Vestiges of 'Genocidal System': Poland to Ban Communist Symbols

By Andrew Curry

Reforming Poland's hate-crime legislation may mean criminalizing communism. An amendment to the criminal code awaiting the president's signature would ban a broad category of communist symbols. Left-wing politicians say the law does more to violate human rights than protect them.

Poland is considering criminalizing its communist past. Zoom
AFP

Poland is considering criminalizing its communist past.

Poland is on the verge of banning communist symbols in a change to the country's penal code that could make everything from the hammer and sickle and red star to Che Guevara t-shirts illegal.

The amendment would adjust the country's hate-crime legislation to criminalize the "production, distribution, sale or possession ... in print, recordings or other means of fascist, communist or other symbols of totalitarianism." The punishment could be a fine or up to two years in prison. Exceptions could be made for artistic, educational, collecting or research purposes.

Elzbieta Radziszewska, the Polish government's special representative for equal rights issues and a member of the country's ruling Civic Platform (PO) party, proposed the changes to the law in the spring. It has enjoyed broad support from other Civic Platform politicians as well as members of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, of which Polish President Lech Kaczynski was formerly a member. The two parties control 375 of the 460 seats in the Polish parliament.

The amendment would beef up an existing hate-crime law that banned "public propagation of fascist and other totalitarian systems." Similar bans on symbols of the Nazi era exist elsewhere in Europe, including Germany, but the breadth of Poland's law -- and its application to symbols of communism -- is unusual.

'Communism Comparable to Nazism'

When the changes to the law were passed by the Polish parliament in early November, Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- the president's twin brother and head of the Law and Justice party -- spoke strongly in support of it. "Communism was a genocidal system that led to the murder of tens of millions of people," PiS head Jaroslaw Kaczynski said. "No symbol of communism has a right to exist in Poland, because these are symbols of a genocidal system that should be compared to German Nazism."

The law's critics say the word "symbol" leaves the law broad to the point of absurdity, making everything produced during Poland's more than 50 years under communist rule potentially illegal, from popular communist-era movies and TV shows to the iconic Palace of Culture, a Stalinist behemoth built in 1955 that towers over central Warsaw.

"It's just a silly thing," Tadeusz Iwinski, a parliamentarian from the left-wing Polish Social Democratic party who opposes the change, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "What does it mean, 'symbol'? Does that mean when government officials go to China and make pictures under the banner of the Communist Party they are breaking the law?"

The amendment has already been approved by the Polish Senate, and still needs the signature of the Polish president. President Kaczynski has until Monday, Nov. 30 to sign off on the penal code amendments. Iwinski says if the law goes into effect -- it's part of a larger bill including other changes to the nation's penal code -- it will likely be struck down at the European level.

Handcuffed for a Red Star

There is, in fact, a clear precedent from Hungary, where symbols of communism like the hammer and sickle and red star -- along with the swastika -- have been banned as "symbols of tyranny" since 1994. In 2003, Hungarian politician Attila Vajnai was arrested, handcuffed and fined for wearing a red star on his lapel during a demonstration.

Vajnai appealed his sentence all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, which decided last year that the ban was a violation of the freedom of expression, calling the Hungarian ban "indiscriminate" and "too broad."

"Merely wearing the red star could lead to a criminal sanction and no proof was required that the display of such a symbol amounted to totalitarian propaganda," the court ruled. "Uneasiness alone, however understandable, could not set the limits of freedom of expression."

Right-wing Polish politicians are also pushing for a law that would force local authorities to re-name street signs and buildings bearing the names of communists.

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