Jake Tapper reports that President Obama offended our Polish friends with his reference to a “Polish death camp” in his remarks yesterday awarding Jan Karski the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (The Nazi death camp, incidentally, would have been Belzec.) Karski was the incredibly brave courier who brought the West word of the Holocaust in 1942. Karski emigrated to the United States, earned a Ph.D. at Georgetown after the war and taught at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. He died an American citizen in 2000.
Our Polish friends are not pulling their punches:
“The White House will apologize for this outrageous error,” Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski tweeted. Sikorski said that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk “will make a statement in the morning. It’s a pity that this important ceremony was upstaged by ignorance and incompetence.”
Well, there is a lot of that going around in the administration, frequently in the guise of “smart diplomacy.” After quoting the White House’s exculpatory efforts yesterday, Tapper dryly notes toward the end of his report: “It seems likely that a more formal apology will need to be issued.” Nile Gardiner piles on here.
Obama’s remarks at the White House ceremony yesterday are posted here. The citation of Karski prepared by the White House is a little confused. (See, for example, this account.) The citation fails to do justice to Karski’s story, but it isn’t bad:
Karski served as an officer in the Polish Underground during World War II and carried among the first eye-witness accounts of the Holocaust to the world. He worked as a courier, entering the Warsaw ghetto and the Nazi Izbica transit camp, where he saw first-hand the atrocities occurring under Nazi occupation [Karski proceeded to sneak into Belzec, to which I assume this must mean to refer]. Karski later traveled to London to meet with the Polish government-in-exile and with British government officials. He subsequently traveled to the United States and met with President Roosevelt. Karski published Story of a Secret State, earned a Ph.D at Georgetown University, and became a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Born in 1914, Karski became a U.S. citizen in 1954 and died in 2000.
I first learned of Karski’s story in Walter Laqueur’s The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth About hitler’s “Final Solution,” published in 1980 (and first learned of Laqueur’s book from George Will’s excellent column on it in the Washington Post that year).
Laqueur notes that Karski patiently submitted to his detailed questioning in a September 1979 interview and even wrote out for him the message that he (Karski) conveyed to President Roosevelt, Anthony Eden and others in 1942 and 1943. According to Laqueur, the message could not be published during the war. Karski’s message is included in Appendix 5 to Laqueur’s book. Laqueur comments elsewhere in the book:
Democratic societies demonstrated on this occasion as on many others, before and after, that they are incapable of understanding political regimes of a different character….Democratic societies are accustomed to think in liberal, pragmatic categories; conflicts are believed to be based on misunderstandings and can be solved with a minimum of good will; extremism is a temporary aberration, so is irrational behavior in general, such as intolerance, cruelty, etc. The effort needed to overcome such basic psychological handicaps is immense….Each new generation faces this challenge again, for experience cannot be inherited.
President Obama and the rest of his administration could learn some timely lessons from Karski’s story, if only they were capable of learning.
UPDATE: Sikorksi telegraphed this punch, and Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk is not pulling it: “I am convinced that our American friends can today allow themselves a stronger reaction than a simple expression of regret from the White House spokesman — a reaction more inclined to eliminate once and for all these kinds of errors,” Tusk told reporters in Warsaw. “Today, this is a problem for the reputation of the United States,” the prime minister said.