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Poland: Challenging official history of the Holocaust could see you branded a "traitor"

Having already taken swipes at media freedom, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party now turns its attention to academia and the “traitors” who deviate from the official version of history

24 Feb 2016
BY RYAN MCCHRYSTAL
OSWIECIM, POLAND - JULY 22: Exhibition in Concentration camp in Auschwitz. It is the biggest nazi concentration camp in Europe on July 22, 2014 in Oswiecim, Poland

Still from an Auschwitz exhibition, 22 July 2014 in Oswiecim, Poland

When discussing academic freedom more than a century ago, German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber wrote: “The first task of a competent teacher is to teach his students to acknowledge inconvenient facts.” In Poland today, history appears to be an inconvenience for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is introducing legislation to punish the use of the term “Polish death camps”.

The Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced earlier this month that the use of the phrase in reference to wartime Nazi concentration camps in Poland could now be punishable with up to five years in prison. If enacted, Poland would find itself in the unique position of being a country where both denying and discussing the Holocaust could land you in trouble with the law. Holocaust denial has been outlawed in Poland — under punishment of three years “deprivation of liberty” — since 1998.

Any suggestion of Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes against Jews brings with it, in the party’s own words, a “humiliation of the Polish nation”.

Of course, Poland was an occupied country which suffered terribly under Nazi Germany, so any talk of acquiescence understandably hits a nerve. As all good history students know, however, the discipline has its ambiguities and competing theories, from the acclaimed to the crackpot, and singular, simplistic narratives are rare. But few democratic countries in the world punish those who argue unpopular historical positions. Which is why legislating against uneasy truths is the same as legislating against academic freedom.

Two recent examples show the Polish government of doing just this. Firstly, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda made public his serious consideration to stripping the Polish-American Princeton professor of history at Princeton University Jan Gross of an Order of Merit — which he received in 1996 both for activities as a dissident in communist Poland in the 1960s and for his scholarship — over his academic work on Polish anti-Semitism. Gross outlined in his 2001 book Neighbors that the massacre of some 1,600 Jews from the Polish village of Jedwabne in July 1941 was committed by Poles, not Nazis. More recently, the historian has claimed that Poles killed more Jews than they did Germans during the war, which prompted the current action against him.

Some who disagree with his arguments have labelled Gross an “enemy” of Poland  and a “traitor to the motherland”. The historian has hit back, saying in an interview with the Associated Press: “They want to take [the Order of Merit] away from me for saying what a right-wing, nationalist, xenophobic segment of the population refuses to recognise as facts of history.”

Academics too — Polish and otherwise — have come to his defence. Agata Bielik-Robson, professor of Jewish Studies at Nottingham University, points out that a “democracy has to have a voice of inner criticism”. She is worried that PiS is seeking to do away with such criticism in order “to produce a uniform historical perspective”.

Polish journalist and former activist in the anti-communist Polish trade union Solidarity Konstanty Gebert explained to Index on Censorship that PiS has made “convenient scapegoats” of people like Gross. “PiS is moving fast to reestablish a ‘positive narrative of Polish history’ by breaking with an alleged ‘pedagogy of shame’,” he said. 

The party first tried — unsuccessfully — to outlaw the term “Polish death camps” in 2013 when it was in opposition. Should the law now pass, and you need help adhering to the proposed rules, the Auschwitz Museum has released an app to correct any “memory errors” you may experience. It detects thought crimes such as the words “Polish concentration camp” in 16 different languages on your computer, keeping you on the right track with prompts asking if you instead meant to write “German concentration camp”.

Poland may have lurched to the right with the election of PiS last October, but the party’s authoritarianism — from crackdowns on the media to moves to take control of the supreme court — seems positively Soviet in some respects. Attempts to control history, too hark back to the Polish People’s Republic of 1945-1989, when, in the words of Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier in the winter 1985 issue of Slavic Review, “cultural patterns” and “habits of mind” made it impossible to make historical interpretations “alien to that national sense of identity and a methodology at odds with the canons and objective scholarship”.

Gebert sees similarities between current and communist-era propaganda “in the basic formulation that there is nothing to be ashamed of in Polish history, and in Polish-Jewish relations in particular, and in the belief that there is one correct national viewpoint”.

However, now that freedom of speech exists, the government can and are being criticised for their actions. “This puts the government propaganda machine on the defensive,” Gebert said.

