More than once, Poland saved Western civilization, M. D. Aeschliman explained in Crisis magazine some years ago. Read his two-part essay on the topic. It’s high-information and insightful. I learned from it.
He points to a series of events. Polish soldiers arrived at the last minute to defeat the invading Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. In 1920, at the Battle of Warsaw, the Polish army defeated the invading Red Army, thwarting, at least for a time, the Soviet Union’s imperial designs on the continent to its west. During the Cold War of 1945–90, Polish dissidents took a leading role in bringing about the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe.
Recently on the Corner, Aeschliman suggested that respect for that noble history should temper international reaction to the politicization of Poland’s present-day judicial system: “European Union criticism of Poland and Hungary for alleged human-rights abuses or judicial deficiencies strikes me as a classic example of amnesia and present-mindedness inflicted on peoples and nations whose vast sufferings in the long past and the recent past are almost impossible to conceive.”
Or is it vice versa? Perhaps the reason that the judicial controversy in Poland alarms people, including Poles, is that they remember the closed societies and authoritarian regimes that afflicted Europe last century.
Aeschliman lauds National Review for its attention to Eastern Europe over the years. He cites Radek Sikorski and the late John Lukacs, both of whom wrote for the magazine. Sikorski was a foreign correspondent for National Review from the 1980s until shortly before he entered the Polish government in 2007. He served as defense minister and foreign minister and then in parliament.
Sikorski is now a leading critic of Law and Justice, the ruling party, which seeks to remove sitting judges whom it considers partisan and to replace them with jurists more sympathetic to its agenda. Members of the National Council of the Judiciary, the body that nominates judges and reviews ethics complaints against them, used to be appointed by two independent associations of jurists. In 2017, the lower house of parliament, with Law and Justice in the majority, passed a bill to transfer to itself the power to appoint members to the council.
Facing public protest, President Andrzej Duda vetoed the bill in July 2017, but it was reintroduced, and in December of that year he signed it into law, against objections from Polish judges, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the U.S. State Department, and former Polish presidents including Lech Wałęsa and Donald Tusk. Parliament proceeded to stack the council with party loyalists.
Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, with which discussions of illiberalism in Eastern Europe tend to be linked these days, supports the Polish government in that maneuver. No surprise there.
Lukacs, the Hungarian-American historian who wrote for National Review on occasion, penned an open letter to Orbán in 2014. He described what he saw as the prime minister’s longstanding aversion to the West and to the idea that Hungary belongs to it. Lukacs’s rebuke was gentle and brief but pointed. He did not rehearse there his worry that democracy in the West had for decades been sliding toward a dangerous populism — an origin that, he stressed elsewhere, communism, fascism, and Nazism all shared — and so I won’t either, except to mention it.
No one should question the sincerity of the anti-communism that motivates Fidesz and, in Poland, Law and Justice. For many, communism in Eastern Europe is a living memory. But some seem to lose sight of the possibility that, in their determination to prevent anything resembling a recurrence of communist dictatorship in their countries, they are borrowing some of the tactics that, as they saw firsthand, did help repressive regimes hold on to power for a while.