Credit Kacper Pempel/Reuters
It is baffling why Poland’s nationalist-controlled Parliament would mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day — the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp on Polish soil — with a needless, foolish and insulting draft bill that would penalize any suggestion of complicity by the Polish state or the Polish nation in the Nazi death machine.
Apart from raising the very questions about the role of the Poles in the Holocaust that the drafters apparently want to hide, are we not past such self-serving posturing over one of history’s greatest crimes? Whatever dubious motives are behind this measure, Poland would do well to erase it as quickly as possible.
No doubt it pains Poles, whose country was overrun and occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II, when foreigners refer to Auschwitz and other extermination centers the Nazis set up in Poland as “Polish death camps.” They were Nazi death camps. Along with three million Polish Jews — about half of all Jews killed in the Holocaust — at least 1.9 million Polish gentiles were killed. Some Poles tried to help Jews and have been recognized as “righteous among nations.”
Yet it is also undeniable that Poles were directly or indirectly complicit in the crimes committed on their land and that Poles were guilty of anti-Jewish pogroms during and after the war. These are the facts of that terrible history, and the Poles, like all other nations conquered by Germany that became embroiled in the Nazi atrocities, have an obligation to the victims and to the future to seek the full truth, however painful.
Regardless how it is parsed, the Polish bill is a blatant and chilling effort by a nationalist government waging an offensive against the rule of law and freedom of expression to discourage that search. “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 subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years,” reads an article of the draft. But what constitutes an accusation? Who determines the facts? Who will risk three years in prison to seek the historical truth?
The Polish government is not the first to try to shape the history to its advantage. The Soviet Union long preferred to refer broadly to “victims of fascism,” avoiding any specific reference to Jews, and Austria for years painted itself as the “Nazis’ first victim,” denying all responsibility for its crimes.
Yet such thinking has largely been rejected for many years now.
In a striking coincidence, the Polish bill was passed just as the leader of a major Muslim institution in Saudi Arabia, a sternly Islamic kingdom better known for its virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli positions, publicly proclaimed the Holocaust “among the worst human atrocities ever.” “One would ask, who in his right mind would accept, sympathize or even diminish the extent of this brutal crime?” demanded Mohammad Alissa of the Muslim World League in a letter to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Indeed, that is the question Poland should be asking, and in fact many Poles have been asking and should be encouraged to keep asking.