Rewriting history? The Polish Holocaust speech bill

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Rewriting history seems to be, worryingly, a term that we’re hearing more and more these days. It generally runs alongside trying to stifle free speech and debate.  And now it’s causing an international row, following the passing by the Polish parliament of a law making it a criminal offence to state publicly that “the Polish nation or state was responsible or co-responsible for Third Reich crimes”.

Hopefully, no-one is for one minute trying to say that “the Polish nation or state was responsible or co-responsible for Third Reich crimes”. And it’s quite understandable that people in Poland object to the blatantly incorrect but all too frequent use of the term “Polish death camps” when referring to Nazi concentration camps on Polish soil.  But the passing of this law has led to considerable concern amongst historians and others that it will stifle debate about and even research into the events of the Nazi period.  Where is the line to be drawn between saying or writing about the complicity by individuals in Poland with “Third Reich crimes” – in 2001, on the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom in which over 340 Polish Jews were murdered by their Polish neighbours, the then president of Poland stated clearly that the murderers were Poles – and falling foul of the new legislation?

This isn’t the first time that there’s been controversy over the present Polish government’s attitude towards the events of the Second World War. There was a long, drawn-out wrangle over the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, which finally opened last spring after considerable arguing between the government and historians over the extent to which the museum should focus on Poland’s experience – by which the government meant Poland’s suffering and Polish resistance to the Nazis – as opposed to telling the entire history of how the war affected the whole of Europe and beyond.  Wanting to focus on your own country’s experiences is reasonable to some extent, but this latest controversy goes much further than that

It’s not just Poland where there are issues concerning the presentation of the events of the Second World War. Unless it’s been changed since I was there, the video which is shown to visitors at the Second World War Museum in Riga focuses almost entirely on the Soviet invasion and occupation of Latvia, with next to nothing being said about the atrocities committed there by the Nazis.  And collaboration and support for the Nazis is a very sensitive subject everywhere.  We’ve all heard the stories about how hardly anyone in Austria’s seen The Sound of Music.  There’s a lot of evidence for complicity in Nazi atrocities by local people in Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and elsewhere, but it isn’t really spoken about.  But it isn’t actually banned.

Statues are being pulled down in America. Certain British universities and even Virgin Trains have tried to restrict the sale of certain newspapers. Where do you draw the line between trying to avoid offensive speech and interfering with free speech? It’s a difficult one.

It’s hard to see any other countries following Poland’s lead. For one thing, the present Polish government is not exactly renowned for its free thinking. Concerns have already been raised over its interference in both the media and the judiciary. For another thing, no other country has the same place that Poland, through no fault of its own, has in the history of the Holocaust. But this is a worrying development. It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here.

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