The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A right-wing government turns the past into a weapon

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On Thursday, Poland's Senate pushed through a measure that would make it illegal to accuse Poles of complicity in the Holocaust or any other crimes associated with the Nazi era. Offenders could find themselves imprisoned for three years once the law, which is awaiting the signature of the Polish president, comes into effect.

Questions about Poland's role in the horrors of World War II are still a matter of profound sensitivity there. About 3 million Jews lived in Poland before the start of World War II; the Jewish population there is just around 10,000 now. Some of the most notorious Nazi death camps were established within Poland's borders.

But many Poles bristle when linked to the atrocities carried out by the Nazis, pointing to the suffering of non-Jewish Poles at the hands of the occupying Nazis and the Soviets. “We, the Poles, were victims, as were the Jews,” Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said Wednesday. “It is a duty of every Pole to defend the good name of Poland. Just as the Jews, we were victims.”

The government certainly takes that duty seriously. In 2012, then-President Obama had to apologize after misspeaking when he mentioned the existence of “Polish death camps” during World War II. Between 2008 and 2015, Polish officials issued 912 statements n response to mentions of “Polish death camps.”

Officials in Poland's right-wing nationalist government see the bill as a way to defend national pride. The law would send “a clear signal to the world that we won’t allow for Poland to continue being insulted,” Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki told Parliament.

But there has been pushback, with the U.S. State Department calling on Poland to “reevaluate” the legislation, suggesting it would compromise free speech and complicate Washington's relationship with Warsaw. The strongest reaction, not surprisingly, has come from Israel, which is withdrawing its ambassador from Warsaw and considering passing its own law making it a crime to deny the actions of Nazi collaborators.

Under a new law passed in Poland on Feb. 1, any suggestion the country was complicit in the Holocaust could land offenders in jail. (Video: Reuters)

In a statement voicing its opposition, Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, said “restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people's direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion.”

“One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement last week. When Yair Lapid, a political rival, took to Twitter to also condemn the Polish legislation, he got into a spat with Poland's embassy in Tel Aviv.

“We’re facing the biggest crisis in Polish-Jewish relations since after 1989,” said Agnieszka Markiewicz, the director of the American Jewish Committee's Central Europe office, to my colleague Rick Noack. “There are things that have been said and done on both sides — including by Israeli politicians who said that there were Polish camps — which haven't been helpful. Polish people don’t bear responsibility for the Holocaust, as such. But like other nations, they do bear responsibility for the behavior or attitudes of some.”

There is an extent to which Poland doth protest too much. “Though the camps were a Nazi enterprise, anti-Semitism was rife in Poland before the war, some of it government-sponsored,” noted an editorial in The Washington Post. “Though many Poles fought the Nazi occupation and tried to save Jews, some also helped round them up, stole their property and participated in massacres. In addition to outlawing the term 'death camps,' the legislation criminalizes any suggestion that 'the Polish nation' or 'Polish state' was 'responsible or complicit' in Nazi crimes.”

But part of Warsaw's grievance is a lingering resentment that neither Germany nor Russia, in its view, has adequately atoned for its ruinous campaign in Poland seven decades ago. And Poland is hardly alone in its efforts to criminalize discussion of the past. Numerous European countries have bans on Holocaust denial, while other states formerly in the Soviet bloc have moved to whitewash the actions of their nationalist heroes.

In 2015, much to Poland's ire, the Ukrainian government passed a law that required citizens to honor World War II-era nationalist groups that were involved in the killings of Jews and ethnic Poles. Late last year, attention fell on the plight of best-selling Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite, who was vilified at home and whose books were pulped after she said a Lithuanian nationalist hero had collaborated with the Nazis.

“I’ve destroyed everything,” Vanagaite told the New Yorker's Masha Gessen. “I’ve destroyed my career as a writer, because no publisher will sign me now and no bookstore will agree to distribute my books.”

On one hand, these memory laws are the brutal inheritance of an epic and hideous war that traumatized Europe. “World War II and the forces it unleashed shaped the national identities of the Bloodlands countries to a greater extent than any other historic event,” wrote Bloomberg's Leonid Bershidsky, referring to countries in Eastern Europe that bore the brunt of the killings in World War II. “These identities don't travel well, even just across these countries' borders — but with such laws there's little chance of any different ones emerging in their place, as in modern Germany. It's pointless to ask Poles, Ukrainians, Balts, Russians to stop refighting a war that has been over for more than seven decades: Memory is easy to weaponize and hard to put back into introspective mode.”

But there's also a darker, modern edge. The Polish government, urged on by illiberal demagogue Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has emboldened the country's far right and heightened a climate of xenophobia in which Muslims and immigrants have been viciously demonized. Last year, the European Jewish Congress warned of a rise in anti-Semitism and the proliferation of “fascist slogans” in Poland.

“The new law is less a needed defense of Polish honor than it is a dog whistle to the most extreme elements of Mr. Kaczynski’s base,” noted The Post's editorial. “Rather than suppress discussion of Poland’s role in the Holocaust, it is likely to stimulate more of it. And the cause of free speech might just inspire a few more uses of 'Polish death camps,' accurate or not.”

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