Yesterday, Joan Sangster, the President of the Canadian Historical Association sent the following letter to Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo regarding recent legislation criminalizing historical interpretation. For broader context of this issue see Jim Clifford’s post The Polish Government, the Holocaust and Jan Grabowski and Thomas Peace’s Fake News, Global History Wars, and the Importance of Historical Thinking.
Ottawa, December 6, 2016
The Chancellery of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo
Al. Ujazdowskie 1/3
Dear Prime Minister Szydlo,
In August 2016, the Polish cabinet approved legislation that introduces harsh legal punishment (up to three years’ imprisonment) for historians or members of the public referring to “Polish death camps” or “Polish concentration camps.” In attempting to regulate speech and thought, and by criminalizing historical interpretation it considers problematic, the Polish government is violating key principles of academic freedom which are fundamental civil liberties in democratic states. As historians, we are deeply concerned by the possibility that our Polish counterparts may face reprisal for their scholarship on Polish history during the period of Nazi occupation, the history of anti-Semitism in Poland, and the Jewish experience during the Holocaust in Poland.
The Polish government argues that it seeks through this legislation to set the historical record on concentration camps in Poland straight. A law banning the use of terms such as “Polish concentration camps” aims to make it clear that these were a German Nazi policy, not instigated by the Polish government. Whatever the intent of the legislation, however, the proposed law is unlikely to result in improved historical awareness among Poles or internationally. Social understandings of a difficult and complex past cannot be legislated. Neither can history be written through the prism of state laws, or constituted through the suppression of counter-narratives or scholarly research that challenge the state’s current view of the past. Continue reading