History: Contemporary Poland’s Battlefield

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By Marie-Dominique Asselin
Translated from HistoireEngagée.ca by Thomas Peace

Pro-European Union Demonstration in Warsaw, 7 May 2016. Photo by Marie-Dominique Asselin.

Last April, when speaking about the war in Syria, White House Communications Director Sean Spicer made a poorly framed comparison between the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and Adolf Hitler. For Spicer, Assad’s use of chemical weapons was far worse than that conducted by the German leader because – according to the White House Press Secretary – Hitler had not turned these weapons on his own people. Assad’s actions, from Spicer’s perspective, were far worse because of the innocence of the attack’s victims. Implicit in this statement was the suggestion that the Jews murdered by the Nazi regime were not innocent and that Zyklon B – the gas used at Auschwitz-Birkenau was not a chemical weapon.[1]

At the same time, Front National presidential candidate Marine Le Pen refused to admit French responsibility for the July 1942 mass arrest of Jews in Paris, holding them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver before their transfer to German concentration camps. From Le Pen’s perspective, this event occurred while France was under German occupation, and therefore the French could not be held responsible.

Although much of the public found these examples shocking, they are increasingly being expressed within populist discourses. For some years now it has become more common to see politicians trivialize the Holocaust and attempt to reshape its history. Newspapers here and abroad have found great pleasure in calling attention to these gaffes, exposing the prejudices and ignorance of the western political class. Despite all, in North America and Western Europe, their comments rarely have an effect on national politics in the countries concerned.

In Poland, the country where the German Nazis killed most of the six million Jews, the trivialisation of the Holocaust has reached unprecedented proportions. Since its election in October 2015, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has adopted specific policies on the history of the Holocaust. Polish institutions, such as the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), which is controlled by the ruling political party, distort historical facts about Polish involvement in Nazi atrocities. These policies seek to influence Polish thought, fashioning a specific vision of the country’s past. PiS wishes to leave behind relatively long standing historical truths, such as Polish Catholic collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust, in favour of a myth where Poles – themselves victims of the Nazis – did all they could to save the Jews.

This essay seeks to reveal the methods the Polish government is currently using to remove Jewish experiences of the Holocaust from national memory. Three principal themes emerge. First, we look at how the legal system is being modified to censure historians and researchers who work on subjects related to the Holocaust. Second, we examine how PiS uses its control over public institutions to reframe this narrative. Finally, we look at how the Polish government displaces narratives that accord Jews a central place in the history of the Holocaust, and instead put the emphasis on the role of Polish Catholic heroes in saving Jews from Nazi atrocities. Though seemingly separate, when taken together, these three themes reflect the political outlook and agenda of the PiS.

An Illegitimate Justice System: Fraudulent Nomination of Judges to the Constitutional Court

In December 2015, PiS violated the Constitution in nominating judges to the Constitutional Court. The equivalent of Canada’s Supreme Court, this body is responsible for examining the legality of laws voted on by parliament. Put differently, this tribunal ensures that the country’s new laws do not contravene provisions set out in the constitution and basic human rights. Despite severe criticism from the European Union, PiS instituted a constitutional court in which the magistrates are in favor of its own policy. This way, the party minimized the chances that the court would oppose its legislative agenda, even if new laws were anti-democratic and went against the spirit of the constitution.

Two new laws, whose purpose is to entrench the government’s nationalist thinking, have been added to the penal code that demonstrate the impact of these changes. First, article 55.a.1 states:

“All persons who, publicly and against the facts, attribute to the Polish nation or Polish state responsibility for, or complicity with, Nazi crimes conducted by the Third Reich… or who attribute other crimes that constitute crimes against peace, against humanity or other war crimes… will be subjected to a fine or three years in prison.”

This law remains deliberately ambiguous. What exactly constitutes an attribution “against the facts,” for example? It appears that the new law authorizes the police and prosecutors to determine these facts and what can, and cannot, be said or written about these subjects. Likewise, implied in the legislation – framed as it is around the Holocaust – is a distortion and denial of events that took place during the Second World War.

