On december 31, 1999, we threw a party. It was the end of one millennium and the start of a new one; people very much wanted to celebrate, preferably somewhere exotic. Our party fulfilled that criterion. We held it at Chobielin, the manor house in northwest Poland that my husband and his parents had purchased a decade earlier, when it was a mildewed ruin. We had restored the house, very slowly. It was not exactly finished in 1999, but it did have a new roof. It also had a large, freshly painted, and completely unfurnished salon—perfect for a party.
The guests were various: journalist friends from London and Berlin, a few diplomats based in Warsaw, two friends who flew in from New York. But most of them were Poles, friends of ours and colleagues of my husband, who was then a deputy foreign minister in the Polish government. A handful of youngish Polish journalists came too—none then particularly famous—along with a few civil servants and one or two members of the government.
You could have lumped the majority of them, roughly, in the general category of what Poles call the right—the conservatives, the anti-Communists. But at that moment 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 definite about economics certainly believed in democracy, in the rule of law, and in a Poland that was a member of nato and on its way to joining the European Union—an integrated part of modern Europe. In the 1990s, that was what being “on the right” meant.
As parties go, it was a little scrappy. There was no such thing as catering in rural Poland in the 1990s, so my mother-in-law and I made vats of beef stew and roasted beets. There were no hotels, either, so our 100-odd guests stayed in local farmhouses or with friends in the nearby town. I kept a list of who was staying where, but nevertheless, a couple of people wound up sleeping on a sofa in our basement. The music—mixtapes, made in an era before Spotify—created the only serious cultural divide of the evening: The songs that my American friends remembered from college were not the same as the songs that the Poles remembered from college, so it was hard to get everybody to dance at the same time. At one point I went upstairs, learned that Boris Yeltsin had resigned, wrote a brief column for a British newspaper, then went back downstairs and had another glass of wine. At about three in the morning, one of the wackier Polish guests pulled a small pistol out of her handbag and shot blanks 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 infused with the optimism I remember from that time. We had rebuilt our house. Our friends were rebuilding the country. I have a particularly clear memory of a walk in the snow—maybe it was the day before the party, maybe the day after—with a bilingual group, everybody chattering at once, English and Polish mingling and echoing through the birch forest. At that moment, when Poland was on the cusp of joining the West, it felt as if we were all on the same team. We agreed about democracy, about the road to prosperity, about the way things were going.
That moment has passed. Nearly two decades later, I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party. They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there. In fact, about half the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half. The estrangements are political, not personal. Poland is now one of the most polarized societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a profound divide, one that runs through not only what used to be the Polish right but also the old Hungarian right, the Italian right, and, with some differences, the British right and the American right, too.
Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.
Some of my New Year’s Eve guests continued, as my husband and I did, to support the pro-European, pro-rule-of-law, pro-market center-right—remaining in political parties that aligned, more or less, with European Christian Democrats, with the liberal parties of Germany and the Netherlands, and with the Republican Party of John McCain. Some now consider themselves center-left. But others wound up in a different place, supporting a nativist party called Law and Justice—a party that has moved dramatically away from the positions it held when it first briefly ran the government, from 2005 to 2007, and when it occupied the presidency (not the same thing in Poland), from 2005 to 2010.
Since then, Law and Justice has embraced a new set of ideas, not just xenophobic and deeply suspicious of the rest of Europe but also openly authoritarian. After the party won a slim parliamentary majority in 2015, its leaders violated the constitution by appointing new judges to the constitutional court. Later, it used a similarly unconstitutional playbook to attempt to pack the Polish Supreme Court. It took over the state public broadcaster, Telewizja Polska; fired popular presenters; and began running unabashed propaganda, sprinkled with easily disprovable lies, at taxpayers’ expense. The government earned international notoriety when it adopted a law curtailing public debate about the Holocaust. Although the law was eventually changed under American pressure, it enjoyed broad support by Law and Justice’s ideological base—the journalists, writers, and thinkers, including some of my party guests, who believe anti-Polish forces seek to blame Poland for Auschwitz.
