Countering the Radical Right: Opinion

From street to state: How radical nationalists gained power in Poland

The appointment of a former far-Right activist to a key state body shows how deep the radical Right runs in Polish institutions

Justyna Kajta
1 April 2021, 10.03am
Historian Tomasz Greniuch founded a regional branch of the prominent radical Right organisation, the National Radical Camp, seen here at a 2011 rally
Wojciech Stróżyk / Alamy Stock Photo
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The appointment of a well-known radical Right figure, Tomasz Greniuch, to lead the Wrocław branch of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), recently caused outrage in Poland.

The IPN is an important state research institute focusing on Polish history. Among other things, it is responsible for investigating crimes committed against the Polish nation under Nazism and communism.

On 22 February, two weeks after the announcement, Greniuch officially resigned from his new position. But the damage was done: the controversial appointment revealed the overlap between radical Right nationalism and public institutions in the country.

A historian, Greniuch was already head of the IPN’s branch in the small city of Opole, but Wrocław is one of the biggest cities in Poland. He is known as a former far-Right activist and the founder of a regional branch of the prominent radical Right organisation, the National Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny, ONR).

He was pictured giving a Nazi salute at various ONR events, including a march in Kraków in 2007 and an anti-semitic event in 2005 to commemorate the 1936 pogrom against Jews in the town of Myślenice (when nationalists led by Adam Doboszyński attacked Jews and their shops and attempted to burn down the synagogue).

Today, Greniuch frames his use of the Nazi salute as a mistake, but only a few years ago – when he was ONR’s spokesperson – he defended the gesture, claiming that it was used by the Ancient Romans and should not be linked only to Adolf Hitler’s politics.

Against this backdrop, Greniuch’s appointment to such a prominent role in IPN became too controversial for many people, including local politicians, the Israeli embassy and, eventually, representatives of the country’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS).

Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, awarded Greniuch the Bronze Cross of Merit in 2018 for scholarship on Poland’s wartime history, but he now concedes that Greniuch was correct to resign. In this particular instance, it was politically profitable for PiS to prevent discussion about Greniuch in the media and avoid exposing Poland to international criticism or potential conflict with Jewish communities.

One example that proves the rule

The case of Tomasz Greniuch illustrates a broader process – it shows how right-wing nationalists can further their careers within the relatively favourable environment of political opportunities created by the PiS government.

This process began many years ago. In 2006, when Lech Kaczyński, the founder of PiS, was president of Poland, the minister of education was Roman Giertych, leader of the League of Polish Families (Liga Polskich Rodzin, LPR). The same Giertych had in 1989 reactivated another significant nationalist organisation, the All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska, MW). Leading MW activists first rose to political prominence in the early 2000s, and the PiS victory in the 2015 elections again created a space for them in official politics.

Tomasz Greniuch defended his use of the Nazi salute, claiming it was used by the Ancient Romans

Some former MW leaders are currently MPs for the radical Right party Confederation Liberty and Independence (Konfederacja Wolność i Niepodległość). Krzysztof Bosak, who headed the MW in 2005–06, was also a candidate in the 2020 presidential election, winning 6.78% of the vote. What we see here is the radical Right’s ‘long march through the institutions’ (to borrow Antonio Gramsci’s term).

The current situation is a result of a long and concerted effort, the result of radical Right groups using democratic institutions to gain power.

Catholic, conservative, patriotic and nationalist circles in Poland spend years mobilizing supporters – one could say they are building an illiberal pillar of civil society, in which the narrative of a national Catholic society is what matters most. Then these circles intermingle with the world of the radical Right and parliamentary politics.

Radical Right nationalists start appearing not only in political parties, but – like Tomasz Greniuch – in public institutions that influence government policy towards history and its teaching in schools.

In fact, under the PiS government, several institutions have already been established to serve this purpose: for example, the Pilecki Institute (2017), the Institute of the Legacy of Solidarity (2019), the Institute for Legacy of Polish National Thought (2020) and others.

The last one is especially interesting as it was recently commissioned to prepare an expert opinion on the legitimacy of a suggested ban on ONR. Jan Żaryn, the institute’s director, has defended ONR more than once in his statements. He also reviewed Tomasz Greniuch’s doctoral thesis, which demonstrates just how close relations are between nationalist circles and state institutions in Poland, and how blurred the line separating them.

In this context, it is worth noting that Poland’s Supreme Court recently ruled that it is acceptable to describe ONR as “fascist”. The ruling emphasised that the term is justified because today’s ONR “uses the same symbols and name [as a] pre-war organisation that was openly fascist”.

It is unlikely that ONR will, in fact, be banned, but the Supreme Court’s verdict has symbolic importance for those who oppose the whitewashing of ONR and its history.

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