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Why Poland Passed a Law Barring People From Blaming It for the Holocaust

Polish President Adrzej Duda signed a bill this week that makes it illegal to accuse the country of complicity in the Holocaust and outlaws the description of concentration camps on Polish soil, including Auschwitz, as “Polish death camps.” Violators could receive sentences of up to three years in prison. It also expands the remit of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance—an institution set up to document crimes perpetrated in Poland by the Nazis and Communists—to protecting Poland’s reputation at home and abroad.

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This has been a hot-button issue in Poland for years, particularly since the publication in 2000 of historian Jan Gross’ book, Neighbors, which documented a brutal pogrom carried out by residents of a Polish town against its Jewish residents during the Nazi occupation. The book provoked a backlash in Poland, though most of its findings were later confirmed by an official investigation.

In 2012, Barack Obama created controversy by referring to “Polish death camps” during a ceremony awarding resistance hero Jan Karski with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There’s been an ongoing campaign by the Polish government to combat the use of the phrase, including successfully pushing the New York Times and Associated Press to revise their style guides.

The law provides exemptions for arts and research, and Duda has defended it by saying that it does not block anyone from talking about crimes committed by individual Poles. But this isn’t very convincing. No one seriously contends that the nation of Poland, as a whole, is responsible for Auschwitz, or denies that Poland suffered immensely under Nazi occupation, or that many Christian Poles acted heroically to protect Jews. As Volha Charnysh and Evgeny Finel write, the law is “so vague that it could be used to silence debate on any aspect of Polish history that strays from its officially promoted martyrdom narrative.” The only foreseeable use of such a law is to target people like Gross who document crimes committed by Poles in cooperation with the Nazis or those who simply use the wrong phrase, as Obama did. (The constitutional court still needs to review the bill, so there’s a good chance it will be amended. Even if it’s not, it seems difficult to actually enforce, though it could certainly have a chilling effect on public discourse.)

The law also comes amid the rising power of the far-right in Poland and clashes between the country’s ruling Law and Justice Party and critics at home and abroad over moves to undermine freedom of speech and the rule of law.  Duda may portray the law simply as a means to protect Poland’s reputation, but it also seems to be a pander to the far right. One Law and Justice senator blamed opposition to the bill on “Jewish circles, including American, but mostly the state of Israel” who “are trying to get restitution of property or at least compensation.” On Monday, demonstrators outside the presidential palace demanding that Duda sign the law carried signs saying, “Take off your yarmulke. Sign the bill.”

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A number of foreign governments have criticized the law, as they should, though one might wish they were in a stronger position to do so. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government might be a more convincing advocate for freedom of speech if it weren’t banning its critics from entering the country. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s criticism of the law’s chilling effect on “freedom of speech and academic inquiry” might land more forcefully if his boss weren’t so quick to denounce his opponents as traitors or so reluctant to condemn white supremacists and anti-Semites.

But still, the Polish law is uniquely troubling as the latest example of how debates over World War II atrocities in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere continue to be weaponized by modern nationalists.

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