Obama’s Polish blunder

The outrage in Poland over Obama’s passing remark is hard to exaggerate


Alik Keplicz/AP Photo

Yesterday in a White House ceremony honouring a Polish war hero, Barack Obama used the phrase “Polish death camp.” There’s video here.

The outrage in Poland over Obama’s passing remark is hard to exaggerate. At this hour, the Gazeta Wyborcza website is host to at least a half-dozen stories. Poland’s prime minister has released a lengthy statement:

“The words uttered yesterday by the President of the United States Barack Obama concerning “Polish death camps” touched all Poles. We always react in the same way when ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions lead to such a distortion of history, so painful for us here in Poland, in a country which suffered like no other in Europe during World War II.”

Two non-Poles with close ties to the country have expressed the despair most Poles feel over an offense most people outside Poland would not even notice. Edward Lucas, international editor of The Economist, has a blog post here. David Frum, whose close friend Anne Applebaum is married to the Polish foreign minister, excoriates Obama here.

By now many Canadian readers will be perfectly baffled over all the fuss. But three years ago, we at Maclean’s made the same mistake Obama did yesterday, so perhaps I can explain.

In 2009 a Maclean’s reporter, speaking about John Demjanjuk’s trial, made passing reference to “Polish death camps.” The Polish embassy went into crisis mode. I wound up devoting my weekly column to the matter a couple of weeks later. Here’s that column. The short version: to Poles, the proper phrase is “Nazi death camps.” Their location was not Poles’ choice, and the camps’ first prisoners were Poles. The penalty for protecting a Jew was death for the protector’s entire family. An excerpt from that 2009 column:

‘If you go to the Polish Foreign Ministry’s website today and pull down the menu under the “Foreign Policy” tab, the first issue listed—ahead of “Asia and Pacific Region” and Poland’s “Eastern Partnership” with the countries of the former Soviet Union—is “Against ‘Polish Camps.’ ” Follow that link and you’ll find a list of erroneous references to the offending phrase in the news media of 24 different countries; more than a dozen corrections and press-council judgments sought by Polish authorities in several of those countries; and excerpts from the 2005 annual address to Poland’s parliament by the country’s then-foreign minister, Adam Rotfeld. “I believe the time is ripe, 60 years after the end of the war, for the elementary truth about what really happened in occupied Poland” to come to light, Rotfeld told his colleagues. “It was in Polish territories that the Germans created the largest camps of annihilation, where—alongside the Jewish people—Poles and members of other European nations were murdered on a mass scale.”

‘In that context, Rotfeld said, “use of the term ‘Polish death camps’?.?.?.?not only conceals the truth about the perpetrators of that crime, but slanders our nation, which was the first victim of the criminal practices of Nazi Germany.”’

There is a broader political context for the latest uproar over Obama. The populations of Central and Eastern Europe have worried, for about as long as he’s been president, that he has no feel for the region. I wrote about that here.

I’m wary writing about this “Polish camp” business. Experience shows that readers of Polish background will often assume that no innocent mistake is possible: that of course everyone, from a magazine reporter to the President of the United States, has thought this through, understands Poland’s innocence, and has decided to smear and denigrate the country anyway, as part of some vast anti-Polish conspiracy. Readers who don’t think much about Poland sometimes assume the whole fuss is wild over-reaction at best, or at worst a culpable attempt by Polish authorities to escape the judgment of history. The Economist‘s Lucas urged Polish readers last night on Twitter to stay calm. Frum, whose wife Danielle Crittendon will soon release a Polish cookbook co-written with Applebaum, seems taken aback this morning as he realizes that it’s not obvious to his Twitter followers what Obama did wrong.

Of course the President wasn’t seeking to offend. But I think I’ve come to understand why he offended anyway. As I wrote at the end of that 2009 column, “Imagine a consummate evil being committed in your home by invaders. You would wish the world knew it wasn’t your choice. You wouldn’t ever stop wishing it.”


