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Poland’s Holocaust Controversy and Donald Trump's Rubber-stamp of Polish Nationalism

In Warsaw last July, Trump himself embraced the Polish government’s right-wing narrative

U.S. President Donald Trump lays a wreath at Warsaw Uprising Monument at Krasinski Square, in Warsaw, Poland July 6, 2017
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech at the Warsaw Uprising monument in Poland on July 6, 2017, did not pass the truth test of the American press, or its stomach. “Trump’s speech in Poland sounded like an alt-right manifesto,” said Vox in its headline, referring to the white nationalist movement. The Atlantic went with “The Falsehood at the Core of Trump's Warsaw Speech.” 

Fast-forward six months and Poland’s right-wing government, rubber-stamped by Trump, has seemingly gone off the rails with attacks on the judicial system's independence, fascist marches and now an attempt to control free speech.  

Since International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, Warsaw has been at the center of a firestorm over its bill that would criminalize accusing the Polish nation of Nazi crimes, including phrases like “Polish death camps” (as opposed to Nazi death camps in occupied Poland) when discussing the Holocaust – a controversy that makes Trump’s July speech relevant again.

This isn’t the first time Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party has tried to pass such a law. They tried in 2013 after President Barack Obama caused anger by speaking of “Polish death camps.”

But this is the first time the bill’s sponsors sat in government, having come to power in 2016, and were able to pass it through both houses of Poland’s parliament. And it is also the first time that Polish nationalism has felt it has a friend in the leader of the free world. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s leader, boasted that Trump’s July visit was a “new success” for Poland.

Since Trump’s visit, which Polish leaders were reportedly able to secure by promising big, enthusiastic crowds, Poland’s government pursued legislation gutting the country’s independent judicial system, which prompted disciplinary action from the European Union. The nation also saw over 60,000 anti-Islam, anti-immigrant nationalists and fascists march through Warsaw to celebrate Polish Independence Day in November.

Nationalists, anti-facists march through Warsaw on Poland's Independence DayReuters

Trump’s July speech in Poland had been written by Stephen Miller, the architect of the Trump travel ban. It attempted to migrate Trump’s “America First” message into a rallying cry for Europeans. The U.S. president spoke in the dark and fatalist tones he had struck in his “American carnage” inauguration speech, which Miller also authored, insisting that "The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.”

He praised the Poles for their culture and strength, and asked them, “Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

Trump's full speech to crowd in PolandCNN

Trump’s Warsaw speech came after a long week of Trump attacking the press at home, with David Frum writing: “Sunday was “trivialize violence against the media” day for President Trump. Thursday was “fly to Warsaw and champion Western values day.”

All of which makes the State Department’s response this week to Poland’s Senate passing the controversial Holocaust proposal an empty statement, one the Polish government is unlikely to heed. Trump’s State Department protested the proposal, suggesting it could hurt Poland’s ties to the United States and Israel, while noting, “We believe open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering inaccurate and hurtful speech.”

Trump himself embraced the Polish government’s right-wing narrative, by which the Poles were victims of the Nazis and did not play a proactive role in the slaughter of Jews:  “A vibrant Jewish population – the largest in Europe – was reduced to almost nothing after the Nazis systematically murdered millions of Poland’s Jewish citizens, along with countless others, during that brutal occupation.”

The president paid tribute to the Poles who took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis, survivors of which joined him on stage. But he became the first U.S. president in decades not to visit the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, which drew rebukes from Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, Anna Chipczynska, and Leslaw Piszewski, the president of the Union of Jewish Communities of Poland. Ivanka Trump did pay a visit to memorial, however. 

As the leader of both the world’s largest military and economy, Trump’s rhetoric obviously matters. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump tweeted: “Saudi Arabia should be paying the U.S. billions of dollars for its defense of them. Without us, gone!” Later he chose Saudi Arabia for his first foreign visit, and sold the Saudis hundreds of billions in weapons.

Trump claimed NATO was obsolete and now Turkey, a NATO member, is in the middle of a military incursion against U.S.-backed forces in Syria. Trump claimed Japan should pay for its own defense, and Japan took a militant nationalist turn, giving a super-majority in the National Diet to a prime minister vowing to rearm the country.

So, when Trump gladly basks in a jubilant reception from Polish nationalists, forgets to mention Jews in his first Holocaust Remembrance Day statement (he remembered this year), and openly echoes the Polish nationalist Holocaust narrative in Warsaw, surely there was an impact.