Just last week, President Duda spoke against the “defamation” of the Polish people “through the hypocrisy of history and the creation of facts that never took place”. He has made his motives clear: “Today, our great responsibility to create a framework […] with the dual aim of fostering a greater sense of patriotic pride at home while enhancing the country’s image abroad.”

It should be intolerable for the freedoms of any academic subject to be impinged for ideological ends. If academic freedom is to mean anything, it should include the right to tell uneasy truths, get things wrong and have you work challenged by the highest academic standards.

There’s only one place to turn for PiS to find an example of best practice on how to challenge Gross’ research, and that is to the very body the party will grant authority to on deciding on what is and isn’t a breach of the law regarding “Polish death camps”. Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) produced several reports between 2000-03 challenging claims in Gross’ book on the Jedwabne massacre. It used research and reason — as opposed to censorship — to make the case that the historian didn’t get all the facts right. It found, for example, that German’s played a bigger part in the slaughter than Gross had claimed, and that the numbers killed were more likely to be around the 340 mark, rather than 1,600.

IPN should tread carefully, though. Any inconvenient truths with the potential to humiliate the Polish people could one day soon see it branded a “traitor”.

 

Ryan McChrystal is the assistant editor, online at Index on Censorship

Ryan McChrystal

Assistant Online Editor at Index on Censorship

Ryan McChrystal is Assistant Editor, Online at Index on Censorship, where he provides support for the news and online team in addition to creating content. He has previously held various editorial roles, including as a local reporter, a market reporter and most recently as a features writer at an SME-focused magazine. He graduated in history and politics from Queen’s University, Belfast.

Contact: [email protected] | public key
Ryan McChrystal

9 responses to “Poland: Challenging official history of the Holocaust could see you branded a “traitor””

  1. Wojtek44 says:

    “When discussing academic freedom more than a century ago, German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber wrote: “The first task of a competent teacher is to teach his students to acknowledge inconvenient facts.” In Poland today, history and discussion appears to be an inconvenience for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is introducing legislation to punish the use of the term “Polish death camps”.

    The Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced earlier this month that the use of the phrase in reference to wartime Nazi concentration camps in Poland could now be punishable with up to five years in prison. If enacted, Poland would find itself in the unique position of being a country where both denying and discussing the Holocaust could land you in trouble with the law. Holocaust denial has been outlawed in Poland — under punishment of three years “deprivation of liberty” — since 1998.”

    ^^If you think that “Polish death camps” constitute “official history of the Holocaust” then you’re completely confused about the history. There were never any “Polish death camps” – only GERMAN CONCENTRATION AND EXTERMINATION CAMPS and they were set up by the new Nazi German rulers who occupied Polish territory at the time.

    As for criminalizing the act of distorting history, Poland isn’t at all unique in this respect, as several other democratic countries, among them Israel, Germany, France similarly criminalize Holocaust denial. In Israel it can land you in jail for up to 5 years. So, as you see, Poland is simply following the lead of these countries.

  2. Martin Usiskin says:

    There is a difference in general perception as to how Jewish people were protected in different Nazi occupied countries. The perceptions can only be based on generalizations when talking about countries. There were many heroes in Poland who risked their lives to save Jews but I was taught that there was a higher level of demonstrative anti semitism amongst the Nazi occupied Poles compared to e.g. Dutch and Danish- 2 populations that were known to be more collectively protective towards Jews under the Nazis. The Nazi regime in these countries may well have been different. Poland did have a history of strong anti semitism before the Nazis invaded, it also had one of the largest populations of Jewish people- many had to leave in the earlier part of the 20th century before the German Nazis existed due to anti semitism.
    The relative numbers and percentages would throw some more light on this terribly sad subject.
    Demarking any whole population for blame would also be a mistake and show that other important lessons from the Holocaust have not been learnt.
    Keeping a separate culture or deciding whether or not to assimilate within a nation does not justify a hatred for one set of people on another. Today these tensions unfortunately still exist everywhere to a greater or lesser extent. Poland has a responsibility to teach it’s history as accurately as possible because these issues influence the important decisions that are being made regarding Nation States, EU, Immigration, culture and multiculturalism – it’s not simple.

