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The danger in Poland’s frontal attack on its Holocaust history

New legislation threatening prison time for anyone who talks about Poland’s complicity with the Nazi’s is just the latest dark turn in the country
Jan Grabowski
A man walks on the railway tracks in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II) as thousands of people, mostly youth from all over the world gathered for the annual “March of the Living” to commemorate the Holocaust in Brzezinka
A man walks on the railway tracks in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II) as thousands of people, mostly youth from all over the world gathered for the annual "March of the Living" to commemorate the Holocaust in Brzezinka near Oswiecim, Poland May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX2CZUF

Last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections in Poland gave power to a right-wing, nationalistic and populist party, called Law and Justice. The ensuing changes on the political scene were nothing short of dramatic—and deeply troubling. Those who thought that the constitution was the supreme law of the land, were in for a nasty surprise: the new Polish government, with the help of the president, immediately started to dismantle and muzzle the Constitutional Court (an equivalent to the Canadian Supreme Court), the only remaining obstacle to its complete control of the state. The court is now paralyzed, and its most important verdicts are simply ignored by the authorities.

Elsewhere, the journalists of the state radio and television have been purged and those less sympathetic to the new regime were fired. Not surprisingly, the European Parliament took a dim view of the dismantling of democracy in one of its member states and repeatedly expressed its deep and growing concern over the situation in Poland.

However, the departure from democratic practices also goes hand in hand with a frontal attack on Polish history. “Who controls the present, controls the past,” wrote George Orwell, and the Polish authorities seem to have taken Orwell’s words to heart.

Earlier this month Zbigniew Ziobro, the Polish minister of justice, introduced new legislation intended to “defend the good name of the Polish nation.” The new set of laws, already approved by the cabinet, would impose prison terms of up to three years on people “who publicly and against the facts, accuse the Polish nation, or the Polish state, [of being] responsible or complicit in Nazi crimes committed by the III German Reich.” In the governmental narrative, the recently approved law is a penalty for those who talk about the “Polish death camps” of the Second World War. In reality, however, the new law, with its ambiguous and imprecise wording, is meant to freeze any debates which might be incompatible with the official, feel-good, version of the country’s own national past.

This “feel good” narrative, which the new Polish authorities espouse, is, however, based on historical lies and revisionism masquerading as a defence of “the good name of the Polish nation.” Just a few weeks ago Anna Zalewska, the Polish minister of  education, declared herself unable to identify the perpetrators of the notorious 1946 Kielce pogrom. It is a matter of very public record that in 1946, in Kielce, in the center of Poland, one year after the end of the war, an enraged mob, incited by tales of blood libel, murdered close to 50 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust; women, men and children. Unfortunately, the minister was unable to admit that much. “Historians have to study the issue further,” she said, before finally declaring “it was perhaps anti-Semites.”

Her words were echoed Jaroslaw Szarek, the new chief of the Institute of National Remembrance, a state institution that aspires to be the guardian and custodian of Poland’s national memory. He flatly denied Polish involvement in, and responsibility for, the communal genocide in Jedwabne in 1941. Again, it is a matter of historical record that in July 1941 Polish citizens of Jedwabne herded hundreds of their Jewish neighbours into a barn and then set the barn on fire, burning their neighbours alive. The new law will, quite likely, make further debates surrounding these unpleasant events unlikely.

It so happens that the list of “unpleasant” historical themes, which could soon become a topic of interest to the police and to state prosecutors, is long. For instance, in the face of the new legislation, historians who argue that certain segments of Polish society were complicit in the extermination of their Jewish neighbours in the Second World War will now think twice before voicing their opinion. What about those who would like to study the phenomenon of blackmailing of the Jews, known in Polish as shmaltsovnitstvo? What about those who would like to talk about the role of the Polish “blue” police who collaborated with the Germans in the extermination of the Polish Jewry? What about those who want to shed light on the deadly actions of the Polish voluntary firefighters involved in the destruction of Jewish communities? Or on the involvement of so-called “bystanders,” who might have been much more involved in the German policies of extermination than had previously been thought?

Those are but a few of the who questions that have not yet been tackled by historians. Now, it’s the minister of justice and his prosecutors will probably decide what is a historical fact and what is not.

In the light of the clear message sent by the authorities, the new law, which should be adopted by the Polish parliament any day now, becomes a clear and present threat to the liberty of public and scholarly discussions. It is also a dramatic departure from the democratic principles and standards which govern the laws of other members of the European Union. Finally, introducing prison terms for people who dare to tackle some of the most difficult questions of the country’s past puts Poland right next to Turkey, infamous for its laws against “slandering of Turkish identity,” which is a code word for denying the Turkish responsibility for the Armenian genocide.

Unfortunately for Polish authorities—and fortunately for those involved in the study of the past—the history of the Holocaust, which is at stake here, is not the property of the Polish government. The history of the destruction of the European Jewry is, actually, the only universal part of the national history of Poland, one which resonates in the minds and hearts of people around the world. Any attempt to muzzle debate and to stifle academic research into the various aspects of the history of the Shoah can, should and, hopefully, will be seen as a form of Holocaust distortion, or Holocaust denial—something to be vigorously protested by the international community.

Jan Grabowski is a professor of history at the University of Ottawa and the 2016-17 Ina Levine Senior Invitational Scholar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. His last book, Hunt for the Jews, was awarded the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research.