After putting pressure on the judicial system and the media, Poland’s authorities are now clamping down on how the country’s Second World War history is told. This authoritarian trend is worrying the European Union.
January 27 marked the commemoration of 73 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. The day before, Poland’s Senate adopted by 57 votes to 23 against plus two abstentions a law under which people who mention “Polish death camps” or attribute any responsibility of the Polish State in Nazi crimes can be sentenced to up to three years in jail. On February 6, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed this into law. The law has provoked the ire of the Israeli government, which “adamantly opposes” any attempt to modify historical truth.
From a historical standpoint, nobody denies that death camps such as Auschwitz and the “Final Solution” (extermination of the Jews) were the work of the Nazis in occupied Poland, nor that Poland suffered terribly under the Nazis. Some two million non-Jewish Poles were killed along with 3 million Polish Jews. Whilst some 6,600 Poles were recognized for having saved 30,000 to 35,000 persecuted Jews (the Poles are the people most recognized amongst the “Just”), historians say that Polish people also killed thousands of Jews during and after the war. The new law on remembrance poses a problem, because it tries to deny this part of reality. This is what Holocaust museum Yad Vashem criticizes on its website, saying that “restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion” (of historical truth).
The ideology of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party is a return to traditional values, especially those of Catholicism, national pride, Euroscepticism and rejection of homosexuality. This all goes hand in hand with pressure on the media and the courts, as well as xenophobic anti-migrant rhetoric.
A narrow view of national identity
By rejecting any historical record of anti-Jewish pogroms during and after the Second World War, Poland’s parliamentary majority is playing to nationalist sentiments. It is also a way of affirming a closed and narrow view of national identity, supporting a rejection of multiculturalism and hence migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East that the European Union wants to share amongst different EU member States. Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski is clear on his stance, saying in 2015 that migrants “have already brought diseases like cholera and dysentery to Europe, as well as “all sorts of parasites”.
The ruling party’s stance has divided Polish society but has a certain amount of support. Last November some 100,000 people gathered in Warsaw to celebrate “independence”, chanting “we want God”, which echoes a Catholic song now sometimes interpreted as a rejection of Islam, and “Clean Poland, White Poland”.
The perceived enemy for the Polish ultra-Right is not just from outside the country. It is also inside, where it attacks those who negotiated the end of Communism under the principle “yes to amnesty, not to amnesia”, instead of a radical purge. Thus Lech Walesa, who has passed from hero to “traitor” in the eyes of the ruling party, is accused of having delivered Poland into the arms of the European Union and its liberal values.
It is in this charged atmosphere that on December 20 the European Commission launched an unprecedented procedure against the Polish government, which had remained deaf to its calls for it to stop trying to influence the courts. The EU Commission said in a statement that it had “concluded that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland”, adding that it had therefore proposed to the Council to adopt a decision under Article 7(1) of the EU’s rules. “In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law,” it says.