25 Years Later, Poland Is Still Trying to Rid Itself of Communist Street Names
Goodbye, Heroes of Vietnam Street. Farewell, Six-Year Plan Avenue. So long, Forty Years of the Polish People's Republic Estate. This year, Poland's Senate has moved to ban street names commemorating people and events celebrated by the country's former communist government. The group pushing for the changes is Poland’s Institute of National Memory, a body set up in 1998 to remove traces of the country's former communist rulers and promote the memory of their victims. In defending the removals, the Institute argues that such street names are:
An expression of contempt for memory of the victims of Nazism and Communism. They show contempt for the achievements of the Polish fight for citizens’ freedom and the independence of the State in the twentieth century.
To outsiders, the surprise might not be that Poland is getting rid of street names celebrating communist heroes and battles, but that any still exist at all. In fact, most of the thousands of such place names were changed shortly after 1989, many of them altered to celebrate figures admired by the new government. Thus Warsaw’s Karol Swierczewski Street became Solidarity Avenue, Nowa Huta’s Cuban Revolution Street became John Paul II Avenue and its hitherto neutrally named Central Plaza became Ronald Reagan Square.
Despite these changes, some communist names have still clung on – 1,400 of them in fact. To this day, 55 streets are named after communist General Swierczewski, former face of the 50 zloty note, while 15 others commemorate the Anniversary of the People’s Republic. Rather than being a defense of Poland’s communist past, these remain largely because they are in small towns or quiet suburbs where their survival is less likely to be read as pointedly symbolic.
The plan to remove such names has not been without controversy. While it is likely to pass through Poland’s Sejm (the country’s House of Representatives), the bill is still being contested by two parties who between them hold roughly 15 percent of the chamber's seats. The chief argument against the move is cost. Responsibility for changing street names falls not to national government but to local municipalities, some of whom have questioned how necessary it is to spend limited public funds expunging names associated with a system now 25 years dead.
For defenders of the move, keeping these names on public property fails to make a clean break with the ideology they espoused, and insults those who saw their freedom curtailed under Communist rule.
There are other, difficult questions brought up by the move, not least about the pecking order of tyranny in Poland’s recent history. Such as, is the Institute of National Memory’s implication of parity between Nazism and Communism appropriate in this context? The history of the People's Army, still commemorated by eight streets, shows how complicated such associations can be. The force was the military arm of an imposed, repressive system, a body that in the 1980s ruled the country under martial law for almost two years, a period most Poles remember with a shudder. But in the 1940s, it nonetheless helped to liberate Poland from the Nazis, halting a combined physical annihilation and cultural obliteration infinitely worse than anything the country has faced before or since. So how, if at all, should its role be acknowledged?
There’s also no consensus on leftist figures who predate the regime that later celebrated them, and whether they should stay or not. Perhaps few people will mourn the departure of incompetent General Swierczewski, but many still admire Hanka Sawicka, aka Hannah Shapiro, a Jewish communist agitator and resistance fighter murdered by the Nazis in 1943. It is not yet clear whether the 12 streets named after her will be kept.
Similar issues have been debated across the former Eastern Bloc. Hungary has been undergoing a process similar to Poland's in its thoroughness. Even Roosevelt's name has been replaced by that of 19th century statesman István Széchenyi in a Budapest square, named by the communist government to celebrate the New Deal’s architect in 1947. In Germany, changes have been more restricted. The names of leftist figures who predate the foundation of the German Democratic Republic have frequently remained, meaning that East Berlin still has a Rosa Luxemburg Platz and a Karl Marx Allee, and West Berlin still has a Karl Marx Strasse, so named since 1947.
Post-1945 figures such as Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotewohl – formerly very common on East German street signs – have mostly gone, though a few remain in provincial towns, their survival partly reflecting municipal inertia and partly a sense that pressure for change comes less from locals than from Western Germany. It will be interesting to see whether these names remain controversial in 50 years time, or whether a collective amnesia already setting in will find they've become just another scarcely remarked piece of the urban fabric.