New College of the Humanities

Poland and Holocaust History

Cressida Trew, winner of this year's Julia Wood Essay Prize, shows that Polish historians under political duress and with the need to forge a positive national identity have denied rather than confronted the Holocaust. 

The question of how to interpret the Holocaust has forced historians to confront fundamental questions about the nature of human identity and indeed about the validity of history itself. Complicity in genocide sits very uneasily with national pride. Nowhere is this more so than in Poland, where so many of the death camps were located. Before the Second World War, Polish Jewry numbered 3.3 million, whereas postwar numbers totalled only 240,000 (a figure which had fallen to 9,000 by 1970). A total of around 5.5 million people were murdered in the Polish camps: of these 4 million were of Jewish origin, 3 million being Polish Jews.

Research conducted in Poland in the 1960s suggests that hundreds of Poles were executed by the Nazis for aiding Jews and that thousands more helped Jews in various ways. However, the remainder of the population of 30 million in Poland did not offer any aid to Jews, and while it is important to avoid blanket generalisations – especially in view of the circumstances of the Nazi occupation – this fact is a very disturbing one when placed within the context of widespread Polish anti-Semitism before, during and after the war. Thus the problems presented to Polish governments after 1945 by the Holocaust were deep-rooted. It is the argument of this essay that their 'solutions' expressed political, ideological and national concerns that in many ways reflect a cross-section of the anxieties that constitute anti-Semitism.

Polish history and the Holocaust

Poland is a country whose defiant national consciousness, stemming from foreign suppression and intervention, made it susceptible to anti-Semitic influences from Russia, Austria and Germany. By the end of the 19th century, the Polish nationalist movement had split between liberal nationalists (accepting minority cultures) and conservative nationalists (dreaming of a purely Polish Poland). It was the conservatives who gained power in 1919 (the Endecja Party), and throughout the 1920s there were campaigns to deprive Jews of their livelihoods and rights. The same groups came to power in post-Yalta Poland in 1945. The new political masters proclaimed that 'in resurrected democratic Poland there will be no place for anti-Semitism', but 1945-6 saw the deaths of over 800 Jews in pogroms and the emigration of another 150,000. Hence active Polish anti-Semitism before, during and after the war presented serious problems to nationalist historians writing about the Holocaust.

The Stalinist era

Initial historical enquiry into the history of the Holocaust began with Polish trials of Nazi war criminals, and in 1944 the Jewish Historical Commission was set up. In 1947 this became the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI), an independent group of Jewish historians headed by Philip Friedman and dedicated to the collection of materials relevant to the prosecution of war criminals. A Polish commission began to collect evidence for the prosecution of 12,000 war criminals.

By 1948 Poland was totally controlled by communists: the Polish United Workers' Party had eliminated all opposition parties. The only political competition was between the Nationalist communist faction, led by Prime Minister Wladyslaw Gomulka, who advocated an independent 'Polish path to Socialism', and the Muscovite faction, which wanted Poland to be absorbed in the Soviet Union. After Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform in 1948 for pursuing too independent a line, Stalin reasserted control and Gomulka was removed. This Stalinist period saw repression, censorship and control from Moscow. History degenerated into little more than propaganda justifying the Communist party line.

In 1950 the JHI was placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education, several of its members emigrating along with thousands of other Polish Jews. Real historical enquiry ground to a halt, and the new bead of the JHI, Bernard Mark – a Jewish communist journalist who had published a pamphlet in 1944 exaggerating the role of (Jewish) communists in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – ensured that historians toed the official line.

Classical Marxism had little to say about the nationalities question. Marx and Engels believed that national and ethnic differences were 'purely contingent to social and economic development' and that they would disappear altogether when capitalism was overthrown. Lenin and then Stalin tried to give history a helping hand by suppressing the national consciousness of minorities. Stalin decided that the uncomfortable history of the Holocaust in Poland had to be rewritten. The party line, in accordance with the Marxist attitude to religion, was to stress the passive response of the Jews to Nazism – something which almost became collaboration. On the other hand, Polish anti-semitism was minimalised, as was Polish collaboration with the Nazis. It was said of the Western stress on the persecution of the Jews had unfairly ‘eclipsed’ the Nazi persecution of Poles. Similarly the Ghetto uprisings in Warsaw in 1943 were a joint Polish-Jewish communist venture, part of the universal struggle to free Poland. Such interpretations repaired the damage to Polish national identity, and by stressing Jewish passivity they indirectly justified Polish anti-Semitism.

The political context provided by the onset of the Cold War and by United States support for the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 – which meant that in Soviet eyes Jewish nationalism was aligned with capitalism – further boosted this interpretation. It also reinforced the notion of Zionist collaboration with the Nazis and enhanced the traditional anti-Semitic stereotype of the greedy, exploitative Jew, which appealed to Russian and Polish prejudices.