  3. Simon Webb says:

    We must always bear in mind that Poland, like Nazi Germany, was instrumental in the setting up of concentration camps suring the 1930s. The first such camp in Germany, Dachau, was opened in the spring of 1933. Bereza Kartuska, the first Polish concentration camps, was established in the summer of 1934. At least during the years before the outbreak of war in 1939, conditions at Bereza Kartuska were actually worse than those at Dachau. One recalls that former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George visited Dachau at that time and found nothing objectionable. No visiting foreign VIPs were ever invited to view Bereza Kartuska.

  4. Cinderella says:

    The phrase “Polish death camps” is actually quite wrong since it implies that the “death camps” were indeed “Polish” and instigated by Poles themselves which is clearly not true and which no impartial historian of the Holocaust has ever claimed as being true.

    It also has the effect of hiding the fact that Nazi Germany created and run these camps on Polish territory and thus effectively shifts responsibility for these camps from the perpetrators to the involuntary victims.

    Even the Federal Republic of Germany is very careful that everyone understands that Nazi Germany (their predecessor state) alone was responsible for these camps and that there was nothing “Polish” about them other than that they were located on Polish territory.

    There is no issue of censorship here:- no one has any right to use so-called “free speech” to utter grossly untrue statements which effectively and wrongly defame either individuals or entire groups of people:- Poles find the phrase “Polish death camps” just as offensive as Jewish people find the phrase “dirty Jews”.

    This is an ongoing irritant to all political varieties of Poles and is harmful to Poland as a whole although the new PIS regime is a bit extreme in this response to this problem (and it really is mostly symbolic since it is difficult to enforce)but they are within their rights to ban the use of the grossly inaccurate term “Polish death camps” within Poland and there is no compromise of free speech involved here (and no Polish publication of an political color would use that phrase anyway).

    As for taking away Mr Gross’s merit award this is obviously a bit misguided:- he did earn it “fair and square” for his opposition to the Communist regime but now they want to punish him for saying, without any credible proof at all, that during the war Poles killed more Jews than they did Germans and that is also clearly wrong:- two “wrongs” do not make a “right”.

    A more appropriate response would be perhaps an official vote of censure by the Polish Sejm naming Mr Gross for making incorrect and inflammatory statements about Poland and Poles in general for which there are no supporting facts and which really cannot be true given the realities of daily life in Poland from 1939 to 1945.

    No one is questioning the truth of the Jedwabne incident but other competent historical scholars have credibly questioned the numbers originally cited by Mr Gross and cast some doubts on his overall credibility.

    Perhaps he is one of the historians who finds it necessary to embellish historical facts a little bit to attract attention since the Holocaust is generally a very unpleasant and already very-much studied topic which most people generally find easier to avoid reading about just as this publication seems to find it necessary to attract attention to a rather obscure little blog which no one reads much by making wild claims about rampant “censorship” in Poland.

  5. KB says:

    As it is stated in the article “Holocaust denial has been outlawed in Poland — under punishment of three years “deprivation of liberty” — since 1998.” This is a violation of free speech as well – why no one brought this to attention?

  6. AnnaD says:

    Critics of Poles are confusing Poles blame with Poland/Polish blame.
    Whereas Poles were displaying the whole plethora of attitudes during and post war: from heroic to horrific, all this happened under German or Soviet occupation. So if there is a blame it should first and foremost be put on German and Soviet states (including Stalinist puppet Peoples Republic of Poland, run by ex-nazi criminals) that were responsible for securing public safety and failed to do so.

  7. Jack Dunster says:

    This is required reading for any-one in Poland who wishes this nation and country to be the great nation and country it can be. PISS (note the spelling :)) is a return to the past that the genuinely patriotic Poles have tried to steer themselves away from – by way of truth and a recognition that there is a dark streak it the nation’s make-up – something recognized by such individuals as Pilsudski himself. As for me, I liv in this country – I chose to live here – and I want it’s positive virtues to win out – virtues not evident in the activity of PISS.

  8. Paul Holmer says:

    The problem for the Poles is that there has long been a defamation disposition in the United States engaged in the sort of vile accusation that would not be tolerated for one moment if it were directed at any other group. IPN may produce reports that are a model of balance judgement but not one commentator in a hundred has heard of them. Instead the overheated claims of Neighbors are repeated as cold truth in the most respectable venues. An apology by Mr. Gross for his intemperance and errors would be a good start at resetting the discussion.