During the late hours of February 1, 2018, the Polish Upper House of Parliament, known as the Senate, voted on and approved a controversial bill relating to the Holocaust. The bill states, “whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.” The bill passed with a 57 to 23 vote, with two abstentions. However, it will not become law until signed by the Polish President Andrzej Duda.
President Duda claims the bill was put into place in order to, “defend historical truth.” Law and Justice, Poland’s right-wing conservative party, is currently the biggest party in the parliament, and it wants to eliminate the use of phrases such as, “Polish death camps,” from popular use. According to the group, using phrases with Poland’s name implies complicity in the actions carried out by Nazi Germany.
However, it is exactly the issue of complicity which concerns opponents of this bill, particularly its lack of clarity on this point. They worry that the bill will outlaw statements related to obvious complicity by the Polish people with the Nazis, claims many historians believe to be proven through evidence. While Poland cannot be held accountable for actions carried out by the Nazis without consent from the Polish government or people, they should be held accountable for any actions carried out with their consent, and even support.
While millions of Polish Jews were killed in death camps and many Polish citizens worked to help Jews escape, The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. claims that the Polish police force and railroad personnel played a key part in the deportation of Jews. They cite another incident where Polish residents, “participated in the murder of hundreds of their Jewish neighbors.”
It’s unclear the lengths to which those actions were carried out under duress, but to quiet dialogue on the matter has potential to discourage discussion and prevent historical inaccuracy from being achieved. Whereas dialogue and research could disprove claims of Polish complicity, some see the silencing of discussion and debate an admission of guilt.
The issue is not as black and white as some would like to believe, and some say that the bill is justified because the Polish state itself was not directly involved in the Holocaust. Efraim Zuroff, a historian of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, claims that the Polish collaborators were in the thousands. However, he did say that “The Polish state was not complicit in the Holocaust, but many Poles were.” Considering this statement, it could be argued that any statements implying the Polish government was complicit are factually incorrect. Regardless, the bill could potentially prevent those who wish to understand and speak about the complex nature of the Holocaust from speaking.
Many consider the bill a blatant restriction of freedom of speech, although it does allow the caveat that people are, “not committing a crime if he or she commits such an act as part of artistic or scientific activities.” Later on February 1st, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated on Polish television station TVP, “We will never limit the freedom to debate the Holocaust.” Despite his statement, he did not elaborate on how the new bill will continue to allow freedom of speech and debate while also limiting statements relating to the Holocaust and the Polish nation. Without clear parameters on how this bill will be enforced, opponents continue to protest its passing, pleading with President Dada, who has previously stated his support for the bill, not to sign it into the law.
The most outspoken opponent of the bill has been Israel. Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said, “Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth. No laws will change the facts.” As a result, once-strong Polish-Israeli relations have deteriorated exponentially, leading to fears that the far-right in Poland will be emboldened further, potentially even taking actions against Jews within the country.