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Poland’s new Holocaust law is just the latest attempt to officially redefine its history

Undersecretary of State at the Chancellery of the President of Poland Wojciech Kolarski, left, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, right, place candles at the Monument to the Victims at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, on Jan. 27. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

The Polish Parliament’s upper house approved Thursday a controversial bill that aimed, according to its backers, “to protect Poland’s reputation and ensure historians recognize that Poles as well as Jews perished under the Nazis.” Widely interpreted as criminalizing any mention that some Poles committed crimes during the Holocaust, the law was swiftly condemned by a wide range of Holocaust commemoration bodies, survivors and historians. The United States asked Poland to rethink the legislation. Israel countered with a bill that criminalizes denying or minimizing the role of Nazi collaborators.

But few in the Western media read Polish, and the law’s actual scope is actually broader than has been reported. Behind it lies a long-standing government policy of “not leaving history to the historians” — and promoting a narrative of Polish martyrdom.

Here’s what you need to know. 

What does the law say?

So far, Western media have characterized the bill as an attempt to criminalize phrases such as “Polish death camps.” But the legislation goes beyond that. The bill expands the focus of the government-affiliated Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), an institution created in 1998 to research, document and prosecute crimes by the Communist political police and the Nazis, to include crimes that Ukrainian nationalists perpetrated against Poles and Jews between 1925 and 1950, including the mass murder of Polish civilians in Volhynia and Galicia during World War II.

More important, it expands IPN’s mandate to include protecting Poland’s reputation at home and abroad. The draft law would impose a punishment of up to three years in prison on Polish and foreign citizens who claim — “publicly and contrary to facts” — that Poland was responsible or co-responsible for the crimes committed by the Third Reich during World War II, or for other war atrocities, crimes against humanity or crimes against peace.

That language is so vague that it could be used to silence debate on any aspect of Polish history that strays from its officially promoted martyrdom narrative. The bill makes exceptions for the arts and research. But the ruling far-right Law and Justice (PiS) party has been politicizing Poland’s chief prosecutor’s office and getting rid of judicial autonomy — which might make that exemption entirely theoretical. 

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Poland has had an uneasy relationship with the Holocaust for years.

This bill is just Poland’s most elaborate and conspicuous attempt to redefine its history.

After the transition from Communism to democracy, the Polish government launched a “historical policy” (polityka historyczna in Polish). Its aim was to emphasize Polish suffering at the hands of external forces and to minimize Polish complicity or crimes — to shape the understanding and memory of Poland’s past to shore up its present political standing. Toward that end, the country established the IPN and began drawing attention to past tragedies in ways that could achieve moral and political gains.

For instance, since the turn of the millennium, Poland has repeatedly asked Germany for World War II reparations. In 2007, the Polish prime minister demanded additional voting rights in the European Union because Poland suffered such heavy losses during World War II. In July 2016, the Polish parliament voted to recognize Ukrainian nationalists’ mass killings of Poles as genocide. The ruling PiS party is an especially strong believer in these policies. Not surprisingly, its supporters are substantially more likely to endorse IPN’s activities than the rest of the population.

Further, Poland defends the nation against accusations of past wrongdoing, especially in the Holocaust. In 2004, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the Against “Polish Camps” public relations campaign. The ministry monitors foreign media for offensive statements, demands corrections, keeps a tally of its victories on the website and hosts a how-to guide for individual citizens who want to respond to “offensive” statements in the foreign media.

The right-wing populist PiS, in power since 2015, has ramped up this defense. In January 2016, President Andrzej Duda asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reevaluate the Order of Merit award issued to Princeton Universitt historian Jan Gross after Gross wrote that, during World War II, the number of Jews killed by Poles exceeded the number of Germans killed by Poles. Arguing that a recently opened World War II museum in Gdansk insufficiently emphasized Polish suffering and heroism, the PiS government took control of the institution in April 2017. And it has now passed this bill, which had languished since PiS originally introduced it in 2013.

Many Poles are frustrated that Western leaders don’t understand how the nation suffered during World War II.

In passing this bill, PiS is expressing Poles’ irritation that Western leaders are generally ignorant of how Poland suffered at the hands of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In 2012, Barack Obama referred to a “Polish death camp” when conferring a Presidential Medal of Freedom on Polish hero Jan Karski. In 2015, then-FBI Director James B. Comey spoke of evil committed by “the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary.” The Polish government demanded retractions and restatements, insisting that such phrasing failed to acknowledge that Nazis were the ones who created and ran the death camps in German-occupied Poland.

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It’s true that the German Nazi regime planned, organized, and oversaw the murder of 6 million Jews. But that effort would have failed without local collaboration. Most Poles neither harmed nor helped their Jewish fellow citizens. Some even heroically rescued Jews.

But hundreds of thousands Polish Jews were murdered without setting a foot into a German death camp, often by their neighbors in pogroms and “Jew-hunts,” as scholars Jeffrey Kopstein and Jason Wittenberg detailed this week. As wartime reports noted, persecuting Jews functioned as a “narrow bridge” on which the German occupier and the Polish civilian could meet. Some Poles created a new trade — “szmalcownictwo” in Polish — in which they identified and blackmailed Jews in hiding. Of course, the szmalcowniks did not represent the Polish state — but they came from throughout Polish society, from the lowest to the highest rungs.

As one of us documented, the well-founded fear of Poles prevented numerous Jews from escaping and hiding. The main Polish underground organization, the Home Army, affiliated with the Polish government-in-exile, sometimes saved and sometimes killed Jews. More often, it simply ignored their cries for help. During and after the war, numerous Poles profited from the property of murdered Jews, a process that, as we have shown, contributed to greater electoral support for far-right xenophobic views decades later.

Relegating discussion of uncomfortable or inconvenient aspects of history to universities and the arts would devalue the lives of Poles who died rescuing Jews, of whom Polish society is rightly proud. Only open discussion can help protect Poland’s reputation while educating the world about how Polish citizens of all faiths suffered during World War II.

Volha Charnysh is a fellow at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University.

Evgeny Finkel is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.