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Renaming streets. A key element of identity politics

Like many governments in history, the current Polish government has been no stranger to regulating historical interpretations through law. The ruling party has pushed several memory laws related to decommunisation in Poland. One initiative focuses on the renaming of streets and has caused further tension in an already divided society.

April 26, 2018 - Uladzislau Belavusau and Anna Wójcik - History and MemoryIssue 3-4 2018Magazine

Lech Kaczyński Street in Warsaw until recently it was People's Army Avenue. Photo Adrian Grycuk (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

The mass renaming of streets reflects the current pulse of identity politics in Europe. France is considering changing street names associated with the historical slave trade. The Netherlands ponders how to confront its colonial past inscribed in public spaces. Spanish municipalities and communes have started implementing the 2007 Law on Historical Memory on a larger scale, replacing Franco-era street names to honour women in Spanish history and victims of terrorist attacks. In 2015, Ukraine adopted a package of decommunisation laws that included mass street renaming.

Most recently, the implementation of the new street decommunisation law in Poland, which came into effect last year, is yet another bone of contention in Poland’s divided society. It has raised concern over the quality of democratic participation and respect for minority rights and political pluralism in a country undergoing a major transformation under the leadership of the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.

New state – old society

While the reformist PiS does not have a constitutional majority, it has managed to profoundly change the character of democracy in Poland through a series of laws adopted in regular vote. Major changes include effectively subordinating the Constitutional Tribunal and a strong part of the judicial branch to the legislative and executive powers which has led to an ongoing dispute between the European Commission and the Polish government. Other developments include turning the state broadcaster into a promoter of state policies, launching a smear campaign against particular NGOs as well as threatening the freedom of assembly and women’s rights.

The current ruling party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, has demonstrated its vision to profoundly change not only the Polish state but also to assure that the majority of society continues adhering to conservative values and worldviews against a perceived threat of Europeanisation conflated with progressivism. Therefore PiS has concentrated a lot of effort and public money on cultural policies aimed at preserving a certain vision of Polish identity through a particular understanding of the nation’s history.

The most discussed element of this project has been the 2018 amendment to the Law on the Institute of National Remembrance, which criminalises ascribing responsibility for the crimes committed during the Second World War to the Polish state when it is contrary to established historical facts. Despite guaranteeing artistic and academic exceptions, this law may inhibit debates about the darker chapters of Polish history. It has already provoked tensions with Israel, Ukraine and the United States – and has been blamed for provoking a few antisemitic outbursts in Poland.

Like many governments in history, the current government has been no stranger to regulating historical interpretations through law. The party pushed several “memory laws” related to decommunisation of the Polish state almost three decades after its transition to democracy. While the renaming of streets was launched shortly after 1989, in 2016 lawmakers estimated that approximately 1,000 street names across the country would fall into remit of the new law prohibiting the propagation of communism or other totalitarian regimes through the names of buildings, objects and other public facilities. The law was adopted in 2016 and took effect on September 1st 2017, mandating local authorities to change the names as indicated by the Institute of the National Remembrance (IPN). The IPN list of 130 names includes those that refer to, among others, the Red Army, the Polish People’s Army, the Polish Workers’ Party, as well as the likes of Karl Marx or Rosa Luxemburg (who was born in 1871 in Zamość).

After the deadline was set for local authorities, the centrally-appointed governors of the Polish provinces were responsible for issuing a replacement order to rename selected streets in their provinces. Initially, the local authorities had three months to appeal the decision to the administrative court, or overrule it in a regular vote in the local council. However, due to several protests against the governors’ decisions, the law was amended in December 2017, making it more difficult for the local authorities to object. The councils then required the permission of the IPN and the provincial governor to overrule any decisions.

Local struggles for memory

While there were cases when the IPN opinion was favourable to dissenting local communities, the 2017 amendment remains an alarming development. It reflects a growing trend of governance by decree, where the central government pays little regard to local history. In a democratic state, citizens have a right to remember, including the right to mourn and commemorate, but they are not obliged to comply with a duty to remember something imposed by the state. Citizens should not be forced to mourn or commemorate against their will. The street renaming programme is thus a powerful symbolic intrusion into the life of local communities.

Some local council members and local residents protested against the unabashedly partisan choice of new street patrons. One factor in this process was that many local councils are still dominated by the opposition party, Civic Platform (PO). The next local elections are scheduled to take place later this autumn.

The local struggles in Katowice and Łódź illustrate this point. IPN had advised renaming all the Wilhelm Szewczyk streets across the country. Szewczyk was a writer and supporter of the Silesian regional identity, was a communist party member and long-time MP in the parliament of the Polish People’s Republic. His street in Katowice was renamed Maria and Lech Kaczyński Street, the presidential couple who tragically died in the airplane crash in 2010. More recently, Szewczyk Street in another town in Silesia, Ruda Śląska, was changed to honour the late local PiS politician Jerzy Drażyk. In Łódź, the central Victory Square, which since 1945 had commemorated the victory against Hitler’s fascism, was briefly renamed Lech Kaczyński Square. The local city council out manoeuvred the government by declaring that from 2018 onwards Victory Square will commemorate a different historical triumph – the victory of the Polish Army over Bolshevik forces in the 1920s.

Extensive commemoration practices of the late presidential couple divide public opinion. For some, it stands as a welcomed extension of the national pantheon, while for others it bears elements of an imposed cult of the Kaczyński namesake, which began to rise in 2010 with the burial of the late president and his wife in the Royal Wawel Castle in Kraków, next to Polish kings, saints and nobles. Lech Kaczyński has been commemorated with 40 streets and Lech and Maria Kaczyński jointly with 17 – a modest, but possibly growing number.

