The Dark Consequences of Poland's New Holocaust Law

The country is stifling open discussion of war crimes—and jeopardizing its own standing on the world stage.

Survivors walk in Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, in 2017.
Survivors walk in Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, in 2017. (Agencja Gazeta / Reuters)

PARIS—The Polish scholar Jan T. Gross, an expert on the country during World War II, didn’t mince words when I asked him about Poland’s new law that would criminalize mentioning the complicity of “the Polish nation” in the crimes of the Holocaust. “It’s terrible,” he said by phone from Berlin, where he lives. “It criminalizes all survivors of the Holocaust. Every Jew who is still alive and comes from Poland could be prosecuted.” That might be going a bit far—it’s still quite unclear how the law would be applied, and it’s hard to imagine extradition cases for discussing Polish war crimes outside Poland. But his concern is worth heeding.

Gross isn’t the only one who’s upset. Israel’s government is up in arms. A visit by Israel’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, to Poland was canceled this week after he criticized the law. (“The blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it,” he said later.) U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the law would affect “freedom of speech and academic inquiry.” The leadership of Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews issued a critical statement. So did the International Auschwitz Council, a board of advisers to the death-camp-turned-museum. And so did dozens of Polish historians, writing in The Guardian.

I can understand how Poles would be upset by the notion of “Polish death camps”—a term the new law criminalizes—since the camps were set up and run by Nazi Germany on Polish soil. (Germany and Israel have in fact called that phrase inaccurate in official statements.) But this law isn’t about the finer points of history. It is aimed at shoring up the right-wing base of the governing Law and Justice party—and it has done so at the expense of Poland’s standing on the world stage, and potentially its security.

Since news of the law broke, the Polish government has gone into a PR offensive. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gave a primetime speech saying Poland respected the memory of those who died in the Holocaust. Polish President Andrzej Duda signed the bill into law this week but also said he would send it to the constitutional court for clarification, buying time for possible amendments.

But it’s hard to see how they can walk it back. Proposed by a hardliner in Law and Justice, it’s significant that the law was rushed through just days after undercover reporters for a private Polish television channel filmed a neo-Nazi group in Poland waving Nazi flags, wearing Nazi uniforms, and burning a swastika. The report prompted Polish authorities to open an investigation into “public propagation of fascism.” But that, of course, put Law and Justice in a tough spot with its die-hards, who were already upset after a recent cabinet reshuffle had brought in some moderates. The reshuffle, in turn, came after Poland was trying to make nice after the European Commission threatened it with sanctions if it moved ahead with changes to its judiciary that European officials say threaten the rule of law—the biggest test yet for the bloc.

Messages crafted for domestic consumption reverberate far beyond national borders. “I wouldn’t say this is a completely planned and calculated action, it’s more a reflection of a complete self-isolation and lack of understanding of other countries,” Pawel Machcewicz, a historian and former director of a new WWII museum in Gdansk, told me. “They are surprised but they cannot back down because for their constituents that will mean the weakness, the betrayal of Polish dignity,” he said.

If anyone knows how important history is for this government, it’s Machcewicz, who was ousted as director of the museum after the government challenged it on various grounds, notably that it didn’t adequately depict the suffering of the Polish people.

Geography is destiny, and Poland is stuck between Germany and Russia. A few decades ago, Poland had a different dream: to join Europe. Today’s Polish government rails against Europe. “Poland in just two years became an absolutely isolated country in the Western world and it’s extremely disturbing, taking into account the growing Russian aggressiveness,” Machcewicz added. “So this is not only about history, this is also about Polish independence and Polish security. I find it very deeply disturbing.”

Gross told me he didn’t think the law would have many practical consequences for established historians, although he worried that it might prevent younger ones from studying the Holocaust. Above all, he was concerned about the teaching of history in Polish schools. “No one will dare to teach the Holocaust,” he said. “The ignorance in Polish society about the Holocaust is extraordinary. There were surveys made and the majority of the people who were asked the question ‘Who suffered more during World War II under German occupation, Poles or Jews?’—the majority of the people responded ‘Poles.’ How ignorant do you have to be?”