The way in which this propaganda version of history was supported and propagated epitomised ‘historical’ practices in Poland at the time. State control of historians, the use of false evidence combined with genuine evidence, the occasional inclusion of convenient quotations from Western works, extensive reference to Stalinist-era publications and the dubious use of Marxist Historical Materialism to justify ideological arguments – all these were due to the political and cultural context in which the history was written and to the problems of Polish identity raised by the Holocaust.

The Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras

Stalin died in 1953. Three years later Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and the ‘cult of personality’ that had surrounded him. This triggered a series of Polish strikes and demonstrations demanding Gomulka’s release. Gomulka re-emerged as the voice of a ‘revised’ Polish path to socialism, and a dramatic confrontation between the Revisionists and the Muscovites/Stalinists in the ‘Polish October’ of 1956 resulted in the ousting of the Stalinist faction. Prime Minister once again, Golmulka tried to maintain a fine balance between appeasing Moscow and fulfilling his nationalist agenda. Yet the bottom line had to be the Communist party line: otherwise Poland – like Hungary in 1956 and, later, Czechoslovakia in 1968 – might have been a Soviet invasion.

Historical writing in this period saw nationalist sentiments cloaked in Soviet terminology and methodology. Stalinist anti-Semitic propaganda bad both confirmed and facilitated Polish prejudices, and the new boost to Polish nationalism associated with Gomulka's return saw a re-eruption of anti-Semitism. Polish nationalists, who could not express their dissatisfaction with the communist regime in anti-communist terms, vented their anger in anti-Semitism. Once more Jews were scapegoats. They were purged from positions of military and govern- mental power, and there was a media campaign against those Jews associated with the previous regime. Although intellectual and political freedom was greater than it had been for seven years, at this time of nationalist self-affirmation the Holocaust was an uncomfortable subject. Hence the Stalinist line on Holocaust history remained, though with an even greater emphasis on Polish resistance and heroism.

The 'Polish October' gave way to power struggles in the 1960s between the left-wing Revisionist faction, which demanded more liberty than Gomulka could agree to, and the increasingly powerful right-wing nationalist faction, the ZboWiD (Union of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy). This was led by General Mieczyslaw Moczar, known for his anti-Semitism, who formed an alliance with Boleslaw Piasecki, a prewar fascist. The Jewish Historical Institute became increasingly isolated from Western cultural associations and subject to the control and censorship of the ZboWiD. Israeli success in the Six Day War of 1967 – in which the Soviet Union backed the loser, Egypt – exacerbated anti-Semitic feeling. The years 1967-8 saw the height of the right-wing power struggle, and the ZboWiD used the campaign as an opportunity to purge Jews, liberals and intellectuals from public institutions and businesses on the grounds of their alleged 'Zionist sympathies', weakening their left-wing opposition. State-controlled Historical organisations issued pamphlets giving scholarly justification for government propaganda. Ironically, when nationalist freedom protests broke out in 1968, Piasecki's newspaper attributed them to 'reactionary Zionists' (referring to the Jewish population of Poland, regardless of individual political persuasion) stirring up anti-patriotic fervour. In 1971 Zionism was described as 'A ramification system of organisation and political practice among the big Jewish Bourgeois who throughout the ages have collaborated with pogromists and anti-Semites' – logic reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland at its most creative. It was asserted that 'anti-Sovietism is the Zionist profession'. At its most extreme, this interpretation implied that the idea of the Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish event was part of a chauvinist Zionist propaganda plot to justify the existence of Israel and turn the world against communism. Here was a new Jewish world conspiracy to parallel the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which had so influenced Hitler and the Nazis.

It is during this period that we see the most concentrated and effective effort to centralise control over the history written about the Holocaust. The leader of the Central Commission to Investigate Hitlerite Crimes in Poland was ousted and replaced by an ex-fascist associate of Piasecki–Pilchowski. He ordered that all archives holding source material on the German occupation were to be centralised. By June 1968 the archival collection of the JHI had been removed and the government had complete control over the raw material of Holocaust history. In the same year Pilchowski held a conference concerning the Holocaust where it was agreed that research was to be done to 'rebut the slanderous campaign of lies in the West ... especially with reference to accusations about the alleged participation of Poles in the annihilation of the Jewish population'. A resolution was passed that

'The Polish nation fulfilled its human responsibility with honour. The truth about the posture of the Polish nation is documented in the lives of those thousands of Jews who survived the time of the crematoria thanks to the sacrifices of the Poles.'  

The JHI was put under surveillance and targeted by the press for supposedly doctoring evidence from Auschwitz due to a 'feeling of wrongly conceived national solidarity'. By 1969 JHI activity had almost ceased, although its Biuletyn remained, now publishing material strictly adhesive to the party line that principally drew upon and made reference to Stalinist era publications. In the same year, 1969, speakers at a Polish conference proclaimed that 'thousands of Poles spilled their blood in defence of the Jewish Population' during the Second World War and that the Warsaw uprising was 'primarily a Polish battle'.