Broad understanding

The new street decommunisation law defines the propagation of communism broadly, to include names which “refer directly to a totalitarian ideology”, as well as names referring to “persons, organisations, events or dates symbolising the repressive, authoritarian and non-sovereign regime in Poland from 1944 to 1989”. Involving IPN in the selection of names to be removed was to assure a degree of academic detachment, but the resulting list is not without controversy. It bans, for example, such historical figures as Bruno Jasieński, Józef Lewartowski and Bronisław Taraszkiewicz from serving as street patrons in Poland.

Bruno Jasieński (1901-1938) was a prominent interwar futurist poet and playwright, author of the celebrated Manifesto to the Polish Nation for the Immediate Futurisation of Life. Jasieński joined the communist left in Poland and later moved to the Soviet Union where he acquired Soviet citizenship, joined the Soviet communist party and became an exemplary author of Soviet literature. Accused of “ideological alienation”, he died in a labour camp in the USSR in 1938 and was probably executed by the NKVD. Jasieński was both a Soviet propagandist and a victim of Soviet policies. Depending on one’s perspective, his life may be deemed a tale of betrayal, or a warning against the blind infatuation of an undemocratic and anti-pluralistic political agenda. In Jasiński’s case, the IPN resolved the question of whether an artist should be judged by the merits of his work, or by his political biography – but not everyone agreed with this decision.

In 2016 the authorities renamed Józef Lewartowski Street after Marek Edelman. The street is situated in a part of Warsaw built upon the rubbles of the Jewish ghetto that was established by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Before the war, Lewartowski (1895-1942) was a politician of the Polish communist party. Later, he was one of the first organisers of the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, where he died in 1942. Edelman (1919-2009) was a Jewish socialist party activist in pre-war Poland. He was one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. Edelman survived the war, became a renowned cardiologist and was active in the anti-communist opposition. Edelman, without any doubt, deserves a street named after him, but a complete erasure of Lewartowski, from the place where he had fought against the Nazis, implies that his efforts and sacrifice – just because he was a member of an ideologically communist party – are somehow less important than that of other heroes. Such an implication may support a dubious gradation of sacrifice and martyrdom in Polish history, and impact negatively on political pluralism of today’s Poland.

A third example is highlighted in the case concerning Belarusians in Poland. Branisłaŭ Taraškievič, or Bronisław Taraszkiewicz in the Polish transliteration (1892-1938), was a prominent Belarusian linguist after whom a street and school were named after in eastern Poland – a region with a high concentration of Belarusian minorities. Taraškievič was the author of the first standardised grammar of the Belarusian language. He was tortured by the NKVD in the 1930s and died as a victim of Stalin. His standards of grammar were prohibited in Soviet Belarus from the 1930s onwards. Today, an openly pro-Russian regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka uses either the Russian language or the Russified version of Belarusian. The classical written standards of Taraškievič have thus remained a symbol of anti-communist resistance. Nevertheless, Taraškievič was considered by the central branch of the IPN in Warsaw as unfit to be a street patron in Poland, since he had supported a left-wing “communist” faction representing the interests of the Belarusian minority in the Polish interwar parliament. Ironically, he is another victim of Stalin to be banned by virtue of the decommunisation law.

Ambitious project

These three examples demonstrate that the decommunisation law, justified by the government as a tool of much delayed transitional justice, in fact contributes to the process of erasing historical figures of the political left and the contribution of minorities in Polish history. Current attempts at decommunisation should be read against the backdrop of anti-communist sentiments which, in today’s Poland, includes more than denouncing the state’s historical subjugation to Soviet Russia, condemning atrocities and gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Soviets and the Polish communists against Polish citizens before 1989, or the rewarding of activists of the anti-communist opposition.

The current anti-communism legislation is also an ambitious political and cultural project aimed at disassociating left-wing figures and movements from the historical and contemporary understanding of Polishness. According to the view of many in the current government, a true Pole cannot be a communist. For example the current prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, claimed it was not Poles but communists who launched the antisemitic campaign in 1968 and therefore the Polish state does not bear responsibility for these events that resulted in human rights violations. In contrast, during the official commemoration events in Warsaw, President Andrzej Duda asked those expelled in 1968 for forgiveness to the Polish Republic and authors of the antisemitic campaign.

On the other hand, a more nationalistic understanding of Polish citizenship seems to be gaining support, or at least it is more audible in the current political climate where xenophobic utterances are no longer taboo. This should be alarming for ethnic and cultural minorities in Poland who may fear their contributions to Polish culture and heritage may be questioned, excluded as foreign, or otherwise unwanted.

Like any government policy, the large-scale street renaming programme may lead to unintended consequences. There is a risk that it will contribute to a political project of homogenising anti-pluralistic and even anti-democratic ambitions, aimed at curbing political competition and imposing one particular identity over others. On the flipside, it also opens a window of opportunity to redress some historical injustices – for example, including the mistreatment of minorities. Nevertheless, the challenge for policymakers is to now design and implement the street renaming programme while safeguarding constitutional responses to diversity of all its religious, cultural, social and political dimensions, as well as remembering that state should not arbitrate historical issues.

Uladzislau Belavusau is a senior researcher in European Law at the TMC Asser Institute in The Hague – University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands). He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley (USA). ​His most recent book is Law and Memory (co-edited with A. Gliszczyńska-Grabias, Cambridge University Press, 2017).  

Anna Wójcik is an assistant researcher and PhD candidate at the Institute of Law Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences within the MELA (Memory Laws in European and Comparative Perspective) research consortium.

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