At stake is the examination of the country’s World War II-era past, a period during which both Poles and Jews suffered tremendous losses. As the first country invaded by Hitler’s Germany, Poland can lay claim to being the Nazis’ first victims. It was also home to more than three million Jews, the vast majority of whom perished during the Holocaust. Nearly two million non-Jewish Poles were also murdered.
The new law, which amends the existing Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, would severely punish false accusations against the “Polish nation” or “Polish state” of responsibility for the Holocaust. So, for example, anyone who describes Auschwitz as a “Polish death camp” rather than a “Nazi death camp” on Polish soil, could face up to three years in prison.
One problem, of course, is how does one define the Polish nation? There can be no dispute that the Nazis initiated and implemented a campaign of genocide against the Jews. But it is also clear that, while the Nazis murdered both Jews and Poles, some Poles participated in crimes against Jews. In fact, Polish-born historian Jan Grabowski estimates that more than 200,000 Jews were murdered by Poles during the war – Poles who did not by themselves constitute the Polish collective, but who certainly were members of the Polish nation.
The law purports to exempt historians and artists from punishment, but what about journalists, educators and others? Furthermore, how can one know how aggressively prosecutors will use the law to threaten or intimidate voices they might aim to silence? Princeton Professor Jan Gross’ 2001 history of the Polish massacre of Jews in Jedwabne in 1941 met with great resistance from a Polish public reluctant to accept the participation of some Poles in the murder of Jews.
The backdrop to this debate is the recent evidence that the anti-Semitism that has haunted Polish society since before the Holocaust persists until this day. In November, about 60,000 attended a rally in Warsaw that was replete with anti-Semitic chants, such as “Jews out of Poland” and banners such as “White Europe of brotherly nations.” The xenophobia and anti-Semitism on display that day are not new phenomena in Poland, a country that witnessed beatings of Jews in the streets before World War II and anti-Jewish pogroms after the war’s end.
The ruling Law and Justice party has provided at least tacit support for the neo-fascists of today, who carry the torch of these ancient hatreds. The passage of this law is such a form of encouragement – a sop to the party’s nationalist base. Whether it was the government’s intent, the law fosters the impression of a desire to cast Poles as blameless victims, which is a popular narrative in Poland.
What is missing both from the law itself and from the government’s unapologetic defense of the new measure is what is most needed – an honest and open discussion of Poland’s wartime history. A comprehensive, nuanced discourse on the most complex aspects of Poland’s past by the current president or prime minister could go a long way toward easing strains and straightening the historical record.
It is true that Poles were victims of the Nazis. And it is true that some Poles saved Jews or otherwise resisted the Nazis. But it is also true that some Poles shared responsibility for certain Nazi crimes, or committed crimes against Jews in their own right. Let the education and inquiry about the full history of this period proceed. This ill-conceived and inflammatory law is not a path forward to reconciliation.