Poland’s unwise ban on certain Holocaust speech

Poland has enacted a law that bans blaming Poland as a nation for Holocaust crimes committed by Nazi Germany. The law establishes prison sentences of up to three years for falsely attributing to Poland the crimes of Germany.

The law will be submitted to Poland’s constitutional court for review, which I think leaves open the possibility that it will be amended. Amendment would be good. Striking down the law would be better.

Obviously, Poland should not be blamed for the crimes of Germany. But a decent respect for freedom of speech should preclude criminalizing assertions of such blame.

Moreover, there is room for legitimate debate over the extent to which certain Holocaust crimes are Polish as well as German. It is certainly unfair to call death camps like Auschwitz “Polish death camps,” a major concern the law seeks to remedy. It is also true that, as a general matter, Poles were victims of Nazi Germany. In addition, many Poles acted heroically to save, or try to save, Jews.

However, many Poles assisted the Nazis in their extermination of Jews. There was considerable anti-Semitism in Poland, as was true in most of Europe, and in Poland the local anti-Semitism was acted out with a vengeance at times.

I agree with this critic: the historical truth here is “far too complicated to protect by means of the criminal justice system” and, in any event, history should not be adjudicated by criminal courts.

The new law will harm the image of Poland and its nationalistic government which is already under harsh attack from European leftists. The leftists now have an ally, to a degree, in Benjamin Netanyahu. He lashed out at the law, calling it an attempt to “rewrite” history and whitewash the crimes of those who either assisted Nazis or stood by as Jews were burned at Auschwitz and other camps.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson joined in the criticism. He complained that the new law “adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry.” I’m not sure about the academic inquiry part; the law exempts historical research and works of art. However, Tillerson is right about freedom of speech. He’s also right when he says that, although “terms like ‘Polish death camps’ are painful and misleading,” they are best countered through “open debate, scholarship, and education.”

We visited Poland a few years ago. I loved Krakow.

Our trip included a tour of Auschwitz. Some of our Jewish friends had complained that when they visited this former death camp, the Polish tour guides were too eager to make Poles look like co-victims of the Jews. I didn’t find that to be the case.

We also visited the factory of Oskar Schindler, protector of Jews, which is now a museum. The museum is partly about Schindler but focuses mainly on German atrocities against Poles. The primary exhibition is called Krakow under Nazi Occupation: 1939-1945.

I thought that between the two visits, I received a balanced and very informative view of this monstrous chapter in the history Poland and the Jews, both of which have endured far more suffering throughout their histories than any people or nation should.

In any event, Poland should keep the law out of this.


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