When the Polish government pushed ahead with a controversial Holocaust speech law at the beginning of the year, the outcry was so swift and intense that even Polish lawmakers themselves appeared surprised. Besides Israel’s strong rejection of the Polish legislation, U.S. condemnations hit Warsaw policymakers especially hard.
The law criminalized references to Polish guilt in Nazi atrocities and was to be enforced with jail time.
For months, there were few signs of backtracking, even as the issue emerged as a key obstacle to Poland’s desire to bolster its security ties to the United States. But after an unexpected intervention by Poland’s prime minister on Wednesday, the law that was never enforced is now being largely walked back.
After the country’s right-wing governing party submitted a new draft, the lower house of parliament voted to remove criminal provisions Wednesday morning. This would stop courts from being able to use the law to impose prison terms of up to three years.
Ahead of a news conference that was scheduled to take place in the late afternoon local time, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Wednesday that he hoped the modifications would improve relations with Israel, whose officials had been among the law's staunchest critics.
But in caving in to international and domestic pressure, Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party is taking a political gamble. While the changes are meant to soothe tensions with strategically important allies such as the United States and the European Union, Law and Justice also appeared eager to limit the political fallout among the party’s more extreme right-wing supporters.
At least rhetorically, the Polish government stood by its arguments that led to the law's passage earlier this year.
“Those who say that Poland may be responsible for the crimes of World War II deserve jail terms,” Morawiecki said Wednesday. “But we operate in an international context, and we take that into account.”
The Polish government, Morawiecki emphasized, would continue its “fight for the truth” about the Holocaust regardless of possible changes to the legislation.
The bill’s international critics had long argued that it violates freedom of expression by essentially banning accusations that some Poles were complicit in Nazi crimes committed on Polish soil, including in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, where more than 1.1 million people died. Germany operated six camps in Poland where Jews and others whom the Nazis considered enemies were killed.
Polish officials emphasized early on that artistic and historical research work would not be affected by the ban, but critics cautioned that the law provided courts with too much room for interpretation and may silence debates on the issue, even though some scholars agreed that the Polish government was right in emphasizing that crimes were committed by individuals rather than the Polish state and that the term “Polish death camps” was wrong.
Poland was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1939, but unlike in other European countries, there was no collaborationist Polish government. About 6 million Polish citizens were killed during World War II, about half of them Jews.
Throughout years of Nazi occupation between 1939 and 1945, a number of Polish underground movements resisted the Nazis. It is that chapter of history that the Law and Justice Party wants to emphasize.
But historians have long argued that it is not the full story: Some Poles, they say, were complicit in the Nazi crimes. Historians have pointed to incidents, including a 1941 atrocity in the town of Jedwabne, in which Poles rounded up and killed their Jewish neighbors. Critics also said that the legislation was mainly intended to fuel nationalistic sentiments in the country.
In an early response to the law in February, the U.S. State Department similarly said that the phrase “Polish death camps” was “inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful.” But it also cautioned that the bill “could undermine free speech and academic discourse.”
In Israel, the reaction was even fiercer. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement in February. Other Israeli officials even compared the legislation to Holocaust denial.
The strong reactions eventually resulted in less outspoken Polish defenses of the law itself, even as the government has stood by its reasoning to pass it. Whether the most recent changes will be sufficient to calm international outrage may now depend on the Israeli government's response. Netanyahu was expected to make a statement later Wednesday.
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