At 39 Zielna Street in the center of Warsaw, a unique tower rises into the sky, 11 stories high, crowned by an ancient looking cornice. It stands among the brand-new skyscrapers in the neighborhood.
When it was built in 1908, it was likely the highest building in the Russian Empire – an independent Poland didn’t exist at the time. During World War II, when the Polish underground army revolted against the Nazi occupiers, German snipers holed up in the building. The “Kiliński” battalion managed to capture the tower with heavy losses. But the uprising still failed.
Today, the building is listed as an historical landmark. Next to the elevator, a bust of a soldier stares into the distance. Red-and-white flags and black-and-white, war-era photos adorn the walls. The Association of Veterans of the Underground Army has its headquarters here, as does a bookstore dedicated to the Poles’ historical struggle.
But every now and then, a cleaning crew has to come to remove the graffiti on the street and walls. Since abortion was practically banned in Poland last autumn, furious protests have become a frequent occurrence in Warsaw. And there’s a good reason those protest marches often pass Zielna 39. It is the headquarters of an organization that goes by the Latin name Ordo luris: Legal order. It prepared the legal basis for the ruling against abortions.
An Ultraconservative Elite Force
The tower has once again become a fortress – a stronghold of a conservative, heroic-nationalist worldview. Ordo luris views itself as a kind of ultra-conservative elite force. Wherever traditions are in danger, the troops deploy their lawyers. They provide support in lawsuits against artists, gay activists or even newspapers for – according to Ordo Iuris – insulting religious sentiment or spreading what they deem to be false news about Poland.
Ordo Iuris has personal ties to the nationalist-conservative government, exerts political influence and provides legal assistance. To cite but one example, Ordo Iuris legal experts helped legally prepare anti-LGBT declarations that have now been adopted by almost 40 local parliaments and town councils across Poland.
The organization has worked its way to the front lines of a culture war that is threatening to tear Poland apart: a clash between the nationalist, Catholic, abortion opponents and EU skeptics that back the PiS government on the one side, and a more liberal, cosmopolitan population on the other. The conflict is carrying hatred and bitterness not only into almost every political discussion, but increasingly into everyday life. It is making compromise impossible and is crippling democratic life.
The men’s salon Barberian Academy and Barber Shop on Emilia Plater Street is located less than 2 kilometers away from Zielna 39, and yet the two places could hardly be any further apart. Heavily tattooed barbers here shave men’s hair short on the sides and then style the hair on top into military-inspired, parted hairstyles. The rough exterior contrasts oddly with the friendly, calm mood inside the Barberian.
Owner Adam Darski drives up in a matte-black Mercedes with the license plate “W1 Satan.” His baseball cap is emblazoned with “Antichrist.” The barbershop is just a hobby for him. Darski is better known under the name Nergal, a monster from ancient Mesopotamian mythology, a god of the underworld who, of course, drinks blood. Nergal is one of Poland’s most famous rock stars, playing distorted, V-shaped guitars for the extreme metal band Behemoth. With his growled singing about lustful virgins, the archangel Gabriel blowing his “trumpets,” and Satanists, Nergal has become a worldwide star in his scene – and the bogeyman of the Polish right.
Legal Battles with a Rock Star
Nergal has also been engaged in legal battles with Ordo Iuris and other conservatives for the past several years. Recently, the organization helped sue him over one of his online posts, showing a black boot standing on an image of the Virgin Mary, Poland’s national saint. It’s still unclear how the dispute will end in the final appeal. But Nergal isn’t about to give up. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “Everyone knows my radical and often vulgar statements and they don’t have to take my side.”
Away from the stage, Adam Darski isn’t vulgar at all. He quotes Nietzsche and the Polish playwright and writer Witold Gombrowicz. He was actually raised a Catholic. “But I’ve always been interested in people’s dark side,” he says. “We all have one.” According to Nergal’s philosophy, you have to embrace it, confront it and see ambiguity as enrichment. You should not want to simply erase is, as, he says, the Catholic fundamentalists who are gaining influence in Poland are trying to do: “They want a tree that doesn’t cast a shadow.”
Nergal remembers the church of his childhood with a shudder. “It was always cold, the nuns were uptight and the pastors authoritarian.” He describes that brand of Catholicism as having been “inhuman,” and in some ways “primitive,” especially when it finds symbiosis with nationalism, as it has in Poland.
Nergel’s opponent in the tower on Zielna Street is named Tymoteusz Zych, Ordo Iuris’ deputy chairman. He’s in his mid-thirties and is wearing a modern suit, red tie and hipster beard. But Zych isn’t a representative of that fashion-conscious, liberal, urban middle class; and Karolina Pawłowska, who is sitting next to him, would likely reject that description for herself as well. She is an expert on international law and is responsible for Ordo Iuris’ “Yes To Family – No To Gender” campaign.
The offices around them are brightly painted, with heavy furniture and thick carpets – looking as though they could belong to a branch of the Church of Scientology or to an elite corporate law firm. Only the crucifixes located in each room provide a clue that Ordo Iuris is not about money. The organization emphasizes that it is financed exclusively through donations – and that it does not receive subsidies from the government. Anyone who claims otherwise is liable to get sued.
“We are committed to respecting human rights,” Zych says, adding that they are anchored in the Polish constitution in accordance with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That declaration, he explains in precise legal jargon, includes, for example, the right to life. But nowhere, he says, does it specify a “right to abortion.” As such, he declares, such a right cannot be introduced today – hence the extremely strict restriction in Poland.
