Poland and Israel are currently caught in the biggest diplomatic crisis since the fall of communism. The crisis came about after Polish lawmakers approved a bill criminalizing statements that blame Poland for the Holocaust. In retaliation, new legislation in the Knesset would make the Polish bill a form of illegal Holocaust denial.
But the opposite is true; indeed, anyone who supports the criminalization of Holocaust denial, which is common across Europe, should support Poland’s new law. With this law, Poland is fighting a revisionist history that blames Poland for Germany’s war crimes, crimes Poland did not commit. And while I’m personally against imprisoning people — I think a fine would be more appropriate — I support Poland’s right to fight for its history.
During the Second World War, Poland was the only Germany-occupied country that didn’t have a collaborationist government. We were only ones that didn’t serve in the Waffen-SS. Poland also had the biggest underground and was first to inform the West and the US about the Holocaust. One of our heroes, Witold Pilecki, purposely got caught by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau to get the proof of the Shoah and start a resistance movement there. Another Polish hero, Jan Karski, a messenger of the Polish National Army, went to America to warn of the crimes against humanity that the Germans were perpetrating against Jews.
Nobody listened. Instead, the US Air Force chose not to bomb Germany’s concentration camps.
Poland was also the only country in the world where if you hid a Jew from the Nazis, you and your family would be executed. Despite those unimaginable conditions, over 6,000 Poles are recognized as Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, and many more his and helped Jews.
Poland’s losses during the war were also substantial, and much greater than other countries’. Almost 17% of the Polish population was murdered during the war. Compare this to Russia, which lost 14% of its population, or Yugoslavia and Germany, which lost just above 10% of theirs.
Six million Polish citizens died during the war, half of them Polish Jews. Over 60,000 died fighting the September 1939 German invasion; 130,000 were wounded. It took us until 1975 to get our population to what it was before the war.
So you can imagine how we feel when we are blamed for a war that, from our point of view, we fought bravely against, a war to which we lost as many non-Jewish Poles as Jewish Poles. Just think about it for a minute from our point of view: We see ourselves as the victims of the Germans, victims of brutality who strived nevertheless to do all we could for our Jewish brothers and sisters.
And now, seventy years later, we are blamed for the very atrocities we risked our lives to oppose.
It is this injustice that our government’s bill comes to correct.
Of course, it is well documented that some Poles did engage in acts of hatred, mob-lynching, and even racially-motivated murder during the Holocaust. But speaking of these acts will absolutely not make anyone the target of this law. The legislation proposed by the Polish Ministry of Justice clearly stipulates that any prosecution may not pertain to scientific research or artistic activity, precluding it from targeting people researching or referencing actual Polish crimes against Jews.
Indeed, in the coverage of the bill, many have mischaracterized it as criminalizing any reference to “Polish extermination camps” or any reference to ethnic Poles’ role in the Holocaust. Missed in the coverage is that these are fundamentally different things.
There is a structural difference between the alleged participation or compliance of Poland or Poles in the Holocaust, and the acts of individual Poles against Jews. If these two types of crime were made equal, practically all of Europe would have to share the same amount of blame. And this would be wrong.
The Holocaust was a systematic attempt at exterminating a whole nation, conducted with the use of industrial methods and with the participation of the machinery of the state. Poland was the only country that, under German occupation, had its government institutions liquidated, its army disbanded, its schools and universities closed. It was the vacuum left behind the structures of the Polish state that made it possible to engineer mass murder on an unprecedented scale, which would not have been feasible in the occupied Belgium, Holland, Denmark or France.
This alone proves that it is a historical lie to attribute to the Polish nation any complicity in the crime planned and perpetrated by the Germans.
Furthermore, the same logic that dictates that Poland is responsible for the Holocaust must find the Jewish people themselves complicit in the Holocaust. After all, some of them became the Kapo functionaries in the ghettos and death camps, frequently collaborating with the German apparatus of repression. And yet, certainly, such a conclusion would be an absurd.
There must be a difference between correctly assigning blame to individual Poles who committed crimes and unjustly blaming the whole nation for the entire Holocaust.
This is why Poland seeks to criminalize this error.
And we are not alone in using the law to pursue historical accuracy. No one questions the fact that Holocaust denial is a crime. Denying the truth about the Shoah has long been punishable by law in 16 countries, from Austria to Israel to Switzerland. In Poland, people denying the Holocaust are prosecuted under Article 55 of the Institute of National Remembrance Act of 1998. In France, professor Robert Faurisson has been recently imprisoned on the charge of the crime of Holocaust denial. The British historian David Irving is under heavy – and justified – criticism on the same count.
Why, then, is Poland accused of resorting to activities typical of “non-democratic regimes” when it is implementing a policy that exists in Israel, which — besides using scientific publications and diplomatic contacts — has been relentless in rectifying the facts of the Holocaust in court?
Such measures are effective. After a wave of blatant Holocaust denial in the 1970s and 1980s, only sworn enemies of Israel like Iran’s ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can afford to deny the Holocaust today.
Poland is only following a well-blazed trail, and is fully entitled to do so.
Here’s what the bill actually says: “Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich… or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.” It also includes a passage about freedom for scientific discoveries and artistic expression.
And despite the brouhaha online and the extensive coverage of the bill, there’s not one line about going to prison for simply saying “Polish death camps.”
You can be prosecuted if you willingly and consciously say, for example, “Poland was running Auschwitz and killing Jews there.” But you wont be prosecuted for saying “Polish death camps” by mistake, like Barack Obama once did.
Some Israeli journalists and politicians have accused Poland of infracting upon the civil right to freedom of speech. But of all people, Israelis should understand us. Fighting for the truth about the Holocaust means fighting over the truth of who engineered it, who executed it and who was the responsible for.
That was Nazi Germany.
This is not to say that we were only a nation of heroes. There were a lot of people in Poland who committed hate crimes, who murdered Jews because of the money paid by Germans, or because they envied their wealth. Many Jews recount feeling that their Polish compatriots carried out the tasks assigned by the Nazis with glee, or that their own anti-Semitism was a factor in their behavior.
We have absolutely no intention of rewriting history or hiding those shameful acts of our compatriots.
What we as a country would like to highlight is simply who was the aggressor and who was the victim in general, on a national scale.
One “national” crime has been alleged by Shlomo Avineri in a 2016 article called “Poland’s Crime Against History”. “Why did the Home Army wait more than four years to rise against German occupation? Why did it not disrupt the systematic extermination of three million Jews, all Polish citizens, or strike during the Jewish uprising?” asks the political scientist and philosopher.
It’s an argument that could be posited to every underground of the war. Why did the French not blow up the railway lines used by their state for transferring Jews to extermination camps? Why did the Hungarians not rise in Budapest two years earlier? What were the Italians waiting for? Why did half of the occupied European countries raise their own Waffen-SS units, rather than rise against the Germans? In what light does that sort of argument present the US, which was aware of the mass extermination of Jews due to Jan Karski’s report and Witold Pilecki’s testimony?
The Polish government is seeking nothing more and nothing less than all the countries with Holocaust denial laws. We seek to admit our crimes, and apologize for them, but only the crimes we actually committed.
Marcin Makowski is a Polish journalist and historian. He writes for “Do Rzeczy” and “Wirtualna Polska”. You can find him on Twitter @makowski_m.