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Polish law banning communist symbols causes uproar

In Poland, buying that cool Red Army hat could get you two years in prison.

People walk through the communist-era stadium turned outdoor market in Warsaw, June 28, 2007. A new law passed in November 2009 would make it illegal to buy the communist-era memorabilia pictured here. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — Poles heading out to do last-minute Christmas shopping should give any Che Guevara T-shirts a wide berth as a new Polish law threatens anyone who produces or propagates communist symbols with two years in prison.

The legislation has caused outrage among Poland's ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) party, which plans to challenge the law's constitutionality before the end of the year. But it is worrying everyone from collectors of communist memorabilia to restaurateurs with increasingly popular themed eateries recalling Poland's communist past.

“I have some advice for the creators of this legislation, they should take the hammer, a symbol of the USSR, and whack themselves in the head,” said Slawomir Kopczysnki, a member of parliament for the SLD.

Even the governing Civic Platform party seems confused about the new law, passed in late November, which sets the same penalties for propagating fascist symbols. Janusz Palikot, one of the party's leaders, said that his party had “gone crazy,” even though he himself had voted for the bill.

The new law is part of a long-running attempt by central European countries that suffered for decades under communism to treat its symbols in the same way as those of Nazism.

Many European countries, including Poland, make it a crime to propagate Nazi images, and works like Hitler's Mein Kampf are frequently banned. The general aversion toward anything that could be seen to glorify the Nazis even extends to toys. In Europe, model airplanes of German wartime fighters and bombers do not have swastikas on their tails, which were part of their actual markings.

“I once went to a model show with an airplane where I had painted on the swastika and I was thrown out,” said the owner of a Warsaw modeling store.

But the revulsion felt toward fascism and Nazism is very different from how communist symbols are viewed. Tourist shops in cities like Warsaw and Prague sell fur caps adorned with red stars. There is no similar trade in Nazi Party armbands.