A new law set to come into force in Poland that criminalizes public claims of Polish scomplicity in Nazi-era genocide has triggered widespread international concern about censorship of free speech and Holocaust denial.
The United States and Europe have admonished the Polish government and President Andrzej Duda for passing the law this week despite their calls for restraint.
Washington and Brussels say that the new measures could stifle free speech about one of most notorious episodes in modern history – the Nazi genocide of millions of people. The Israeli government in particular has vehemently criticized Poland for “whitewashing” Nazi-era crimes and Polish collaboration.
The legislation passed by Warsaw’s nationalistic Law and Justice (PiS) government will henceforth prosecute anyone who publicly articulates terms like “Polish death camps”, or who accuses the Polish nation of being complicit in the horrors of the Nazi-era mass exterminations. The Warsaw authorities claim that such statements are slanderous of the Polish nation.
In a narrow, semantical sense there is some logic to the new law. During the occupation of Poland by the Nazi Third Reich (1939-45), the Polish state ceased to exist. Thus, legally, Poland was not institutionally involved in the genocide that was carried out on its territory.
Up to three million Polish citizens – most of them Jewish – were rounded up and killed in Nazi death camps. Many other Polish citizens courageously defied the Nazi regime by helping Jewish compatriots escape from persecution and death. The Israeli state has reportedly honored more Polish citizens than any other nationality for private acts of bravery in rescuing Jews during the Second World War.
Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the Nazi Third Reich used Poland as its main center to carry out its “Final Solution” of extermination against Jews, Slavs, Communists, Roma and any other designated “Untermenschen” (subhumans).
By far, Poland was the industrial epicenter of the Nazi genocide machine. The country hosted the main “death camps” set up by the Nazi SS leaders Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann following the infamous 1942 Wannsee conference. The names of these death camps still ring with chilling horror today: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmo, Treblinka, Majdanek. In total, more than three million people perished in these extermination centers on Polish land.
It is undeniable that Poland suffered horrendously under Nazi occupation.
Still, it is also true that many Poles collaborated willingly with their Nazi overlords to send fellow citizens to their deaths.
This is not just a matter of intense shame for modern-day Poland. It is a vital area for ongoing historical research to establish more clearly how the Nazi Final Solution was organized and carried out.
What is deeply concerning about the new Polish law is that it could serve to banish legitimate discussion and research into the Nazi genocide on the basis of “outlawing slander” against the Polish nation.
Moreover, there is also a deep concern that Polish nationalists are cynically using the legal prohibition for their own ulterior, reprehensible purposes. That is, to bolster Polish chauvinism and in particular to advance an agenda of Russophobia.
One gets the distinct sense that the reactionary and populist PiS government in Warsaw is less concerned about “historical accuracy” and much more motivated by a desire to indulge its own chauvinistic notions of “Polish virtue and greatness”. In that way, the new law is not so much an attempt to deny the Nazi genocide, but rather it is an attempt to whitewash Polish nationalism.
A repugnant theme for the Warsaw government and its supporters is that Poland suffered in equal measure from Nazi occupation and what it calls Soviet “occupation”. For this reactionary Polish constituency, the country was not “liberated” by the Red Army in 1945, but instead was occupied and subjugated by Communism.
This revisionist historical distortion of the Soviet defeat of Nazi and European fascism was endorsed by US President Donald Trump in a speech he delivered in Warsaw last July. In that speech, Trump equated Nazi Germany with Soviet Russia.
By suppressing valid exposure and condemnation of Polish involvement in Nazi-era genocide, the danger is that the rightwing nationalistic Polish constituency will be emboldened to pursue its Russophobia with even greater zeal. Unrestrained by the deep shame of Nazi-era culpability.
The irony here is that Washington’s long-term policy of hostility towards Russia over the past decade and more has relied on fomenting the nationalistic politics that have come to dominate in Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine. Washington, and to a lesser extent its European allies, have exploited the anti-Russian sentiments of nationalistic movements in these countries as a bulwark to project NATO hostility towards Moscow.
Historically, it is these same nationalistic movements which can be traced to active collaboration with the Nazi Third Reich.
In Ukraine, the US and European Union-backed regime in Kiev which seized power in an illegal coup in 2014 has enacted several laws which glorify past nationalistic figures and movements like Stepan Bandera and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). These movements are organically connected to modern-day Neo-Nazi militias in Ukraine’s National Guard which openly adulate Nazi symbols and ideology as they wage a low-intensity war on the breakaway pro-Russian Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine.
The supply of lethal weapons from the US to the Kiev military and the reported increasing presence of NATO military trainers from the US, Britain and Canada are further evidence that Washington is the crucial sponsor for the fascistic politics that now characterize Kiev-controlled Ukraine.
This is analogous to how similar nationalistic politics have solidified elsewhere in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. All these factions share an intense antipathy towards Russia. This Russophobia is what has galvanized these movements under Washington’s support as an expedient vehicle for its geopolitical confrontation with Moscow.
It should be an acute source of shame that Washington and its European allies – the self-declared bastions of democracy – are complicit in the cultivation of Neo-fascism across Eastern Europe.
That shame is partly evaded owing to American and European corporate news media ignoring, or worse concealing, the pernicious political connections.
However, the trouble arises when such rightwing politics begin to openly manifest their nasty inclinations. Then Washington and Brussels are faced with the public embarrassment of their own creation.
Poland’s new Holocaust law is one such example. Washington has long encouraged the drift towards Polish nationalism as an expedient for its anti-Russian agenda. Then when this Polish nationalism acts out its chauvinistic impulses in an attempt to revise Nazi-era crimes, Washington is caught in the embarrassing position of having to be seen to admonish the very kind of toxic politics it has otherwise been keenly fomenting.
There is a profound historical resonance here. European fascism, and Nazi Germany in particular, were after all, substantially, a covert creation of American, British and other Western capitals during the 1930s to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.
Wall Street and American corporations, like Ford, GM, Du Pont, and ITT, helped bankroll and mobilize Germany’s Nazi war machine for the objective of smashing Soviet influence and, more widely, popular European socialism.
Today, America’s anti-Russian agenda has again landed in the same moral hazard of consorting with fascistic movements in Europe.
Poland’s new law undermining free speech on the Nazi Holocaust will result in more fuel for Russophobia in Poland, the Baltic and Ukraine.
Washington and Brussels’ dilemma is that they are being caught with their hands in the fascistic machine – again.