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BERLIN — Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska had been the director of the Polish Institute in Berlin since 2013, and her contract was set to run through summer of 2017. She was abruptly fired earlier this month, following growing political differences with her Polish colleagues ever since the “Law and Justice” party (PiS) came to power last year. Her dismissal is part of a larger trend to replace directors of Polish institutes around the world, including New Delhi, New York, and Madrid, and to push a program focused on Polish culture in line with the extreme right party’s worldview.
Wielga-Skolimowska’s dismissal was greeted with confusion and dismay in the local Berlin cultural scene, even though it was known she had been facing considerable political challenges. Earlier this year, the conservative Małgorzata Bochwic-Ivanovska was appointed to be her deputy director, presumably to counterbalance Wielga-Skolimowska’s programming. The deputy was tasked by the Polish ambassador to Berlin with organizing a public screening of Smolensk. The movie promotes a conspiracy theory that ties Putin to the 2010 plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, in which the Polish president and 95 others were killed. When a Berlin movie house canceled the premiere, citing protection of its audience from the controversial materials, Wielga-Skolimowska instead organized a screening of Oscar-winner Ida, which tells the story of a young Polish nun who discovers her Jewish heritage.
Taz.de, the left-leaning daily that broke Wielga-Skolimowska’s story, cited an internal memo from the Polish ambassador in Berlin, Andrzej Przyłębski, to Wielga-Skolimowska, in which he criticized her for featuring Jewish-Polish relations too prominently, promoting the “culture of shame” rather than Polish self-respect. He also noted that Germany should not be the “mediator” for Jewish–Polish exchange — the PiS party generally emphasizes that Poland was also a victim of Germany during World War II, and that it should not be marred by its past. In the memo, the ambassador further criticized the institute’s artistic choices as “blind imitators of nihilistic and hedonistic trends,” which added nothing to contemporary Polish identity — even though this year’s program featured globally accomplished artists such as Monika Sosnowska, Paweł Althamer, and Agnieszka Polska. This line of criticism implies that Polish artists around the world are representing Poland, not themselves, and that their work should seek to promote a specific image of their home country.
Wielga-Skolimowska’s programming was contemporary, reflected, and promoted progressive exchange between Germany and Poland. Her dismissal reflects the Polish government’s overriding of artistic excellence in favor of nationally defined “messages.” The ambassador implicitly urged her to instrumentalize the artists she funded and exhibited for Poland’s foreign policy, to make up for the bad press that Poland’s ruling party has been receiving in the German media.
Wielga-Skolimowska’s conflict ultimately highlights the danger and vulnerability of cultural institutions that rely on national funding during extremist regimes. The politicians of the PiS Party recognize the potential of culture to shape national identity, and are now trying to engineer it in favor of their preferred narrative. Even distinguishing between propaganda and art is not very easy — in the age of fake news and post-truth politics, political parties are settled in their own beliefs, reinforced through the media and culture they consume. What’s more, post-truth politicians purposely obscure science and professionalism, replacing facts with feelings, and making it challenging for curators to defend their choices in a knowledge-hostile environment.
Response to the news of Wielga-Skolimowska’s dismissal has been swift and outspoken. In an open letter to Polish ambassador Andrzej Przyłębski and Polish secretary of state Witold Waszczykowski, Berlin’s leading cultural figures expressed outrage and voiced their support of Wielga-Skolimowska. The Polish embassy in Berlin was quick to deny the anti-Semitic accusations: “To link the decision to recall our colleague Katarzyna Wielga with the assertion that it was due to ‘closeness to Jewish themes’ is not only misleading and wrong, but particularly irritating,” said the embassy’s press attaché.
The German response to their Eastern neighbors’ suppression of cultural freedom was also tinged with political subtext, ingrained and reinforced in postwar German identity. Germany sees itself as the European upholder of liberalism, free speech, inclusion, and self-criticism — the inheritance of genocide and fascism. To put it cynically: In a post-truth world, universal democratic values such as free speech and artistic freedom can also be perceived as political interests, rather than inherent values. Germany is currently fashioning itself as a diverse, tolerant image of Europe’s future, where capitalist interests intersect with multiculturalism. If Germany’s cultural sector wants to continue defending these values, it needs to understand that in today’s war on facts they are not self-evident truths, but ideas continually worth fighting for.
To be indignant and shocked about politicians’ meddling in culture is to be caught in a liberal blindness, in a position of privileged isolation that arts professionals and audiences everywhere simply cannot afford to maintain. The influence of post-truth politics on culture is not unique to Poland, and is likely to spread with the current wave of alt-right politics. Going forward, cultural workers should be prepared to look clearly at the political motives of their own funders, anticipate and call out when their freedom is being limited, and stand by their choices of artistic quality, doubt, discussion, and personal expression.