Interview with Prof. Jan Rydel about role of state in history education, politicizing of national mythology, and forecast for Polish general election

The political parties often use national history as a tool for mobilizing their voters. What is your opinion of their aims to use history, more specifically only particular parts of it?
The parties cannot avoid mentioning the history in their activities; they have to articulate their policies in certain context. The historical knowledge can be understood as an ethic category that is integral part of society. PO decided to decrease the role of history in the society; SLD strictly opposes to look back – the party was for example against founding of IPN (Institute of National Remembrance) in 1998. We will see what this process brings right in case of level of the historical knowledge within the society and of ethic discourse as well.  

Should state be involved in education of national history? If yes, to which extent?
As mentioned in the previous question, the historical knowledge is a part of ethical grounds. If state wants to develop its society that should be involved in this process as well. It is illusion that education of national history will be individualized. Here one has to distinguish two elements – level of general historical knowledge within the society, and role of state (political parties) within this process. Using of historical legacy is permanent everywhere – for instance names of streets; how should state be omitted from that?
From other perspective, member states of ENRS (European Network for Remembrance and Solidarity) decided to increase their support to the ENRS; so I deduce that the role of history does not decrease in Europe. But the individual level is another story.   

And what about the level of historical knowledge; how should state be responsible for knowledge of youth generation that is low generally?
The knowledge of history – basic historical facts - of my students is tragic to some extent. PO decreased the emphasis on national history in education guidelines, but what it brings we will see in next years. The reality is that current knowledge of students is simply low. I do not think that this is a result of liberal/pluralist approach in education, as it is widely argued especially in post-communist countries.  

The whole Smolensk issue is an excellent case of politicizing of national mythology.
At the first place it was reality of political negotiating rather than the whole historical context. The higher is the knowledge of history the lower the probability of manipulation. For Polish-Russian relations, the effect of Smolensk was rather positive one; I mean societal level not high politics level.

The recent development in Polish society does not offer only political and economic success. The rise of extreme movements – such as burning of rainbow sign in Warszawa (November 2013) – is evident. Does it have any connection to the divided society after plane crash in Smolensk?
These movements exploit the fact that the national mythology (history) is not a dominant issue of public discourse. This situation has several reasons: the current government tries not to politicize these issues, and pluralistic ideas are more spread than in time of PiS government. Therefore these movements oppose both mentioned trends. Postmodernism is in their sense understood in very negative connotations. One has to consider the negative media campaign against Catholic Church that can be for many people the reason to support nationalistic movements. In case of young generation this effect can be even more dangerous – many active supporters of extreme movements are just youth.

Can for instance Polish National Party (PNS) reach similar success in general election as LPR or Samoobrona in 2005?
I do not think so. People remember success of these parties and their huge disappointment after two years. Those that support more nationalistic coloured politics will vote for PiS.

How will the Smolensk issue influence the general election in 2015?
The new centre-right Jaroslaw Gowin’s party seems to overcome the Smolensk issue and will unite the centre-right voters in this sense. The Polish politics is too divided to solve this issue. Surely, SLD will gain more votes. I think that Palikot movement will get less; their politics is too cynical. In case of PiS I am aware that they will stress relations with Germany again; however, Piłsudski was not against good relations with Germans. Nonetheless, relations with Germany are like sinusoid; in past years they have been very good, but in 2017 Erika Steinbach will probably “get” her museum in Berlin, therefore the relations will probably cool down again.  

Prof. Jan Rydel is Historian and researcher concerned with Central and Eastern Europe and Polish-German relations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Author of Politics of History in Federal Republic of Germany. The Legacy – The Ideas – The Practice (2011) and Polish Occupation of North Western Germany, 1945–1948. Between 2001 and 2005 he headed the Office of Culture, Science, and Information of the Polish Embassy in Berlin. He is the chairman of the Steering Committee of European Network Remembrance and Solidarity and coordinator of the Polish party in ENRS.