The controversial memory law, though amended, is still in place, the Polish government’s historical narrative is stronger than ever, and Israel and the US appear to have accepted it.
One year ago, Poland triggered an international diplomatic crisis and months of bitter debate when, the day before international Holocaust Remembrance Day (HRD), it passed legislation criminalising the false attribution of German crimes to the Polish nation or state. This year’s official HRD ceremony at Auschwitz highlighted the fact that the Polish government has emerged victorious from this dispute.
This did not look it would be the case for much of last year. In public, the governments of Israel and the United States took a tough line, criticising the legislation (widely referred to in English as the ‘Holocaust law’, but more accurately an amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance) and demanding changes. It appeared that Poland’s vital alliance with Washington, as well as an increasingly important one with Jerusalem, were under threat. Leaks suggested that President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Matuesz Morawiecki were barred from the White House until they backtracked on the law. (And, indeed, during Duda’s five-day visit to the US in May he did not hold meetings with anyone from the US administration.)
Yet in the end, when a compromise was reached in June, the Polish government conceded relatively little and got a lot in return. It agreed to remove the criminal aspect of the law, meaning that contravening it is now a civil offence that can result in a fine but not imprisonment. This was enough to satisfy US demands, symbolised by the fact that two weeks later it was announced that final arrangements were being made for Duda to meet with President Donald Trump at the White House in September.
But the biggest gift came from the Israelis, who in return for Poland amending the law agreed to publish a joint statement on WW2 history in the name of Morawiecki and Benjamin Netanyahu. The text of the declaration was a huge PR victory for the Polish government. It praised ‘the heroic acts of numerous Poles who risked their lives to save Jewish people’ during the war and the ‘systematic help and support to Jewish people’ given by the Polish underground state and government-in-exile. It condemned anti-Polonism alongside antisemitism.
That this was a triumph for the Polish side (and an embarrassment to the Israelis) was made clear when the statement was immediately translated into various languages and published as an advertisement (paid for by a state-linked foundation) in over a dozen prominent newspapers around the world, including three Israeli ones. Netanyahu faced intense criticism at home for putting his name to the declaration. This came not just from opposition politicians, but even his own justice and education ministers, as well as historians. The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre described the statement’s wording as ‘highly problematic’, as it ‘contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge’.
Netanyahu responded by saying that he ‘respected’ and would ‘give expression to’ criticism of the declaration. His government submitted a protest to Warsaw for having published it in newspapers, claiming that this contravened their agreement. Nevertheless, Netanyahu continued to argue that the agreement with Poland was, overall, a success, because it had included the removal of criminal clauses in the law.
However, in reality the agreement was a high price to pay by Israel at relatively little cost to Poland. This is because the criminal aspect of the law was always symbolic. There was never any real desire to lock up foreign journalists for three years (and indeed in practice it probably would have proved impossible). Rather, the aim was to promote the Polish narrative of WW2 and to intimidate those who sought to oppose it, while also burnishing the ruling PiS party’s credentials as the defender of Poland’s good name.
In this context, the June amendment made little practical difference. The two most controversial sections of the law, Articles 55a and 55b, were removed. But the rest of the sections added in January remain on the books, including the right to launch civil claims against those who harm ‘the good name of the Republic of Poland or Polish nation’ with regard to their history. This ‘applies regardless of the applicable law’ where the offence takes place, indicating that action could be launched against those who contravene the law abroad as well as in Poland itself. They would no longer face potential imprisonment, but could be dragged into lengthy, expensive court cases with the possibility of a large fine at the end.
Morawiecki himself acknowledged as much, saying that the ‘purpose of the law’ was always to send a ‘message’. Removing the criminal clause made little difference because ‘a publisher in the US or Germany will [still] think twice before publishing an article…if he risks a lawsuit and a fine of 100 million euro or dollars’. In September, the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists warned that the amended law can still be ‘used in a way which will limit the freedom of speech and research regarding the Holocaust’ by allowing people to be ‘unreasonably sued for damages in civil courts’.
So, for what is in practice a small concession, Poland’s government has been given the huge reward of the joint declaration, which it has used to proclaim to the world and, more importantly, the Polish people that its version of history has been officially endorsed by the Israeli government. It is that latter point which is vital: while the ‘Holocaust law’ and subsequent dispute brought negative attention to Poland internationally, the government is interested primarily in its domestic audience. The new legislation was a means for PiS to present itself to the Polish public as the guardian of a historical truth that others have sought to suppress, distort or deny. With the law remaining in place and Israel signing the declaration, that aim has been achieved.
This brings us to last Sunday at Auschwitz, where that version of history was very much on display. Throughout the official Polish Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, the focus was on Polish victims as much or perhaps even more than Jewish ones. The first speaker at the event was an ethnic Polish former Auschwitz inmate, who was only then followed by a Jewish survivor. The prime minister’s speech dwelled largely on Polish suffering. The only victim he mentioned by name was a Polish Catholic girl, Czesława Kwoka. When he did refer to Jews, their suffering was given (false) equivalence with that of Poles. ‘Polish Jews were condemned to annihilation, and [ethnic] Poles were also condemned to annihilation,’ he said at the start of the speech, later adding that ‘the Polish nation lost six million people, including Polish citizens of Jewish origin’ (this contradicted an earlier section where he had described Poles and Jews as separate ‘nations’, as is commonly done in Polish).
He also emphasised German responsibility: ‘This extermination was not carried out by Nazis, it was carried out by Hitlerite Germany. All this evil came from that state. This cannot be forgotten because otherwise there is a relativization of evil…The Polish state guards this truth.’ This statement prompted spontaneous applause from parts of the audience – the only time this happened during the ceremony. It reflected the common concern among Poles that they are being unfairly blamed for the Holocaust while Germany’s role is being downplayed. This, they believe, is exemplified by the appearance in Western media of the false and offensive term ‘Polish death camps’, which was the main justification for the ‘Holocaust law’.
While the prime minister’s speech was not surprising in its content, the Israeli ambassador’s was surprising for a lack of it. At least year’s ceremony, Anna Azari forcefully expressed Israel’s opposition to the new Polish legislation, saying that it made it ‘impossible to tell the truth about the Holocaust’. Her speech was met with a frosty reception from the Polish prime minister and deputy prime minister, who refused to applaud, and was condemned in right-wing media. This year, however, despite the law still being on the books, and despite Morawiecki’s preceding speech effectively downplaying the specificity of Jewish suffering during the war, Azari’s address was short, generic and perfunctory. (By contrast, the Russian ambassador’s longer speech very firmly presented his country’s historical line.)
This appears to reflect a desire from the Israeli side not to stir up this issue any further. Netanyahu is more interested in cultivating Poland and other Central European states as allies. Next month he will host a meeting of the Visegrad Four in Israel. Likewise, the US administration sees Poland as a useful strategic partner. It has chosen Warsaw to host a conference on the Middle East next month, at which Netanyahu is due to deliver a speech. For both Israel and the US, Poland is a rare large and friendly country within the EU, and one whose government has no qualms in taking positions that go against those of its European partners. (The Polish government has also played this role on behalf of Britain during the Brexit process.)
Realpolitik has thus trumped concern over historical memory. One year on from the start of the ‘Holocaust law’ dispute, Poland’s government has emerged with its domestic reputation as the guardian of Polish history enhanced and its international position as strong, if not stronger, than before.
Note: the article has been updated to clarify the changes made to the law in June 2018.