A few days ago, Poland passed a law that has led to wide international criticism. The law makes it a crime to claim that Poland played a part in the Nazi crimes during the second World War.
Israel has been very vocal about their negative views toward the bill, comparing it to Holocaust denial. President Netanyahu released a statement saying that “one cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied.” Poland was quick to cancel a trip by Israel’s Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, after he criticized the law. In reply, he said that “the blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it.”
Several international organizations have quickly condemned the law, including Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust Memorial, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The US Secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson, also criticized the new law, saying that it “adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry.”
So, what is this new law and why was it passed?
Photo: Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash
Broadly, the law has two parts. One part prohibits the use of the term “Polish Death Camps” while the other part makes it punishable by fine or three years in jail to accuse “the Polish nation of complicity in the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities.” The law does, however, allow for academic and artistic exceptions.
The Polish Government claims that the law “guards the truth about the Holocaust.” It will restrain people who attempt to blame Poland for Nazi Germany’s actions, taking away responsibility from the real culprits. Poland’s President, Andrzej Duda, has referred the law to the country’s Constitutional Court to be reviewed. It is possible that the Constitutional Court will suggest amendments if it is not in line with the country’s constitution.
Critics of the law understand the sentiment behind this law. Some of the most horrifying death camps from the Second World War, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek were managed by the Nazis on Polish soil. The term “Polish death camp” has been a sore point for many Poles over the decades, and even Former US President Barack Obama was criticized for using the phrase during a Medal of Freedom ceremony in 2012.
Most Poles feel that their side of the story, which was that they were a victim and a resisting nation, has not been adequately represented in history. Poland lost almost six million of its people during the Holocaust; half of them were Jews. 18 percent of Poland’s population died during World War II, 90 percent of which were Polish Jews, the largest group of Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
The Polish resistance was one of the largest underground movements during the Holocaust, explained by this article, and the Polish government never surrendered to the Nazis, as they moved to London instead. Additionally, Polish citizens made up the largest group of non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust.
The second part of the law, which makes it a crime to claim that Poland was complicit in the second World War, has raised questions over its consequences. Critics claim that this could stifle free speech and allow for the distortion of history and facts through criminalization. Concerns over how history will be taught in Polish schools have also been raised.
Among the many Israeli politicians who have condemned the law, Israel’s Housing Minister has said that he considered the law “de facto Holocaust denial” and that “the memory of six million [Jews murdered in the Holocaust] is stronger than any law.”
Poland’s own ministers question the timing of the bill, which was signed just a few days before the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as well as the international turmoil that the bill has brought upon them. Many accuse the ruling Law and Justice party for trying to forward its own agenda through this law.
Yad Vashem said that the bill was “liable to blur historical truths” regarding the complicity of certain parts of the Polish population that did commit crimes against the Jews. There were many Poles who took part in the Holocaust, and there are many notorious examples of these atrocities. Yad Vashem also said that it is wrong to impose restrictions on what can be said about the “direct or indirect complicity” of Poland in the second World War.
Most scholars, governments, and organizations have urged Poland to rethink this law. Laws that criminalize historical discussion, whether anyone gets prosecuted or not, always affect free speech. The Polish government needs to create an environment where the public can discuss facts and exchange ideas without the fear of reprisal.
As Professor Dariusz Stola, the director of Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, said in a powerful statement, “we are not responsible for a past on which we had no influence. However, we are responsible for what we do about that past today. Above all, we owe the truth to the victims of past crimes, and the truth is fueled by an open and factual discussion.”
My name is Pankhuri Kumar. I'm a 23-year old graduate student, majoring in Journalism and Computer Science. I'm a nerd about technology and hope to make the world a more informed place with data. I'm obsessed with Indian food, The Office, and Harry Potter.