The Holocaust Law: Poland Fights for “the Truth”

This was originally written for The Berkeley Global Citizen on March 24th, 2018. It can be found in its original form here. The information in this piece reflects the time in which it was written.

As Polish president Andrzej Duda signs an amendment to The Act on the Institute of National Remembrance into law, his nation is immediately met with international enmity.

“Anyone who publicly and contrary to the facts denies crimes referred to in Article 1(1) shall be subject to a fine or the penalty of imprisonment of up to 3 years.”

– Article 55, Chapter 7, The Act on the Institute of National Remembrance

Passed on February 6th this year, the law makes it illegal for anyone within Polish borders to associate the Commonwealth of Poland with Nazi Holocaust crimes. Government officials advocate the nationalistic move by describing the bill as an intention to denounce “any attempt to challenge historical truth.” Poland’s “truth” holds that the country not be blamed for the actions of Nazi forces on Polish land. During the events of World War II, Poland was one of the first European countries invaded by Nazi Germany. The German forces took control of the Polish military and used it in the creation of death camps such as the infamous Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Despite having no control over its land or military during WWII, the Polish government is blamed for the events that transpired on its territory; Poland hopes to reshape its international image. “It is a duty of every Pole to defend the good name of Poland,” said Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, prior to the bill’s ratification. Nevertheless, the government’s justifications failed to prevent historians, opinionists, and international governments alike from labeling the law as anything more than Holocaust denial.

This oppositional opinion is most popularly held by the United States and Israeli governments. In a reactional statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues, “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied.” Netanyahu and like-minded opinionists attribute the origins of the bill to Polish nationalists who wish to unsully their country’s reputation; they suggest that the country has not yet come to terms with its alleged past transgressions. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses the debate from a different perspective in saying, “Enactment of this law adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry …. We believe that open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering misleading speech.” This epitomizes the second argument contestants to the law use: that the law is an infringement on the people’s right to free speech. In his weekly column for The Guardian, historian Jonathan Freedland shares this popular opinion in saying, “Poland can’t lay its Holocaust ghosts to rest by censoring free speech”. The British journalist contends that the Poles are not blameless victims but are strongly implicated in the actions of the Third Reich, and thus, it is wrong for the Polish government to stop people from expressing personal opinions.

But does Poland hold the absolute culpability that international figures are so adamantly advancing?

The first mistake historians make in their arguments is their perception of Poland’s role in World War II. When blaming Poland for Nazi crimes, they fail to consider that the Polish government was not in control of the country for a majority of WWII. On September 1939, Germany, accompanied by the Soviet Union, the Free City of Danzig, and Slovakia, led a joint invasion into Poland. By October that same year, the Nazi party had forced the Polish government and its forces into submission and continued the annexation of Polish land. Thus, Poland was differentiable from other European nations affected by WWII in two ways which impacted their ability to fend off German forces: first off, Poland was the first country invaded by the Nazi/Soviet forces and therefore became a headquarters for Nazi control; second, Poland would find itself in the very middle of Nazi-controlled territories, because of which it was unreachable by foreign aid. While oppositionists insist that Polish authority is responsible for the persecution of its Jewish citizens, they fail to consider that by the time the Jewish population was pursued and imprisoned in concentration camps, almost all police forces in Poland were under Nazi control.

Journalists such as Freedland assert that blaming the Polish state for the actions of Nazi-regulated police groups, such as the Blue Police is justifiable, but ignore the exact role of the “Polish government” that they blame. The Polish state only governed until the defeat of the Polish army in 1939, after which the “government-in-exile” operated in secret and engaged the Germans until the end of the war. Thus, if any actions during that period should be attributed to the Polish government, it should be their efforts to regain control over their land. In addition to this, Poland faced the difficulties of resisting German control without the help of Allied powers such as Britain, France, and the later-turned Soviet Union.

Another democratic, but partisan, claim oppositionists make is that the implementation of the proposed bill will infringe upon citizens’ right of free speech, which suggests that they misunderstand the initial aim of the bill entirely. The bill proposed by the Law and Justice party does not intend to limit its citizens’ freedom of speech, but instead aims to avoid misallocation of blame. Because the crimes committed against the Jewish population were perpetrated by the Nazi-controlled forces on Nazi-controlled land; Poland’s position as a state forced into submission should be considered. Former Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski clarifies that the intent of the bill is to sever the inaccurate connection made between Holocaust crimes and the Polish government, specifically by deterring reference to ‘Polish death camps’. Thus, the law does not restrict freedom of speech, but protects the country from falsification of history. Kaczynski said the law “is being interpreted totally wrong,” and that it criminalizes the accusation of Poland as a nation, but not “someone who says that somewhere, in some village, some place, a Jewish family, or one Jewish person was murdered” (“Poland’s Top Politician).

Regardless of the Polish government referral to the bill as an anti-defamation law, critics contend that it prohibits freedom of speech. However, the Polish case is not the only situation in which an anti-defamation law entails particular civil prohibitions. The ratification of the Polish bill is similar to anti-discrimination laws passed by numerous countries such as England, Canada, France, Germany, and the United States of America. For instance, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was a legislation in the United Kingdom to address racial discrimination as a criminal offense. Today, it is valued and seen as a protective measure against hate speech rather than an infringement upon free speech (Legislation). The United States has similar procedures under slander and libel laws, which differ from state to state. Under these procedures, all but three states agree that certain statements may be “harmful” and classifiable as “defamatory per se”, whereas seventeen states have existing criminal defamation laws. These laws exist to provide protection to individuals or institutions that may be in danger of false accusations. There is little distinction between the aforementioned U.S. and U.K. laws and Poland’s desire to protect its reputation from association with crimes in which it was not a willing participant.

“For several dozen years, Poland has been repeatedly slandered and portrayed as Hitler’s accomplice, therefore, defending the good name of our nation against statements that have nothing to do with historical truth seems to be an obvious and necessary stance,” wrote the Polish Institute of National Remembrance in a press release. Despite disapproving opinions, the nation of Poland holds that the crimes committed on Polish territories were done so by Nazi soldiers under German control and not Poland itself. Government officials use historical facts to justify their claim that the amended Act on the Institute of National Remembrance does not exist to censor free speech, but to protect the nation, its history, and its truth.