Far-right groups hold a demonstration in front of the presidential palace to call on President Andrzej Duda to sign a bill that would limit some forms of Holocaust speech in Warsaw, Poland.
( Czarek Sokolowski
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. Earlier this month, President Andrzej Duda signed a law that outlaws accusations that the Polish nation was complicit in Nazi war crimes during the Second World War. The law criminalizes a broad range of speech, from blatant misinformation to uncomfortable historical facts. Polish citizens can no longer refer to Polish death camps, as opposed to Nazi death camps like Auschwitz within Poland. Indeed, the Polish government did not collaborate with the Nazis but the new law also forbids speaking about the individual Poles or whole Polish communities that did. The defamation law establishes a punishment of up to three years in prison and has elicited howls from around the world, especially Israel.
University of Michigan Sociology Professor Genevi ève Zubrzycki says that the controversy is the latest convulsion in Poland’s struggle over its own identity. Genevieve, welcome to On the Media.
GENEVI EVE ZUBRZYCKI: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: It looks like the ruling party, the Law and Justice government, the nationalist ruling party, is just enacting historical revisionism. Is that what’s going on?
GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: It is, indeed, involved in what's called the politics of history, and this politics of history is fought along several lines, the, the most important of which is the history of World War II in Poland. So what you referred to as, for example, criminalizing the reference of those camps as Polish, this is primarily meant for populations outside of Poland because within Poland no one refers to those camp as Polish. But it does seek to control speech, discourse, academic research on the participation of Poles in crimes against Jews during the war.
BOB GARFIELD: Unlike other [LAUGHS] European governments that folded and, in some case, became quisling governments, the Polish government did no such thing.
GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: Exactly, so there was no official collaboration by the Polish state. The Polish state was dissolved, actually, and was in exile in London. So this is not really disputed. What’s disputed is how much collaboration happened on the ground by ordinary Poles. And this is especially difficult to take for Poles now because Poland was a victim of World War II. They were invaded by the Nazis. Several concentration camps were first created for the Polish intelligentsia. Six million Polish citizens perished during the war, half of whom were Jewish. And so, the memory of the war is one of extreme suffering and of victimhood. And this falls very neatly into longstanding narratives of Poland as the Christ of nations, from the 19th century, that Poland had suffered at the hands of very powerful neighbors.
The identity of Poland and of Poles is created around that narrative of martyrdom and victimhood, so it makes it especially difficult now, after the fall of Communism, with less taboo, less supervision also from the regime and access to new archives that led historians to revisit the role of Poles in the Holocaust. I'm thinking here, for example, of the book by Princeton University Professor Jan Gross who published a book in 2001 called Neighbors that tells the story of a very violent pogrom in Eastern Poland in the small town of Jedwabnethe in the summer of 1941, in which ethnic Poles tortured, murdered their Jewish neighbors, burning them alive in a barn. So this book created a watershed, very significant public debate and soul searching about Polish-ness also, because if Poles are victims, can they be perpetrators?
BOB GARFIELD: Since then, the politics of the country have changed and now the Law and Justice party, a far-right hyper- nationalist regime is in place that, itself, has been fanning the flames of victimhood and the notion of an insult to the Polish nation.
GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: Absolutely. So this government has been -- even when it was not in power, was rejecting any notion that Poles had participated in crimes against Jews. And now that they are in power, they’re really pushing that agenda. They’re reacting against what they call the politics of shame that previous governments in the 2000s had been engaging with. And this is what this law is coming into, actually, to reinforce their politics of history. They’re telling Poles, now it’s time to stand tall and to be proud of being Polish again.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn’t it possible though to hold two apparently opposing ideas in your head at the same time, that as a nation Poland behaved righteously but significant portions of the population were reprehensible? Why is that so difficult to embrace?
GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: Because I think it hits the core of Polish narratives of victimhood. It hits at the very core of Polish-ness. That’s not to say that everyone refuses to acknowledge the participation of Poles in the Holocaust, And, actually, there’s very important segments of society who have been actively engaged in reconciliation and trying to actually learn more about the, the role of Poles in the Holocaust. And the law itself right now is under very, very harsh critique by individuals, former ambassadors to Poland, scholars, students.
BOB GARFIELD: And the Supreme Court.
GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: The president sent it to the Supreme Court for examination. We’ll see what they will do. But regardless of what the Court does, the damage is done. If one young student is, is starting a dissertation project now on the history of pogroms during World War II, you know, that person might decide to abandon, to drop that project and study something that’s safer, given the criminal charges that could be brought against him or her.
BOB GARFIELD: The government's claim that it is merely trying to protect the national reputation rings a little hollow when you look at other initiatives of the Law and Justice government, like, for example, to limit kosher slaughter, under what pretext, I have no idea. But, you know, suddenly nationalism begins to look a whole lot like institutionalized anti-Semitism.
GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: Absolutely and, actually, it's anti-Semitism and anti-refugee also. So Poland has refused to admit their quota mandated by the EU of refugees, and there been crimes and violent crimes against refugees, people of color and some Jews also in the last couple of years. It’s now common to see neo-fascist groups walking and chanting in the streets without any repercussions.
BOB GARFIELD: In Turkey, a scholar studying the Armenian genocide is at very similar risk of being imprisoned for insulting the Turkish state. Will it come to that?
GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: It might. And, actually, Jan Gross was interrogated in the last few years several times and was possibly a target of that new law. And, actually, previous versions of that law that was on the books already were nicknamed the “Gross’s Law” because it was widely understood that they were to target that type of scholarship and from that specific scholar. So I wouldn't be surprised that more investigations and some kind of harassments would be made against callers who conduct research that’s not deemed appropriate for the good reputation of Poland.
BOB GARFIELD: Look, I’m asking these questions not only because I'm concerned about European nationalism, in general, and the Polish body politic, but because it all sounds very eerily familiar. You know, I don’t see a gigantic gulf between Law and Justice and Make America Great Again.
GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there anything that we as Americans can learn from what is taking place in Poland right now?
GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: Oh my, that’s a big question. Poland is in a mess of, of, of a crisis, but a crisis that’s been in the making for longer than, than the one in the US. So, actually, the US might learn that going that -- down that rabbit hole is very problematic and it's very difficult to kind of emerge out of this. This process of de-legitimation of certain media outlets, certain public figures, intellectuals and scholars is very problematic because then basically there is no longer any Truth with a capital T, in a way; even scientific activity is being questioned.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, and I literally at this moment don't know which country you're speaking of.
GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: Well, actually, I was talking and I was thinking, mm, the same thing, actually, in the US, as well, with climate change denial and all sorts of very important issues. This is all very worrisome and, and, and depressing and I'm not sure, actually, that Poland has much to teach right now to the US. But hopefully, civil societies can teach each other and activists can borrow strategies from each other to counteract these policies and discourses.
BOB GARFIELD: Genevieve, thank you very much.
GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: Thank you so much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Genevieve Zubrzycki is a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.