How Rap Became The Soundtrack To Polish Nationalism
There’s a world of rappers who make tracks about World War II, attack the EU, and endorse marches organized by white nationalists. They're big in Poland, where a new fight over the Holocaust shows how history has become a weapon.
KRAKOW, Poland — Tadek spent his teens scouring record stores for albums by the Wu-Tang Clan and other hip-hop artists in Poland’s medieval center, Krakow.
Tadek, whose full name is Tadeusz Polkowski, discovered rap in the ’90s when it was still a new import to Poland; communism kept the country closed to Western pop culture until 1989. He started recording his own tracks at 16 under his nickname and became nationally known in his twenties as part of a wannabe gangsta rap–style group that recorded songs with names like “The Hard Life of a Street Rapper.”
So there was an outcry from the mainstream press when Tadek was invited to perform at the presidential palace in 2017 to mark the National Day for the Polish Language, a day historically used to honor Poland’s greatest writers.
The performance looked awkward for everyone involved. Tadek had traded the hoodie he often wore in his videos for a pair of chinos and a mustard V-neck sweater, both of which looked several sizes too large for his willowy frame. He kept his eyes tightly shut, as if trying to block out the rows of dignitaries in suits stiffly watching on.
But Tadek was given this platform precisely because he was no longer the man who’d tossed around phrases like “fuck the police” in his youth. That day he performed a song addressed to his wife — but it turned out to have a surprise message.
“We are getting stronger, the family is getting bigger, without man and woman — the final extinction. Our sons are so great that I want another child,” he rapped, before apologizing at the song’s end, “You have one rival, forgive me — it's Poland!”
“Everyone who wants to control Poland ... wants us to be weaker, wants us to be not proud of ourselves.”
Rappers like Tadek reflect just how deeply the past divides Poland today. He’s reinvented himself in recent years as part of a booming nationalist rap scene. His songs pay homage to the Poles who fought the Nazis in World War II and the communist government that followed, while taking jabs at the mainstream media, liberal politicians, and the European Union. His videos sometimes rack up millions of views on YouTube, and he plans to put out three new albums this year, now supported with a fellowship from the Ministry of Culture.
His trajectory reflects just how much nationalism has transformed Poland in recent years. The 2015 elections were won by an aggressive far-right faction, the Law and Justice Party, known as PiS for short. The PiS government has undermined the courts, refused to accept the refugees required under EU rules, and opened a culture war by claiming Poles have long been fed lies about their history.
Earlier this week, the president enacted a law that makes it illegal to say Poland shared any responsibility for the Holocaust. In World War II, the country lost 6 million people, half of whom were Jews. Lawmakers want Poland to be recognized as a victim of the Nazi invasion, but critics say the law would silence discussion of the way some Poles contributed to the Jews’ deaths.
One of the biggest tests of democracy in Europe is now playing out in Poland — and a drive to rewrite history is at its heart.
“Everyone who wants to control Poland ... wants us to be weaker, wants us to be not proud of ourselves,” Tadek said in an interview with BuzzFeed News last month at his apartment overlooking the industrial valley that keeps Krakow smothered in a blanket of smog. “Pride gives people power to do something for your country.”
The night that Tadek’s parents brought him home from the hospital in 1982, he slept through riots outside their front door in which pro-democracy activists clashed with communist paramilitaries.
Shortly before Tadek was born, his father, a poet named Jan Polkowski, was imprisoned for seven months for his role in the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. After communism fell, Polkowski went on to serve in Poland’s newly democratic government and then a right-wing party that ultimately became part of PiS.
Tadek grew up surrounded by the memories of ancestors who’d fought for Poland. His parents hung a portrait of an ancestor who fought in a failed 1863 uprising against imperial rule by Russia. Tadek was told stories about his great-grandfather, who fought the Soviet Union after Poland became independent in 1918. He heard about his grandfather, one of thousands of Polish soldiers who fought the Nazis only to be sent to Soviet gulags by the Red Army as it established a communist puppet government at the end of the war.
So, Polkowski told BuzzFeed News, he was dismayed when Tadek grew into a rebellious adolescent drawn to “the way of expression that was used by black people in slums.” The music “did not talk about the reality he lived in,” he complained, and it seemed like a foreign subculture that “cuts you off from your roots.”
“It was also a rejection of my past,” Polkowski said.
Within a few years Tadek had started a group called Firma, rapping about weed and vodka and girls.
He saw Tadek as emblematic of a generation of young Poles raised under the liberal governments that ran Poland in the ’90s and brought it into the EU in 2004. He said Poland’s liberals only wanted to speak about the dark side of the country’s past and believed that “Polish identity should be dissolved into an EU identity.”