Obama’s Polish blunder

  1. I would agree with Polish readers that no innocent mistake is possible. It’s equivalent to saying that a woman who was gang-raped was “involved in some sexual deviance.” You can claim that Obama made an ignorant mistake, but you can not claim it was an “innocent” mistake. It was, more properly, a negligent mistake and one for which he owes an unqualified apology in his own voice..

    • “Innocent” in the sense of unknowing and without malice; same meaning as your “ignorant”.

      He has a battery of people researching and writing his speeches; assuming he stuck to script, the blame probably rests with them, if blame is to be assigned. I would have thought nothing of the usage, myself – I would have assumed he was referring to the physical location of the Nazi camps.

      But I agree with you that he should unreservedly apologize for unintentionally giving offense.

      And I thank Wells for expressing the reason why the usage of “Polish camps” is so offensive: “Imagine a consummate evil being committed in your home by invaders. You
      would wish the world knew it wasn’t your choice. You wouldn’t ever stop
      wishing it.” A brilliantly succinct way of making the point.

  2. Am I the only one surprised at the reaction of Polish Prime Minister? Obama talked about the Death camps in Poland during WWII and he was honoring a hero from Poland. How could any one misunderstand what he said. May be the Polish Prime minister need some education.

    • At Obama’s level , everything is taken as a politcal comment !
      mistakes are not expected of the most powerful leader of the world
      shame shame america

    • Nice try at re-phrasing the president’s statement Sam….but Obama didn’t talk about death camps in Poland….which is how it should have been phrased….he called them “Polish death camps” which wrongfully imply the Poles were responsible for them.

    • For sure Obama mis-spoke and an apology and clarification should be given. But I am sure this was not a deliberate slur or an attempt to pin something terrible onto the Poles. It is understandable why Poles are upset, but a lot of the criticism from outside of Poland or the wider-Polish community seems opportunistic. In this election year, something else is in-play.

      • Understanding other people’s sensibilities – including things you might find innocuous, but they take great offence at – is very much part of the job when practising international diplomacy. And it probably shouldn’t be hard to understand, upon reflection, that a country that was one of Nazism’s prinicipal victims doesn’t want to be described instead as a co-conspirator, even with a mere lazy slip of the tongue.

  3. After the radio tower and knowing Stalin and Hitler hated eachother, Poland should’ve concentrated all artillery to the NW and launched diversionary shelling of a German Port, protected by infantry anti-tank weapons and explosives (sticky bombs) stockpiles for a bit. Retreat all aircraft to interior airfields and launch diversionary air-raids on North and central borders of both sides.
    Use tanks and all civilian vehicles to lead an evacuation route through Hungary, N.Italy, Switzerland into France. If attacked have France ready to Blitzkreik a salient through Switzerland and launch diversionary minor attacks from Maginot Line. Attack Slovakia from the trailing infantry end of the evacuation route if it is obvious to germans that Poles are headed to France.
    Obama’s mistake was not landing a USA infantry division at England in 1939 or 1940, freeing up the cdn 1st and the UK division, to be sent to France.

    • France will fall! Japan is imperialistic enough to get the USA into the war. We have to hold on until then. If you think retreating into the Middle East is better, then do that. But for godsakes hurry up and mobilize south for a retreating invasion. Hitler is insane!! Hurry!!

      • In WWI, cdns sustained 75% casualties mounting a successful infantry charge of machine gun encampments. Yet 700000 Poles surrendere in WWII. Y don’t they apologize? Why wasn’t there a Polish division in England? How the hell do we win this thing if England falls and Germany starts shelling the Eastern Seaboard?

        • …and that was with bayonets. USA sold Canada $30M worth of supplies on the eve of WWII and it was the GOP that wanted them neutral I assume. And now are attacking Democrats?!

          • You can stop now.

        • Nuke them. You want North America to nuke European and Soviet cities. From what airbase? That prolly includes Warsaw, y’know.

