The Problem of Trust in Poland

05/15/2015 02:46 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

On April 10, 2010, Polish President Lech Kaczynski traveled with his entourage to Russia to attend a commemoration of the Katyn massacre. In 1940, the Soviet NKVD murdered 22,000 Polish army officers, police, and intellectuals in the Katyn forest and then pinned the blame on the Nazis. In 1990, the Soviet Union finally admitted its guilt in the matter. Twenty years later, the Poles and the Russians were to have a historic meeting to commemorate the massacre. But on the morning that the Polish delegation was to arrive, the weather was terrible. The plane crashed on its descent to the airport near Smolensk, killing all on board.

Despite evidence of pilot error, any number of conspiracy theories became popular in Poland. There was a bomb on board. The Russians held up the plane because they didn't want the Poles to participate in the commemoration. The Russians wanted to assassinate Kaczynski. Some conspiracy theorists even speculated that the Russians produced artificial fog to cause the crash. The official Russian and Polish investigations, though differing on some details, both attributed the crash to pilot error. Still, some conspiracy theories remain popular.

But "Smolensk" means more in Polish political culture than just the circumstances surrounding the crash. It also represents a division in political attitudes. And it signals as well a profound distrust of official narratives.

Tomasz Kazmierczak is a keen observer of social trends in Poland. I first met him in 1990 when he was working as an advisor to the vice minister of labor and social policy in the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Today he teaches social work and studies community development. When we met up again in Warsaw in August 2013, our conversation inevitably turned to the deficit of trust in Polish society, the legacy of the Round Table negotiations, and the problem of "Smolensk."

"We Poles are, unfortunately, terribly suspicious," he told me. "It's best not to look too closely at where this comes from, but it's passed on from generation to generation. Connected to that, what happened after 1989 could not satisfy everyone. There were those who expected a settlement with the Communists and were disappointed since fortunately there was no settlement, in the larger civilizational sense. I believe that was wise. However, there were those who felt that no, there should be a very spectacular and dramatic end to the Communist era. But that didn't happen either."

These disappointments were not just abstract. They also people's careers. "Some of those people, who had political aspirations, were dissatisfied that they could not occupy the political position they would have liked in the new governing structures that formed after 1989," Kazmierczak continued. "They too started to question those structures. Now the right wing, the Law and Justice party (PiS) and its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, disqualifies or undermines the legitimacy of the Round Table. It also takes the form of trying to delegitimize the current government. For them 'Smolensk' becomes this foundational myth of a new order that can function as an alternative to the order created by the Round Table. These are pure political games."

This mistrust is not just a product of 1989 or the Communist era that preceded it.Contemporary Polish society is a peasant society," Kazmierczak explains. "The vast majority of Poles today have peasant roots. I also have peasant roots. And mistrust is an element of peasant culture. Poland, in comparison to other European countries, maintained the system of serfdom for a very long time - up to the middle of the 19th century. And it was liquidated not as a result of the actions of Poles but only at the initiative of the occupational authority. The legacy of that system remains. It lies deep in the psyche of people. And if I don't take care, the peasant pops up in me as well."

The devastations of World War II didn't help - the Katyn massacre of the cream of the intelligentsia, the Nazi exterminations. "It's not just a question of the extermination of the intelligentsia, but also the extermination of the peasant elite who were educated after Poland regained independence," he said. "They were all liquidated by the Germans. Anyway, all of which is to say that mistrust exists. If various things happen that have complex consequences or unclear results, then of course that's good soil or favorable conditions for the emergence of the kind of mistrust that we have."

Kazmierczak remains an optimist on this matter. "I believe that it should change," he concluded. "Maybe it's even changing now but we don't have any way of evaluating the change. It should change because the educational level will rise, first of all. Second, it should change because the weakness of social capital, this mistrust that we have now, is at the moment a subject of public debate. It's being named and as a result of this, it's being talked about. It's obvious that this is a problem and social capital is something we lack. Already it's very important that the patient knows that they are sick, recognizes that they are weak."

The Interview

Why do you think that part of political society believes in this conspiratorial theory about the secret deals at Magdalenka during the Round Table negotiations?

First of all, I'd say it's a feature of Polish society. It's not new. It has its roots much earlier. And it's a case of mistrust. We Poles are, unfortunately, terribly suspicious. It's best not to look too closely at where this comes from, but it's passed on from generation to generation. Connected to that, what happened after 1989 could not satisfy everyone. There were those who expected a settlement with the Communists and were disappointed since fortunately there was no settlement, in the larger civilizational sense. I believe that was wise. However, there were those who felt that no, there should be a very spectacular and dramatic end to the Communist era. But that didn't happen either.

Some of those people, who had political aspirations, were dissatisfied that they could not occupy the political position they would have liked in the new governing structures that formed after 1989. They too started to question those structures. Now the right wing, the Law and Justice party (PiS) and its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, disqualifies or undermines the legitimacy of the Round Table. It also takes the form of trying to delegitimize the current government. For them „Smolensk" becomes this foundational myth of a new order that can function as an alternative to the order created by the Round Table. These are pure political games.

