Opinion

90% of Polish Jews Died in the Holocaust. So Why Are Poland's Nationalists Chanting 'Get the Jews Out of Power'?

Poland's anti-Semitic far right marches to the tune of recent nationalist myths pushed by their government, including years of official denial of Polish complicity in the death of Jews in WWII - and with a little help from Donald Trump

Far-right nationalists burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland. Nov. 11, 2017
Far-right nationalists burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland. Nov. 11, 2017 Czarek Sokolowski/AP

This Saturday, 60,000 hard-right nationalists took to the streets of Warsaw to affirm their commitment to a "white Europe," "clean blood," and to “Get Jews out of power.” Some held banners reading "We Want God" - a quote from an old Polish religious song that U.S. president Donald Trump invoked during his visit to Poland this past July. 

In spite of their recent resurgence, right-wing radicals the world over are convinced their way of life is under threat. Yet if the West is to "have the will to survive," as Trump put it to his Warsaw audience, it must take care to avoid distortions of fact, be these "fake news" or historical revisionism.

From Hitler’s "stab-in-the-back" WWI betrayal myth, to Trump’s insistent 'birtherism' regarding Barack Obama, revisionist statements pave the way from the articulation of intentions to the enactment of odious agendas — up to and including the restriction of voting rights, deportations, or the closing of borders. 

Perhaps no place testifies to the pernicious influence of nationalist politics on historical memory than Poland’s own Auschwitz Memorial. Most of the million-plus annual visitors to the Memorial eschew the DIY approach, entrusting themselves to trained guides instead. These guides or "educators" are indispensable: without their assistance, the enormity of the crimes committed in the camp would be illegible.

Demonstrators burn flares and wave flags including the red falange flag of 1930s fascism during the annual march for Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw. November 11, 2017
JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP

Yet instead of impartially describing what happened at Auschwitz, tours drift into nationalistic bias. Encomia to Polish heroism and selflessness abound, with the resistance movement and the preponderance of Poles in the Avenue of the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem, taking pride of place. Even as righteous Poles are glorified, their less-than-righteous counterparts - perpetrators of atrocities like the Jedwabne massacre and the Kielce pogrom - are simply ignored. 

Through the tour’s prism, the history of the Second World War becomes a chronicle of Poland’s victimization by Russia and Germany. Rather than providing necessary context, an especially urgent task at a time when the number of Holocaust survivors is rapidly declining, tours present a vision of history centering on Polish trauma.

The Memorial’s press and education offices claim that guides use a script "consistent with the accepted narrative on the Holocaust and Auschwitz." Whatever its merits, this script espouses a version of history in which no Poles collaborated with the Nazis of their own free will. In rejecting even the term "Polish anti-Semitism," Memorial officials fail to acknowledge that half of all Jewish Holocaust victims died not in German-controlled extermination camps, but in occupied territories where locals, including Poles, often participated in the killing.

Polish performance artist Rafal Betlejemski burns down a barn in central Poland to commemorate the  1941 Jedwabne pogrom in which more than 300 Jews were locked in a barn and burned alive. July 11, 2010
REUTERS

Most revealing of current Polish attitudes is the tours’ failure to mention the massacre at Jedwabne, in which, as historian Jan T. Gross once put it, "half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half.” In Poland, the notion that non-Jewish Poles, rather than Germans, perpetrated the slaughter remains controversial to this day. 

In July 2016, Education Minister Anna Zalewska disavowed Polish responsibility for both Jedwabne and Kielce, leading to condemnations from Jewish organizations worldwide. Zalewska’s statements came days before the controversial appointment of journalist and historian Jaroslaw Szarek, another public denier of Polish complicity at Jedwabne, to the Presidency of the Institute of National Remembrance, a government-affiliated research organization.

These incidents point to the rise of a right-wing populism much in evidence in Saturday’s marches.

Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw on November 11, 2017
JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP

In 2015, the conservative Law and Justice party won 39.1% of the vote in parliamentary elections after nearly a decade out of power. "Polish life can be different. We can be proud of it," the leader of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said at the time. "We will never have to be ashamed of ourselves."

These days, Law and Justice has moved beyond such dog whistles, with Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak calling Saturday’s events "a beautiful sight."

Collectively, these statements illustrate the connection between rising nationalism and historical revisionism. According to historian Jan Grabowski, attempts to "tame" the Holocaust in order to "transform it into a new [Polish] national myth" have been underway for years, with measurable effect. 

Protesters hold an anti-refugee, anti-Muslim banner during a rally, organised by far-right nationalists marking the 99th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw, Poland. November 11, 2017
AGENCJA GAZETA/REUTERS

According to a 2005 public opinion poll, 51% of respondents believed that the majority of the victims of Auschwitz were Jewish. A poll from January 2015 revealed that only 33% of Poles currently associate Auschwitz with Jewish deaths, with 47% believing it to be primarily a site of Polish suffering.

It is imperative to avoid historical half-truths today, when neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, and right-wing nationalists feel empowered to march on streets from Charlottesville to Warsaw. In an era of “post-truth,” when easily inflamed passions seem immune to empirical evidence, we must forcefully oppose efforts to misinterpret history. Our future may depend on it.

Maya Vinokour is a postdoctoral researcher in Slavic Studies and a literary translator based in New York City.