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The Holocaust, the Poles, and World War II Memory

jan marek chodakiewicz|Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A hurricane of recrimination has erupted between Poland and Israel. It all started because the Poles are sick and tired of hearing the scurrilous slander of “Polish concentration camps.” That’s Holocaust revisionism plain and simple. The camps were German and Nazi. However, a bumbling Polish attempt to fix the problem via regulation blew up in Warsaw’s face.

What began as a historians’ quarrel gone public has spun out of control into a diplomatic row between Israel and Poland. Jerusalem enjoys the support of world public opinion, Ukraine, and, most importantly, the United States of America. Warsaw initially suffered isolation but now it has unexpectedly found new champions: Germany and Russia. This has a dangerous potential for the crisis to metastasize into the world of military geopolitics, thus endangering the Western system of alliances, NATO in particular. Washington concurs with Israel’s fears that Poland wants to thwart academic freedom and cover up real and imagined Polish wartime crimes. Kiev, meanwhile, has joined the anti-Warsaw bandwagon to object to Poland’s condemnation of Ukrainian integral nationalism and its leader Stephan Bandera and his followers, whom the Poles hold responsible for ethnic cleansing and genocide during World War II. On the other hand, Russia’s largest political party predictably supports Poland because of its opposition to Ukraine’s extreme nationalists. And Germany has stepped in unexpectedly to admit that, indeed, the term “Polish concentration camps” is quite unfair and inaccurate. The disparate stances have been amplified in editorial pages and social media all over the world. On the face of it, the international furor is about an attempt by the ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość -- PiS) to amend a piece of legislation, namely the Act of December 18, 1998, regulating Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance. According to the newly introduced amendment, Article 55a, “anyone ascribing publicly and falsely responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State for the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich” will be prosecuted, fined, or imprisoned. This does not apply to anyone who “has committed this act as part of their artistic or scientific activity” (legal analysis here). To disentangle the legalese: first, the new Article 55a seems to contradict (without overriding) the old Article 55 of the same Act. The latter penalizes denying Nazi crimes (including Holocaust revisionism) and Communist crimes (including not only mass murder but also persecution of dissidents and others), as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Second, the new amendment means that no historian, author, or performer will face any penalties whatsoever for publishing or publicizing anything. If so, why introduce the new law? Was it a public relations stunt? If so, it badly misfired for the PiS. Second, one would have to accuse collectively either the “Polish State or the Polish Nation” of collaboration with the Nazis, to qualify as a wrongdoer. Nobody half-versed in the tragedy of the Second World War could ever allege anything like this. Collectively, the Poles were victims of Hitler and Stalin and not their collaborator. In September 1939, Poland was destroyed jointly by the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Throughout the Second World War Poland’s government was in exile in the West, a part of the Allied coalition. Thus, since the Polish State did not exist in occupied Poland, except as the leader of the anti-German underground, there was no state collaboration. The very name “Poland” was indeed obliterated and its lands were treated as a Nazi and Soviet colonies. Further, no collective national collaboration was possible since the Germans considered Polish Christians as sub-humans and, accordingly, murdered between 2 and 3 million of them (in addition to annihilating over 3 million Polish Jews whom the Nazis regarded as non-human).   What’s the problem, then? First, Warsaw introduced the law, with a singular cultural deafness, on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27). Second, the amendment as it stands, alone and in legal context, is confusing. Third, the opponents of the law, and their international supporters, including prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have misconstrued the law as condoning Holocaust revisionism and curbing academic freedom. On each count, Netanyahu and others are mistaken, as shown above. Yet, the Israelis fear that under the guise of fighting Holocaust revisionism, Poland would bar studying collaboration of some Polish nationals with the German occupiers. There are, indeed, postmodernist scholars who qualify as Holocaust revisionists since they argue that “the Poles” collectively are “co-responsible for the Holocaust.” That is just part and parcel of modern academia. However, no one has persecuted them either in or out of Poland. Also, the doors are wide open to study individual, group, and even institutional collaboration. For instance, it is possible to study the Polish Navy Blue Police in Poland as much as it is the Jewish Ghetto Police in Israel and vice versa. Further, one is somewhat baffled by the diplomatic storm because the Polish government had made the Israeli government privy to the intended amendment and consulted with it for about a year prior to the blowup. Obviously, both sides need to consult more. The libertarian perspective would be to have no law curbing freedom of speech, allowing both the postmodernists and the revisionists to spew their venom, as repulsive as it is, as well as anyone else in between. Such a solution stands no chance in Poland at the moment, alas. Law and Justice likes government intervention. Where do we go from here?  Everyone should calm down. This includes politicians and pundits. Leave the field to scholars. The Poles have taken the first step by setting up a committee for mutual dialogue, which the Israelis have accepted. Also, the voices of reason have at last, if gingerly, begun to emerge from the hysterical cacophony of tweets, as recorded by Seth J. Frantzman. Venerable Moshe Arens leads the way: “Blaming Poland for the Holocaust is Unjustified.”  Let’s keep it this way. The Polish narrative need not threaten anyone of good will. And no row should threaten the Transatlantic Alliance.
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