As it happened, I was in Bosnia Herzegovina at the end of 1990s. I had a chance to talk briefly with people who lived there and were involved in social work. I heard a sociologist there, I don't remember his name, who spoke with such great bitterness about the results of all the wars in Yugoslavia and the destruction of all the relationships, all those connections that linked neighbor to neighbor (and sometimes even people who were closer). That's when I understood that what had happened in Yugoslavia was the result of various games, of completely irresponsible politicians who in their ambitions tried to win through appeals to nationalism.

We avoided this here in Poland. But I am fully convinced that if people like Kaczynski and those similar to him had been in key positions in 1990, it might not have been another Yugoslavia, because Poland is not Yugoslavia. But the process of transformation could have been much worse, in an atmosphere of much more heated conflict among politicians. So, in other words, I'm trying to say that Magdalenka is also an attempt to delegitimize the current governance for contemporary political purposes. This kind of "Magdalenka" thinking, a conspiracy in other words, involves a mistrust that is swallowed with the mother's milk, passed down through socialization from generation to generation. It's sad for me to see that this current generation, which has not had the experience of the Communist period in Poland, also reveals the same attitude, which means that it's an element of the culture.

I agree that on the one hand these are political games and attempts at delegitimation and on the other hand a question of trust. This is a problem throughout the world.

Yes, and speaking of trust, we are talking also about social capital. Countries can be differentiated by their level of social capital. This is the famous work of Robert Putnam in Italy. Northern Italy has a very high level of social capital. On the other hand, Sicily in southern Italy, has the phenomenon of so-called amoral familism.

According to this thesis, contemporary Polish society is a peasant society. The vast majority of Poles today have peasant roots. I also have peasant roots. And mistrust is an element of peasant culture. Poland, in comparison to other European countries, maintained the system of serfdom for a very long time - up to the middle of the 19th century. And it was liquidated not as a result of the actions of Poles but only at the initiative of the occupational authority. The legacy of that system remains. It lies deep in the psyche of people. And if I don't take care, the peasant pops up in me as well.

That's why I say that this mistrust has a deep cultural conditioning effect and is very deeply rooted. That's why it is passed down from generation to generation. Of course, subsequent historical events, for example World War II, led to the extermination of those who might have built up the social capital of trust in Polish society. That was another of the often unanticipated results of World War II. The level of trust can be correlated with education. Those who are better educated don't have the tendency to believe in every manifestation of reality, every conspiracy, all these secret forces and devils and so on. If those people aren't around, it only opens up more space for people who think differently.

It's not just a question of the extermination of the intelligentsia, but also the extermination of the peasant elite who were educated after Poland regained independence. They were all liquidated by the Germans. Anyway, all of which is to say that mistrust exists. If various things happen that have complex consequences or unclear results, then of course that's good soil or favorable conditions for the emergence of the kind of mistrust that we have.

How is it possible to solve this problem? In other words, is it a question simply that culture will gradually change, or can the government or other social institutions do something to change the situation and create greater trust?

It's not something that can be achieved from one day to the next. It must be a process. I am an optimist, and I believe that it should change. Maybe it's even changing now but we don't have any way of evaluating the change. It should change because the educational level will rise, first of all. Second, it should change because the weakness of social capital, this mistrust that we have now, is at the moment a subject of public debate. It's being named and as a result of this, it's being talked about. It's obvious that this is a problem and social capital is something we lack. Already it's very important that the patient knows that they are sick, recognizes that they are weak.

Traditionally, the third sector is the area of society that can both take advantage of the resources of social capital and be the source of that capital. This third sector in Poland has been developing. Everyone complains that it's weak and bureaucratized, that it's dependent on public finance. I too complain about the third sector this way, but I nonetheless appreciate that it's developing and that people understand now that it's possible to organize from the bottom up. We have now something called a citizen's advice bureau organized through an association that I've been the president of for 15 years. And believe me I have full confidence that all the financial activities of this bureau are in order. I know that something like this can fail. Sometimes it happens. But just as long as there's no cataclysm, such organizations will gradually build up their capacity. At the same time, everything is changing, which makes this process more difficult.

In fact, things are changing so completely that we are in a long-term transition similar to the break between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment. Here everything is changing. What we have now is not what it was in the past and not what it will be in the future. Everything takes a transitional form. It's not easy to catch hold of these changes. Everything is uncertain because it's difficult to predict what will happen. In stable times it's certainly easier not only to rebuild trust but to build it up from scratch. But we'll see.

I'd also like to ask you about the Balcerowicz plan, specifically about the social situation. At this point, how would you evaluate that plan from the point of view of today, 23 years later? Should the plan have been different, or was it in general a good one?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.