The Holocaust

Polish law making it illegal to link Poland to Nazi crimes points to a national identity crisis

Seventy years after the end of World War II, a battle is taking place over Polish collective memory.

On January 26, the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Polish parliament voted in favour of a bill making it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in Nazi crimes.

This caused immediate outrage around the world and nowhere more so than in a country that has been, until now, a close ally of Poland: Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the bill as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.

And yet, 10 days later, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, signed the bill into law retorting that “the historic truth is that there was no systematic institutionalised participation among Poles [in the Holocaust].”

What is happening? Why, over 70 years since the end of the Second World War, is this argument taking place?

I am a sociologist who has studied controversies around the memory of the Holocaust in Poland. For me, this dispute is more than a crisis in Polish-Jewish relations. It is, above all, a crisis in Poland’s national identity.

The memory of World War II in Poland

This is not the first time the Poles have legislated against what they see as defamation of Poland’s record in World War II, but it is certainly the most wide-reaching. Under this new law, the punishment for people claiming that “the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich” carries a possible prison sentence of up to three years.

The timing of the vote was no accident. The government used the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day as a platform to denounce the misnomer “Polish death camps” that some - including former President Barack Obama - have used to refer to Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland.

The Polish government, along with other Polish organisations, has been fighting the use of that expression in foreign media for several years, and with considerable success. Most American newspapers and other major media outlets have updated their stylebooks to stop those words being used.

Nevertheless, given the growing controversy, the German minister of foreign affairs took it upon himself to declare that the Germans bore the entire responsibility for the extermination camps. But then he added that “the actions of individual collaborators do not alter that fact.”

And therein lies the rub.

Many Poles find it difficult to accept they could have played a role in the Holocaust. That is because, unlike many other nations, the Polish state did not collaborate with the Nazis. Considered an inferior race by the Nazis, Poles were targeted for cultural extermination to facilitate German expansion to the East. Polish elites were systematically murdered. Tens of thousands of Poles were imprisoned in concentration camps or were forced into slave labour.

The Old Town burns during the Warsaw Uprising, August 1944. Photo credit: Museum of Warsaw/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY Public Domain Mark 1.0]
The Old Town burns during the Warsaw Uprising, August 1944. Photo credit: Museum of Warsaw/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY Public Domain Mark 1.0]

Poland’s losses in World War II were enormous: Approximately 6 million Polish citizens were killed in the war, over half of whom were Jewish. Warsaw was left in ruins, and its 1944 uprising alone cost the lives of about 150,000 citizens.

The dominant Polish narrative of World War II is, therefore, about victimhood, which fits squarely into its broader national mythology of martyrdom.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). Photo credit: culture.pl/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY Public Domain Mark 1.0]
Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). Photo credit: culture.pl/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY Public Domain Mark 1.0]

Repeatedly invaded by its powerful neighbors, the Polish state disappeared from the European map for over a century – from 1795 to 1918. Poland’s national bard, the 19th century poet Adam Mickiewicz, described his country as a “Christ among nations.” In this telling Poles are a chosen people, innocent sufferers at the hands of evil oppressors.

“Revelations” of crimes committed against Jews by Poles tarnish this narrative and shake Polish national identity to its core.

Narrative shock

The fact is, however, as historians have shown, crimes committed against Jews by Poles were much more prevalent and widespread than most people realized.

Perhaps the most controversial and impactful research is that of the Polish-born Princeton University professor, Jan T Gross. In his 2000 book Neighbors, Gross recounts in painful detail the violent murders of Jews by their ethnically Polish neighbors in the small town of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941.

The book marked a watershed in the public debate about Polish-Jewish relations.

On July 10, 2001, roughly a year after the publication of Gross’ book, the Polish government acknowledged the murders and erected a monument at the site where several hundred Jews were forcibly brought to a barn and burned alive. Although the monument’s inscription fails to explicitly indicate that it was ethnic Poles and not Germans who committed the crime, the official apology by then-President Aleksander Kwaśniewski was unequivocal. “Here in Jedwabne,” he said, “citizens of the Republic of Poland died at the hands of other citizens of the Republic of Poland.”

The Jedwabne memorial. Photo credit: Genevieve Zubrzycki, Author provided
The Jedwabne memorial. Photo credit: Genevieve Zubrzycki, Author provided

Such was the shock the story of Jedwabne caused that it is possible to distinguish between Poland “before and after” the appearance of Gross’ book. As leading Catholic journalist Agnieszka Magdziak Miszewska put it: “Facing up to the painful truth of Jedwabne is...the most serious test that we Poles have had to confront in the last decade.”

Law and Justice’s politics of history

It is that test, arguably, that the ruling Law and Justice party is failing.

In the battle over Polish collective memory, the party has been promoting the stories of the Poles who rescued Jews – and who are honored by Israel as the “Righteous Among Nations” – by creating museums and monuments in their name.

Through the new “Holocaust Law,” the government is, in effect, trying to repress knowledge of crimes committed against Jews by Poles. The defense of the law, however, goes one step further. In a remarkable case of what I would describe as manipulating the message, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki issued a video statement claiming that it is the Poles who are the guardians of historical truth and fighters against hatred.

And yet, the same politicians remain silent when their supporters express anti-Semitic and anti-refugee views. On February 5, for example, demonstrators impatient for President Duda to sign the Holocaust law gathered in front of the Presidential Palace chanting anti-Semitic slogans and demanding that he “remove [his] yarmulke and sign the law!”

The president did sign the law, but he also sent it to the country’s constitutional court for examination.

Those Poles opposed to the law – and there are many, judging by the number of organizations and public figures denouncing it and the number of petitions circulating – hope that it will be deemed unconstitutional because it represses freedom of speech and could significantly curtail academic research.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, however, the government’s politics of history will continue to be waged on many other fronts. What is at stake, in my view, is nothing less than the definition of Polish national identity. This is why, for all the international outrage, the controversy about the Holocaust law is hottest inside Poland, among Poles who are now debating what it means to be Polish and where Poland is going.

Geneviève Zubrzycki, Professor of Sociology, Director of the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia, University of Michigan.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.