The Polish 'Holocaust Bill': A war of memory

19 Feb 2018


On January 26th the Polish parliament voted to implement a new law denying any Polish complicity in the Holocaust, finally being written into law as it was signed by President Andrzej Duda just ten days later. The new law states that: ‘whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … shall be subjected to a fine or penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.’


This new law has caused outrage internationally, damaging diplomatic ties with some of Poland’s key allies such as Israel, the US and France, who have not only argued that this new law infringes upon freedom of speech, but that it also denies history and that it could result in an outburst of anti-Semitism. Poland’s chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said that since then, more young Jews are considering leaving Poland as they no longer feel safe. Anna Chipczynska, president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, similarly recounts: ‘We are receiving anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish statements on a daily basis. Members of the community feel their loyalty is being questioned, that people are expecting them to take a side'.​ Many fear that this will intimidate Polish Holocaust survivors from speaking about their story, erasing an important part of the Holocaust's memory in Poland.


Poland, especially after Barack Obama in 2012 sloppily used the phrase ‘Polish death camp,’ has been eager to establish its own victimhood. Although discussing the history of the Holocaust is never easy, it is clear from historical analysis that Poland was not merely a passive bystander as this new law implies. Many poles did heroically save thousands of Jews from certain death; an aspect of history Poland and especially Israel have rightfully acknowledged on many occasions. But despite these examples of heroism, there was also a degree of open complicity on Poland's part. Historians have recently highlighted Polish involvement in the 1941 Jedwabne massacre as a key example. The new law is therefore widely considered as an attempt to whitewash this history.


This historical revisionism is not an exclusively Polish phenomenon but can also be seen in Hungary and the Ukraine. The Hungarian government increasingly praises the memory of Admiral Miklos Horthy, despite his alignment of Hungary with Nazi Germany and his role in the death of 400,000 Jewish Hungarians. Similarly, in 2015 the Ukraine passed a law criminalizing any rhetoric insult to the memory of anti-communist partisans, actively excluding the history of those who murdered countless Jews and openly collaborated with the Nazi regime. Similar efforts to control history and memory through legislation can be found in some other Baltic countries such as Latvia or Lithuania.


Poland’s new law is therefore a clear attempt to change history and to some extent public memory of the past. This in itself is not unusual; memory and history are constantly rewritten and changed, often to suit a political agenda in its selectivity. The problem in this case is however, as Professor Dariouz Stola has pointed out, that ‘it is a sign of deterioration in the capacity to talk, and the ability to talk is the essence of democracy. If you cannot talk, you cannot reach an agreement; you can only force a solution. The erosion of language is the erosion of democracy and the path to violence.’


The issue with this law then, is not only that it denies any Polish involvement and responsibility in the Holocaust, whitewashing history and possibly causing an outburst in anti-Semitism, but that it reflects another step away from democracy in a series of actions since the Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015. Since its election the party has attempted to legalize government control of the media, purged cultural institutions of any critical voices such as Martin Pollack after having written a critical essay on the Law and Justice Party. It has also censored Holocaust museums, attempting to ensure that they focus solely on the ‘polish point of view.’ In this sense the new law on Holocaust memory is the next step in a worrying development, which sees Poland slowly moving away from democracy and will call into question not only Polish national identity but its place in the European Union.

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