Would Ordo Iuris help a gay man to get the right to same-sex marriage? “No,” Zych says. “The constitution clearly defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman. There is no legal basis for it.” Ordo Iuris, one colleague says, is fighting against the erosion of the traditional family. She says it has been endangered by the “left,” which is pushing for abortion rights and gay marriage in many international bodies and organizations. Ordo Iuris views such laws not as the expression of changing living conditions or as the manifestation of growing tolerance, but as the decay of the applicable rules. As a danger.
Is It Alright To Give the Virgin Mary a Rainbow Halo?
Ordo Iuris recently suffered a setback when a court acquitted an activist who had painted a rainbow-colored halo on the Virgin Mary. Devout Catholics were particularly offended by the fact that stickers with the image were also placed on public toilets and trash cans. “This is a violation of religious sentiments that our constitution clearly protects,” says Zych.
The episode sheds light on the way Ordo Iuris thinks and works: A societal conflict – for example about the attitude of the church toward gays and lesbians – is reduced to its legal core. Zych and his lawyers are consistently trying to pressure the other side with legal action. Is it OK to paint a Virgin Mary with a rainbow-colored halo? It’s a question of religious feelings, but also one of tolerance, diversity and equanimity. Polish democracy would offer the possibility of settling this conflict through a political dispute. But Ordo Iuris has chosen to take the path through the courts. When the organization wins, opponents’ opinions are stigmatized as having broken the law.
Ordo Iuris is also involved in a court case against former Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski, now a member of the European Parliament with the liberal opposition. Sikorski had written that the organization supported “no-go areas” for homosexuals in Poland. In recent years, a significant number of municipalities have adopted Ordo Iuris-inspired declarations that enshrined the “protection of the family,” which is defined exclusively as the union of a woman and a man. Gay activists are now calling these swaths of land “LGBT ideology-free zones.”
“The country is threatening to break up into tribes that speak louder and louder, but hardly listen to each other.”
However, these Ordo Iuris-inspired municipal decisions are expressions of will that don’t have any basis in law. In purely legal terns, Ordo Iuris can claim there are no bans on gays and lesbians entering shops or government offices. Zych even claims that, “if there were, say, barber shops or offices there that refused to let gays in, then we would take legal action against them.”
It’s this duplicity that infuriates many liberal opponents of the organization: They are convinced that the declarations made by the municipalities are having an impact, fostering a climate of homophobia that makes life difficult for gays and lesbians. But no one is allowed to say so – otherwise Ordo Iuris threatens them with lawsuits.
The Country Is Threatening to Break Up into Tribes
Liberal sociologist Karolina Wigura is worried about her country’s political and cultural polarization. She notes that a dynamic has been set in motion in which both sides are diverging from each other in increasingly radical directions – particularly following the limitations on abortions that are, de facto, a total ban. “PiS has shown that it is not interested in what citizens with different political attitudes think,” she says. Instead of engaging in a societal debate about abortion, the government has ruled with a firm hand. “We liberals feel not only defeated, but humiliated.” She says the political climate is increasingly defined by “anger” in Poland. “The country is threatening to break up into tribes that speak louder and louder, but hardly listen to each other.”
The Polish long ago stopped voting for a party out of enthusiasm for a political project – many do so out of hatred for its opponents.
Fear, but above all hatred, is gaining the upper hand. Two years ago, a man stabbed the liberal mayor of Gdansk to death. Public opinion researchers have also observed that political conflicts are increasingly becoming a problem in private relationships. A growing number of people say they wouldn’t tolerate someone with dissenting political views marrying into the family.
Meanwhile, compromise between the opposition and the ruling party – a fundamental principle of any functioning democracy – appears to be impossible. They’ve been quarreling for months over who should be the new civil rights ombudsman, for example. The hiring decision will be made by the parliament, where PiS holds the majority, but will also have to be agreed by the Senate, which is in the hands of the opposition. But that’s not an option in Poland, almost 17 years after it became a member of the EU.
The escalation isn’t the fault of the ruling party alone. But Wigura says, the PiS is currently the primary beneficiary. Conflicts over factual issues have erupted into religious wars. In addition, since taking power in 2015, PiS has systematically eliminated “checks and balances,” those internal control mechanisms that prevent democracies from becoming a dictatorship of the parliamentary majority. PiS controls the authorities, the public media and also goes after private newspapers and Internet portals. Warsaw is in a permanent state of conflict with Brussels over the separation of powers and the freedom of the judiciary, a result of PiS having ripped power away from the Constitutional Court and the body that appoints judges. But the firmer becomes the hand of national-conservative rule, the greater the anger grows in the streets.
Even Maria Sobuniewska of the conservative Krakow think tank Klub Jagielloński warns: People long ago stopped voting for a party out of enthusiasm for a political project – many do so out of hatred for its opponents.
Nergal, the rock musician fighting against the Catholics in Ordo Iuris, is also angry. “We Poles have just eliminated one ideologically entrenched system: communism. Now, the national conservatives want to force the next brand of fundamentalism on us.”
Of course, he is “for refugees,” for equal rights for gays and lesbians. He wants to see a strict separation of church and state in Poland and for the church to be stripped of its tax privileges. And for Article 196 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes the violation of religious sentiment, to be abolished.
In short: Negal questions everything that the national conservatives and Ordo Iuris want to preserve. “It’s ridiculous that I get sued for a posting, but few priests have to go to court for abuse.” Nergal is now raising money, with the funds dedicated to supporting people who are the targets of lawsuits by Ordo Iuris. His campaign is called “Ordo Blasfemia.”