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Poland's Holocaust Law Seeks to Weaponize Memory

Some will never stop seeking to whitewash World  War II memories, but parliaments should keep out of it.

Bitter debate.

Photographer: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

For the region that historian Timothy Snyder aptly called Bloodlands -- Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states and western Russia -- World War II is still vigorously debated. That increases the temptation to legislate on history. Most recently, Poland has succumbed by passing a bill that has met with outrage in Israel and part of the global Jewish community.

The bill, which was passed by the lower house of the Polish parliament on Friday and is now in the upper house, makes it a crime punishable by three years' imprisonment to "ascribe to the Polish people or the Polish state the responsibility or joint responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich." The basic idea is to end all references to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps in Poland as "Polish death camps." These references have long been an irritant not just to the current nationalist government of Poland, formed by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, but to its liberal predecessors. Between 2008 and 2015, the Polish foreign ministry issued 913 statements in response to mentions of "Polish death camps."

One would think the idea that the camps weren't Polish but Nazi-run would be uncontroversial. But Polish nationalists want to call them "German" as part of their belief that Germany hasn't fully repaid Poland for Nazi-era atrocities and that modern Germany too is trying to dominate its neighbors. That doesn't go down well in Berlin. On the other hand, many in Israel, including Holocaust victims and their descendants, suspect the Polish nationalists of trying to stifle any mention of Poles' collaboration with the Nazis.

Reacting to the Polish bill, Israeli legislator Yair Lapid tweeted that "hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier. There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that." The Polish embassy in Tel Aviv quickly proceeded to fan the flames by tweeting back at Lapid: "Your unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel."

Poles aren't in a strong position when it comes to teaching Jews about the Holocaust. A country with the biggest Jewish population in Europe prior to World War II -- about 3 million people -- it now has, by the most generous count, 10,000 people eligible for repatriation to Israel. Unlike Germany, now home to 275,000 people with Jewish heritage, it hasn't sought to restore its Jewish population after it was nearly exterminated by the Nazis and further decimated by emigration. On the other hand, Poles were indeed overwhelmingly victims of the Nazis rather than executioners. Some of the Nazi collaborators were coerced into committing crimes as Nazis sought to share responsibility. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki put it aptly in a tweet responding to the controversy over the bill:

The arguments over who who were victims, heroes and villains in the Bloodlands rage in neighboring countries, too. Ukraine passed a law in 2015 that obliges citizens to honor World War II-era Ukrainian nationalists, who briefly collaborated with the Nazis and were involved in genocidal killings of Jews and Poles. Poland has been up in arms about it ever since and has moved, in the same bill that angered Israelis, to outlaw the Ukrainian nationalist ideology.

In Lithuania last year, a major publisher withdrew from sale all books by bestselling author Ruta Vanagaite after she accused a Lithuanian nationalist hero of collaborating with the Nazis.

In Russia -- the country that helped wreck Poland during World War II and that is the arch-enemy of Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian nationalists alike -- the ongoing war is about the heritage of Stalin. Recently, the Russian culture ministry banned "The Death of Stalin," British director Armando Iannucci's comedy about the chaos the dictator's demise wreaked in the Kremlin. The reason? Disrespect for Stalin's role in winning World War II. On Tuesday, two prominent commentators got into fisticuffs on the air of a radio show after one accused the other of "spitting on the graves" of Soviet soldiers loyal to Stalin.

The violent arguments are probably unavoidable, since World War II and the forces it unleashed shaped the national identities of the Bloodlands countries to a greater extent than any other historic event. These identities don't travel well, even just across these countries' borders -- but with such laws there's little chance of any different ones emerging in their place, as in modern Germany. It's pointless to ask Poles, Ukrainians, Balts and Russians to stop refighting a war that has been over for more than seven decades: Memory is easy to weaponize and hard to put back into introspective mode.

It still makes sense, however, to call on them to refrain from legislating against even the most offensive versions of World War II-era events. There is no elegant way to ban speech. Polish legislators may just want to end mention of "Polish death camps," but they are also creating uncertainty for historians doing research on Nazi collaborators: What if their work is interpreted as "ascribing responsibility for Nazi crimes to the Polish people"? It also makes no sense to demand that all Ukrainians respect the nationalists: They should be allowed to research them and draw their own conclusions.

I'd argue that bans on Holocaust denial, which exist in Israel and a number of European countries, are unnecessary: It's much more useful to let deniers air their misguided views and have them debunked in public fora than to silence them and thus make them more attractive to young rebels seeking non-mainstream agendas. The European Union, incidentally, has refused to recommend that such laws be passed throughout the bloc.

If the battlefield cannot be cleared, it can at least be free of legislative obstacles. That way, the arguments are more likely never again to go beyond angry tweets and an occasional fistfight.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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