        • 250,000 Poles volunteered with the allied forces to fight Nazis in WW2. There were plenty of Polish divisions fighting in the Battle of Britain (Polish squadron 303 and 304 being most famous), Africa, Italy (Monte Cassino), as well as attached to the Soviet army.
          In 1939 Poland was attacked by Germany + Soviets, 2 largest armies in Europe at the time. Several months later 1 of them attacked France+England combined forces and the result was Dunkirk evacuation. You expected Poland to do against 2 what Allies could not do against 1.

          Anyway, seems like you don’t know much about what you’re talking about.

  4. A blunder typical of the tactlessness and ignorance of history characteristic of the younger generations in America today, unfortunately.
    Some of the reactions in comments at various sites show they still don’t get it :-)
    It would be like saying “The American terrorist attack against New York City on 9-11” (blaming the American victims, instead of the Al Qaeda terrorists who were responsible. The Poles were the *VICTIMS* in WW2).

    • I completely agree with you, other than the fact that I don’t believe that your example of “The American terrorist attack against New York City on 9-11” is in particular a very good example to use. How I see the situation, the phrase “Polish Death Camps” was used to specifically speak of the death camps which were located in Poland, not elsewhere and the Nazis being behind it was inferred as it is such common knowledge.
      Your example is so specific that the use of the word “American” doesn’t necessitate a geographical explanation (you also say New York City and it’s obvious where that is) but by its use actually makes the Americans solely responsible.
      I hardly think that this is an “ignorance of history characteristic of the younger generations” as you appear not have to understood the actual reason for its use (though an improper use nonetheless) and I hardly think that Obama used that comment due to a lack of understanding about who committed what. I think a better example of why he used it would be, “Hey, remember that time we were sitting on that bench?”, “WHAT BENCH?! We’ve sat on lots of benches!”

  5. The idea that Christopher Columbus was a Portuguese-born noble of Polish origin through his father, Polish King Vladislau III Warnenczyk, who disappeared in Varna (10th November 1444), is very fascinating. Nevertheless, it is also quite revolutionary, so it causes, of course, a lot of doubts and questions. The best way to answer these concerns was to have Mr. Rosa visit Poland, where he remained for nearly a week.
    During his stay Manuel Rosa gave some 30 interviews to the media – from general TV programs and newspapers to radio, specialized historical magazines and portals, along with a Lecture in Poznan.

  6. “KOLUMB. Historia Nieznana,” a book published May 8, 2012 in Poland – translated from the Spanish book “COLON. La Historia Nunca Contada” – was a guest of REBIS in Poland. The book’s main thesis that the “official history” of Columbus was incorrect has roused a lot of questions – controversies, but also lots of support for the results of the research

  7. This is more than a mere oversight. The president is an attorney by profession. As an attorney, I understand perfectly well that we are essentially wordsmiths. Language matters and the president cannot simply dismiss this. He owes Poland a clear, direct and personal apology. He should also probably fire the speechwriter and anyone who edited this missive.

    • I would think attorney-wise, concepts like substance over form, rejecting an absurd interpretation and finally, de minimus, would be more pertient.

  8. Of course, the Poles would happily whitewash the fact that the Polish people more likely than not helped turn over their Jewish neighbours to the Nazis. But why let reality get in the way of national outrage?

    • Certainly any occupying nation will find collaborators, with a range of motivators from agreement and sympathy, to hope for advancement, to fear for safety. Yes what you describe would have happened in Poland, but on the whole the populace was very opposed to the Nazis and had a disproportionately large and active resistance movement.

      • The population was indeed very opposed to the Nazis. But it didn’t stop that population from also informing on their Jewish neighbours. The Nazis didn’t slaughter 3 million Jews without help.

        • Actually, they did it without help. It was not happening anywhere other than where the Nazis were in control. Sure, there are anti-semites everywhere. But mass extermination and genocide requires more then just a few nutjobs. The Nazis institutionalized it.

