Why Poland Seeks to Restrain the Debate on Antisemitism
Revisionism by Law
The current Polish government wants to ban the discussion on attacks on Jews during German occupation. The roots of the problem and the political situation that makes possible to attempt international censorship.

According to Polish media, as quoted by international news agencies, a group called the Polish Anti Defamation League has filed charges against the newspaper Pagina 12 according a new law that punishes any charges of antisemitism against the Polish people or government. The charges refer to an op ed piece by Federico Pavolovsky, titled Familiar Faces, published by this paper on December 18, 2017. The Polish law considers that the presence of the story on the paper’s website bridges all retroactivity in the application of the law enacted last week.

The law was made possible by a recent political change in Poland, the triumph of the nationalist and extreme right party Law and Justice. The party won the 2015 elections harshly criticizing the European Union’s legal frame, particularly on issues of abortion, genre equality and immigration. In the past two years, Law and Justice hardened Polish national law accordingly, and the European Commission started legal proceedings against Warsaw for breaching European treaties.

Law and Justice was founded in 2001 by twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski as a right wing dissidence of the powerful Polish Christian Democrats. In 2005, the party won the elections and for two years Lech was President of Poland and Jaroslaw his premier.

The party was back in power by November 2015 and started to change the national legal frame, a course of collision with the European Union. Law and Justice used its parliamentarian majority to limit freedom of the press, give the prime minister more power the military and the secret service, and reform school curricula. President Andrzej Duda vetoed a law that placed the Judiciary under direct control of Parliament, that is of premier Mateusz Morawiecki and current MP and strongman Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

The current government is Poland’s most criticized from abroad since the Cold War, but that seems not to affect its popularity among voters. One very important factor in its politics is its revisionism of national history, particularly the periods of Nazi occupation and Soviet control. The law used to attack Pagina 12 is an effort to enforce that revisionism that was harshly criticized by Europe and the US.

The ambiguity in the redaction of the law, that established a punishment of three years in jail plus a fine for those who blame in any way the Polish people or government, was clarified in the case filed against this newspaper.

No Polish government can be blamed for any crimes between 1939 and 1944 for the simple reason that Poland was erased by the Germans, a special case in the administration of occupied countries. Hence, Poland never had a collaboration government like France or Norway, because much of its territory was annexed to the Reich and the rest turned into an administrative unit under a Gauleiter. Poles caught in the annexed lands were violently expelled to make room for German colonists, and in the rest of the country the Nazis created a system of extreme brutality. At least three million Poles were murdered in less than five years.

The charges against Pagina 12 for publishing a story on the massacre at Jedwabne show that the intent of the new law is to ban discussion of the participation of Poles in the murder of Jews, in the frame of local antisemitism. The murders in Jedwabne are among the best documented, both by the documentation compiled for two trials in the Soviet era, and by thorough German reports. For the Nazi occupants, cases of “spontaneous” violence were problematic because they showed the agency of a people considered enslaved. During the first stages of the extermination of Jews, when groups of Ordnung Polizei shot their victims by small groups, and even during the first Einsatzgruppen actions, the idea was floated of recruiting locals. The idea was abandoned because Nazi racist views about Poles who, almost uniquely in occupied Europe, were not recruited in the SS. Nevertheless, cases such as Jedwabne created masses of reports, consultations, orders and counterorders in writing.

The current Polish government, then, is trying to ban discussion of an accepted issue, that among other terrible consequences the Nazi invasion of Poland had the side effect of intensifying local antisemitism. The many cases of Gentile Poles that saved and defended their Jewish neighbors must be seen and appreciated in that very difficult context.

Antisemitism might explain as well the name of the group that filed the charges against Pagina 12. The Polish Anti Defamation League is an obvious parody of the name of a notable American human rights organization Anti Defamation league, ADL. That kind of parody is a classic in extreme right circles.

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