A second action, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, helps us see this more clearly. In order to aid historians in their work, and avoid the threat of a fine or imprisonment, the ministry of Foreign Affairs created a list of risky expressions that “falsified” Poland’s role during the Second World War; beyond Poland’s borders, these expressions should be reported to the nearest Polish embassy. The implication of Polish diplomats in enforcing this new law demonstrates its international rather than merely domestic emphasis. The Minister of Justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, declared that with these new laws, the Polish government had created powerful tools to defend the good name of the Polish nation, without distinction to where these acts of perceived falsification or defamation occurred.[2]

The severity of these new laws resonates with the experiences of well-known Princeton historian Jan Tomasz Gross, who has recently found himself in the middle of PiS’s campaign to police the interpretation of Poland’s past. Gross is the Polish-American author of the influential book Neighbors (2000), in which he retraced the 1941 massacre of around 1,000 Jews from the village of Jedwabne, a small community about 200 kilometres from Warsaw. Though this event had long been blamed on the Nazis, Gross’s book demonstrates that it was their Polish Catholic neighbours who tortured and burned the Jews alive. These revelations caused a real crisis in Poland and many Poles refused to believe that they had in any way collaborated with the Nazis. Immediately following the book’s release, a commission of inquiry was struck in order to better understand the events that took place in Jedwabne. Established by the Institute for National Remembrance (IPN) and the government at the time, the commission not only confirmed Gross’s findings but pointed out over thirty similar massacres that also occurred that summer in Poland.

Today, the government rejects these findings, and desires to reopen this inquiry. PiS refuses to believe that some Poles profited from the Nazi occupation in order to remove, denounce and even kill, Jews. Through these new amendments to the criminal code, historians like Gross, whose works affirm that there was some complicity with the Nazi regime, risk imprisonment and have their work discredited in Poland. For many of them the choice is simple: follow the PiS party line – rewriting the history of the Holocaust by placing all Poles on the side of the victims – or lose their jobs.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw. Photo by Marie-Dominique Asselin.

The Party Line or Nothing: Cleansing Polish Public Institutions of Undesirable Ideas

University-based historians are not the only targets of PiS policy. All Polish institutions that disseminate information about Poland’s history are in its crosshairs. Since its arrival in power, PiS has worked to reorganize Poland’s public institutions. In an effort to ensure editorial control in the media, the party worked to have a number of television and newspaper journalists dismissed. Within these purges, several historians were swept up. Though their dismissals never explicitly referenced their historical research – focused as it is on Poland’s twentieth-century history, the Second World War and the Holocaust – or their place within historiographies that differ from the government’s interpretation, the broader strategy to control how the past is understood is clearly evident.

Among those dismissed was Dr. Krzysztof Persak, who since 2002 was responsible at the Institute for National Remembrance for researching events related to the Jedwabne massacre. His work resulted in two large volumes, published by the Institute, corroborating Jan Gross’s work. One volume focused on studies of the massacre, the other on the historical documents used to underpin the Institute’s interpretation. In 2012, Persak also served as the historical consultant for the film Poklosie (Aftermath), an award-winning thriller that recounts events similar to the 1941 July massacre at Jedwabne.

Persak was dismissed in the summer of 2016 just a few days after the PiS’s newly appointed director of the Institute of National Remembrance began his job. In explaining Persak’s dismissal, the Institute’s director, Jaroslaw Szarek, explained that, while a result of organizational changes at the Institute, he also had a lack of confidence in Persak’s scientific judgement.[3] The reality is that the Institute’s new direction could not accommodate a historian whose career involved researching the role Polish Catholics played in the murder of thousands of Jews during the German occupation. Persak lost his job because he was involved – first with the 2002 publication of his research on Jedwabne, and then again in 2012 for consulting on the fictionalization of these same events – in a vision of the past that could not be reconciled with PiS policy.

Another high-profile public historian was fired last March. Pawel Machciewicz was the director of the brand new Second World War museum in Gdansk, a city on the Baltic Coast. Just ten days after it opened as Poland’s first museum focused on the Second World War, Machciewicz found himself without a job. Hired by the previous government in 2008 to build the museum, Machciewicz was dismissed because the museum’s exhibits did not conform to PiS’s historical vision. Karol Nawrocki, a historian from the Institute of National Remembrance, replaced Machciewicz. Nawrocki’s mandate is to rework the exhibits to better conform to PiS’s vision of Poland during the war. This entails making the exhibit “less universal” and placing emphasis on Polish heroism.[4] In this reframing, the museum will demonstrate how Poles fought against occupying forces, show that they did not succumb, and, again, that they did all they could to save their fellow Jewish citizens.

