profile today, since 2016 his public image has been caught up in renewed accusations that he informed for and was on the payroll of the communist secret services during the 1970’s.

It comes as little surprise that these accusations largely resulted from an investigation led by the IPN, considering the longstanding personal and political tensions between Wałęsa and PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński. Though Wałęsa has long been out of Polish politics, the new scrutiny placed on his legacy reveals the willingness and ability of PiS to use the IPN for its own ends.

In a similar vein, the ongoing controversy over the independence of Poland’s supreme court has also been instigated in part by the efforts of the IPN, and PiS’s position that “black sheep among judges must be eliminated.” Since 2015 PiS has made a concerted effort to restructure Poland’s judiciary, and a key justification for this has been articulated as a need to “decommunize” and remove the “judicial elites.”

Regardless of decommunization’s legitimacy as a ground for dismissing judges, it has succeeded as a talking point, and its effects can be felt. In 2021, Supreme Court judge Józef Iwulski was stripped of his legal immunity at the behest of an IPN investigation into his conduct during the 1980’s. Far from being an isolated incident, this case bears witness to a trend in Polish politics where opponents to the ruling government are targeted and pressured through an appeal to decommunization and the work of a politicised IPN.

Jogging your memory

“Memory Law,” the other angle to IPN’s inflammatory reputation began largely in 2018 when President Andrzej Duda ratified a controversial addition to the institute’s legal reach, making it a prosecutable offense to attribute “responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich.”

This new law marks a clear deviation from IPN’s program of decommunization, yet considering the rapidly aging population of ex-communists, this new approach ensures that IPN will retain its potent legal and political power.

In effect this law has come to penalize, originally with up to three years imprisonment, certain expressions or assertions, the most famous example being the phrase “Polish death camps.” However, these restrictions have also included even suggestions that “some” Poles collaborated with Nazi forces during the Holocaust.

The definition of what is and is not illegal in this regard remains difficult to determine, which again opens opportunities to arbitrary or politically motivated applications. This move which regulates even the vocabulary of remembrance has been coined as a unique legislative category in Poland, the so-called “memory laws.”

Unsurprisingly, this move met with broad condemnation, both internationally and at home, and while the language in the initial draft law was toned down, a potentially dangerous precedent was set. Especially taking into consideration the, in many cases, overt politicisation of IPN, and memory laws being applicable on such a subjective basis.

For an institute which was designed to hold accountable the many abuses of totalitarian rule, the IPN has become more and more a reflection of that same authoritarian ethos. And while many who oppose the PiS-led government would shrug-off the IPN as propaganda mouthpiece, its activities and expanding reach hold grave implications in the progress of Polish democracy.

By Nathan Alan-Lee

Nathan is a research assistant working with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and a PhD student at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He completed his Masters degree in European studies at the Jagiellonian University, focusing on party politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, he is pursuing a study of politicisation and partisan influence in society, emphasising memory and historical revisionism.