Polish law banning communist symbols causes uproar

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.

The European Parliament has established Aug. 23 — the anniversary of the date of the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that paved the way for World War II — as the European days of remembrance for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism. But trying to equate the two totalitarianisms is proving to be a tough slog.

Part of the reason is that the Nazis are treated as uniquely evil. Although communism imposed decades of dictatorship, the communists' rule was milder than the murderous rampage of Nazi Germany.

Although Poland spent 45 years under communist rule, the system still has its supporters. In a recent newspaper debate, Slawomir Sierakowski, the editor of a left-wing journal, noted: “It is impossible to think about Nazism without thinking of the Holocaust, while it is possible to think of Communism without the Gulag. The communist idea arises from wholeheartedly positive intentions.”

Nationalist Poles have a hard time stomaching that view. Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland's outspoken foreign minister, recently called for Warsaw's Palace of Culture, a 1955 gift from Josef Stalin to the Polish people that remains the Polish capital's tallest building, to be demolished and replaced with green space.

But despite Sikorski's appeals, the Palace of Culture has stood for 20 years since the end of communism, and, as it has recently been declared a historic monument, is likely to continue standing for some time to come. Its resilience is a sign that, despite the new anti-communist law, Poles do not equate communism with the horrors of Nazism.

Another sign of acceptance can be found on the streets of almost every Polish city and town. In the first years after 1989, hundreds of street names were changed: Streets named after communist heroes like Vladimir Lenin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, were renamed after Polish icons like Pope John Paul II. But in recent years the impetus to root out communist names has faded and Poles are reluctant to undergo the hassle of changing addresses, street signs and documents.

In Warsaw, one of the capital's main thoroughfares still bears the name of the People's Army, while the western city of Gliwice still has a Karl Marx Street.

The issue of stamping out communist symbols remains important to the nationalist right — particularly for Law and Justice, the leading opposition party — and to the ex-communist left, which is fighting to preserve the symbols of the state it once served. But a generation after the fall of communism, the topic is an increasingly esoteric one for most Poles.