While his father wanted him to learn about Poland’s history, Tadek dedicated himself to mastering the audio equipment he’d inherited from an uncle. He recorded songs to cassette using samples from his PlayStation, recordings for children, and classical composers like Brahms and Beethoven. He was still in high school when he began performing live shows.
“I was fucking scared,” he said when recalling his first performance. “Everyone told me that I was really white in the face onstage.”
Within a few years Tadek had started a group called Firma, rapping about weed and vodka and girls. By the mid-2000s, they were playing around 50 concerts a year.
But everything changed for Tadek as he approached his thirties, when he decided to go on a self-improvement kick — to fight “not to be an idiot,” he said. His father had a library of more than 10,000 volumes, so he asked for some recommendations. And his father gave him books about Polish history.
Recounting this moment in his living room, which is decorated with the emblem of the uprising of Polish rebels that expelled Nazi troops from Warsaw at the end of World War II, Tadek grew angry about how much he hadn’t known about Polish history.
“Jewish people use the Holocaust for a lot of business.”
He discovered a past full of heroes who fought for the country’s independence — and decided their memory should be a resource for Poland today, not something to be ashamed of.
“What’s wrong? Why don’t we use it?” he said. Poland could have followed the model of the Jews, he said, who “built a lot of success on tragical history from years of war.”
“Jewish people use the Holocaust for a lot of business,” he said, like how “when you say something wrong about some Jewish people, it’s [called] anti-Semitism.”
For Tadek and many others, an example of the distortion of Polish history concerns the 1941 massacre of Jews in a village called Jedwabne. That July, a group of Poles herded the town’s Jewish residents into a barn and set it on fire as Nazi soldiers looked on.
Jedwabne was one of dozens of pogroms that broke out as the Nazis marched east across Poland, but a 2001 book by American historian Jan Tomasz Gross about the incident forced the first widespread discussion about how some Poles contributed to the death of Jews. A monument was built in Jedwabne, and two presidents apologized at commemorations a decade apart. But a government examination of the incident concluded in 2003 that Gross overstated the number who died and how many Poles participated. Many nationalists have since dismissed the book as a hit job designed to make Poland look bad.
Tadek claimed that Gross said, “Poles were the biggest killers of Jewish people during the war … that Polish people only wanted Jewish blood during the war.” In reality, Tadek said, thousands of Poles risked a death sentence by helping Jews escape the Nazis.
World War II wasn’t just a Jewish tragedy, he said. Around 2 million of the 6 million people believed to have been killed in Poland were ethnic Poles, and both Hitler and Stalin sought to destroy the Polish state. The Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis in 1944 was the largest underground revolt against German forces in any country during the war — there were plenty of stories of heroism, too.
“We were fighting during the Second World War,” Tadek said. “We were the biggest losers.”
Tadek came to believe that powerful interests were trying to keep the truth of the past from Polish citizens.
He pointed to members of the old Communist Party who’d become part of the center-left party that led Poland into the EU, who he believed were trying to keep the party’s crimes buried. Other former communists have become powerful in the media, like Jerzy Urban, who was the press secretary for Poland’s last communist leader and now edits a weekly paper. Many foreign companies are now big players in the Polish economy, including German firms that profited during the Nazi era, such as Allianz insurance.
“If you want someone to be your slave, you don’t want him to be intelligent, smart,” he said. “How the fuck did it happen — people don’t know about the biggest World War II heroes?”
It’s not just the memory of World War II and communism that divides the Poles.
In 2010, President Lech Kaczyński and several other top officials died when a plane crashed in the Russian city of Smolensk as they were traveling to the site where the Soviet army massacred Polish officers at the end of WWII. Competing accounts of what happened that day are so far apart that they exist in entirely separate universes.
The official investigation by aviation experts and the government of liberal Prime Minister Donald Tusk established that it was an accident caused by a rushed landing attempt in bad weather. But the leader of PiS — the dead president’s identical twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński — was convinced it had been an assassination by Russia and that Tusk was covering it up.
PiS hammered on the claim, organizing monthly vigils calling for the “truth” about Smolensk, while a new network of right-wing media outlets spread the conspiracy allegations. They claimed Tusk was a pawn of a hostile power, and charged him with treason when he later left Poland to become president of the European Council. By 2015 nearly a quarter of Poles believed there was a cover-up of Smolensk.
That’s the year PiS won a majority in Parliament promising to restore Poland’s pride and to keep out Muslim refugees. And it solidified its power with what opponents say is sustained assault on the media and the historical record.
If you think that the previous government covered up a Russian assassination of Poland’s president, then it’s not a stretch to believe that authorities will lie about anything. And there was a new network of right-wing news sites and social media accounts to convince the public they had long been duped.
“We were fighting during the Second World War. ... We were the biggest losers.”
