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.”