Poland and the Holocaust

A new law exposes the problematic nature of Holocaust remembrance.

Bitter memories: a German guard on the streets of Gdynia, occupied Poland, September 1939.

Poland’s memory law, passed in February 2018, threatens to imprison anyone who falsely attributes German war crimes to the Polish state or nation. It exemplifies, albeit in extreme form, the manner in which individual countries’ forms of Holocaust remembrance are dictated more by national context than they are by any universal understanding of the Holocaust.

Commemoration is part of a dynamic process wherein people, events and stories of the past are recalled, retold and recontextualised in the present in service of future goals. These narratives and the beliefs and values contained in them, can foster unity, but also risk conflict with the collective myths and narratives of other groups. Consequently, collective memorialising is not neutral, but is always tied to identity, politics and power. A comparison of Holocaust commemoration in Britain and Poland shows how this manifests itself in two very different national contexts.

The fact that Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD), established in 2001, was always intended to reflect national concerns was indicated when Andrew Dismore, the MP who first proposed a bill to enshrine the day, argued that it would offer an opportunity to ‘emphasise the positive values of Britain’. The historian Dan Stone highlighted this ‘self-contradictory experience’ of politicians flagging the superiority of ‘Our Nation’ and yet, simultaneously, warning of the dangers of chauvinistic nationalism.

The subsequent commemoration of HMD in Britain reflects a predominant Holocaust mythology that developed almost immediately after the war: that of Britain as unknowing bystander and eventual liberator. More uncomfortable episodes of British wartime conduct, such as collaboration in deporting Jewish residents from the occupied Channel Islands to Nazi death camps, or reluctance to facilitate the escape of Jewish refugees fleeing occupied Europe, are acknowledged inconsistently.

Poles’ contact with the Holocaust – as victims, participants and bystanders – was much more direct. But the country’s reckoning with this history was hindered and distorted by decades of postwar communist rule, during which a ‘collective forgetting’, as the historian Piotr Forecki puts it, took place. During and after the collapse of communism, more robust, open debate did emerge, particularly in the wake of Jan Błoński’s 1987 article ‘The Poor Poles look at the Ghetto’ and research by Jan Gross into wartime crimes committed by ethnic Poles against Jews. Yet this was met, and outweighed, by a more deeply established narrative characterised by ‘competitive victimhood’ with Jews, emphasising the Poles’ own suffering at the hands of the German occupier, and by a focus on the heroism of the Polish Righteous who saved Jews from the Holocaust.

Surveys conducted in Poland by the sociologist Ireniusz Krzeminski have found that the proportion of those who think that Poles suffered as much as Jews during the war increased from 39 per cent in 1992 to 62 per cent in 2012, while those who think that Jews suffered more fell from 46 per cent to 32 per cent. Four fifths believe Poles did the ‘best they could’ to help Jews and two thirds think Poles have ‘no reasons to feel guilty about Jews’.

Previous Polish governments have sought to balance these self-questioning and self-serving narratives. The former president, Bronisław Komorowski, declared that the Polish ‘nation of victims must recognise the difficult truth that it was also a perpetrator’. However, since it was returned to power in 2015, the Law and Justice (PiS) party has put the emphasis entirely on the latter narrative, implementing a ‘historical policy’ focused on Polish suffering and heroism.

By appealing to Poles’ sense of victimhood (based on a tragic history of invasion, occupation and subjugation at foreign hands), it bolsters the party’s image as the champion of ‘true Poles’, while casting those who oppose it as unpatriotic agents of foreign interests. This fosters a siege mentality, in which Poland must, as so often in the past, defend itself from enemies without and traitors within, a mindset the party uses to legitimate its efforts to overhaul the Polish state and to justify a confrontational foreign policy, with international criticism brushed off as the latest attempt at outside interference in Polish affairs.

The recent legislation to criminalise false attribution of German crimes to the Polish nation (passed by parliament on 26 January, the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day) fits directly into this context and cannot be understood without it. The law has been presented as a means of protecting the truth, but historical facts have remained largely uncontested. Almost no one seriously argues that the extermination camps were the responsibility of Poles, while leading figures in government readily admit that some Poles committed crimes against Jews during the war.

The new law is unlikely to prevent foreigners using the term ‘Polish camps’ (which is not only inaccurate, but deeply offensive, given that Poles were, after Jews, the biggest victims of them). The phrase is mentioned nowhere in the legislation and, even in the unlikely event that another country agreed to extradite someone accused of using it, the defendant could simply argue that the word ‘Polish’ denoted the geographical location of the camps on (occupied) Polish soil rather than ascribing responsibility for them.

The law, therefore, is less about enforcing historical facts than it is a symbolic statement of collective memory. Targeted at a domestic audience, it is designed to reinforce an official version of the past, while excluding those who fail to subscribe to it. Holocaust memory and commemoration become – as elsewhere, but to a starker degree – tools of national identity and politics, rather than part of an attempt to find a universal message in the 20th century’s greatest tragedy.

Daniel Tilles is Assistant Professor of History at the Pedagogical University of Kraków and John Richardson is Reader in Critical Discourse Studies at Loughborough University. Their research is funded by the Noble Foundation’s Programme on Modern Poland. This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue under the title ‘Past, Present and Future’.