By Allie Carter (CMC ’19)
Echoes of World War II politics are still largely present in Europe today- most recently manifested in the Polish president’s decision to sign a bill that would punish anyone that publicly insinuates collaboration by the Polish state in the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust. What’s more is that the bill was publicly introduced on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the Auschwitz-Birkenau liberation. Concurrent with the resurgence of white nationalism in Poland, this bill is both an attempt to distort public perceptions of a massive genocide and a direct violation of freedoms of expression to dishearten those from pursuing the truth.
Poland was occupied by Nazi forces for six years. In this span of time, Nazis forced Jews into ghettos, shot over 200,000 of them, then further slaughtered an additional million in Auschwitz. By no means was all of Poland compliant with the Nazis’ actions, as some Poles both worked against the Nazi forces through underground movements and resistance armies while some attempted to provide aid to the victimized Jews. Regardless of these acts of heroism, there were also Poles who cooperated with and worked to further the initiatives of the Nazi forces. Between these two polarized responses to Nazi influences, there was a large sum of Poles that appreciated the displacement of their Jewish neighbors, and reaped the benefits of diminished socio-economic competition at the expense of their former neighbors.
While the role Poland played in abetting Nazi forces is indisputable, neither are the anti-Jewish programs that followed in suit both during and after the war. Like any other state subjugated by German Nazi forces that then became entangled in Nazi crimes, Poland has an innate moral imperative to embrace the truth of this history.
Poland’s movement to reconsider history is concurrent with the rise of nationalism and far right movements in the last five years. A tremendous right-wing march through Warsaw in November 2017 was characterized by signs and chants of “white Europe” and “pure blood” by enthusiastic Poles. This fervor and zeal threatens to prevent an honest evaluation of history.
Poland’s campaign to reshape its history in this fashion has been in the making since 2013, when lawmakers were infuriated by a comment President Barack Obama made referencing “Polish death camps.” While the White House was quick to express remorse, Polish lawmakers were nonetheless indignant and inspired to ensure what they perceived as slander to the country was punishable. The bill’s first proposal in 2013 failed. Since then, former FBI director James Comey further infuriated the Polish when speaking of the country’s “murderers and accomplices” in a 2015 address at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, venturing as far to equalize Poland with Nazi Germany. Since the initial proposal and Comey’s remarks, the ultra-conservative Law and Justice Party won the parliamentary majority, something that has not happened since the end of communism. The Law and Justice Party has had numerous disputes with both the European Union and human rights groups on a myriad of topics since they gained their parliamentary majority. The parliamentary majority, coupled with the exponential rise of nationalism, have substantially changed the political conditions compared to the environment during the bill’s first failed proposal.
The newly passed law now criminalizes those who publicly use phrases like “Polish death camps” or argue that Poland was collusive in Nazi atrocities. Punishment for said allegations includes fines or imprisonment for upwards of three years, foreigners included. The law was met with immediate criticism, including over the vagueness of what is regarded as an accusation, the fact that it supports a rise of anti-semitism, and that it inherently contradicts all established principles of freedom of expression.
The United States and Israel have been the most outspoken countries against Poland’s decision. The U.S. was quick to warn Poland of the bill’s divisive nature, the negative impact it will have on international relationships, and the bill’s direct hindrance of freedom of expression. Israeli centrist opposition leader, Yair Lapid tweeted, “hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier,” and responded to the Polish Embassy when met with opposition, “I am a son of a Holocaust survivor. My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles. I don’t need Holocaust education from you.”
Upon the immediate international backlash, Polish president Andrzej Duda responded saying, “[the law] is not to whitewash history, but to safeguard it and safeguard the truth about the holocaust and prevent its distortions.” To appease further backlash, Duda claimed he would consult the Constitutional Tribunal for greater clarification regarding the bill. He also explained the law absolves punishment for academic research and art.
Poland is not the first country to reconsider its history to its advantage, but it is the first country to formally create legislation to do so. In attempting to preserve Poland’s honor, the legislation inadvertently calls attention to the wrongdoings of the Polish, rather than emphasizing acts of heroism by Poles who opposed and confronted Nazi forces or jeopardized their lives to aid persecuted Jews. No matter the justification for the measure, it blatantly violates freedom of expression, disrespects the experiences of the victims of Nazi atrocities, and has incited anger from countries across the world.