By Andrzej Nowak and Robert Frost
This week, prominent historians Professor Andrzej Nowak (Jagiellonian University) and Professor Robert Frost (University of Aberdeen) wrote a public letter to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on the recent controversy over the new law regulating historical discourse in Poland. Earlier this year, the two historians won prestigious prizes from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the best books promoting Polish history. They first published their letter in Polish on conservative news websites wPolityce.pl and Do Rzeczy. The letter emerged from the participation of both professors in a lively discussion of the new law at the recent Belvedere Polish-British Forum in London, in which the Notes from Poland team also took part. Notes from Poland is pleased to publish the official English version of the letter here.
Dear Prime Minister,
As the two first-prize winners in the recent MSZ competition for the best books promoting Polish history published between 2015 and 2016, we are writing to you to express our sincere concern at the damage being done to Poland’s reputation abroad by the Ustawa on the IPN that has recently been signed into law by President Duda. We are writing this letter after a frank breakout session at the recent Belvedere Forum in London, in which the Ustawa was a major topic of discussion.
We should stress that we fully understand the reasons why the government has taken this step. Both of us have devoted our careers over many years to promoting knowledge about the history of Poland both within Poland and outwith its borders, and to challenging the lazy stereotypes about Polish history that are far too prevalent. We fully appreciate the hurt and pain that is inflicted in Poland by those who claim that Poland and Poles were in some sense responsible for the Holocaust. Professor Frost has himself engaged in correspondence with a leading British journalist contesting her usage of the term ‘Polish Death Camps’. We both wholeheartedly support the campaign to fight this unjustified calumny. We have read both the Ustawa itself, and Marshal Karczewski’s letter explaining it. We understand that both the Ustawa itself, and Marshal Karczewski explicitly state that it is not intended to apply to artistic expression, or historical research. We also welcome the admission in Marshal Karczewski’s letter that not all Poles behaved well during the Second World War.
Nevertheless, we believe not only that legislation in general and the Ustawa in particular is not the best way to deal with this matter, but also that its passing has been positively counterproductive, as has been shown by the hostile reaction to it outside Poland. We know that you have suffered personal attacks for your recent pronouncements on the Ustawa. We therefore are writing to you as if to a fellow historian. Despite the fact that other states have done so, it seems to us, as professional historians, that it is unwise to attempt to regulate historical discussion by legal means. Indeed, the consequences may be dangerous. History should be the object of research, not of legal or political regulation. To place Themis above Clio is a bad idea
That the Holocaust was conceived, planned, and implemented by the German Reich is a historical truth. The question of the behaviour of individual Poles towards Jews, both Polish and non-Polish citizens, during the Second World War is an entirely separate matter. It is frequently through ignorance rather than deliberate distortion that the two questions are conflated. We believe that the only productive way to confront this ignorance is through research and education, not legislation. Research needs to be conducted to establish the truth. Sometimes that truth can be uncomfortable. These uncomfortable truths need to be confronted and properly investigated. It is far better that such research should be collaborative, with Polish, Jewish, and, indeed, German scholars working together. In fact, Poland has a distinguished tradition in recent years of conducting such research: the Polin museum in Warsaw is a magnificent example of how these complex matters can be presented in a sensitive and scholarly manner.
Ignorance about Polish history needs to be dispelled. That requires investment in historical scholarship, undertaken by properly-trained, objective professionals, not in the erection of legal barriers. Such research must not seek to cover up the reprehensible acts committed by some Poles during the war, but should open up discussion of the context of those acts in the unique regime of terror implemented by the German Reich in occupied Poland.
The overwhelming view at the Forum, among both Poles and friends of Poland, was that the Ustawa is ill-advised and counter-productive. It is not too late to reconsider. We ask you to lend your assistance in this delicate task.
Professor Andrzej Nowak (Jagiellonian University)
Professor Robert Frost (University of Aberdeen)