Hear from faculty Matthew Lee and
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This is a signature of many authoritarian governments, even ones that have not seen as much economic turmoil in the wake of the Soviet Union’s fall, including France, Italy, and Poland, explains Northeastern human services professor Matthew Lee, who teaches about ethnic identity and conflict in Poland and other countries.
Poland, in particular, Lee says, has had a “very interesting” economic history in the past 20 or so years, where its Gross Domestic Product has risen steadily, but its politics have remained conservative, with discrimination on the rise.
When Trump was elected in 2016, many Polish citizens were championing his political win, while much of Western Europe was frightened by it. Lee noticed a rise in xenophobia and anti-Semitism as well as anti-Black, anti-Asian, and anti-LGBTQ+ behavior in the country around that time.
“A lot of conservatives in Poland were trying to promote this sense of ethnic purity,” he says. “From a human rights perspective, it’s alarming.”
Lee’s class on race history and empowerment was particularly interested in how in Krakow, Poland, many Jewish people fled the country after World War II and how their descendants are now trying to return to reclaim their ancestral property. However, the Polish government, run by the conservative Law and Justice party, recently ruled they were not allowed to do so.
“From a government perspective, that’s horrifying,” Lee says. “Many people see this as anti-Semitic. They’re limiting their own people, Jewish people with Polish ancestry, from coming back.”
Another signature of countries that are experiencing spikes in authoritarianism are efforts by autocratic politicians to rewrite history and restrict education, according to Lee. Hungary, he points out, has a policy limiting what people are allowed to teach in schools, going so far as to ban gender studies. The U.S. is also seeing state legislatures pass laws limiting education on race and LGBTQ+ issues, and in Poland, the Law and Justice party has sought to eliminate stories from school books that paint the country in a bad light, including educational material on the Holocaust.
“It paints a very white-washed version of what happened,” he says. “If we don’t learn about it, we’re doomed to repeat it. People are not learning the true history.”