What a nerve it would be to resort to lies and insinuations to accuse Poland of crimes against history? Well, this is exactly what the Israeli professor stoops to, claiming that Poles want to fight against the truth about the Holocaust. He is wrong in every way.
The Holocaust, the Shoah. The more frequently these words are used, and the more distant those horrendous events become, the more politics we can find in them, as well as the attempts to shift the blame off the Germans on to other nations. History cannot defend itself. Memory must be cherished, but many years of neglect have lead to a situation in which even intellectuals and world leaders do not find it incongruous to call the death camp in Auschwitz “Polish”. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the Polish Ministry of Justice has proposed a new law to penalize the lies that equate the place where the crime was perpetrated with the perpetrator, as well as the attempts to accuse Poles of complicity in the Shoah.
The proposal was criticized – in his recent text “Poland’s Crime Against History” – by Professor Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist and philosopher. Having read his article, strewn with insinuations and historical half-truths, my impression was that the author must have had only a superficial knowledge of the history of the 20th century. However, Avineri, a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, is a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and a lecturer at the leading Polish universities: the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and the University of Warsaw. In his own words, despite a scant knowledge of the Polish language, the country’s history and culture are not foreign to him.
In this case, there may be only one explanation: the author presented his theses in bad faith, whereas his article published within the framework of the Project Syndicate (translated into numerous languages and published in foreign media outlets) constituted an instrument of an ideological dispute. With full awareness, I claim that if there was a “crime against history” here, it was committed not by Poland, but by none other than Shlomo Avineri. Why? I hasten to explain.
Did Poles Partake in the Holocaust?
Though it seems difficult to comprehend, it is already the very first and most important claim of the Israeli professor that may be refuted simply by referring to the text of the above-mentioned bill, which he apparently has not read. He maintains that Poland will criminalize “any reference to Polish extermination camps”, and prosecute “any reference to ethnic Poles’ role in the Holocaust”. However, the legislation proposed by the Polish Ministry of Justice clearly stipulates that any such prosecution may not pertain to scientific research or artistic activity. Hence, no one making reference to the actual Polish crimes against Jews can fear any repercussions whatsoever. Why? Because there is a structural difference between the alleged participation or compliance of Poland or Poles in the Holocaust, and the acts of hatred, mob lynching, or even racially-motivated murders. If these two types of crime were to be made equal, practically the whole Europe would have to share the same amount of blame. And this is not the case.
The Holocaust was a systematic attempt at exterminating whole nations, conducted with the use of industrial methods and with the participation of the machinery of the state. Avineri himself admits that Poland was “the only country that, under German occupation, had its government institutions liquidated, its army disbanded, its schools and universities closed”. It was the vacuum left behind the structures of the Polish state that made it possible to engineer mass murder on an unprecedented scale, which would have been unfeasible in the occupied Belgium, Holland, Denmark or France. This alone proves that it is a historical lie to attribute to the Polish nation any complicity in the crime planned and perpetrated by the Germans (which he concedes) – obviously, with a limited support of those states that retained some autonomy, and thus, willy-nilly, contributed to the logistical “success” of the Shoah.
According to the professor’s logic, it should be concluded that Jewish people themselves were complicit in the Holocaust. After all, some of them became the Kapo functionaries in the ghettos and death camps, frequently collaborating with the German apparatus of repression. Certainly, such a conclusion would be absurd. There is a disparity between individual crimes committed by Poles, and blaming the whole nation for the process whose motivation and executive apparatus were quite different.
Who Prosecutes Historical Lies?
When referring to the idea of criminalizing the use of particular linguistic expressions, and to the involvement of the judiciary, Avineri writes: “Only non-democratic regimes use such means, rather than relying on public discourse, historical clarification, diplomatic contacts, and education”. Of all his arguments, this undermines his reputation as a scholar most seriously. I cannot possibly imagine how – unless in bad faith – such words could have been written by a citizen of the state whose government was the first to introduce the very idea of punishment for a historical lie. It is beyond my belief. Or anyone’s who has any knowledge of what the Holocaust denial (negationism) crime is. Denying the truth about the Shoah has been long punishable by law in 16 countries: from Austria, via Israel, to Switzerland. In Poland, people denying the Holocaust are prosecuted under Article 55 of the Institute of National Remembrance Act of 1998. In France, professor Robert Faurisson has been recently imprisoned on the charge of the Holocaust denial crime. The British historian David Irving is under heavy – and justified – criticism on the same count.
