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Applebaum’s Resume Professionals Inc – On December 31, 1999, we threw a party. It was the end of a millennium and the beginning of a new one; people really wanted to party, preferably somewhere exotic. Our party fulfilled this criterion. We held it in Chobielin, the mansion in northwest Poland that my husband and his parents had bought a decade earlier when it was just a moldy ruin. We had restored the house, very slowly. It wasn’t exactly finished in 1999, but it had a new roof. There was also a large, freshly painted and completely unfurnished living room, perfect for a party.
The guests were diverse: journalist friends from London and Berlin, a few diplomats based in Warsaw, two friends from New York. But most of them were Poles, friends of ours and colleagues of my husband, who was then Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Polish government. A handful of young Polish journalists also came – none then particularly famous – along with a few civil servants and one or two members of the government.
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You could have grouped the majority of them, roughly speaking, into the general category of what Poles call the right – conservatives, anti-communists. But at this point in history, you might also have called most of my guests liberals – free market liberals or classical liberals – or maybe Thatcherites. Even those who might have been less specific about the economy certainly believed in democracy, the rule of law and a Poland that was a member of NATO and on its way to joining the European Union – an integral part of Europe modern. In the 1990s, that was what being “on the right” meant.
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As the parties progressed, it was a bit messy. There was no catering in rural Poland in the 1990s, so my mother-in-law and I made vats of beef and roast beetroot stew. There were no hotels either, so our approximately 100 guests stayed at local farms or with friends in the nearby town. I kept a list of who was staying where, but nonetheless, a few people ended up sleeping on a couch in our basement. The music – mixtapes, made in an era before Spotify – created the only serious cultural divide of the evening: the songs my American friends remembered from college weren’t the same songs the Poles remembered. remembered from college, so it was hard to get everyone dancing at the same time. At some point I went upstairs, learned that Boris Yeltsin had resigned, wrote a short column for a British newspaper, then came back down and had another glass of wine. Around three in the morning, one of the wackiest Polish guests pulled a small pistol from her purse and fired a blank into the air out of sheer exuberance.
It was that kind of party. It lasted all night, continued into “brunch” the following afternoon, and was imbued with the optimism I remember from that time. We had rebuilt our house. Our friends were rebuilding the country. I have a particularly vivid memory of a walk in the snow – maybe it was the day before the party, maybe the day after – with a bilingual group, everyone chatting at the same time, English and Polish mixing and resonating in the birch forest. At that time, when Poland was about to join the West, it was as if we were all on the same team. We agreed on democracy, on the path to prosperity, on the way things were going.
This moment has passed. Almost two decades later, I was now crossing the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Years party. In turn, they would not only refuse to enter my house, but they would be embarrassed to admit that they had already been there. In fact, about half of the people who were at that party weren’t talking to the other half anymore. Distancing is political, not personal. Poland is now one of the most polarized societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a deep divide, which runs through not only what was once the Polish right, but also the the old Hungarian right, the Italian right and, with some differences, the British right and the American right as well.
Under the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies will eventually do so.
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Some of my New Year’s guests continued, like my husband and I, to support the pro-European, pro-rule of law and pro-market centre-right – staying in political parties that aligned, more or less , on European Christian Democrats, with the liberal parties of Germany and the Netherlands, and with the Republican Party of John McCain. Some now consider themselves centre-left. But others have found themselves in a different place, backing a nativist party called Law and Justice – a party that has strayed radically from the positions it held when it briefly led the government, from 2005 to 2007, and when he held the presidency (not the same in Poland), from 2005 to 2010.
Since then, Law and Justice has adopted a new set of ideas, not only xenophobic and deeply suspicious of the rest of Europe, but also openly authoritarian. After the party won a narrow parliamentary majority in 2015, its leaders violated the constitution by appointing new judges to the constitutional court. Later, he used an equally unconstitutional playbook to try to wrap up the Polish Supreme Court. He took over the state public broadcaster, Telewizja Polska; fired from popular presenters; and began to make shameless propaganda, peppered with easily rebuttable lies, at the taxpayers’ expense. The government gained international notoriety when it passed a law restricting public debate about the Holocaust. Although the law was eventually changed under American pressure, it has had broad support from Law and Justice’s ideological base – journalists, writers and thinkers, including some of my party guests, who think that anti-Polish forces seek to blame Poland for Auschwitz.
These kinds of views make it hard for me and some of my New Year’s Eve guests to talk about anything. For example, I haven’t had a single conversation with a woman who was once one of my closest friends, godmother to one of my children – let’s call her Marta – since a hysterical phone call in April 2010. , days after a plane carrying the then president crashed near Smolensk, Russia. In the years that followed, Marta grew closer to Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of law and justice and the late president’s twin brother. She regularly hosts lunches for him at his apartment and discusses who he should appoint to his cabinet. I tried to see her recently in Warsaw, but she refused. “What would we talk about?” she texted me, then fell silent.
Another of my guests – the one who fired the gun in the air – ended up separating from her British husband. She now seems to be spending her days as a full-time internet troll, fanatically promoting a whole range of conspiracy theories, many of which are violently anti-Semitic. She tweets about Jewish responsibility for the Holocaust; she once posted an image of an English medieval painting of a boy allegedly crucified by Jews, with the comment “And they were surprised they were expelled”. It follows and amplifies the beacons of the American “alt-right”, whose language it repeats.
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I happen to know that these two women are estranged from their children because of their political views. But this too is typical: this dividing line crosses both families and groups of friends. We have a neighbor near Chobielin whose parents listen to a pro-government, conspiratorial Catholic radio station called Radio Maryja. They repeat his mantras, make his enemies their enemies. “I lost my mother,” my neighbor told me. “She lives in another world.
To be clear about my interests and biases here, I must explain that some of this conspiratorial thinking is centered on me. My husband was Polish Minister of Defense for a year and a half, in a coalition government led by Law and Justice during his first and brief experience in power; he later broke with that party and served for seven years as foreign minister in another coalition government, this one led by the center-right Civic Platform party; in 2015, he did not stand for election. As a journalist and his wife born in the United States, I have always attracted the attention of the press. But after the Law and Justice victory that year, I appeared on the cover of two pro-regime magazines, wSieci and Do Rzeczy – old friends of ours working at both – as the underground Jewish coordinator of the international press and secret director of its negative coverage of Poland. Similar stories appeared in the evening news of Telewizja Polska.
Eventually they stopped writing about me: The negative international media coverage of Poland has become far too widespread for one person, even one Jewish person, to coordinate on their own. Although naturally, the theme comes up from time to time on social networks.
In a famous diary he kept from 1935 to 1944, the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian recounted an even more extreme change in his own
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