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Poland Edits Its History

President Andrzej Duda
Polish President Andrzej Duda. Photo by Michal Jozefaciuk, courtesy the Chancellery of Senate of the Republic of Poland.

The first shots of World War II were fired in Poland, and many of the greatest horrors of that conflict took place on Polish soil or befell Polish nationals – notably, but far from exclusively, the country’s prewar Jewish population.

The story of their nation’s resistance to, and victimization by, foreign aggression is one that many prominent Poles like to tell. We all like to tell our own stories, and there is more truth in the Polish version of its history than in many other memoirs. At the outset of the war in 1939, the country was effectively partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union, as agreed under a secret pact that those two nations executed before hostilities began. Western Poland was immediately incorporated into the Reich, the central section became the “General Government” colony run by Hitler’s devious personal lawyer, Hans Frank, and the east became a buffer zone for Stalin, though it did him little good when the Nazis launched the second wave of their eastward offensive in 1941.

The Polish people paid a massive cost in human life; the Nazis killed more than 3 million of the country’s 3.2 million Jews and at least 1.9 million additional non-Jewish civilians, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Poland’s military, intellectual and religious elites were massacred. Many Poles took to the forests or went underground in the cities to offer active military resistance to the occupation, while others – at great personal risk – harbored their Jewish neighbors and other fugitives to protect them from Nazi atrocities.

This story, while true, is incomplete. There were other Poles who did not act honorably. A fraction actively sought favors from and collaborated with the occupying forces, and more opportunistically vented prejudices or settled scores with neighbors. In a country with a long history of anti-Semitism (not uncommon in Eastern Europe, and not surprising in a place like Poland where Catholicism and nationalism were tightly linked at the time), some of that bad behavior, including overt violence, was directed toward Jews. Not all of this bad behavior ended when the fighting stopped in 1945, either.

This, too, is part of Poland’s story. Polish writers, including Jan Tomasz Gross and Anna Bikont, have written about Polish violence against the country’s Jewish population during and after the war, especially the 1941 killings in the Polish town of Jedwabne. But this is a part of their history that many other Poles are not eager to tell – and now at least some versions of the telling are criminal offenses under that country’s law.

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda recently signed into law a bill that imposes fines or jail terms on those found guilty of suggesting the country was complicit in the Holocaust or other war crimes. The law bans the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” and forbids suggesting publicly that the Polish nation or state was complicit in Nazi atrocities. At least in theory, the law would also permit Polish authorities to fine or jail non-Poles who make such statements inside or outside the country’s borders. Duda said the bill “... protects Polish interests ... our dignity, the historical truth... so that we are not slandered as a state and as a nation.”

Poles take understandable offense at such historically sloppy terminology as “Polish death camps.” There were death camps in Poland, but they were not Polish, and the term obscures German responsibility. Unlike Vichy France, run by the collaborationist French regime under Marshal Philippe Petain, the Poles were under foreign domination throughout their territory and throughout the war. They did not, in significant numbers, voluntarily round up their Jewish neighbors and deliver them to the Nazis; the Nazis did the rounding up themselves, sometimes coercing cooperation from within the Jewish communities. Poland had a government in exile throughout the war, one that technically existed until the end of Soviet domination after the fall of communism. As a nation, Poland is no more responsible for the Holocaust than are Holland or Belgium.

But that does not mean that all Poles (or Dutch or Belgians) acted honorably, or that none committed their own war crimes or facilitated the commitment of crimes by others. The difference is that those stories can still be legally told in Belgium or in the Netherlands. They can’t in Poland. According to the Poles, they can’t even be told here in the United States, although our First Amendment says otherwise.

This is unfortunate. The story of Poland can’t be fully understood without those pieces of its history, any more than America’s story can be fully told without reference to slavery or Birmingham or Wounded Knee or My Lai.

The Polish law drew sharp international criticism, especially from the United States and Israel. While the legislation specifically includes protections for art and academic research, critics have argued that the law effectively criminalizes the discussion of historical fact and could make it impossible to discuss instances of individual Poles’ part in documented war crimes. Others have raised concerns that the new law might encourage or facilitate anti-Semitic behavior.

It is not difficult to understand the Polish perspective with a bit of effort. The country enjoyed only 20 years of true independence between the world wars. It recovered that independence less than three decades ago, including the freedom to openly tell its history. Since then, many Poles feel that their story is being misrepresented, in no small degree by Russia for its own aggressive purposes.

But this legislative reaction is not the right answer. Such overreactions to lies never are helpful, a point we Americans would do well to remember ourselves in the current hysteria over Russian propaganda on social media. The antidote to lies is the truth – all of the truth, however unpleasant it may be.

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