Mass atrocities and genocides are regrettable events in the histories of nations. Yet a misplaced sense of national pride often motivates nations to ignore or suppress the past while attacking those who attempt to unearth it.
At the recent annual dinner of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, FBI Director James Comey explained why he chose to require new FBI agents and analysts to visit the museum. He wanted them to understand the horrific nature of the Holocaust as an event in human history and to learn a lesson about human nature, that ordinary people in occupied countries sometimes voluntarily collaborated or participated in the murder of six million Jews. He referred to Poland and Hungary as two of many places where this occurred.
Comey’s remarks touched a raw nerve and produced a firestorm of criticism from the governments of Poland and Hungary. Critics isolated the following part of his statement: “In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do.” Poland’s foreign minister and other government officials called Comey a “blockhead” and “stupid” for accusing Poland of being a “perpetrator” rather than a “victim” of Nazi-inflicted slaughter and abuse. Hungary belatedly chimed in, accusing him of “astounding insensitivity and impermissible superficiality.”
The Polish and Hungarian governments are quoting Comey out of context. He nowhere stated or implied that either country planned or initiated the Holocaust, nor did he deny the brutality of the German occupation or the suffering of victims in occupied populations. Rather, he was making a different but undeniable point about the dark side of human nature. Some residents in every Nazi-occupied country voluntarily took advantage of opportunities to exploit, abuse, and even kill Jews. In this way, they unquestionably acted as “murderers and accomplices” within their countries. Yet this is a part of the story that some countries do not want told.
When it comes to Poland, we have the testimony gathered by Jan Tomasz Gross in his 2001 book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community In Jedwabne, Poland. Gross refers to more than 7,000 descriptions in Polish archives of collusion by Poles in the annihilation and abuse of their Jewish neighbors.
In Jedwabne, some malevolent and opportunistic residents forced Jews and their children into a barn. They then set the barn on fire, burned them alive and claimed their possessions.
Gross concludes that a perceived need to “settl[e] scores with the ‘Judeo-commune’” and the “desire andunexpected opportunity to rob Jews once and for all” motivated the organized killing. Jan Grabowski tells another part of the story in his 2013 book Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in Occupied Poland, describing how the so-called Blue Police utilized a “dense network of available informers,” which consisted of many Polish residents who willingly provided intelligence about Jews to the Nazis.
The critical consideration here is that the roles of victim and perpetrator were not mutually exclusive. European non-Jews subject to German-Nazi occupation in World War II were unquestionably victims in multiple senses of the term. The Nazis subjected them to arbitrary searches, reprisals, property seizures, assaults, tortures, and killings. However, the victimization of Nazi-ruled Europeans was also compatible with their occasionally voluntary participation in the abuse and murder of Jews. Many people who blackmailed Jews and denounced them to the Nazis – in Poland the so-called szmalcowniks – were not forced by the Germans to do what they did. They acted out of malice or greed – or both. The vast majority of these ordinary citizens had no prior criminal records. For example, the people who denounced Anne Frank and her family to the Nazis in Holland were, in all probability, willing volunteers.
Comey was plainly not attempting to provide a detailed history of the Holocaust in the few minutes he spoke. He could have used the examples given above (and many others) to illustrate his observation that some ordinary law-abiding citizens in Nazi-occupied territories, “hijacked by evil” even without Nazi coercion, did extraordinarily malevolent things. Unconstrained by law or conscience, these Nazi victims, who were also filled with jealousy, fear, or resentment of Jews, were capable of exploitation and murder.
Vigilance in unearthing the dark side of a national past is vital to the pursuit of a more enlightened future. We support and praise the FBI director’s efforts on Holocaust Remembrance Day to educate nations, their agents and their populations about all facets of the Holocaust. He owes no apologies to anyone.
Alexander Groth and Tony Tanke were co-leaders of a conference on the Allied powers’ response to the Holocaust, held March 16-20 at the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem. Groth teaches political science at University of California at Davis, and Tanke is a guest lecturer there.