New ‘Holocaust law’ highlights crisis in Polish identity

On Jan. 26, the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Polish parliament voted in favor of a bill making it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in Nazi crimes.

This caused immediate outrage around the world and nowhere more so than in a country that has been, until now, a close ally of Poland: Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the bill as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.

And yet, 10 days later, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, signed the bill into law retorting that “the historic truth is that there was no systematic institutionalized participation among Poles [in the Holocaust].”

What is happening? Why, over 70 years since the end of the Second World War, is this argument taking place?

I am a sociologist who has studied controversies around the memory of the Holocaust in Poland. For me, this dispute is more than a crisis in Polish-Jewish relations. It is, above all, a crisis in Poland’s national identity.

The memory of World War II in Poland

This is not the first time the Poles have legislated against what they see as defamation of Poland’s record in World War II, but it is certainly the most wide-reaching. Under this new law, the punishment for people claiming that “the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich” carries a possible prison sentence of up to three years.

The timing of the vote was no accident. The government used the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day as a platform to denounce the misnomer “Polish death camps” that some – including former President Barack Obama – have used to refer to Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland.

The Polish government, along with other Polish organizations, has been fighting the use of that expression in foreign media for several years, and with considerable success. Most American newspapers and other major media outlets have updated their stylebooks to stop those words being used.

Nevertheless, given the growing controversy, the German minister of foreign affairs took it upon himself to declare that the Germans bore the entire responsibility for the extermination camps. But then he added that “the actions of individual collaborators do not alter that fact.”

And therein lies the rub.

Many Poles find it difficult to accept they could have played a role in the Holocaust. That is because, unlike many other nations, the Polish state did not collaborate with the Nazis. Considered an inferior race by the Nazis, Poles were targeted for cultural extermination to facilitate German expansion to the East. Polish elites were systematically murdered. Tens of thousands of Poles were imprisoned in concentration camps or were forced into slave labor.

The Old Town burns during the Warsaw Uprising, August 1944. Museum of Warsaw
Poland’s losses in World War II were enormous: Approximately 6 million Polish citizens were killed in the war, over half of whom were Jewish. Warsaw was left in ruins, and its 1944 uprising alone cost the lives of about 150,000 citizens.

The dominant Polish narrative of World War II is, therefore, about victimhood, which fits squarely into its broader national mythology of martyrdom.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) Unknown
Repeatedly invaded by its powerful neighbors, the Polish state disappeared from the European map for over a century – from 1795 to 1918. Poland’s national bard, the 19th century poet Adam Mickiewicz, described his country as a “Christ among nations.” In this telling Poles are a chosen people, innocent sufferers at the hands of evil oppressors.

“Revelations” of crimes committed against Jews by Poles tarnish this narrative and shake Polish national identity to its core.