With Holocaust law, Poland imperils reconciliation with its past

The new law, which makes blaming Poland for Nazi war crimes a criminal offense, is meant to correct a common error about Polish involvement in the Holocaust. But it also threatens growing introspection into what role Poles did have in the genocide.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP
Survivors attend a commemoration event in the so-called sauna building at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oświęcim, Poland, on Jan. 27.

The 20th century volume of “Europe, Our History,” being finalized now for release in identical German and Polish editions, is meant to overcome the classical nationalist perspectives so common in school textbooks.

German students will learn more about the understudied events east of its frontier, including the Warsaw Uprising. For their Polish peers, the textbook delves into the messy truths of occupation: while there was no collaboration with Nazi Germany at the state level in Poland, some Poles did collaborate with the occupiers.

Though a small reference point, it is a big marker of how far Poland has come recently in facing some of the darker parts of its wartime history, says Michael Müller, a historian at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and a leader of the joint Polish-German textbook project. “That makes a difference,” he says. “We have worked hard to develop a common narrative, a cross-national narrative of these issues.”

Yet it is exactly that more nuanced view of history – and public acceptance of it – that many worry is under threat in Poland under the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

In a new law signed this week by President Andrzej Duda, it is now a crime, punishable up to three years, to falsely attribute crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish nation and state. That means saying “Polish death camp,” a shorthand for Nazi-run Auschwitz-Birkenau that sits on Polish soil, is illegal.

For those who know 20th century Polish history, the country’s narrative – told from between Germany and the Soviet Union, the two major aggressors in the European theater – is of victimhood and heroism. The phrase “Polish death camp” is inaccurate, as the concentration camps that lay inside Poland were purely Nazi constructions. As a result, many express empathy for Poland for the implicit association with the Holocaust.

But legislating on history has sparked an international outcry, whether it’s concerns from Israel that the PiS government is whitewashing the darker forces in Polish society during the war, or from the United States that it’s stifling freedom of speech. And at home, critics condemn a diplomatic fiasco they say was intended as political gain. PiS has often directed hostility at modern and wartime Germany to bolster its nationalist credentials.

And while the law itself exempts those in pursuit of art or research, historians worry that vague wording, and a general climate of intolerance in Poland, threatens to roll back the progress that Poles have made in reckoning with the uncomfortable truths of its past in this century.

“These issues are really painful. And it’s not so easy to solve them,” says Paweł Machcewicz, who has researched one of the most notorious cases of Polish collaboration, the Jedwabne pogrom, and was fired by the government from his post as the director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk. “But the problem in Poland is that these legitimate concerns are exploited politically and magnified politically.”

The need for introspection

It was the publication in 2000 of the book “Neighbors,” by Jan T. Gross, that shed light on the Jedwabne pogrom, where hundreds of Jews were executed in 1941 at the hands of regular Poles. The book generated new discussions about anti-Semitism in Polish society, and helped many Poles – though not all – to look harder at simplistic labels of perpetrators and victims ascribed to them during the war. (In its own subsequent investigation, the Institute for National Remembrance in Poland also found proof of the pogrom, though they put the death toll lower and argued it was “inspired” by German occupiers.)

The period of controversy stirred by “Neighbors” was a deeply unsettling time, says Professor Machcewicz. But it also paved the way for such history to be explored today in text books, or museum exhibits. “At the time I was very proud of the fact that Polish historians and Polish public opinion could face the past in a very dignified way,” he says.

“I think that the most important part of the Polish fate was martyrdom, heroism, and the anti-Semitism was just one of the currents of history,” he says.  “But we have to go through this process of self-reflection. If we reject these issues we are going to construct an artificial national memory. And one day sooner or later it will crack.”

This chapter in Polish history has not been fully reconciled. With each reference to collaboration, whether in the Polish movies “Ida” or “Aftermath” or the German television miniseries “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” comes emotional debate.

The Polish government says it has been misunderstood. When he signed the law this week, President Duda said he’ll introduce it to the court system for review, a sign that the debate is not settled.

Dawid Zuchowicz/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters
Polish President Andrzej Duda speaks about his decision on the Holocaust bill at Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Feb. 6.

Jan Rydel, chairman of the steering committee of the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, welcomes the referral to the constitutional court. “It is my deepest belief that it was not the intention of the authors of the bill or MPs who adopted it to censor any statements made on the Holocaust, including those related to the complicity of individual Poles or certain groups of Poles,” he says in emailed responses, adding that the dispute shows how vital remembrance and solidarity remain across Europe today.

In a recent poll, 40 percent of Poles support the bill, while 32 percent have a negative opinion about it. Jan Sobiech, who teaches history in high school in Warsaw, generally believes the bill is “a step forward to systematize responsibility for using terms that skew historic truth,” he says.

But as a teacher, he also worries about freedom of speech and historic truth. “Poles have a moral right to say that they were victims during the war,” he says. “But not all was black and white. Many of us were good and heroic, but there were also people who were bad.”

‘You cannot regulate collective memory’

Outside of Poland, the bill has caused the most controversy with Israel, which has forcefully condemned the law on grounds that it denies the historical record of some Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust.

Daniel Wolniewicz-Slomka, who was born in Israel and has been living in Poland for nearly seven years, says the diplomatic crisis could soon be defused. “But I'm afraid that hostility towards Jews that we have been observing lately will stay for longer,” he says, referring to the increasing presence of the Polish far right. “And Jews who live in Poland will have to face it.”

For many, the move speaks more about Poland’s current relationship with Germany and the European Union. In calling for war reparations from Germany, as it has done, or battling against acting German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies, PiS often portrays itself as a continued victim of its stronger neighbor to the west.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Tensions and sensitivities from the past remain though, and Germany has trod more cautiously with Poland than the US or Israel have. Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel reiterated Germany’s sole responsibility for the Holocaust over the weekend. “Poland can be sure that any form of falsification of history, like the term ‘Polish concentration camps,’ will be unequivocally rejected and strongly condemned by us,” he said. “This organized mass murder was carried out by our country and no one else.”

Still, Germans say they are worried about the nationalist turn today in Poland. Based on their own history, they believe that unfettered introspection is the only path forward. For example, many explain the rise of the far right in eastern Germany as due in part to myths of innocence from Nazi crimes created under Soviet rule in the German Democratic Republic.

Cornelia Kirchner-Feyerabend, a high school teacher in Nuremberg in the state of Bavaria, happened to be on the mandatory school visit to Dachau with her students when she learned of the law, and says the teens were shocked. “The main responsibility lies with Germany, they are the ones to blame,” she adds. “But it's a bit difficult now, with this current government, which is ignoring rule of law and independent justice, and just ignoring things that are vital for the European ideal.”

Professor Müller, currently conducting research in Poland, says that he can understand the Polish demand to be accurately reflected in history – a sentiment that spans the political spectrum. Even former US President Barack Obama unwittingly repeated the term “Polish death camp” in a 2012 speech, for which he later apologized.

“Generally [Poles] feel uncomfortable with careless and uninformed generalizing statements about Polish history in the 20th century,” he says. “Having said that, this cannot be a matter of state legislation, you cannot regulate collective memory by law.”

Yet if he disagrees with it, he says he is confident the law won’t cause lasting damage, to academic research or Polish introspection. “We all know that authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in the past tried to regulate history, and they never succeeded,” he says. “It is even more unlikely now.”

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