Poland’s New Holocaust Denial Law Erases History

A new law passed in Poland criminalizes references to Polish complicity in the holocaust and is designed to shore up the rightwing Polish government’s nationalist credentials. Carol Schaeffer discusses the law’s background

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The Polish Senate approved a new law which makes it illegal to assign responsibility to Poles or to Poland for the crimes of the Holocaust and the second World War. The term “Polish death camp,” for instance, is now forbidden. Although the law stipulates that such restrictions only apply when they are not factual, the law raises serious concerns about the freedom of speech in Poland and that the law diminishes the ability to discuss the history of the Holocaust and to teach it.

European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans made this statement rebuking the new law.

FRANS TIMMERMAN: But we all have to face the facts. All those countries who were under Nazi occupation during the second World War have many, many heroes who resisted and fought against that occupation. But sadly, in all those countries, there were always people who could be found to collaborate with the Nazi occupiers to implement their horrendous agenda.

SHARMINI PERIES: Carol Shaeffer is a journalist covering central and eastern Europe and writes about global right-wing nationalist movements for the Atlantic magazine and several other publications. She studies cultural memory. Good to have you with us, Carol.

CAROL SHAEFFER: Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: Carol, let’s start with the basic question. Why Poland needs this law to begin with, why did the Parliament and the government feel the need to deflect accusations that Poland collaborated with the Nazis?

CAROL SHAEFFER: According to the far right Law and Justice Party, the bill is necessary to protect Poland’s reputation and to ensure that historians acknowledge that Poles as well as Jews suffered and died under the Nazis. And this is, of course, completely correct. Nearly two million Poles died during the Holocaust, and I think any responsible historical account recognizes the variety of communities that suffered under the Nazis.

But it’s also a convenient means of criminalizing much of the criticism that has been lodged towards the far right in Poland, namely accusations of similarities with historic Nazism. The Law and Justice Party, along with really any other serious far-right party in Europe wants to quash any potential of reminding its voter base of Europe’s darkest hour, as it is still a living memory for Europe’s oldest generations and their children.

So, this law, if anything, shows how much the trauma of the Holocaust and the second World War is still very much an open wound. And the Law and Justice Party’s hard line refusal on immigration, disdain for liberal democracy, and the antisemitism that has flourished under their government in street protests and elsewhere, this has sounded a number of alarm bells that warn of a dark turn for Poland and Europe at large.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, I understand that the term “Polish death camp,” for example, may no longer be used is indeed a wrong term. The death camps, apparently, comes from the Nazis. Nazis opened and operated them in Poland, but are many people in Poland calling them Polish death camps still? And so is the legislation trying to stop that from happening?

CAROL SHAEFFER: So, the issue is not so much that the term is so widely in use in Poland or even really outside of it. I mean, this might be a misconception in some more popular interpretations of Holocaust history. But rather the issue is that it criminalizes any discussion of complicity on the part of Poland during the second World War. And the ugly truth is that for Poland, along with practically every other European nation, complicity and collaboration was not so black and white. And I think this is especially true in the case of Poland, whose citizens not only suffered enormously, but also whose territory housed some of the most horrific camps of the war.

So, although it’s true that Poland never formed a Quisling government or its own SS division, like a lot of other nations did, antisemitism was still fairly common before, during and after the war.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. And I understand that Poland is, of course, a member of the European Union, and there is already a process to sanction Poland for non-democratic legislation. So, in your last interview with us, in fact, you said that Hungary prevented a unanimous vote to sanction Poland. So, is this new law then a defiant move by Poland, shoved in the face of EU?

CAROL SHAEFFER: I do think that this is another example of Poland showing its allegiances with an illiberal Europe. This kind of historical revisionism is something that’s been happening for years in Hungary, for example, and Hungary is quickly becoming Poland’s strongest ally within the EU. So, the Law and Justice Party knows that this is a thorn in the side of the EU. It’s maybe a way to stick it to Germany. It’s also a convenient way to rile up Nationalist sentiment through appealing to victimhood and it’s a clear way to signal to other sympathetic states where its priorities are.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. That’s very interesting. Now, give us a sense of Poles as collaborators with the Nazis during the second World War. Many of us have seen footage and perhaps some documentaries and so on, but this particular period in history, as you said, is still an open wound. So, what was the extent of the collaboration?

CAROL SHAEFFER: Well, like I said, Poland did not form a Quisling government, so they did not form a collaborative government. They did not form an SS division, and there was a fair amount of resistance. Not only that, but there were a number of true heroes during the Polish resistance that protected Jewish neighbors, that fought against the Nazis and that were critical to the resistance during the second World War.

But, at the same time, it’s true that antisemitism was also kind of a quotidian part of Polish life during this time, especially in rural places. And, frankly, this was endemic to much of eastern Europe, which is where there was a high concentration of Jews due to Catherine the Great’s resettlement of Jews to the Pale of Settlement in the late 18th century in 1791. So, this had been going on for a long time.

And it continued during and after the war. There was the 1941 massacre of hundreds of Jews in rural north east Poland, that was, as historians have argued, carried out not under Nazi direction but, rather, Polish neighbors. And then a year after, dozens of Jews were, again, killed in the town of Kielce, again, by their Polish neighbors.

Again, this is not to erase the horror that Poles suffered at the hands of the Nazis. And, again, there were thousands of Polish heroes who should be remembered but the point is that this hatred doesn’t really have a historical beginning or end, or have anything to do with one group of people over another. It’s something that risks constant repetition and the way to combat that is to have constant and transparent discourse. And this law threatens to eliminate that for the strategic benefit of the ruling government.

SHARMINI PERIES: Carol, it sounds like this is a good place for us to end this interview but certainly, an ongoing discussion to be had on this topic. I thank you so much for joining us.

CAROL SHAEFFER: Of course. Thank you so much.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.