Polish Americans in Manhattan last month protest a House bill that supports Holocaust victims and their families in the process of restitution and recovery of property. Under the bill, the State Department would report on the progress of Poland and other European countries regarding the return of property confiscated during World War II. Many Polish nationalists see the bill as a threat. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Matthew Lenoe is associate professor of history at the University of Rochester and author of "Closer to the Masses: Stalinist Culture, Social Revolution, and Soviet Newspapers."

On March 31, a few hundred demonstrators gathered in U.S. cities to protest congressional resolutions condemning anti-Semitism and promoting restitution of confiscated property to Holocaust survivors. Though small, the protests, which were organized by a number of Polish American groups, raise disturbing questions about a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and about “memory laws” intended to shape politically correct national histories.

Many of the protesters expressed open hostility toward Jews — one waved a dollar bill in the face of Jewish counterprotesters, and others held signs with anti-Semitic messages. Participants made grotesque historical claims. One sign asserted that Jews had “betrayed Poland” by inviting the Nazis to invade in 1939. A protest supporter online asked why Polish Jews did not help with the post-World War II reconstruction of Poland. (They had been murdered in the Holocaust.)

According to the news release for the rallies, “The protest addresses the issue of anti-Poland bias and hateful and defamatory statements by Israeli and some U.S. politicians who willfully falsify the history of World War II and outrageously accuse Poland of complicity in the Holocaust.”

Similar to a 2018 Polish law that penalizes statements “in public and against the facts, ascribing to the Polish Nation or the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes,” the event was the latest attempt to erase complex or negative aspects of Polish history. By attempting to shut down debate about Polish participation in the Holocaust, these right-wing Polish nationalists aim to reinforce a narrative in which Poles feature only as heroes and victims.

This is not to say that the majority of the Poles were collaborators. As a whole, Poles resisted Nazism with greater determination than almost any other people in Europe. Five million to 6 million Polish citizens (3 million of them Jews) perished in World War II, the highest death toll of any nation proportional to population. Thousands of Poles hid Jews at the risk of their lives, and the Polish government in exile consistently appealed to Poles to aid their Jewish neighbors.

Yet historians such as Jan Gross have used rigorous research methods and original documents to show that at a minimum, tens of thousands of Poles participated actively in the Holocaust. In the late 1990s, Gross uncovered the murder of several hundred Jews by Polish neighbors in the village of Jedwabne in July 1941. About two dozen other cases in which Poles murdered Jews, often with some degree of Nazi encouragement, have been documented. Undoubtedly, there were more that cannot be documented.

Poland has struggled to confront this history of Nazi collaboration, just as other countries across Europe have. The issue has been most fraught in Eastern Europe. Hungary and Romania actually joined the Axis and cooperated with the Holocaust. In countries occupied by the Soviet Union before 1941 — Ukraine, the Baltic States — many anti-Semitic nationalists initially welcomed the invading Germans as liberators, and some actively participated in the murder of Jews. This is not a welcome history for nationalists today.

And that is where so-called “memory laws” have come into play. They criminalize specific statements about history. Modern memory laws were first promulgated in West Germany in 1985 and Israel in 1986 to combat Holocaust denial. France followed suit in 1990.

In the 1990s, memory laws spread across Eastern Europe in states recently freed from Soviet domination. In these nations, they forced a reckoning with Communist crimes against humanity by making it a crime to deny them. But these early efforts have subsequently given way to using these precedents, and the concept behind them, to shut down discussion of troubling parts of their nations’ pasts.

Consider Ukraine. In 2015, it passed a package of memory laws that concentrated on Communist crimes and protected the reputation of Ukrainian nationalists. In particular, “insulting” the memory of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its armed branch, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA), both of which fought the Soviets for Ukrainian independence during World War II, now carry criminal penalties.

But though the organizations fought Communists, they also collaborated at points with Nazis. Moreover, they endorsed terrorism, supported the rule of a strong fascistic leader and aimed to create an ethnically pure Ukraine by getting rid of Jews, Poles and Russians. During the war, the UIA engaged in the mass murder of Jews and Poles and undertook ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of Poles. Focusing exclusively on Communist crimes against humanity enables Ukrainian nationalists to avoid discussion of this troubling history.

Ukrainian experiences during World War II were complex and morally difficult. Some in Ukraine, particularly in cities in the east, accepted Soviet rule. Millions hated Stalin and the Communists for starving to death about 5 million Ukrainians in the Holodomor famine of 1932-1933. Some joined the UIA. Thousands enlisted for various reasons with Nazi police units. Others hid or otherwise aided Jews. Most Ukrainians struggled simply to survive.

But as in Poland, right-wing nationalists aim to use memory legislation to enforce a history that replaces tragedy and complexity with a simple tale of Ukrainian victimization, evil foreign oppressors and glorious freedom fighters.

Laws aimed at controlling historical narratives and memory are not confined to Western Europe and the former Soviet bloc. A Turkish law forbidding “denigration of the nation” has been used to prosecute commentators referring to the Ottoman Empire’s massacre of Armenians as a genocide. In the People’s Republic of China, criminal penalties are applied against those who “insult or slander (national) heroes and martyrs.”

Nationalists demand such clean historical narratives and seem to think that whiting out historical injustice is a noble and unique mission. But a nation with a conscience, a nation that confronts the darkest episodes of its own history, would be truly noble and exceptional.

The earliest memory laws banned denial of the Holocaust, a historical fact. On its face, this was a good thing — Holocaust deniers are not only lousy historians, they are morally repugnant Nazi sympathizers. But not all historical “facts” are as clear as the reality of the Holocaust, and memory laws have been used to stifle legitimate debate. Worse, these laws put the power to police such debates into the hands of government, enabling leaders to buttress their power with childish myths of national glory and victimization. This is a real danger and should make us question the very concept of memory laws.