Why, then, is Poland accused of resorting to the means typical of “non-democratic regimes”, whereas, in fact, it is implementing the policy of Israel, which – besides using scientific publications and diplomatic contacts – has been relentless in rectifying the facts before the court? Such measures are effective, as after the wave of blatant negationism in the 1970s and 1980s, only sworn enemies of Israel (e.g. Iran’s ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) can afford to deny the Holocaust today. Poland is only following a well-blazed trail, and is fully entitled to do so.
Home Army Complicit in Jewish Deaths?
Sadly, besides disseminating lies and misrepresentations, Avineri stoops to slanderous blackmail. While emphasizing the suffering of the Poles during World War II, he simultaneously suggests that their fate should not obscure the questions that “have until now been largely overlooked”. His message is clear: if you deny your complicity in the Shoah, and intend to prosecute any references to it, I will remind you whose blood is on your hands. The unconfessed sin that should allegedly weigh heavily on the Polish conscience is the nation’s passivity in the face of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. “Why did the Home Army wait more than four years to rise against German occupation? Why did it not disrupt the systematic extermination of three million Jews, all Polish citizens, or strike during the Jewish uprising […] in April 1943?”, asks the political scientist and philosopher. Thus, he accuses the largest and most valiant underground army during World War II of complicity in the extermination of three million Jews – and Poles, since Avineri admits that another three million victims of the Shoah were ethnic Poles.
The fact that Poles did not pit all their forces futilely against the Third Reich, which had not even launched the counteroffensive at the Kursk salient yet, is presented as an argument against the Polish underground army. The preposterousness of such a claim is staggering. Following that logic, one could ask why the French did not blow up the railway lines used by their state for transferring Jews, in sleeping cars, to extermination camps? Why did the Hungarians not rise in Budapest two years earlier? What were the Italians waiting for? Why did half of the occupied European countries raise their own Waffen-SS units, rather than rise against the Germans? In what light does that sort of argument present the USA, which was aware of the mass extermination of Jews due to Jan Karski’s report and Witold Pilecki’s testimony? Avineri does not go as far as that.
Soviets as the Only Hope?
What can raise a pitying smile on the face of historians of diplomacy is Avineri’s claim that the Holocaust could have been avoided altogether, had it not been for Polish ideological obstinacy and short-sightedness. Well, it was as early as 2nd August 1939 that an Anglo-French delegation negotiated, in Moscow, the possibility of the Red Army entering Polish territory. Its presence “would be necessary” to repel a Nazi German invasion. Certainly, the Polish government did not agree, due to the benefit of their first-hand knowledge (possibly, the best in Europe) of what the Soviets were capable of. Making a feeble reference to the reasons for Poland’s scepticism, Avineri mentions only the war of 1920, when “only French military support helped repel the Russians and save Poland’s independence.” What assistance he refers to is not known. If he meant Maxime Weygand’s mission to Poland, such a claim would not hold up at any academic conference. Sadly, column writing is a different kettle of fish.
Avineri is apparently oblivious to how dangerous to Poland the presence of the Soviet army on the Polish soil was. How could such a well-educated man be ignorant of the extermination of the Poles living in the Soviet Union in the 1930s? Besides, Poland did not have to count on Stalin. Had our allies fulfilled the treaties, it would have been more than enough to crush Hitler’s troops before the winter of 1939. Poland, France and Great Britain surpassed the Third Reich in every military area: they enjoyed a 6:1 preponderance in infantry, about 2:1 in tanks. Similar ratios were to be found in artillery, aircraft, and – most notably – in the navy. Does the passivity of the Western European countries mean their complicity in the Holocaust? The Israeli political scientist and philosopher remains silent on that topic too. He writes no columns about it.
Sadly, I must conclude that “Poland’s Crime Against History” is not a polemic against Poland’s politics of memory, but an anti-Polish lampoon. Why such a strong conclusion? Only lampoons are based on half-truths, evident lies and far-fetched alternative scenarios supporting the author’s thesis. And the thesis here is: Poles have no right to fight for the truth about the Holocaust because they had a hand in it. If they do fight, they will be reminded about their sins – however fabricated they might be. Such an approach is a scandal.
The article was published in Polish here.