Polish tragedy and trauma are impacted by the country’s geographic location, among other circumstances. Poland has been invaded numerous times, starting in the ninth century by the Teutonic Knights, Mongols, Ottomans, Swedes, and the Cossacks. Poland was partitioned by Austria, Prussia, and Russia in 1772, ending its independent existence in 1795. After regaining its independence in 1918, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in WWII.

After the end of World War II, the Soviet Union de facto occupied Poland until the Solidarity movement brought a much longed-for political freedom. During the period from 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, to 2015, Poland enjoyed a golden age of freedom for close to thirty years. Democracy was firmly established, a free press reigned, arts thrived, the free market flourished, and luxury goods almost instantly appeared in stores. Poland even escaped the 2008 financial crisis. Then, like watching a horror movie, the election of 2015 brought in a Right-wing government. Who in their right mind would want an authoritarian system as opposed to democracy? I speculate it is a case of Sigmund Freud’s concept of “repetition compulsion.”

Authoritarianism: Enter Jarosław Kaczyński

Poland has not been able to sustain a free democratic system and opted for an oppressive authoritarian system. Erik Fromm (1994) states that the aim of an authoritarian system is “to get rid of the individual self, to lose oneself; in other words, to get rid of the burden of freedom” (p. 151). The authoritarian system was brought to Polish politics by Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the current political party “Law and Justice.” We can see the recent propensity to authoritarian systems in the United States, Russia, Hungry, Turkey, and several other countries.

Jarosław Kaczyński is popularly known as a duck man because part of his name, kaczka, means “duck” in Polish. A cunning politician, Kaczyński convinced at least half of Poland’s population to vote for his party. He claimed that the country was “in ruins,” that people in government were traitors, and that he would bring

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“good change,” a slogan often repeated, much like “Make America Great Again.” Kaczyński employed the Catholic Church, which remains ultra-conservative in Poland, to help him win elections, as did Trump with the religious right in the United States. He also bought voters through the “Family 500 +” program. Every family that had more than one child would receive 500 zloty (about $130). Astonishingly, Kaczyński didn’t run for president; he is only the party leader. In fact, he orchestrated his stooge, Andrzej Duda, to win the presidential election in 2015. He pulls the strings from the shadows, wrote the anthropologist Aziliz Gouez, living alone with his cat, and not even using email. He attracts the dissatisfied, the frustrated, and those harmed by fate—very similar to the disenfranchised people that Trump attracted and makes what his supporters see as “good changes.”

What are these “good changes” in Poland? Basically, the “good changes” essentially violated the constitution, abolished democracy and instituted authoritarianism, curtailed political opposition, largely eradicated checks and balances, introduced conspiracy theories, rejected ties with Western Europe, and promoted extreme Polish nationalism. Let’s analyze some of these “good changes” point by point.

Eight “Good Changes” in Poland

One is the abolition of the independent judiciary system. Dr. Andrzej Friszke (December 2019), a renowned historian of Polish contemporary history and outspoken opponent of Kaczyński, stated the following in an online forum: “If this law passes, the foundation of democracy will be destroyed, the basic human right of getting a job or expressing opinions that are opposite to those of the current government will be shattered.” He went on to say that “Everyone will be frightened to speak their opinions publicly as it could be grounds for repression, possible loss of a job, a missed promotion, and so on” (Friszke, December 2019). The law was passed three months later in February 2020.

Two is the severe restrictions on free press and public media. Anne Applebaum (2020), a journalist and Eastern European historian, describes the effect on public media when it came under the control of the ruling party: “The best-known journalists were fired and replaced by people who had previously worked for the far-right press, on the fringes of public life. Very quickly, news broadcasts ceased to make any pretense of objectivity or neutrality” (p. 35). She went on to describe the negative state of the news:

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“Instead, they produced twisted news reports and carried out extensive vendettas against people and organizations whom the ruling party didn’t like. As it turned out, these vendettas were not just ugly, but they were lethal. For months on end, they ran a vicious, repetitive campaign against the popular mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, accusing him of everything from corruption to treason” (Applebaum, 2020, p. 35). The result, Applebaum (2020) describes, was that “someone was listening: On January 13, 2019, a recently released criminal, who had been watching state television in prison, leapt onto a stage at the climactic moment of a charity concert and plunged a knife into Adamowicz’s chest. The mayor died the next day” (p. 35).

