What do black people think of Poland?
Interview on Poland : Szczepan Twardoch: "Kaczynski will lose the next election"
Berlin - Szczepan Twardoch, born in 1979, is one of the most famous writers in Poland. His novel “Der Boxer” was also a hit in Germany. Now the follow-up novel “The Black Kingdom” has been published in German, “The Boxer” will soon be shown as a TV series. We meet the well-dressed writer in the Oderberger Hotel in Prenzlauer Berg.
Dear Mr Twardoch, Poland is divided between conservatives and liberals. How do you feel about the mood in the country?
The mood in the country has not changed much since the re-election of the PiS government in 2019. The polarization is still great.
On Thursday evening, the Polish Constitutional Court tightened the abortion law. Now Polish women are not allowed to have an abortion themselves if the unborn child has severe malformations. The Polish abortion law is already considered to be one of the strictest in the world, and it has now been tightened again. What do you think?
This judgment will not save a single life, but it will destroy many. The Polish government has declared a culture war that it cannot win. The extent of the numerous protests shows that support for such tightening is really low in Polish society. Polish society is secularizing quickly, it is getting younger. The demographic process is unstoppable.
The PiS government is also criticized for its anti-European course, for judicial reform. Some already compare Poland with Hungary and Turkey. Right?
Wrongly. The situation in Poland cannot be compared. Doubts about judicial reform in Poland are justified. Our government challenges the core values of our liberal democracies. In my opinion, however, it is important to judge in a nuanced manner. The devil is in the details. If you compare Poland with Turkey, you belittle the problems of the Turks. Erdogan puts his critics in jails, they are attacked. It's different in Poland. Violence is not done to anyone. I am the best example. I am very critical of the government and still nothing happens to me.
But think of Margot, the LGBT activist. She was in custody for three weeks in the summer of 2020 because she smeared a truck that was sold in Warsaw for homophobic content Advertised.
Margot's arrest was scandalous, as I said publicly. But when it comes to the brutality of Polish police officers, I say it very openly and very subjectively: They are by no means as brutal as their French or maybe even their German colleagues. I am very critical of the Polish government. Still, I don't feel threatened. Nobody forbids me to publish texts. Nobody forbids me to speak my mind. There is freedom of expression in Poland. There are independent media. That's why I say: You have to pay attention to the details.
So does that mean that the PiS government is seen by its critics as stronger than it is?
The main conflict in current Polish politics is not the conflict between the government and the opposition. It takes place within the government - and the government implodes. People feel that. I am convinced that Jaroslaw Kaczynski will lose the next election. That does not mean that democracy in Poland is in perfect condition. There are many things to worry about.
What are you thinking of
To people of the LGBT + group. They are persecuted in Poland and already have a difficult life. It makes me mad how they are also being instrumentalized by President Andrzej Duda as an electoral tool. Nevertheless, I would like to openly point out that in Turkey I could not express this outrage so loudly, at least not without consequences. In Poland I am not physically threatened. These comparisons, that Poland is like Turkey or Hungary, are dangerous. Because if at some point in Poland things actually turn out to be the same as in Turkey, what do we say? It is very similar with the word fascism. If you call anyone a fascist who moves away from current norms, then you have a problem when the fascists really come.
Aren't you afraid of another shift to the right in Poland?
I would be afraid if our government wasn't so incompetent. But the truth is: she is incapable of doing good and meaningful things, but she is also incapable of doing really bad things. Think of the IPN law, which wanted to criminalize the use of the term “Polish Holocaust” at home and abroad. Israel intervened, as did the federal government. In my opinion, this bill was one of the worst diplomatic mistakes in the history of Polish foreign policy in 30 years. The PiS government damaged Poland's image a lot and in the end simply dropped the law for fear of further reactions. And that's exactly how it will be if the PiS government tries to ban LGBT groups. It will be the same with the so-called repolonization of the media. The government says it wants to nationalize foreign media corporations on the French model, but that won't happen. The Americans alone, who own one of the largest Polish TV channels in Poland - TVN, will not allow this.
You defend the interests of the intellectuals, but at the same time understand the PiS voters. You are often in Warsaw, but you live in a small Silesian village. Do you feel like a provincial?
Yes, I have close ties with the Silesian province. My whole family is from the provinces. My grandfather was a miner, and so were my ancestors. I do not come from the Polish intelligentsia, but from the working class and peasant milieu. I live in a Silesian town where 3000 people live.