For PiS members, the Smolensk cover-up was part of a much wider conspiracy by pro-European governments to lie about Poland’s history so the country would be ripe for foreign exploitation. They claimed liberals wanted Poles to be ashamed of their past so they would not fight back.
PiS’s Andrzej Duda, who is now Poland’s president, said his liberal predecessor’s apology for the Jedwabne pogrom “destroys historical memory.” A former PiS parliamentary candidate organized a nationwide hunger strike when the education ministry rolled out a more flexible curriculum in 2012 that required fewer hours of history.
Tadek’s first historically themed album came out at the height of this furor. He called it An Inconvenient Truth, because, he said in the title song, it carries a message for “those scumbags that destroy this country from the inside.”
“There is no consent to rob young Poles of knowledge of their ancestors,” he said in lyrics addressed to then–prime minister Tusk in a song about the curriculum overhaul. “Maybe he forgot that he is the prime minister? ... Do they love their country or Brussels more?”
The album’s biggest single was about the so-called Cursed Soldiers, Polish units who fought the Nazis and hid in the forests when the Soviets occupied Poland in 1945; they fought until the Red Army finally wiped them all out. It immediately racked up thousands of views on YouTube, and today it has been watched more than 4 million times in various versions. That number is more than one-tenth of Poland’s entire population.
One track told the story of Danuta Siedzikówna, who joined the Polish resistance as a nurse and supported the Cursed Soldiers with medical supplies until she was arrested and executed by communist forces. Another told the story of Witold Pilecki, a soldier during World War II who spent two years organizing a secret resistance inside the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. He escaped in 1943 and fought with Polish forces during the 1944 uprising in Warsaw, before being arrested and executed in 1948 as a Western spy by the communist regime.
“Why did they not teach me about you in school?” Tadek lamented. “Today, the media and political elites — as if they are Polish — are constantly striving to deceive history.”
This led to the busiest time of Tadek’s career, when he was playing around 100 concerts a year. He also began working with a Krakow museum dedicated to Poland’s homegrown World War II resistance, and the city’s symphony orchestra organized a concert of classical arrangements of his music. Then came government honors.
Promotional copies of Tadek’s An Inconvenient Truth were distributed by Magna Polonia, a publication that is now a Breitbart-esque online portal run by a group called the National Radical Camp. Known by its Polish initials ONR, it takes its name from a right-wing group that sought an ethnically pure Poland in the 1930s.
ONR members have been convicted under Poland’s anti-fascism law for making Hitler salutes. But in 2010, a procession the ONR co-organized in Warsaw to mark Poland’s Independence Day became the focal point for the growing nationalist fervor and drew thousands.
“You have one rival, forgive me — it's Poland!”
Tadek endorsed the march in 2012, and said he believed that mainstream media coverage of the event was propaganda by left-leaning stations to make nationalists look bad. Last year’s march saw organizers describe themselves as “racial separatists,” openly use banners with slogans like “All Different, All White,” and give prominent speaking spots to self-proclaimed fascist leaders from other countries.
Tadek distances himself from the overtly racist parts of the movement but seems unaware of its reach. He said he’s never attended the march, but was certain that “most of the people who go ... are just normal people.” He seemed surprised when told that its organizers described themselves as “authoritarian” and that some marchers had used racist slogans and banners with a Nazi emblem. These “are things that should never happen,” he said.
The country’s right-wing media, which now includes the state-owned public television network as well as a broadcast empire owned by a powerful Catholic priest, seems to ignore or denies these facts. These details are emphasized by Poland’s major independent broadcaster, TVN, which is owned by a US company and dismissed by the right as a foreign agent.
Some nationalist rappers have zealously embraced their role as propagandists; some even call for violence. A group of rappers from the industrial city of Łódź were reportedly arrested in 2016 with a cache of weapons after releasing a video calling for a “Polish jihad” against Muslim immigrants.
Despite Tadek’s disavowal of the nationalist rap scene’s racist elements, he can’t escape them. When you watch Tadek’s videos on YouTube, the site algorithm quickly suggests tracks by one of the more extreme right-wing rappers, Basti, whose songs include “Stop Islamizing Europe” and who titled one of his albums Hate Speech.
“Our main role is to build good feelings about Poland, not bad feelings about the others,” Tadek said.
But the transformation of history into a weapon by the nationalist movement has helped Poland’s far right radicalize faster than seemed possible even a few years ago, said Dariusz Stola, director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
When the museum opened five years ago, he said, “I didn’t expect that you would see neo-fascists ... marching in the main street of several cities or present in church with their flags.”
Nationalists were very shrewd to turn every discussion of history into a test of patriotism, he said.
“It’s horrible and it will bring violence sooner or later,” he said. “Someone will die.” ●