These kinds of views make it difficult for me and some of my New Year’s guests to speak about anything at all. I have not, for example, had a single conversation with a woman who was once one of my closest friends, the godmother of one of my children—let’s call her Marta—since a hysterical phone call in April 2010, a couple of days after a plane carrying the then-president crashed near Smolensk, in Russia. In the intervening years, Marta has grown close to Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice and the late president’s twin brother. She regularly hosts lunches for him at her apartment and discusses whom 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, and then went silent.
Another of my guests—the one who shot the pistol in the air—eventually separated from her British husband. She now appears to spend her days as a full-time internet troll, fanatically promoting a whole range of conspiracy theories, many of them virulently anti-Semitic. She tweets about Jewish responsibility for the Holocaust; she once posted an image of an English medieval painting depicting a boy supposedly crucified by Jews, with the commentary “And they were surprised that they were expelled.” She follows and amplifies the leading lights of the American “alt-right,” whose language she repeats.
I happen to know that both of these women are estranged from their children because of their political views. But that, too, is typical—this line of division runs through families as well as groups of friends. We have a neighbor near Chobielin whose parents listen to a progovernment, Catholic-conspiratorial radio stationcalled Radio Maryja. They repeat its mantras, make its enemies their enemies. “I’ve lost my mother,” my neighbor told me. “She lives in another world.”
To be clear about my interests and biases here, I should explain that some of this conspiratorial thinking is focused on me. My husband was the Polish defense minister for a year and a half, in a coalition government led by Law and Justice during its first, brief experience of power; later, he broke with that party and was for seven years the foreign minister in another coalition government, this one led by the center-right party Civic Platform; in 2015 he didn’t run for office. As a journalist and his American-born wife, I have always attracted some press interest. But after Law and Justice won that year, I was featured on the covers of two pro-regime magazines, wSieci and Do Rzeczy—former friends of ours work at both—as the clandestine Jewish coordinator of the international press and the secret director of its negative coverage of Poland. Similar stories have appearedon Telewizja Polska’s evening news.
Eventually, they stopped writing about me: Negative international press coverage of Poland has grown much too widespread for a single person, even a single Jewish person, to coordinate all by herself. Though naturally the theme recurs on social media from time to time.
In a famous journal he kept from 1935 to 1944, the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian chronicled an even more extreme shift in his own country. Like me, Sebastian was Jewish; like me, most of his friends were on the political right. In his journal, he described how, one by one, they were drawn to fascist ideology, like a flock of moths to an inescapable flame. He recounted the arrogance and confidence they acquired as they moved away from identifying themselves as Europeans—admirers of Proust, travelers to Paris—and instead began to call themselves blood-and-soil Romanians. He listened as they veered into conspiratorial thinking or became casually cruel. People he had known for years insulted him to his face and then acted as if nothing had happened. “Is friendship possible,” he wondered in 1937, “with people who have in common a whole series of alien ideas and feelings—so alien that I have only to walk in the door and they suddenly fall silent in shame and embarrassment?”
This is not 1937. Nevertheless, a parallel transformation is taking place in my own time, in the Europe that I inhabit and in Poland, a country whose citizenship I have acquired. And it is taking place without the excuse of an economic crisis of the kind Europe suffered in the 1930s. Poland’s economy has been the most consistently successful in Europe over the past quarter century. Even after the global financial collapse in 2008, the country saw no recession. What’s more, the refugee wave that has hit other European countries has not been felt here at all. There are no migrant camps, and there is no Islamist terrorism, or terrorism of any kind.
More important, though the people I am writing about here, the nativist ideologues, are perhaps not all as successful as they would like to be (about which more in a minute), they are not poor and rural, they are not in any sense victims of the political transition, and they are not an impoverished underclass. On the contrary, they are educated, they speak foreign languages, and they travel abroad—just like Sebastian’s friends in the 1930s.
What has caused this transformation? Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millennium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades? My answer is a complicated one, because I think the explanation is universal. Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.