They often say that the Polish elite do not understand the province, that they despise it - and that this contempt leads to division in society. Is Kaczynski a product of intelligence?
At least in part. Perhaps you have read this essay by David Remnick, the head of the American magazine "The New Yorker". A very great, very emotional text about Trump. Remnick writes in it that he is disgusted not only with Trump, but also with the people who vote for him. So he doesn't understand how to vote for Trump at all.
And does that surprise you? This lack of empathy?
Yes. In my opinion, this contempt is symptomatic of the liberal intelligentsia. People who don't understand how to vote for Trump unconsciously reveal that they don't understand part of the world. So Remnick doesn't understand half of Americans. Large parts of American society are as exotic to him as the inhabitants of Nepal. This ignorance, coupled with disgust, harms democracy much more than the rhetoric of populists like Trump or Kaczynski, who know how to use an authentic frustration within the population for themselves.
And will this frustration remain?
Absolutely. As long as people like Remnick do not understand Trump and Kaczynski's voters, large sections of society are dangerously marginalized. It could be that Trump loses the elections and Biden becomes the next president. But the Trump voters from that Rust Belt won't go away. Even more! You have the right to exist and the right to be frustrated. They too have dignity. And as long as that is not recognized, it will remain toxic. Personally, I don't know of any better alternative to liberal democracy. Still, it has to be reformed.
In what way?
Liberal democracies have no tools to cope with modern internet capitalism. The tools that liberal democracies have at their disposal are tools for old-fashioned states that still had mining, iron-making, paper newspapers, and radio. The liberal democracies are not only powerless against Trump and his reactionary politics, but above all against Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, against algorithms and artificial intelligence and especially against social media. It would be important now to control the energies of the digital more closely. The media and technology moguls could theoretically just sit down and decide who should be the next president of the United States. You have the power and no one can stop you. So my question is: How can we set the standards of democracy so that these people are better controlled? It is a scandal that social media are not subject to government control.
And what about freedom of expression?
Freedom of expression is not a problem for me. My aim is to manipulate opinions.
The biggest problem is that everyone is discussing with their own group on social media. There is no longer any exchange between left and right.
Yes exactly. Even intellectuals only speak in their own filter bubble instead of speaking to the less educated and convincing them of the democratic standards.
In Poland you are an interesting figure in that you break this lack of understanding between left and right. You take the PiS voters seriously. At the same time you live like a liberal. No group can instrumentalize you.
That pleases me. I don't want to be instrumentalized either.
Nevertheless, you recently featured on the cover of a right-wing magazine as a figure of hatred. How did that happen?
I went to an LGBT demonstration once. But I didn't go to the demo to protest against Kaczynski. Kaczynski misses my ass, I have bigger problems. I went to the demo to show solidarity with my gay friends. Because anyone who shows up with a rainbow flag in the Polish province or walks hand in hand through the streets with their homosexual partner can get one on the mouth. That danger is real. I took to the streets for these people. That irritated the conservatives.
Let's talk about your book “The Black Kingdom”, which has now been published in German. It is the follow-up to the novel "The Boxer", which tells the story of a Polish Jew in the Warsaw prewar period. It's about Jakub Shapiro, who is becoming a kind of cult figure of the underground. The new second part deals with Shapiro's fate during World War II and the Holocaust. Why did you write this sequel?
When I published the first part, I was very proud to have written a story that takes place in the prehistory of the Holocaust without even mentioning the Holocaust. Later it occurred to me that it wasn't bold at all, it was cowardly. I wouldn't have dared write a book like The Black Kingdom in the 1960s, at a time when memories of the Holocaust were still fresh. Today is 2020. Today it seems okay to publish a fictional story about the Holocaust. I also wanted to deconstruct this very male figure of Jakub Shapiro. That is why the story in "The Black Kingdom" is told from the perspective of Shapiro's wife and son. Shapiro is weak and dying, his life turning out to be a mistake.
In both novels you show that Polish Jews in Warsaw were threatened by Polish anti-Semitism. Was that the intention?
Yes, I wanted to show that.
A sensitive issue in Poland.
I know. In Poland people have been talking about complicity in the Holocaust for a long time, but reluctantly. Polish anti-Semitism, Poland's involvement in the Holocaust - many Poles don't want to hear that. But I think: you should hear that.
The interview was conducted by Tomasz Kurianowicz.
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