Seventy years after the end of World War II, a battle is taking place over Polish collective memory.
On January 26, the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Polish parliament voted in favor of a bill making it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in Nazi crimes.
This caused immediate outrage around the world and nowhere more so than in a country that has been, until now, a close ally of Poland: Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the bill as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”
And yet, 10 days later, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, signed the bill into law retorting that “the historic truth is that there was no systematic institutionalised participation among Poles [in the Holocaust].”
What is happening? Why, over 70 years since the end of the Second World War, is this argument taking place?
I am a sociologist who has studied controversies around the memory of the Holocaust in Poland. For me, this dispute is more than a crisis in Polish-Jewish relations. It is, above all, a crisis in Poland’s national identity.
The memory of World War II in Poland
This is not the first time the Poles have legislated against what they see as defamation of Poland’s record in World War II, but it is certainly the most wide-reaching. Under this new law, the punishment for people claiming that “the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich” carries a possible prison sentence of up to three years.
The timing of the vote was no accident. The government used the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day as a platform to denounce the misnomer “Polish death camps” that some – including former President Barack Obama – have used to refer to Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland.
The Polish government, along with other Polish organisations, has been fighting the use of that expression in foreign media for several years, and with considerable success. Most American newspapers and other major media outlets have updated their stylebooks to stop those words being used.
Nevertheless, given the growing controversy, the German minister of foreign affairs took it upon himself to declare that the Germans bore the entire responsibility for the extermination camps. But then he added that “the actions of individual collaborators do not alter that fact.”
And therein lies the rub.
Many Poles find it difficult to accept they could have played a role in the Holocaust. That is because, unlike many other nations, the Polish state did not collaborate with the Nazis. Considered an inferior race by the Nazis, Poles were targeted for cultural extermination to facilitate German expansion to the East. Polish elites were systematically murdered. Tens of thousands of Poles were imprisoned in concentration camps or were forced into slave labor.
Poland’s losses in World War II were enormous: Approximately 6 million Polish citizens were killed in the war, over half of whom were Jewish. Warsaw was left in ruins, and its 1944 uprising alone cost the lives of about 150,000 citizens.
The dominant Polish narrative of World War II is, therefore, about victimhood, which fits squarely into its broader national mythology of martyrdom.
Repeatedly invaded by its powerful neighbours, the Polish state disappeared from the European map for over a century – from 1795 to 1918. Poland’s national bard, the 19th century poet Adam Mickiewicz, described his country as a “Christ among nations.” In this telling Poles are a chosen people, innocent sufferers at the hands of evil oppressors.
“Revelations” of crimes committed against Jews by Poles tarnish this narrative and shake Polish national identity to its core.
The fact is, however, as historians have shown, crimes committed against Jews by Poles were much more prevalent and widespread than most people realised.
Perhaps the most controversial and impactful research is that of the Polish-born Princeton University professor, Jan T. Gross.
In his 2000 book Neighbours, Gross recounts in painful detail the violent murders of Jews by their ethnically Polish neighbours in the small town of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941.
The book marked a watershed in the public debate about Polish-Jewish relations.
On July 10, 2001, roughly a year after the publication of Gross’ book, the Polish government acknowledged the murders and erected a monument at the site where several hundred Jews were forcibly brought to a barn and burned alive. Although the monument’s inscription fails to explicitly indicate that it was ethnic Poles and not Germans who committed the crime, the official apology by then-President Aleksander Kwaśniewski was unequivocal. “Here in Jedwabne,” he said, “citizens of the Republic of Poland died at the hands of other citizens of the Republic of Poland.”
Such was the shock the story of Jedwabne caused that it is possible to distinguish between Poland “before and after” the appearance of Gross’ book. As leading Catholic journalist Agnieszka Magdziak Miszewska put it: “Facing up to the painful truth of Jedwabne is … the most serious test that we Poles have had to confront in the last decade.”
Law and Justice’s politics of history
It is that test, arguably, that the ruling Law and Justice party is failing.
In the battle over Polish collective memory, the party has been promoting the stories of the Poles who rescued Jews – and who are honored by Israel as the “Righteous Among Nations” – by creating museums and monuments in their name.
Through the new “Holocaust Law,” the government is, in effect, trying to repress knowledge of crimes committed against Jews by Poles. The defense of the law, however, goes one step further. In a remarkable case of what I would describe as manipulating the message, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki issued a video statement claiming that it is the Poles who are the guardians of historical truth and fighters against hatred.
And yet, the same politicians remain silent when their supporters express anti-Semitic and anti-refugee views. On February 5, for example, demonstrators impatient for President Duda to sign the Holocaust law gathered in front of the Presidential Palace chanting anti-Semitic slogans and demanding that he “remove [his] yarmulke and sign the law!”
The president did sign the law, but he also sent it to the country’s constitutional court for examination.
Those Poles opposed to the law – and there are many, judging by the number of organisations and public figures denouncing it and the number of petitions circulating – hope that it will be deemed unconstitutional because it represses freedom of speech and could significantly curtail academic research.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome, however, the government’s politics of history will continue to be waged on many other fronts. What is at stake, in my view, is nothing less than the definition of Polish national identity. This is why, for all the international outrage, the controversy about the Holocaust law is hottest inside Poland, among Poles who are now debating what it means to be Polish and where Poland is going.