One Version for All

Tensions are rising between the Israeli and Polish governments over a new law which criminalises the term “Polish death camps”

Marcin Zaborowski
6 February 2018

This morning, President Duda announced that he would sign a proposed Polish law that would forbid blaming Poles for the Holocaust. However, Duda also stated that he would send the bill to the Constitutional Tribunal as he has concerns over the law’s effect on both the Freedom of Speech and the precision of its drafting.

Between the lines

This law is a reaction to the use of the term ‘Polish death camps’, a reference to the Nazi-concentration camps in occupied Poland, which were the main sites of the holocaust. It is the opinion of this author that the use of the term ‘Polish death camps’ is misleading and simply untrue. The concentration camps were German, not Polish, a sentiment which has indeed been stressed by the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel over the last few days.

Moreover, whilst the concentration camps were the site where Jewish people were killed in the millions, the murdering of Poles of Christian and other denominations (numbering in the hundreds of thousands) should not be discounted or forgotten. After the Jews, the non-Jewish Poles were the second group targeted by the Nazis for slave labour and, in many cases, extermination.

The current Polish government is therefore right in demonstrating its indignation and objection to the term that is distorting the past and is clearly disrespectful to the memory of those who perished during the war. Furthermore, the chair of the governing party, Jarosław Kaczyński, argues that the new law would not gag the discussion on the complicity and collaboration of the non-Jewish Poles in the holocaust.

Popular support and far-reaching consequences

Incidentally, the campaign objecting to the use of this historical lie was started by the former Polish administration, so this is not considered a partisan issue in Poland. The difference introduced by the current administration is the attempt to criminalise the incidents of historical distortion, which is a risky undertaking with a dubious chance of success.

Unlike in other German-occupied lands, Poland never had a collaborationist government although it was a capital offense to help the Jews. For the many Poles and their descendants that risked their lives to help the Jewish people – as indeed is recognised by Yad Vashem in the Righteous Among the Nations where over 25% of the overall honourees are Polish nationals – the use of ‘Polish death camps’ is highly offensive.

However, some incidents of collaboration and pogroms undertaken by sectors of the Polish population were undeniably taking place, yet admitting this remains controversial in contemporary Poland. It is, therefore, possible that the new law will affect such a debate in the future despite Kaczyński’s assurances to the contrary.

Potential changes in behaviour

It is important to understand that, whilst imperfect, the new legislation is not driven by anti-Semitism or holocaust denial. Anti-Semitism certainly exists in Poland, especially amongst the socially-conservative right that make up the core of Law and Justice supporters; Mr Kaczyński has had, in this particular respect, a moderating impact on his own party.

Overall, 27 years after the fall of communism and anti-Semitism has effectively been eradicated from the political main-stream in Poland although, like anywhere, it is alive on the political fringes. Similarly, anti-Semitism has also declined among the general population; however, it still has a prominent presence in the public, and this is being echoed by anti-Semitic articles which appear in the mainstream media.

Unfortunately, at a moment when most would wish cooler heads would prevail, a trip by the Israeli Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, has been cancelled after he strongly condemned the proposed law. In a statement released yesterday, Mr Bennett said he “felt honoured” by the cancellation for what he sees is a rewriting of the past.

The current Polish government is guilty of believing that you can legislate in too many areas of social life and that you can force people to be historically accurate; this is likely to be a gross misstep.

That being said, it is important to stress that the intention behind this legislation is not anti-Israeli in any respect.

The irony here is that this government is one of the most pro-Israeli governments in today’s EU. For example, Poland joined the group of countries that did not support the vote in favour of the recognition of Palestine at the UN, and Warsaw regularly takes pro-Israeli positions in the EU context.

The attitudes towards Israel are constantly improving in Poland and many young people have ahistorical but positive associations with Israel. It is important that we do not let these positive trends be ruined by excessive politicising.

Marcin Zaborowski is Senior Associate at Visegrad Insight.