11. Oct 2020 - Joanna Wawrzyniak

After the first case of the Coronavirus had been diagnosed in Poland on 4 March 2020, the government announced initial lockdown measures, gradually tightening them by the end of the month. Strict social distancing rules were loosened at the beginning of May. In July, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that “the virus is in retreat”. He was obviously mistaken as the second wave of the pandemic is hitting the country even harder right now. Yet, it was the novelty of the situation during the lockdown in March/April that provoked many journalists, experts and activists to draw historical analogies, as if they were looking for guidance in the past in order to orient themselves in what many called the “new normal”. Drawing on media content from that early period, this blogpost reflects on the types, content and functions of historical memories evoked during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Poland. It shows that this short period elicited different types of memory with their varied functions: from broadening the historical imagination to increasing fear or mobilizing grassroot activists. 

Epidemic Memories: Referencing

The first type of historical memory was a straightforward reference to earlier epidemics: for instance the media covered the spread of smallpox in Wrocław initially transmitted by a security officer upon his return from Asia in 1963. In the summer of that year, the city had been isolated from the rest of the country to curtail the epidemic. Almost sixty years later, Polish media recalled those 1960s quarantine rules, the sacrifices made by the medical staff, or the mass vaccination program. Articles were richly illustrated with pictures of the medics and patients dressed in bizarre uniforms and masks. With its personal memories still vivid among an older generation of Poles, the story of the Wrocław epidemic performed communicative and socializing functions with a number of anecdotes, photographs and films shared on the internet. Among many other cases of fatal epidemics, including instances of plague, typhus, HIV, Ebola, or SARS, the Polish public was reminded above all of the story of influenza in 1918–1920 (the so-called Spanish flu). In the last two years, this period has been a subject of intensive commemoration because of the centennial anniversary of the foundation of the Polish Second Republic (1918) and of the Polish-Soviet War (1919–1920). The stories of the Spanish flu (with a death toll in Poland that reached a quarter of a million people) added empathy and human touch to the celebrations of military glory and the nation-building efforts. However, a discussion of similarities and differences of both pandemics became for some journalists a rhetorical weapon against the lockdown. In their opinion, the Covid-19 pandemic did not seem serious enough to justify the economic decline.

Economic Memories: Frightening

In view of the polls conducted in the spring of 2020 which indicated that Poles were more worried about the economy than about the coronavirus, it should not come as a surprise that the second type of historical memories emerged in the form of associations with earlier economic crises, shortages, poverty and rising inequalities. The journalistic pool of historical references was again relatively broad. For instance, when people were panic buying toilet paper, numerous anecdotes reappeared that related to previous shortages in that product line in the Polish People’s Republic. However, two historical moments were recalled with particular frequency: memories of the Great Depression of the late 1920s and the austerity measures of the post-1989 transformation. The Great Depression had hit the Second Polish Republic particularly hard and lasted long. In 2020, the coverage – highly visualized – brought images of starving peasants and of jobless workers. And yet, the interwar period seems so remote from post-industrial reality that all those stories and pictures just broadened historical imagination rather than serving as a serious warning. What did frighten people, however, were recollections of unemployment during the post-communist transformation of the 1990s. The memories of economic cuts, the chaos of lay-offs, and the everyday strains of coping during those years are apparently vivid among Poles and still haunting in 2020. This is all the more pertinent within the framework of the debate about the transformation costs in which the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) has traditionally positioned itself as one of the strongest critics of the Balcerowicz Plan and its neoliberal austerity measures.

Political Memories: Mobilizing

Finally, there were memories with a steep political slant. With the presidential elections scheduled for May – and eventually organized in June and July – the liberal opposition was afraid that PiS would use the lockdown measures in its favour, to limit freedom of speech and obstruct the campaign. While the opposition tried to postpone the elections, PiS was afraid that this would adversely affect its electoral base due to a declining economic situation. Eventually the ruling party, through its insistence on postal voting, pushed the state into a constitutional crisis and the opposition criticized the unconstitutional regulations with references to the authoritarian practices of the pre-1989 communist regime. In one sense, this narrative was nothing new: Jarosław Kaczyński has often been compared to Władysław Gomułka by the liberal media, and his party’s rhetoric to that of the national-communist propaganda of the 1960s. However, the lockdown brought interesting cases of grass roots memory activism complementing these references. For instance, a group of artists invoked Tadeusz Kantor’s famous happening “A Letter” from 1967. In Kantor’s original setting, a group of postmen assisted by the militia carried a fourteen-meter-long letter along a main street of Warsaw in order to symbolize a message that can be manipulated or destroyed by its recipients. At the end of the happening, the letter was torn apart by an angry mob. On 6 May 2020, a group of activists marched toward the parliament building with an equally long banner imitating a letter addressed to the Sejm and written in the name of the Polish nation, in protest against the May elections which the group considered as being both illegal and dangerous for human lives. “While the ruling party tries to pass a bill in its favour, your lives and ours are at stake”, organizers warned. The police intervened, which raised the stakes even higher. The lockdown therefore contributed to deepening a struggle for symbols, while PiS continues to win its political legitimacy by condemning communist times. 

What, then, does the lockdown experience say about how historical memory functions? On a general level, it is an example of taming an unknown experience by historicizing it, that is, by measuring it against a framework of other seemingly similar events from the past. That was the case with recalling other epidemics, economic crises, undemocratic policies and  power struggles in Poland. On a specific level – of mnemonic content, narrative and image – the lockdown uncovered dormant stories of the Great Depression, the Spanish flu, or the smallpox epidemic. But it also strengthened the discursive practice of comparing PiS to the Communist Party and of revitalizing the memories of unemployment in the 1990s with questions about whether or not Polish society was ready to go through such a harrowing experience again. In the latter case, the memories evoked during the lockdown were used to undermine not only the legitimacy of the current political regime, but also the post-1989 neoliberal economic order. With the second wave of Covid-19 predicted to rise dangerously high this autumn, the entanglement of memory and the pandemic might still bring new developments.

About the author:

Joanna Wawrzyniak is an assistant professor at the Institute of Sociology of the University of Warsaw.

Other blogposts

Raul Cârstocea · 24.08.2020
Othering the Pandemic: Scales of Exclusion and Solidarity
Read more

Daniela Koleva · 13.08.2020
Bulgaria’s Corona-Drama in Three Acts
Read more

Gábor Egry · 06.08.2020
The Untergang des Abendlandes and the Rise of Mitteleuropa? The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Reposition...
Read more

Aleksandra Salamurović · 29.07.2020
Metaphorical and Literal Wars in Serbia
Read more

Sabina Ferhadbegović · 22.07.2020
Past and Present Health Crises: How Yugoslavia Managed the Smallpox Epidemic of 1972
Read more

back to all posts