Foreign Affairs: Poland’s pride and prejudice

A bill that bans linking Poland to the Holocaust is less about its past and more about Europe’s present.

A CROSS is seen in the German death camp Auschwitz II Birkenau. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A CROSS is seen in the German death camp Auschwitz II Birkenau.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
History is the devil’s scripture, said Lord Byron, and the government of Poland has just said it concurs.
A bill the Polish cabinet approved last week and that parliament is expected to pass outlaws claiming the Polish people took part in the Holocaust or dubbing Nazi death camps as “Polish,” and makes uttering such statements punishable by up to three years in prison.
Having been issued by a 10-monthold ultraconservative government, some might suspect this controversial move is part of a Jewish agenda of some sort. It isn’t. If anything, this law is out to confront rather than join the effort to belittle German blame for what the Nazis did to the Jewish people, largely on Polish soil.
Yet this legislation is less about Poland’s past and more about Europe’s present, less about pride and more about fear.
The frustration behind the Polish bill is understandable.
Poles neither conceived nor operated the death machine, whether at senior or junior levels. The non-Germans it deployed were never Polish, and its victims frequently were. This is besides the fact that three million of the Germans’ Jewish victims were citizens of a Polish republic that never in its right mind would have thought of murdering them.
Then again, the bill is censorious, and thus makes historians fume. While there is no arguing that the Polish people and republic were Nazism’s victims, there is also no doubt among historians that Polish individuals did take part in atrocities against Jews, both during the Holocaust and in its aftermath.
Most memorably, this is what happened in the wartime massacre in Jedwabne, in today’s northeastern Poland, where local Poles locked hundreds of Jews in a barn and set it on fire, and that is what happened in the postwar pogrom of Kielce, in southern Poland, where dozens of Jews were shot and stabbed in the summer of 1946.
Polish conservatives’ discomfort with this history became glaring last spring, when Princeton historian and Polish citizen Jan Tomasz Gross was questioned by Polish prosecutors for five hours after claiming that wartime Poles killed more Jews than they killed Germans.
The charge Gross potentially faces is “insulting the Polish nation,” a prospect that is dramatized by his Jewishness as by his authorship of Neighbors, a groundbreaking study about the Jedwabne massacre, published in 2001. In addition, Poland is considering revoking the Order of Merit award with which it honored Gross 20 years ago.
Understandably, then, Israeli Holocaust historians, led by their doyen, Hebrew University’s Prof. Yehuda Bauer, have criticized the new Polish government harshly, first for its treatment of Gross, and now for what they describe as a threat to academic freedom.
Having said this, there are much larger contexts at play in this affair, reflecting an increasingly insecure Central Europe’s anxieties between a Muslim immigration to its west and a restless Russia to its east.
POLAND HAS BEEN the post-Cold War era’s poster boy.
After several tough years of capitalist shock therapy, the newly democratized Poland’s leaders shepherded it to economic stardom, and at the same time spearheaded Central Europe’s defection from Moscow’s orbit to Washington’s.
Poland became an enthusiastic member of the European Union, so much so that its former prime minister, Donald Tusk, is now the European Council president, while the Polish military that once was a pillar of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact is now a pillar of NATO.
Meanwhile, the Polish economy’s transition to capitalism has been so successful that until last decade’s global recession, it grew annually by 6 percent; and even in the face of the 2008 financial meltdown elsewhere, it managed to avoid recession.
The largest post-communist economy after Russia’s, this mostly flat country of 38 million people is now dominated by a post-industrialized society’s service sector, while per capita product is more than $12,000, inflation is negligible, public debt is lower than Britain’s, France’s and America’s, the trade balance is at a surplus, and foreign currency reserves have crossed $100 million.
Poland, in short, had it good when its politics took a sharp right turn last fall. While standards of living had yet to catch up with the rich world’s, most households’ incomes and assets were rising steadily enough for all to appreciate the benefits of the turn West.
And yet, 10 months ago the Polish voter brought to power the Law and Justice Party’s conservatives, who then lost no time ringing alarm bells from Brussels to Washington.
LED BY Beata Szydlo, Poland’s third woman prime minister since the 1990s, the government set out to re-staff the constitutional court and to diminish its power, by demanding that ruling a law unconstitutional require a twothirds majority and a quorum of 13 of its 15 justices.
The reforms came in response to hastily made appointments of justices by the liberal Civic Platform party when it knew it was headed toward electoral defeat.
Even so, the judicial reform was attacked abroad harshly, for instance by European Parliament President Martin Schultz, who said it was reminiscent of a coup and that Poland was undergoing “Putinization,” an allusion to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism.
These concerns soon grew as the government turned from the judiciary to the media, firing some of state TV’s senior anchors and reporters, citing displeasure with their perceived opposition to its policies. Within several months more than 160 journalists left TVP1, the Polish version of BBC, whether by order or choice.
The clashes with the judiciary and the press now made a bipartisan group of American senators, led by former presidential candidate John McCain, send a letter last February to Szydlo, in which they expressed concern for the future of Polish democracy. “We urge you to recommit to the shared democratic values enshrined in the Helsinki Accords and the EU Charter,” they begged.
The political effect of this plea remains to be seen, but the emotional impact was the same as the cause of the historiographic charge on Poland’s wartime record: it hurt Polish pride.
“People who were only building their country in the 18th century are telling us what democracy is,” said Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz.
The relevance of this bravado notwithstanding – the US might be historically young, but its democracy is the world’s oldest – what lurks behind such rhetoric is not arrogance but fear. Poles are afraid.
THE LESSER of Poles’ fears is the resurging Middle Eastern immigration that the European Union wants it to absorb.
“If Europe opens its gates, millions will come through and start exercising their own customs, including beheading,” said Lech Walesa, the Nobel laureate who led Poland’s defeat of communism.
The remark, made a year ago in a meeting with Israeli journalists, came two months before the conservatives’ victory. Poles voting that fall shared Walesa’s fear.
Even more ominous for average Poles is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
Russia’s imprint on the Polish psyche, which harks back to Poland’s dismemberment more than two centuries ago by Russia, Austria and Prussia, is in some ways worse than its German trauma. Fears that the current Russia’s westward gravitation might cross Poland’s eastern neighbor cannot be dismissed as fantasy. It happened much more than once and might happen again.
Now, wedged between a Russia that is casting a long shadow on their east, and a German-led EU that demands a Muslim immigration through their west, Poles feel a need to circle wagons.
That sense of menace is why Poland’s conservatives are backed by Hungary’s President Viktor Urban, who warned the EU that Budapest would oppose sanctioning Warsaw for its judicial reform.
The same fear is also why Poles are now turning to leaders like Szydlo, a devout Catholic who introduced a child-benefit reform aimed at encouraging parents to have more children.
The growing sense of trepidation is also why conservative Poles now feel threatened even by historians.
Fears of Russian expansionism and Muslim immigration are aggravated by the realization that Uncle Sam, Poland’s great anti-Russian shield, has allowed its Middle Eastern hegemony to pass on to Russia, abandoning to its devices Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, an ally that was far more veteran, and much less embattled, than Poland.
Orwellian dictates to historians will obviously change none of this. They will, however, land people behind bars for blemishing wartime Poland, whether consciously, as Princeton’s Gross did, or ignorantly, as Barack Obama did when he praised anti-Nazi Polish hero Jan Karski for infiltrating “a Polish death camp” to see what was happening there before trying to alarm the world.
Karski died last decade. Poland’s enemies, its majority now feel, are alive and well.