WARSAW, Poland—Jaroslaw Kurski and Piotr Stasinski embody the hope that once was Poland. They struggled against the Communist regime for years in the underground press and as Solidaritymembers. They built Gazeta Wyborcza, now one of the most influential newspapers in the country, after the 1989 fall of communism. They helped usher in a period of democracy and open debate, one that included cultural space for historians such as Jan Gross, a Polish-born American who courageously confronted the taboo topic of Polish complicity in the Nazi extermination of nearly all of Poland’s 3 million Jews.
And then neoliberalism, imposed by global capitalism and international banks, began to spread its poison. Legions of unemployed or underemployed were cast adrift. Two million Poles, many of them young people desperate for jobs, have left to work abroad. Governmental austerity programs devastated cultural institutions, including public schools, the arts and public broadcasting. And finally, following a familiar death spiral, the October 2015 elections brought to power the nationalists and demagogues of the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS). There is no left-wing party represented in the parliament.
Not much of Poland’s promise remains. PiS is rapidly rolling back constitutional rights. It blocks state media coverage of the fading political opposition, especially the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), which has held a series of protest demonstrations. PiS shamelessly uses the airwaves and the schools for rabid nationalist propaganda. The public broadcasting system—in which the party purged more than 100 staff members—twisted President Barack Obama’s recent criticismof the Polish government’s assault on the judiciary into praise for Polish democracy. And the ruling party has forced state institutions to cancel subscriptions to Gazeta Wyborcza and pressured distributors throughout the country not to display or sell copies of the newspaper.