A controversy surrounds the new Polish law just signed by Polish President Andrzej Duda that criminalizes Holocaust denial and Holocaust trivialization but also extends the prohibition to anyone who ascribes Nazi atrocities to the “Polish government or Polish nation.” Although I’m passionately opposed to all such efforts to muzzle open discussion (and have paid a heavy price for this stand professionally), I certainly don’t find the Polish law any worse than the repeated attempts to muzzle open discussion by late modern Western democracies. Why for example is Poland’s law a greater outrage than the persecution of Christians in Canada who disapprove of gay nuptials? Or why is the Polish legislation worse than French laws that criminalize hate speech against protected minorities and the denial or questioning of the Armenian genocide as well as the Holocaust. The French have even criminalized critical investigations of the verdicts handed down by the Nuremberg trial judges in 1946 and 1947.
Legislation laying out all these prohibitions, the Pleven and Gayssot Laws, were pushed through the French assembly mostly with Communist and Socialist support and (to my knowledge) are still enforced. The suppression of discussion of the Nuremberg judgments clearly aims at preventing dissemination of the revelation that the Soviets, not the Third Reich, were responsible for the murder of 10,000 Polish officers in the notorious Katyn Woods massacre in December 1940. The French Left has sought for ideological reasons to protect the incorrect Nuremberg verdict that the Germans, not the Soviets, carried out this atrocity.
France’s neighbor to the East features even more oppressive laws punishing hate speech, Holocaust denial and Holocaust trivialization. The current German government almost equals in its systematic suppression of dissenting opinion (from what is presumed to be the Right) the former East German Communist state. My own investigation of the frighteningly illiberal German regime, however, is more than ten years old, and under the current chancellor the repression has become even more acute. There is now constant harassment, partly through state agencies, of political parties like the Alternative für Deutschland that are positioned to the right of Angela Merkel’s leftward lurching government. But since this persecution of dissent is usually pursued under an antifascist banner, Western political commentators aren’t complaing. After all, the German people are still allegedly working to overcome their tainted national past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung)?
I mention these peculiarities of contemporary history by way of noting my reaction to the State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressing the “concern” of her superiors about Poland’s new law. Heather (who used to be my daughter’s friend in Rockford, Illinois) stated in a press release something that almost caused me to fall out of my chair as I read it:
“We all must be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Wednesday. “We encourage Poland to re-evaluate the legislation in light of its potential impact on the principle of free speech and on our ability to be effective partners.”
On what planet, I had to ask myself, was Heather and her boss Rex Tillerson living? All of our nice, acceptable “liberal democratic” neighbors and allies have trampled on “the principle of free speech” so often and so blatantly that by now they’ve eviscerated it in the name of antifascism, sensitivity to designated minorities, or “overcoming the past.” Why has our State Department never exhibited the slightest “concern” about these earlier, even more glaring encroachments on free speech and free inquiry?
Of course I doubt that our State Department and media would be griping if the Polish law had stopped with prohibiting Holocaust denial and Holocaust trivialization and had not also prohibited attacks on the Polish government and people. And contrary to a questionable commentary that I just saw on Townhall website, the prohibition does not prevent Poles from accusing their now dead countrymen of collaboration with the German occupation. This prohibition is limited in a manner that is not often discussed, against defaming those who represented the Polish nation during the Second World War. This refers to the Polish government in exile in London and to the massive, heroic national resistance that went on in occupied Poland. And this recent law was passed in response to the shocking description of Nazi death camps, like Auschwitz, placed on Polish soil as Polish camps. Contrary to this characterization, Polish Catholics as well as Jews were murdered in those infernos.
As Jeff Jacobi correctly reminds us in a syndicated column, most of Polish history during this troubled time was extraordinarily heroic and awakens our compassion, given the fact that the Nazis exterminated millions of Polish Catholics as well as almost all of Poland’s Jewish inhabitants. But there’s also the unpleasant fact that these co-victims of the Nazis generally disliked and distrusted each other. There was certainly no love lost between them, and, to make matters worse, during the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland during the period of the Soviet-Nazi Pact, there was conspicuous cooperation between some Jewish inhabitants and the Soviets. Unlike the Jewish minority, the Polish Christian population hated both occupying forces equally.
When German armies occupied the town of Jedwabne in Eastern Poland, which had been formerly held by the Soviets, the townspeople took revenge on the Jewish population as Soviet collaborators. This intended revenge took the form of wiping out 340 Jewish residents. Although carried out in an isolated village, this massacre remains the greatest black mark against Polish wartime behavior. While this deed was inexcusable, it cannot erase the otherwise stunning record of Polish resistance to their hostile German invaders, which perhaps cannot be matched by any other occupied country during the Second World War. And the Poles saved tens of thousands of Jews who otherwise would have been killed. Among these righteous Poles was my Polish Catholic mother-in-law, who at risk to her own life, saved her Jewish husband.
The angry, virulent reaction to the Polish law may reflect the frustration of the American political and media establishment that they’re not getting from Poland the kind of cooperative, post-national government represented by Poland’s former Prime Minister, Donald Tusk. Tusk worked tirelessly to integrate Poland into the EU and since 2014 has been president of its European Council. Unfortunately for American officials and journalists who demand a different posture, former Soviet bloc countries lean heavily toward the nationalist Right, which has gained power in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and now Poland. Such countries are not susceptible to manipulation in the way that Germany is, which as a nation almost revels in being browbeaten about its past sins. And unlike the submissive Germans, Eastern European peoples relish antagonizing what they view (perhaps not without justification) as an overbearing American hegemon. As an advocate of open discussion I am not pleased by new Polish law, but I do respect the Polish nation for its defiance of what some chose to call “world opinion.”