Canadian Historical Association: Open Letter to the Polish Prime Minister

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
00-583 Warsaw
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.

The Canadian Historical Association | Société historique du Canada (CHA | SHC) shares with other scholarly communities a commitment to free and open research and historical debate. No one, scholar or citizen, should face imprisonment for a conception of history not agreed to or shared by the state. “Official” histories must continually be challenged in a free society, without fear of reprisal.

Furthermore, critics argue, the legislation appears to apply not only to the use of “Polish concentration camps,” but also to the history of collaboration with Nazi crimes against Jewish people within Polish borders, and violent anti-Semitism. In this sense, the law does not only seek to clarify the role of the Polish government, but has the potential to repress important research and debate about broader involvement by Poles in the Holocaust.

The Polish Embassy in Canada has explained this Polish law as “protecting our collective memory against defective codes of memory.” It is our strong belief that “defective” histories are best challenged through research, evidence and debate, rather than by criminalizing collective memory or determining through definitive laws what are “defective codes of memory.” We would concur that history should not be used to incite hate against any members of society, and in some countries, hate speech laws are established for this reason. However, academic freedom demands that the practices of collective memory remain as open and democratic as possible. For scholarly historians, this is an issue that goes to the heart of our capacity to contribute to meaningful public discussions about the past, no matter how painful, complex, or unsettling.

The CHA | SHC therefore urges the Polish government to reverse the passage of this amendment.

Joan Sangster
Canadian Historical Association | Société historique du Canada

Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Ottawa
Stéphane Dion, Minister of Foreign Affairs – Canada

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