Three is a near-total abortion ban. In October 2020, a law was passed banning the termination of pregnancies, even in cases of severe fetal abnormalities. Hundreds of thousands of Poles dressed in black took to the streets across the country to protest the legislation, to no avail. A 30-year-old Polish woman, Izabela, in her 22nd week of pregnancy, died of septic shock on September 22, 2021. The doctors waited for her unborn baby’s heart to stop beating before they were allowed to perform an abortion according to Poland’s strict abortion law. The doctors refused to administer life-saving medical care because the hospital staff was afraid to violate the abortion law. Izabela texted her mother, “The baby weighs 485 grams (17 ounces). For now, because of the abortion law, I have to lie down. There’s nothing else they can do. They’ll wait until it dies or starts something and if not, I can expect sepsis.” Later, demonstrators chanted, “Izabela’s heart was beating too.” There is a parallel situation in the United States concerning the abortion law with the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Four is an anti-gay movement. The government takes a strong stance against LGBT+ rights and same-sex marriage, accusing gay men of being pedophiles. Five is a merger of church and government. The ultra-conservative Catholic radio station Radio Maryja became a government arm against secularization, repeating the government mantra: “a true Pole is a Catholic.” Six is the party line, “Poland for Poles.” It is interesting to note that after Putin invaded Ukraine, bombing and killing civilians, Poland suspended xenophobic tendencies, remembering the trauma of being invaded by Hitler on September 1, 1939, and through that identification, opened their hearts and accepted, as of June 2022, more than 3.6 million Ukrainian refugees.

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Seven is an anti-European Union or anything non-Polish sentiment, and fear of the West. Kaczyński developed a narrative that being in the European Union (EU) is enslavement, and Poles need to protect their “dignity” by staying separate. But Poland, as of now, still belongs to the EU. Eight is anti-intelligentsia. Kaczyński is attacking “the lesser sort of Poles,” the politicians, business people, and intellectuals who had emerged from the struggles of post-1989 Poland and led the country for close to 30 years. They are now seen as suspects, traitors, hypocrites, thieves, enemies of the people, foreign agents, and worse.

Rules of Establishing Authoritarianism in Poland and Elsewhere

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, in her book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, explores the rules of how authoritarianism is achieved. Kaczyński, Trump, Hitler, and other authoritarian notables followed these rules with great success.

The first rule is divide and conquer. Keep everyone in competition. Kaczyński is a master of division. He divided Poland into two categories: “a good Pole” and the bad one; and “a true Pole” vs. “a false Pole.” He even coined the term “a better sort of Pole.” As absurd as it sounds, this approach has been working. Kaczyński has managed to divide Poles pretty much into two groups. “The lesser sort of Poles” are for modernization and are pro-Western Europe, and “the better part of Poles” are for the preservation of old traditions and nationalism. Also, there is now a division between urban and rural Poland, which translates into a geographical divide between Western and Eastern Poland. “The better sort of Poles” are, of course, loyalists to Kaczyński. Jobs in universities, civil service, and positions in government and industry are not “awarded” to the most qualified or the most capable but instead go to the most loyal. Political opponents are not tolerated. The Law and Justice government’s first act, in early 2016, was to change the civil service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks. Jobs are largely filled by members of the Law and Justice Party, as well as their friends and relatives.

The second rule is to portray a bleak present and a bright future, telling people what they want to hear. Promise them Utopia, the perfect country, anything they lack—it will be magically supplied. Kaczyński was excellent at painting Poland in dark colors, “Poland in ruins,” and promised to deliver a better Poland. Trump promised a great America. Hitler promised Germany full employment

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and to make their country the ruler of the world. When Putin invaded Ukraine, he promised to bring glory to Mother Russia again.

The third rule is the leader always has to have enemies who are the cause of all problems; the so-called “other.” Hitler had Jews, Trump had Hillary and the Mexicans, and Kaczyński has the post-1989 intelligentsia, the European Union, and the LGBT+ community. Depth psychology explains how the defense mechanism of projection is used by us when we internalize unwanted character defects and project them onto others.

The fourth rule is the leader is omnipresent, possessing magical powers. He is a miracle worker and maintains charismatic authority. The leader is the object of desire; he must seem accessible but also remote and unmatchable. He must appear to be the embodiment of the nation. In idealizing the leader, the defense mechanism of introjection is also applied. In introjection, we feel and act as if an outer goodness has become an inner reality. Identification with a powerful leader occurs. According to Sigmund Freud’s primal-horde theory, Kaczyński becomes the father of the nation, a powerful “Good and True Pole of a Better Sort.” Everybody who wants to be a “Good and True Pole of a Better Sort” follows him in the hope to become like him. Similarly, by putting on a Trump hat, “Make America Great Again,” his followers feel like they are partaking in Trump-like “greatness.” It is also like putting on a KKK hood or a Nazi brown shirt.

