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Poland is trying to rewrite history with this controversial new holocaust law

Nationalists demonstrate in support of the controversial new Holocaust law. EPA/Jacek Turczyk

Anyone suggesting that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust could face fines or even imprisonment of up to three years under a controversial new law approved by president Andrzej Duda. The law makes it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of having taken part in the atrocities and the systematic mass murder of the Jews committed by the Germans during World War II.

Initially, the law was designed to criminalise the use of the phrase “Polish death camp” for extermination camps such as Auschwitz Birkenau. With this, Polish politicians wanted to make clear that the it was the Germans who set up the extermination camps – on German-occupied Polish soil. But while that is true, the law has much broader implications.

Members of parliament warned that the draft bill that had been prepared two years ago needed to be clarified to avoid ambiguity. However, the government kept the language vague, leaving a law that could enable it to classify a broad range of content as a danger to the “dignity of the Polish nation”.

The governing populist party “Law and Justice” (PiS) has, for some time, sought to enforce its own nationalist, “feel-good” version of the country’s past. At the core of this version lies a narrative of World War II in which the Poles are represented only as victims. In this version of history there is no room for ambivalence. There is no discussion of the moments when Poles partly assisted in German atrocities.

Rewriting history

Holocaust scholarship has come a long way in the face of great difficulties. It has always been closely interconnected with the recognition of the suffering of victims. Having started with systematic research on the perpetrators’ actions, plans and motivation, the perspective of the victims, their traumatic experiences and struggle for survival were slowly integrated into the narrative. Scholars increasingly included testimonies, memoirs and diaries to make the voices of the victims heard.

A milestone was reached when scholars felt able to move away from simplified categories of German perpetrators and Jewish victims. They shone light on the complicity of non-German citizens in German occupied territories. Scholars such as Jan Tomasz Gross and Jan Grabowski played a key role in studying Poland. With the help of testimonies from Holocaust survivors, Gross revealed in 2000 that Polish citizens took part in a 1941 massacre in the small town of Jedwabne, helping German occupiers to murder their Jewish neighbours.

Counter-protesters take to the streets as nationalists gather to support the law. EPA

Historians analyse primary sources to try to understand events in the context of their creation. The integration of new material, in combination with new methodological approaches leads to the rethinking of previous interpretations, and the broadening of our perspective on the past. This is how academia pushes the boundaries of knowledge further.

The Polish law gives the government the right to restrict different interpretations of the past. It aims to rewrite that history according to nationalist political aspirations. It will question academic achievements in the field of Holocaust studies and represents a danger to academic freedom, openness and critical reflection.

The law is an insult to Holocaust survivors and the recognition of their suffering – which was, and still is, a painful process on the individual as well as on the collective level. It could allow powerful political institutions to anchor their narratives on the past and silence those who were not given a voice during the Holocaust.

Allowing politically motivated, whitewashed versions of history to take hold is the first step in legitimising Holocaust denial. Only by confronting the difficult and painful aspects of the past can we understand how to prevent events like the Holocaust happening in the future.

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