Persak’s and Machciewicz’s dismissals are only two episodes in PiS’s new history-focused policies. They underline just how uncomfortable PiS finds the events of the Second World War, the German occupation, and, more precisely, the history of the Holocaust. But more importantly, these dismissals serve to illustrate a line PiS cries loudly: in Poland, historians must choose whether they wish to tote the party line or the unemployment line.

Conflicting Memories: Removing Jews from the Holocaust

Over the last couple of decades, several historians have reflected on the place of Jews in Poland before and during the Second World War. Their work demonstrates that while some Poles had the courage to intervene and protect them, others did not hesitate to denounce their Jewish neighbours. These historians show that anti-Semitism, passive or not, shaped the thinking of a majority of Poles. During the Holocaust’s most crucial moments, most Poles remained indifferent to the fate of the Jews.

With the support of the National Institute of Remembrance, the PiS government has worked to modify the image of Poland during the Second World War. Around commemoration sites dedicated to Polish Jewish victims, the government is erecting monuments to the Righteous Among the Nations, an honorific title used by the state of Israel to refer to non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. This action creates conflict between the memories of the slaughter of millions of Jews and one of Polish nobility and honour.

The most egregious example of this contest between memories can be found in the heart of Warsaw. In 2015, the first museum of the History of Polish Jews was built in the city’s old Jewish ghetto – the part of the city walled-in by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Named Polin, the museum recounts Jewish history from their first migration in the 10th century through to the present.[5] Of the nine statues and monuments surrounding the museum, three are focused on Jews while six represent Polish virtue.

The government decided to install new monuments on the museum’s grounds dedicated to the Righteous Among the Nations. The first is a statue of Jan Karski, a member of the Polish resistance who was sent to the allies to inform them of the Final Solution. The second is a path dedicated to Irena Sendler, another member of the resistance who created a mutual aid society to support Jewish children. These monuments have made many in the international Jewish community uncomfortable. They see increasing conflict between the memories of Jewish Holocaust victims and celebration of Polish Catholics who worked to help them.

Many historians have been similarly critical of the museum’s grounds, suggesting that the government takes credit for helping the Jews during the German occupation. In placing the emphasis on the Righteous Among the Nations, PiS silences the many denunciations Polish Catholics made against the Jews during the Holocaust. It is important to note that Polin is not a Holocaust museum, but rather a historic site that retraces life in Poland’s Jewish communities over the centuries. In spite of the tragedy’s scope, the Holocaust represents only one short moment in this history.

We call these types of actions the “de-judaization of the Holocaust.” This phrase evokes efforts, increasingly common in Poland, to place the experience of Jews as secondary in descriptions of this event.

Witness, for example, how memories of the Holocaust are changing in the city of Kielce. In 1946, the city’s citizens fought and killed over forty Jewish Holocaust survivors. The pogrom began when rumours spread that Jews had kidnapped a Catholic boy in order to use their blood to make matza. Although it was only an urban legend and the child in question was found safe and sound (he had gone on his bike to visit a friend), violence had already broken out. Over the course of 1 July 1946, some of the city’s Catholic residents attacked their Jewish neighbours living at 7 Planty Street.

The Kielce massacre raises important questions today about the place of Jews in Poland. How could a massacre of this magnitude and scope have happened to Jews just one year after the Second World War? Doesn’t a pogrom of this size suggest that anti-Semitic ideologies and acts in Poland were not solely the fruit of Nazi policies?

Since its election, the PiS government has worked to silence research on this subject and exonerate the Poles who participated. Despite ample evidence on the subject, for example, in July 2016 Education Minister Anna Zalewska told a conference that she did not know who participated in this violence.[6] According to the minister, it was clear that anti-Semites participated in the event, but it is impossible to know if they were Polish. To add insult to injury, rather than marking the lives of the Jews that died there, PiS has placed a commemorative plaque honouring the Righteous Among the Nations in front of the building at 7 Planty Street.

