Last Friday, Poland’s lower house passed a bill (months in the making) that would make it a criminal offense—punishable by a prison sentence—to implicate Poles in the crimes of the Holocaust. The law takes specific aim at the use of phrases like “Polish death camps” in reference to concentration camps built on occupied Polish soil. The law is expected to pass the upper house and be signed by the president–and is currently at the center of a diplomatic storm.
Certainly, “Polish death camps” is inaccurate and the Polish PM is correct that “Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase.” But this proposed law will not necessarily stop at linguistic nuance. Many fear that it could also be turned against any discussion of Polish complicity during the Nazi regime (or even used to curb debates about Polish anti-Semitism).
When I toured Auschwitz a number of years ago, I was somewhat taken aback by the video narrative offered on the bus from Karakow. In this telling, the Poles were only ever victims, or heroic resistors, to Nazi occupation and genocide. All nations, of course, tend to offer selective versions of their pasts, particularly in museums, monuments, or other heritage contexts. While these stories are not without some truth, they cannot ever be the whole truth.
Here, the historian’s maddening refrain—“it’s complicated”—is crucial. Much of the Polish population was absolutely victim to Nazi oppression. Hitler’s racial ideology devalued Poles and other Slavs—allowing for significantly harsher treatment than in occupied territories further west. Yet there are also the stories of Polish mistreatment of Jews and other Nazi targets–not to mention Poland’s continued reticence to reckon with questions of restitution for Jewish families.
There is a form of Holocaust denial that does not call the events themselves into question, merely the roles that people played—and their consequent guilt or innocence. The notion of a France whose citizens were all part of the Resistance was at the heart of France’s decades-long Vichy Syndrome (which still lingers in some circles). More recently, Hungary’s Fidesz government offered their own version in a controversial monument (about which, more to come…).
Similarly, the proposed law in Poland tracks with a descent into an uncritical Polish nationalism that more and more exhibits xenophobic tendencies.
In the face of rising nationalist and neo-authoritarian movements, the question of political resistance has become more vital. Limiting the study of experiences in Poland in the 1930s and 40s cuts us off from important lessons about how everyday people found ways to resist oppression—and about the barriers that made others unable or unwilling to mount such resistance.
Moreover, erecting legal obstacles to discovering and discussing historical truths that are inconvenient and uncomfortable does a terrible disservice all those who died in the paroxysm of Nazi violence—as well as to those who survived.