Poland’s proposed law deserves to be criticised, but the country is not the only one that should be asking itself questions about its actions during the Holocaust. The United States and Britain have largely ignored this shameful episode in their own histories.
By Daniel Tilles
The last few days have seen a bitter dispute over the Polish government’s decision to push ahead with a law that would criminalise those who falsely assign the Polish nation or state responsibility for the crimes of the German Third Reich.
Debate has focused on the use of the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ and, as I’ve written on this blog before, I fully support efforts to discourage the term, which is not only factually inaccurate but also deeply offensive, given that Poles were, after Jews, numerically the greatest victims of the German Nazi camps. More broadly, Poles justifiably feel that their experience of and actions during the war are little recognised, and sometimes misrepresented, outside their own country.
Białowieża Forest in northeastern Poland is the last of the vast primeval forest that once stretched across the European lowlands. Strictly protected for centuries by royalty as a private hunting ground, it is now a living museum of ancient natural processes replete with species extinct elsewhere. But the serenity of this fairy-tale forest has recently been disrupted by a bitter environmental conflict triggered by a huge spruce bark beetle infestation.
The State Forests Service, backed by the environment minister, argues that the only way to save the forest from oblivion is to cut out the million infected trees – a plan that is now around a third complete. Scientists and environmentalists, on the other hand, have roundly condemned the plan, arguing that it has no chance of halting the bark beetle, and will in itself cause untold damage to critical protected habitats. The issue has also become another front in the multiple conflicts between Poland’s national-conservative government and the EU, with the European Commission suing Poland over the logging at the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and the Polish government refusing to comply with an ECJ order to immediately halt logging.
Who should we believe in this complex and politicised debate? Continue reading
Poland’s media and civil society have reacted with concern to Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s announcement that the government wants to bring NGOs under more centralised control, because, in her view, too many of them are still ‘subordinate to the policies of the previous ruling system’.
To this end, her office is in the process of establishing a Department of Civil Society which will be responsible for ‘bringing order to the whole sphere’ of NGOs. It will collect and disburse all money intended for such organisations, and set goals for their work.
Leaving little doubt as to the purpose of this move, Szydło says that, although NGOs should ideally not be under government control, ‘it turns out we have not yet got to the moment at which politicians do not want to control social organisations’. Continue reading
By Daniel Tilles
In Poland’s deeply polarised society, it is rare these days for anything to bridge the country’s social, cultural and political divides. However, a new film about the WW2 Wołyń massacres by director Wojciech Smarzowski appears set to achieve this, winning rave reviews across Polish media after its screening at the Gdynia film festival, writes Daniel Tilles. Continue reading
The recent upheaval in Turkey has been seized upon by opponents of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to accuse it of leading the country in a similar direction. On a political chat show on Sunday, an opposition politician claimed that Poland is currently under a ‘dictatorship’ of the same type as Turkey’s. When pressed further on what was clearly an exaggerated claim, he admitted that ‘there are dictatorships and there are dictatorships’ – the point being that ‘Poland is on the wrong track’. Continue reading
By Daniel Tilles
Just like the Brexit campaigners, Poland’s own ruling party has been guilty of stoking resentment of outsiders, with the result that xenophobes have been emboldened and hate crimes have increased. The danger of leading the country in such a direction should be even clearer now that Poles themselves are falling victim to precisely such rhetoric in Britain, writes Daniel Tilles.
Since Friday’s announcement that the UK had voted to leave the EU, there has been a wave of hate crimes against immigrants in Britain. At this early stage, most of the evidence is anecdotal. But what appears absolutely clear is that the Brexit vote – which was motivated in large part by a desire to reduce immigration – has given xenophobes greater confidence to express their views publicly. Continue reading
By Daniel Tilles
While it is completely understandable that Poland wants to stamp out the misleading and offensive phrase ‘Polish death camps’, this should be done through education, not by threatening prison sentences for those who use the term, as the government has proposed. Even more worryingly, the new draft law on this issue – combined with a threat to withdraw a state honour from historian Jan Gross – has the potential to be just the opening salvo in a far broader attempt by the ruling party to impose its historical vision, potentially impinging on academic freedom, argues Daniel Tilles, a British historian based in Kraków.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has long made clear that it wishes the country to pursue – in the words of President Andrzej Duda earlier this week – an ‘aggressive historical policy’, with the dual aim of fostering a greater sense of patriotic pride at home while enhancing the country’s image abroad. Continue reading