Kielce is a symbol of hatred against Jews and a late example of the use of the urban legend that Jews ritually murder Catholic children to justify a pogrom. Nonetheless, the city has become a site where the history of the Jews, victims of the Holocaust and then the hatred of their neighbours, has been eclipsed by the Righteous Among the Nations.

Another related PiS tactic to diminish the presence of Jews in Poland’s national history has been the creation of research chairs focused on the heroism of Polish Catholics. Two programs have been created with this emphasis. The first, called Index, is interested in learning more about Poles who were persecuted or killed after helping Jews during the Second World War. The second, much larger project called The Lost of the Polish Nation under the German and Soviet Occupations, involves the creation of an exhaustive list of all Polish victims during this period. The point here – and throughout this essay – is not so much that these nationalist research programs have been created, but rather that since the Second World War, in the country that served as a principal theatre for the Nazi extermination policy, there has never been a similar research position created to focus on the history of the Holocaust.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

During a 2015 conference at Princeton on the place of Jews in Poland, Dariusz Stola, director of the Polin museum, was questioned about the choice of monuments that surrounded the institution. He responded that the people of Poland, who pay the taxes that support the museum, wanted to learn about the heroes who saved the Jews, adding that one quarter of the families that visit wish to have a good time while at the museum. In making this statement, he implied that the history of Jewish experiences during the Holocaust might hinder the possibility for “good times” at the museum.

This type of response raises numerous questions, beginning with the museum’s own mandate. Shouldn’t a history museum teach some historical truths? For a museum of Jewish history, though it certainly needs to discuss the history of relationships between Jewish and other members of Polish society, shouldn’t the focus remain on the history and actions of Jews themselves?

These controversies, initiated by PiS actions and policies, also raise important questions about the role of historians who study Poland, and especially those who focus on the Second World War. If Polish historians face the choice of following the government’s editorial line, living in exile, or simply quitting their work, historians working elsewhere have more options. Outside of Poland, universities and their faculty, people who exercise considerably more freedom in their research and expression, have a duty to denounce PiS’s historically focused policies. Our commitment to intellectual integrity forces us to speak out on behalf of silenced Polish historians.

Historians, like students who aspire to publish, must know that working on subjects such as Poland and the Holocaust involves embedding themselves within a highly politicized historiography where the stakes are higher than mere academic reputation. Doing history implies participating in politics. More than ever today, the expression “d’histoire combat” (History as a struggle) takes on its full meaning.

Marie-Dominique Asselin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa. This essay originally appeared in French on HistoireEngagée.ca.

For More on this Subject

Jim Clifford, “The Polish Government, the Holocaust and Jan Grabowski,” ActiveHistory.ca (October 2016)

Jan Grabowski, “The Danger in Poland’s Frontal Attack on it Holocaust History,” Macleans (September 2016)

Pat Manning, “Letter of Concern to Polish Government Regarding Treatment of Historian Jan Gross,” American Historical Association Blog (November 2016)

Thomas Peace, “Fake News, Global History Wars, and the Importance of Historical Thinking,” ActiveHistory.ca (November 2016)

Joan Sangster, “Open Letter to the Polish Prime Minister,” Canadian Historical Association (December 2016)

Since publishing essays on this subject the editors at ActiveHistory.ca have received two mass mailed interventions from the Polish League Against Defamation. We include the documents they included with their correspondence here as a demonstration of just how seriously this issue is being taken within Poland and its implications for our colleagues, such as Jan Gross and Jan Grabowski, working in this area here in North America.


[1] “Sean Spicer apologizes for ‘even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons’ gaffe,” The Guardian, 12 April 2017.

[2] “5 lat pozbawienia wolnosci za uzycie sformulowania “polskie obozy smierci”? (Five years imprisonment for the use of the phrase “Polish death camps”),” translation Marie-Dominique Asselin (into French) and Thomas Peace (into English), Gezata Prawna, 15 February 2016.

[3] “Wylecial z IPN za Jedwabne!,” Fakt24, 29 July 2016.

[4] Culture Minister, Piotr Glinski, used the expression cited here when discussing the earlier exhibit.

[5] Polin signifies “good omen” or ” promised land.” Poland was a welcoming land for Jews from the 10th century onwards.

[6] “Kompromitacja minister Zalewskiej. Nie wie kto mordowal Zydów w Kielcach i Jedwabnem?” Newsweek Polska, 14 July 2016.

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