          • Please. Spend 2 minutes on Google before you make that kind of comment. Plenty of Polish Jews were turned over to the Nazis by their Polish neighbours and informed on by their neighbours.

          • Exactly. Polish Jews were turned over to the Nazis. The Jews were not killed by the Poles, they were not enslaved by the Poles, they were enslaved and killed by the Nazis. Read your own comment before you go all high and mighty.

          • Exactly. Polish Jews were turned over to the Nazis. The Jews were not killed by the Poles, they were not enslaved by the Poles, they were enslaved and killed by the Nazis. Read your own comment before you go all high and mighty.

    • I don’t think you can call that “reality”. Only one side of a larger equation. Yes, there were some Poles who did collaborate with the Nazis in order to save their own lives.

      But, there were also many Poles who helped Jewish fugitives at the risk of their own lives. Helping them hide, offering them food, and very often even offering them a place to stay in their own homes, while being aware that such a decision, if discovered, would cost, not only them, but their entire family their lives, for the Nazi’s punishment for any kind of help, even a simple piece of bread, was a death centence to any helper and his/her family.

    • 3 million Polish Jews murdered in Poland along with 2.5 million Poles. Before you start reassessing the blame for Holocaust learn a bit more history. I can assure you the Poles were not joining SS or guarding the death camps.

      If you check the Righteous Among Nations you will find that Poles are #1 on that list. The Polish-Jewish relations were way better than what some internet experts would imply.

  9. I think some of this is playing the victim card because the Ukraine, Poland’s co-host of the Euro 2012, is getting roasted over racism right now. Poland is trying to avoid being associated with this.

    • “Playing” the victim? Seriously? Having 16% of your population killed in the war (the highest by percentage of all nations) is called “playing the victim”? Seriously the ignorance in N.America is astounding.

  10. Obama’s actions ridicule and mock the Holocaust, he went to Harvard and doesn’t know who was responsible for the Holocaust

    • A little extreme, felix. He probably meant it the way I interpreted it until the furor – “the Nazi camps in Poland” – the “Nazi” assumed to be understood and the “Polish” (like the use of “Warsaw” immediately before it) a geographical reference.

      Thanks to Wells, I now understand why Poles are upset, but I don’t think there was any intent to slander the Polish people or misrepresent history.

  11. it happens.

  12. Not an accident on Obama’s part. He always sides with the Socialist Countries, like Germany and Hitler.

  13. Obama really doesn’t know much about the world, particularly Europe. He once remarked that Austrians speak Austrian. He called the Malvinas islands the Maldives, when he should have called them the Falklands. These are not slips of the tongue. He simply has no idea. When he moves off the teleprompter he’s in trouble.

  14. I remember that column from a couple years ago. You might think that Obama’s staff would be up to date with stuff like that.

  15. As usual many people see only what they wish to see from this.
    If you’re very pro-Obama it’s much ado about nothing or even a purposeful attempt to discredit him. If you’re very anti-Obama he was an ignorant fool or even an intentional rogue seeking to denigrate and insult people.
    It’s situations like this that epitomize why I find it harder and harder to take anyone’s reactions seriously in regards to what politicians say or do. Everyone is so over the top on everything that comes down the pipe these days that we’ve become caricatures of ourselves.
    If you claim you can’t see both sides of this, then you’re lying to yourself and everyone else. As such, choosing to come down hard on one side or another is more an artifact of your political motivations than it is any real reflection of the facts.
    Obama made an unfortunate but obviously not malicious mistake and needs to take people’s sensitivities seriously and apologize earnestly. It may even be appropriate to take a trip to Poland at some point to demonstrate his good will and make direct ammends.
    To read anymore than that into this situation requires a political agenda or inappropriate emotional projection.

    • This post applies to virtually every comment section on every page on the internet. Well said.

