(June 29, 2018 / JNS) Poland has taken the welcome step of removing the most objectionable part of its legislation governing the commemoration of the Nazi and Communist eras. No longer will a historian or journalist or any member of the public face up to three years’ imprisonment for asserting “publicly and contrary to the facts,” as the legislation puts it, “that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.”
That decision, secured by a 388-25 majority of the Polish parliament, brings a strong measure of relief to a festering Polish-Jewish dispute that no one wanted in the first place. Since the overthrow of communism in 1989, Poland has emerged as a vital component of the transatlantic democratic alliance. That shift was accompanied by a blossoming of Polish-Jewish relations and a flood of new historical research, not least on the circumstances behind the Nazi extermination of 3 million Polish Jews during the period of German occupation.
As the Poles know only too well from their recent past, one of the key reasons authoritarian regimes retain an iron grip upon the flow of information is that they can never be certain where the flow will lead. So while there was a great deal in the 1,000-year history of Polish Jewry to revisit and celebrate, much of the new scholarship on the Holocaust period raised the agonizing question of Polish collusion with the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
The years leading up to the passage of the amended Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) Act were marked by increasingly bitter disputes about Poland’s wartime history, too often inflected with anti-Semitism. Certain scholars, such as the distinguished Princeton University historian Jan Gross, were singled out for opprobrium in Poland’s influential conservative circles, where their research was depicted as a smear on an entire nation’s reputation. In February of this year, President Andrzej Duda signed into law an amended IPN Act that incorporated a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment for those deemed violators. What would compose a violation was never quite clear—for sure, the use of the lazy, offensive term “Polish concentration camp” to describe the Nazi extermination centers at Auschwitz and Majdanek, but quite possibly any substantive historical inquiry into the Holocaust in Poland that touched upon the issue of collusion.
Duda’s signature was not quite the final act of the drama, as the law was referred to Poland’s judiciary for examination of its impact on constitutional guarantees of free speech. As the summer arrived, the talk in Warsaw was that the Constitutional Tribunal would rule that the law was unconstitutional.
But that’s not how it played out. It was the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, who decided to end the uncertainty by turning to legislators. On June 27, Morawiecki’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Party charged down the amendment in the Polish parliament, leaving the country’s stunned ultranationalists railing against a fatal compromise with Jewish and American “diktats.”
For the rest of the world—foremost the Israeli government and the various global Jewish organizations—the success of Morawiecki’s gamble is a measure of his statesmanship. He applied, rapidly and effectively, a political solution to a political problem; namely, the internationalization of the dispute around the IPN Act brought about by the draconian amendment. Now that the threat of imprisonment has been buried, the primary focus of international concern has gone.
Be confident, though, that the debate about World War II will continue to reverberate into Poland’s contemporary politics. The Polish state remains deeply invested in preservation of the country’s national memory, which means that many key forthcoming decisions—like, for example, whom to appoint as the next head of the International Auschwitz Council—will be archly political ones. Additionally, Morawiecki has pledged his willingness to pursue defamation suits against publishers or writers judged to have reassigned the blame for Nazi atrocities to Poles, or who accuse Poles of crimes that are more properly blamed on the Nazis. This view of history as the battleground of Polish national honor inevitably means that dissenting viewpoints will continue to face aggressive responses, only now without the nagging fear of a prison cell on top.
Many Americans will feel reassured that Poland’s leaders have heeded the views of the outside world on the IPN Act. The dispute was never going to disrupt trade or security relations with Poland, but the potential for diplomatic jousting over the law was always there—not just because our respect for the victims of the Holocaust requires that we never simplify or censor their stories, but because we expect Poland, as a fellow democracy, to observe liberal norms of free speech.
In turn, the Poles have a right to expect that American commitments to their security and sovereignty are more than just platitudes. If one element of Morawiecki’s goal in defanging the IPN Act was to remind us of this fundamental alliance, especially as U.S. President Donald Trump prepares for his summit with Poland’s bête noire, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, then we should pay heed.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.