Last week the Polish parliament passed a bill that criminalizes claims of Poland’s culpability during the Holocaust. It proposes prison time for parties that use phrases like “Polish death camps” and prohibits placing blame on Poland for crimes committed by Nazi Germany.
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, said he will sign the bill into law. He had come under intense pressure to let the bill die, and rightfully so. Israeli officials led the campaign against the legislation, likening its quasi-revisionist spin to Holocaust denial. The U.S. Embassy in Warsaw also voiced concern.
We understand Poland’s wish to whitewash a profoundly uncomfortable period in its history, given that as an occupied country it and its people suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis. But we also know that many Poles were far from aggrieved to see their native Jewish populations decimated; some even helped, including by staffing such death camps as Auschwitz. By attempting to gloss over such details, Poland now seems to be part of an authoritarian trend in Central and Eastern Europe to rewrite history by criminalizing speech that offends those in power.
In retrospect, the Jewish community has seen this coming for a couple years, but failed to recognize where it was headed.
Polish consulates have been relentless about contacting Jewish newspapers, correcting their use of “Polish concentration camps” and insisting upon mentions of the good things Polish people did during World War II. Poland has even paid for American Jewish officials to travel there on specialized tours promoting the country’s revised vision of its citizenry as victims of the Nazis, rather than collaborators.
The time was right for a rebranding campaign. Poland emerged from the Communist period as a model of a Westernizing market democracy. In recent years, the country has shifted rightward, with its governing party leading a nationalistic assault on the media and judiciary. The current attempt to criminalize speech seems to reflect an understandable impulse to assert Poland’s victimhood in World War II.
But many supporters of the legislation go further, arguing that Poles bear no blame for the murder of millions of Jews on occupied Polish soil. And lawmaker Robert Winnicki, who heads an ultranationalist organization in Poland, revealed the anti-Semitism that was epidemic in his country before the Holocaust when he said, “Poland has been the subject of attack by the Israeli elite and Jewish circles in the world for many days.”
Even with lawmakers like Winnicki, President Duda can repair the damage that’s been done to Poland’s reputation. But it requires grappling with what really happened. Countries, like Germany, that confront their own historic faults and acknowledge a mixed legacy of pain and hate, are able to move forward in good faith and with the support of the global community. Nations that continue to deny wrongdoing foment ongoing suffering. Poland should not be joining their ranks.