Ignorant or aggrieved? A few years ago I interviewed Piotr Glinski, Poland’s culture minister and deputy prime minister, about the controversy over the World War II museum in Gdansk. “Poland is associated mainly with the Holocaust,” he told me then. “The world knows about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising on April 19, 1943, but it doesn’t recognize the Warsaw Rising that took a much bigger toll.” He was referring to the interlude in 1944 when Poles fought the Nazis with limited help from the Allies for 63 days before the Red Army invaded. (An impressive museum in Warsaw dedicated to the Rising opened in 2004.) Poland’s “obligation,” Glinski added, was “to maintain a conversation about our sacrifice, a conversation with world public opinion.”

I’ve often thought back to this line as capturing the inchoate resentment that seems to drive the current Polish government. The French political scientist Dominique Moïsi has written that three emotions tend to drive politics: humiliation, hope, and fear. Poland falls into the humiliation camp. A feeling of grievance, a sense that the wider world doesn’t truly understand the suffering of the Polish people, but also a sense that the Holocaust—in which three million Polish Jews were slaughtered on Polish soil—was giving Poland a bad name.

Weaponized humiliation is a dangerous thing. “Something much more important, in my judgment, is what they have done internally,” Gross told me about the new law. “They have stirred anti-Semitism. This has always been part of this party’s spiritual legacy.”

“For God’s sake, these Jewish victims were Polish citizens!” Gross added. “These guys who say ‘They the Jews’ and ‘We the Poles’ are out of their minds.”

Since the law was proposed last month, the atmosphere in Poland seems to have shifted. A prominent television commentator referred to Jews as “kikes” on Twitter, in a post that was later removed. The director of a state-run television station said on the air this week that Nazi death camps should actually be called Jewish, because “Who managed the crematoria there?” he asked, according to the Associated Press’s report.

“We feel that suddenly the world in which we are living is collapsing, in all possible ways,” Anna Chipczynska, the president of the Jewish community of Warsaw, told the Financial Times. “We have got into a very dangerous and vicious circle [and] it is becoming every day more difficult to get out of it.”

There had been worrying signs for some time. In 2016, Poland’s public broadcaster TVP broadcast a 12-minute program highly critical of Ida, the 2014 Academy Award-winning film by Pawel Pawlikowski, before airing the film. Shot in beautiful black-and-white, the film is set in Communist Poland in the 1960s and tells the story of a young novice, orphaned during Poland’s Nazi occupation, who before entering a convent discovers her Jewish past. Following the broadcast of the film on television, the broadcaster added cards that said that many non-Jewish Poles had helped Jews escape from the Nazis. That may be true enough, but the cards were clearly intended to undercut the film’s vision. The Polish Directors’ Guild had protested that adding them showed “not only the lack of respect toward the creators but also the viewers, who lose the opportunity to interpret the film on their own.” They added: “It’s a violation of good conduct and a clear example of manipulative propaganda practices, which do not fit the standards of media in a democratic state.”

Regeneration after the Holocaust is perhaps the single defining element of postwar European life. It shaped Europe and the push for a European Union that would connect countries economically and politically, and that would guarantee human rights and freedoms. Today, survivors of the Holocaust are dying. Younger Europeans know of it only as a mention in history books.

“We are not responsible for a past on which we had no influence,” the director of Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the chairman of the board of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland wrote in a statement. “However, we are responsible for what we do about that past today. Above all, we owe the truth to the victims of past crimes, and the truth is fueled by an open and factual discussion.”

On display in the World War II museum in Gdansk is a case displaying the keys to the homes of Jewish Poles who were murdered by their Polish neighbors in the town of Jedwabne, an infamous episode during the war. The government is trying to change the museum exhibit, although it’s unclear how that particular display might be affected. The former director and others are suing for copyright infringement, on the grounds that the museum exhibit they designed should not be violated. Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit—and the new law—the keys exist.