The Polish memory war

By Charlotte Alt

On January 26th, the Polish parliament voted to implement a law denying Polish complicity in the Holocaust. Ten days later, President Andrzej Duda signed the bill. The law states that ‘whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … shall be subjected to a fine or penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.’

Israel, the US and France have argued that this law not only infringes upon freedom of speech but that it denies and falsifies history

This law has caused outrage abroad and damaged diplomatic ties with some of Poland’s key allies. Israel, the US and France have argued that this law not only infringes upon freedom of speech but that it denies and falsifies history, which they fear will lead to an outburst of anti-Semitism. Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said that since then, more young Jews are considering leaving the country, as they no longer feel safe. Anna Chipczynska, president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, similarly recounts: “We are receiving anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish statements on a daily basis. Members of the community feel their loyalty being questioned, that people are expecting them to take a side.” Consequently, they fear that this will intimidate Polish Holocaust survivors from speaking about their story and therefore eradicate an important part of Holocaust memory in Poland.

Poland, especially after Barack Obama in 2012 sloppily used the phrase ‘Polish death camp,’ has been eager to establish its own victimhood. Although Holocaust history is never easy, and historians have long struggled especially with definitions of victimhood and perpetrators, it is clear that Poland was not merely a passive bystander, which applies likewise to resistance and complicity. Poles have heroically saved thousands of Jews from certain death: an aspect of history Poland and especially Israel have previously particularly focused on. However, there was also open complicity, particularly recently highlighted by historians, showing Polish involvement for example in the 1941 Jedwabne massacre. The new law can be therefore widely considered as whitewashing history.

Poland, especially after Barack Obama in 2012 sloppily used the phrase ‘Polish death camp,’ has been eager to establish its own victimhood.

This historical revisionism is not an exclusively Polish phenomenon but can also be seen in Hungary and the Ukraine. The Hungarian government increasingly praises the memory of Admiral Miklos Horthy, despite his alignment of Hungary with Nazi Germany and his role in the death of 400,000 Jewish Hungarians. Similarly, in 2015 the Ukraine passed a law criminalizing any rhetoric insult to the memory of anti-communist partisans, actively excluding the history of those who murdered countless Jews and openly collaborated with the Nazi regime. Similar efforts to control history and memory through legislation can be found in other Baltic countries, like Latvia or Lithuania.

Poland’s new law is therefore a clear attempt to control and change their historical narrative and to some extent public memory of the past. This in itself is not unusual; memory and history are constantly rewritten and changed, often to suit a country’s political agenda in its selectivity. The problem, in this case, however, as Professor Dariouz Stola has pointed out, is that ‘it is a sign of deterioration in the capacity to talk, and the ability to talk is the essence of democracy. If you cannot talk, you cannot reach an agreement; you can only force a solution. The erosion of language is the erosion of democracy and the path to violence.’

‘The erosion of language is the erosion of democracy and the path to violence’

Thus the issue with this law is not only that it denies any Polish involvement and responsibility in the Holocaust, whitewashing history and possibly causing an outburst in anti-Semitism, but that it reflects another step away from democracy in a series of actions since the Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015. Since its election the party has attempted to legalize government control of the media, purged cultural institutions of any critical voices, such as Martin Pollack after he written a critical essay on the Law and Justice Party. It has also censored Holocaust museums, attempting to ensure that they focus solely on the ‘Polish point of view.’ In this sense, the new law on Holocaust memory is the next step in a worrying development, which sees Poland slowly moving away from democracy and will call into question not only Polish national identity but its place in the European Union.

Photograph: Dennis Jarvis via Flickr

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