Opinion

Why Poland’s 'Death Camp' Law Is So Dangerous

The urge to control public debate and legislate one exclusive national historical narrative - as in Poland, Turkey and Russia - signals a fragile democracy and sense of self. Is Israel far behind?

Man crosses the iconic rails leading to the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. July 29, 2016.
Alik Keplicz, AP

Poland is about to introduce a new law making any reference to “Polish death camps” illegal and punishable by a three-year prison sentence. While it is designed to rectify a legitimate grievance, it is a dangerous piece of legislation.

Israel should pay close attention to this development, and not just because of the obvious relevance to the victims of those camps and their descendants. This is just the kind of law that may soon become prevalent in the Jewish state, too.

It’s understandable that Poles are hugely offended by the phrase “Polish death camps”, which certainly began as a cynical propaganda construct.

West German intelligence officer and former Nazi operative Alfred Benzinger is credited with coming up with the term in 1956 as a subtle yet invidious way to shift the focus of guilt away from his compatriots. It’s since fallen into fairly common use, although often as a lazy slip of the tongue rather than an attempt to wound.

Like many other European countries occupied by the Germans during WWII, the Poles prefer to see themselves as the victims of National Socialism. Unlike some countries which make this claim - Austria and Italy being prime examples - Poland indeed has a right to see itself as a victim of the Third Reich. And there are of course many creditable examples of Polish resistance. In exile, the government indeed helped the fight against the Nazis, and Yad Vashem has recognized more than 6,000 individual Poles as Righteous Amongst the Nations.

But within the country, police helped guard and subsequently liquidate ghettos while many ordinary citizens enthusiastically participated in denouncing Jews and looting Jewish property. Poles were also responsible for massacres including at Jedwabne in 1941 –in which more than 300 Jews were shut in a barn and burned to death - and the post-war pogrom in Kielce in 1946 that killed 42 people.

Let’s be clear: modern Poles bear no accountability or guilt for the crimes of the past. But they do have a responsibility to remember, no matter how sensitive and exquisitely painful it may be. Enforcing one historical narrative through law not only jeopardizes the veracity and our understanding of history, it also has serious implicationsfor the present day.

But the nationalist ruling Law and Justice Party doesn’t see why they have to accept such unpleasant truths. Historic fact, anyway, is surely a question of interpretation in our post-factual world.

So last month, Poland’s education minister Anna Zalewska said during a television interview that the Jedwabne massacre of 1941 was a matter of “opinion.” A public survey following her comments found that 33 per cent of Poles agreed with her. 

No wonder then that one of the world’s leading Holocaust scholars, Jan Tomasz Gross, was threatened with prosecution by a Polish court for claiming that Poles had been complicit in WWII atrocities.

Undermining narratives of national victimhood or innocence is clearly dangerous.

Poland is relatively new to sovereignty. Its long history of invasion and partition means there is a national sense of being constantly bullied and under attack. After centuries of invasion and occupation, it’s only since the end of Communism that is has begun to emerge as a democratic success story. But with its swing to the right in last year’s elections and the massive win of the Law and Justice Party, a disturbing trend of nationalist populism has reared its head.

It is no coincidence that this sanitized historical narrative is being imposed just as the new government reduces the powers of the independent judiciary and xenophobia makes a comeback within the political mainstream.

Of course, the erosion of liberal democratic principles and playing politics with history is not something uniquely Polish.

In Turkey, where power has gravitated from the military to an increasingly autocratic president, you can be jailed for affirming the Armenian genocide of 1915 under the crime of “insulting Turkishness” as enshrined in Section 301 of the criminal code. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia bloggers have been fined and jailed for mentioning uncomfortable facts regarding Soviet Union policies during the Second World War.

And it’s not just awkward historical details that countries under stress want to legislate their way out of.

France’s profoundly undemocratic burkini ban was motivated by that same impulse, to guard and preserve something intangible under threat – a nation’s sense of itself. As bullying and counterproductive that ban was, at least it spoke to the Republic’s own particular version of secularism and there remains at least some healthy tension around the issue that has led to a (in the meanwhile successful) legal challenge.

The United State’s ongoing debate about the legality or otherwise of burning the national flag is another case in point. Countries with longer established democracies and more self-confidence in their identity can still stand a bit of tinkering with democracy without the whole edifice coming crashing down.

Newer states or ones still developing democratic traditions are much more vulnerable to any kind of degradation.

And so to Israel, another relatively recent state, constantly embroiled in internal and external conflict and a struggle to define its own identity.

The Knesset has already passed legislation making it a civil offence for an Israeli citizen to call for a boycott of any goods produced in any territory under the state’s control. Another law means that organizations that commemorate the Nakba or reject the idea of Israel as a Jewish state are not eligible for state funds.

Culture minister Miri Regev wants artists to agree they will perform in the settlements, and institutions that do not offer performances there risk having their funding cut by a third.

This works just fine if national identity is more important than democracy, but legislation is not the way to deal with an amorphous sense of threat. Countries under stress may find it tempting, but a healthy democracy doesn’t have to ban everything that makes people feel uncomfortable, whether it’s an item of dress, an awkward interpretation of history or a dissenting political view.

Offensive, even inaccurate discourse – up until the point where it becomes incitement to violence – needs to be socially unacceptable but not illegal. If your national narrative cannot stand up to questioning, if your identity is so fragile that it needs the legal system to protect it, then your democracy is in trouble.

Could there come a day when an Israeli citizen would risk a fine or even a prison sentence for publically using the word Nakba, for instance? Could a newspaper be prosecuted for an editorial questioning Israel’s future as a Jewish state?

It seems implausible right now, but the space for public debate in Israel has been steadily shrinking for some years now. Once a country starts using legislation to control public discourse, it's hard to stop. It begins with historical narrative and ends with the future of democracy.

Daniella Peled is the Managing Editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @DaniellaPeled