But, on the opposite side, anyone who opposes the leader is an enemy of the state and must be destroyed. Over the last five years, Poland’s political situation has reached such heights of hate, aggression, and mutual contempt that the very possibility of finding common ground is unthinkable. In the United States, there is also an irrevocable split between Republicans and Democrats.

The fifth rule is conspiracy theories and alternative realities are excellent tools to gain control over almost any opposition. Trump claimed that Democrats stole the latest election and that he, not Biden, should be the current president. In April 2010, Kaczyński embraced the so-called Smoleńsk conspiracy. An airplane had crashed near the Russian city of Smoleńsk, killing all 96 people on board. Among the victims were the then-president of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, an identical twin brother of Jarosław Kaczyński; senior Polish military officers; and 18 members of the Polish

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Parliament. It was a terrible tragedy caused by the pilot’s faulty decision to land in heavy fog on an unsafe strip in a forest, but Jarosław Kaczyński used it for political gain. His conspiracy theory was that the Russian government downed the plane, or (at other times) that it was the former ruling party. A huge wave of emotion engulfed the nation after the accident, similar to the sentiment in the United States after 9/11. Authoritarian actions followed. Kaczyński used the Smoleńsk tragedy to galvanize his followers and convince them not to trust the government or the media. Whether he was truly gripped by paranoid vengeance, or if he used Smoleńsk as an instrument to discredit his political opponents, nobody can tell.

An example of an alternate reality fabricated by Kaczyński is the defamation of Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the Solidarity movement and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Kaczyński stated that it was not Lech Wałęsa who was the leader of Solidarity, but that the leader was his own brother, Lech Kaczyński. I can hardly imagine a more absurd lie. The traumatic death of identical twins can cause a severe psychiatric disorder. Perhaps Kaczyński’s unprocessed grief has caused him fear, rage, revenge, and hysteria, as well as wanting to see his brother as a martyr, a hero, a saint. Again, Kaczyński used his trauma to his political advantage.

Falling for the Authoritarian Grip

One wonders why a nation with such strong democratic traditions—its first constitution was created in 1791—with a history of fighting for freedom, would find itself repeatedly in an authoritarian grip. Maybe it is because Poles, at times, tend to not speak up and run away from politics, which would be consistent with the time when Poland was under various autocratic regimes. In those years, most Poles turned away from politics and to their private lives. The co-dependent character needs another person to fuse with, “the powerful leader,” because they cannot endure their own aloneness and fear. They are looking for “the powerful leader” to feel safe and protected, as well as to gain security by being united with millions of others who share the same belief system.

Nevertheless, Poles also at times are super allergic to authoritarian systems. Stalin said that imposing Communism on Poland was as absurd as putting a saddle on a cow. We rebel and we fight back. I come from a family of fighters: My great-great-grandfather Mikołaj Żuk, who fought in the January Uprising of 1863, was exiled to Siberia. He walked home from there—it took him one year—carrying a wooden crucifix that I now own. My

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grandfather, Alexander, fought in World War I. My aunt, Jadwiga, was in the underground army in World War II. My mother fought in the Warsaw Uprising against Nazi rule, where the death toll was higher than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. My sister Barbara and her husband Andrzej took vital roles in the Solidarity movement. I recognize the Polish resilience of persevering in the face of what in the present time looks like a defeat.

If both history and my family history are any indications, Poles do not give up easily. The Kaczyński regime is not the last chapter in Polish history.

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  • Applebaum, Anne (2020). Twilight of democracy: The seductive lure of authoritarianism. Anchor Books.
  • Ben-Ghiat, Ruth (2020). Strongmen: Mussolini to the present. W. W. Norton and Company.
  • Friszke, Andrzej (2019). Wiadomo.co (You know what) https://wiadomo.co/
  • Fromm, Erich (1994). Escape from freedom. Henry Holt & Company.


Krystyna Sanderson

Krystyna Sanderson, PsyD, LP, is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York. She is an instructor at the Psychoanalytic Training Institute who writes and lectures regularly on topics dealing with psychoanalysis in relation to art, spirituality, and the application of psychoanalytic principles to social and historical phenomena. Dr. Sanderson is a contributing author of The Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion (2010) and author of the photo essay, Light at Ground Zero: St. Paul’s Chapel After 9/11 (2003). She is a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis. She can be contacted at dr.krystynasanderson@gmail.com.

How to Cite This:

Sanderson, K. (2022). Psychohistorical perspective on authoritarianism vs. democracy: Poland after 2015. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 102-109.

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