    • I honestly do not believe it was an accident – his speech writers knew exactly what they wrote – Hussein has struggled to ruin the US for the past few years and is now succeeding.

  16. I think by now, most people who have any inkling of WWII history must know that “Polish death camps” meant Nazi Germany’s death camps in occupied Poland.

    • Most people, yes. But you repeat that phrase a few times and people start drawing their own conclusions.

  17. Reference is made to the Demjanjuk trial. In March 2012, a few days after Demjanjuk’s death, the German Munich District Court declared Demjanjuk “presumed innocent” because his appeal had not been tried by the Appelate Court. The Court confirmed that Demjanjuk’s previous interim conviction was invalidated and that he had no criminal record.

  18. Obama’s words were carelessly thoughtless and thoughtlessly careless. Even if he meant no offence, his words help to promulgate the notion (especially to those who have little or no knowledge of the history of WWII) that the death camps in Poland were created by the Polish people or by the Polish government.

  19. Anyone interested enough to follow this new event of Obama honoring a Polish war hero surely knows that “Polish death camps” meant Nazi German death camps geographically located in Poland.” There is so much literature, news media, documentaries and movies covering Nazi Germany’s crimes that it is hard, almost impossible to imagine that anybody would think Poland actually ran any Nazi German death camps.

  20. I think the real crime here is the writer’s defense of Obama. A rogue and usurper the likes of which that nation or perhaps history has seen. His over 200 executive orders that circumvent Congress, effectively dissolving their Constitution and Bill of rights even going to the extremes of Obama himself presiding over a “Death List” since it is now allowed that he can order the assassination of American citizens or detain them indefinitely without due process. As human and civil right are stripped away, much in the same way as Nazi Germany in the thirties, it’s ironic that America’s neighbors make excuses on Obama’s behalf today. As Harper appears to have the same masters and following the same road, I guess we’ll soon be in no position to raise our voices much less make excuses.

  21. A bit odd that the Polish government is apoplectic at this innocent verbal slip – while at the same time this week they have been blithely ignoring, denying and avoiding undeniable video evidence of rampant antisemitism and neo-Nazi facism in their football stadiums in Monday’s BBC pre-Euro 2012 Documentary “Stadiums of Hate”

  22. Hussein has been given a free ride as president due to his skin colour

    He will eventually bring that country to its knees

    He now ranks among the top ten worst presidents in their history – I suspect he will get elected again – although I hope not

    The debt is now beyond their ability to pay it down – there is serious financial trouble in that country and Hussein does not seem to care.

  23. This has long been a “third rail” for journalists at The Gazette in Montreal, and no doubt many other papers around the world. Local Poles used to complain vehemently (and I suppose still do) whenever the dread “P.d.c.” phrase was used …

  24. Thank you Maclean’s for explaining the reasons why the Polish citizens reacted in such a way. I can see why many people are mystified by the outrage this choice of words caused. I do see, but I don’t necessarily agree. I also don’t think the US president actually meant any harm by it. To him, it was nothing more than an accidental mistake.

    But to Polish people, it was promoting a confusion that is already often present among the less educated: that somehow, somewhere, the Poles not only accepted but helped the Nazis in the carnage of human lives. And in a way, that line can be seen in both ways. On one side one sees a death camp that was in Poland. On another, a death camp that was built and operated by the Polish men and women.

    The Polish sensitivity on the subject can be easily explained when one realizes how many times people have tried to unjustly blame them for it, all the while their own Polish men, women and children were killed in mass executions.

    To clarify… imagine how Americans would react, if another country’s president came into the US and used the words “American terrorist attack on 9/11″…

    Technically, it did happen on American soil, so why the outrage? But many American hearts would bleed at the implied responsibility of their own country in their horrible loss.

    • I’ve read somewhere the following phrase from a Western journalist “In certain parts of Europe the WW2 happened yesterday” (may not be exact quote). Certainly in Poland or Russia, and even Germany, the sensitivities are very high on the subject.

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