The Jews had traditionally been seen as having a threatening dual identity: they were citizens of their countries while also sharing a common international Jewish cultural – or even national – identity. Hence they were corrupters. Countries whose sense of national identity was under threat (like Poland) were particularly susceptible to (his kind of fear, as well as being required to adhere to the Soviet party line. Poland's anti-Semitic record was detrimental to its international reputation; but rather than face up to this, Poles took refuge in conspiracy theories. To the increasingly nationalist Polish communist government, the idea of a Zionist conspiracy was justifiable in both political and nationalist terms. Thus, in the 1968 Holocaust historiography resolution, Pilchowski attempted to minimalise the essentially Jewish nature of the Holocaust, to universalise Polish aid to Jews and refer to a Zionist conspiracy – providing us with an archetypal example of the justification of right-wing sentiments expressed in left-wing terminology. The Premier Josef Cyrankiewicz attacked 'the wave of anti-Polish slanders' coming from 'Israel and the chauvinist Zionist circles in other countries, from the United States and from the German Federal Republic'.

Conclusion: Holocaust Denial

The techniques and arguments employed in Polish historiography of the Holocaust up to 1970 have many similarities to the contemporary 'Holocaust denial' movement that is gaining in significance throughout the world, primarily in Europe, the Middle East and America. (To take one example, the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson has written that 'the so-called-gassings' of Jews were 'a gigantic politico-financial swindle whose beneficiaries are the state of Israel and international Zionism'.) Deborah Lipstadt summaries their basic arguments:

The central assertion for the deniers is that Jews are not victims but victimizers. They stole billions in reparations, destroyed Germany's good name by spreading the "myth" of the Holocaust and won international sympathy because of what they claimed had been done to them. In the paramount miscarriage of injustice, they used the world's sympathies to "displace" another people so that the state of Israel could be established.

If 'Germany' is replaced with 'Poland' (excluding the reference to reparations), the comparison is striking. Both the Holocaust deniers and Polish historians are intimately linked with far right-wing racist-nationalist attitudes, and both are more concerned with their political agenda than with the truth, The rhetorical language of the modern Holocaust deniers is also reminiscent of Polish Holocaust historiography, especially chat of the Stalinist era and the late 1960s.

Holocaust denial has proven a serious threat partly because the deniers have adopted a pseudo-academic veneer, publishing their ideas in familiar academic format that mimics scholarly works, bur. more importantly because they have reinvented themselves as 'historical revisionists' exploiting the current 'Postmodern' climate of relativism and Deconstructionism in order to stimulate discussion in the name of 'freedom of speech'.

In conclusion, we have seen how two very different intellectual climates have fostered almost identical conclusions rooted in similar national, cultural and political insecurities, and how both versions have used ideological frameworks in an attempt to rationalise what is essentially an irrational prejudice. Historical engagement with the Holocaust – a profoundly racist and political event with momentous international consequences – shakes the very foundations of' national and cultural identity. In the same way, the Holocaust has disturbing implications for human identity which we would rather disown or explain away. Hence the Holocaust is a subject very vulnerable to denial.

The historiographical response to the Holocaust in Poland demonstrates history's essential role in establishing identity and in many ways confirms the postmodernists' worst fears that history is interpreted only to reflect the prejudices of the present. The past, perhaps even more than the future, is subject to reinvention – and indeed to fantasies - to justify the present, and surely all historians must acknowledge the limitation, of their versions of 'the truth'. Paradoxically, however, the historiography of the Holocaust as seen in Poland demonstrates the ultimate value and importance of diligent historical enquiry and of the appliance of a sceptical and questioning attitude to the past, one that forces us to re-examine the prejudices of the present and the development of our own historical identity. The Deconstructionist assertion that there is no such thing as 'truth' is often associated with the desolation of nihilism. But the evidence suggests that the human identity that the 'truth' in Holocaust historiography forces us to face is far more disturbing, and demands confrontation.

Further Reading:
  • Lucy M. Dawidowicz The Holocaust and Historians
  • Richard J. Evans In Defence of History
  • Martin Gilbert Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy
  • Martin Gilbert Exile and Return: The Emergence of Jewish Statehood
  • Masha Greenbaum The Jews of Lithuania
  • Deborah Lipstadt Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory
  • Michael R. Marris The Holocaust in History
  • Graham Smith (ed) The Nationalities Question in the Soviet Union
  • Joshua Sobol Ghetto

The Julia Wood Essay Prize This year’s Julia Wood Essay Prize competition was again very severe, with 141 entries. The Committee eventually recommended the award of prizes to one Upper Sixth entry and two Lower Sixth entries. They are pleased to announce that the winner of the first prize is Cressida Trew of King’s School, Canterbury, for the essay published above. The winners of the Lower Sixth prizes are Josephine Tucker of the Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls, Elstree, for an essay entitled ‘How far did Luther’s theory mark a clear and radical break from medieval tradition?’; and Andres Shapland of Bristol Grammar School for an essay entitled ‘How European was the Renaissance?’

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