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Why Poland Is Trying to Control Holocaust Memory

The Polish Prime Minister’s Office defends a ‘truth campaign’ that has angered many Jews and scholars

Stanisław Żaryn
February 22, 2021
Polish National Security Bureau
Polish National Security Bureau
Polish National Security Bureau
Polish National Security Bureau

At the beginning of 2021, Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based institution widely credited with preserving the memory of the Holocaust, posted a tweet promoting a book available for purchase on its online store. Unfortunately, the post and the book make part of a wider effort to distort the history of World War II and the Holocaust. Both suggest that the extermination of Jews took place “in Poland,” which is utterly contradictory to historical facts. Even more unfortunately, they highlight a serious problem Poland faces—the existence and an ongoing, complex smear campaign targeting the country and its people. And the more and harder Poland is hit, the more threats for the Poles and for the truth about the Holocaust emerge.

Every single false accusation thrown at Poland can affect the quality of public debate and the level of social awareness. Following that logic, there is a high risk that the country which fell victim to the German and Soviet aggression and atrocities during WWII will one day be identified as the perpetrator. And the aforementioned tweet by Yad Vashem is hammering in such false and harmful rhetoric. The same applies to the so many Israeli, American, German, and other European media outlets that have pushed or have been pushing similar narratives of Polish collective responsibility or guilt.

The history speaks for itself: In 1939, Poland was jointly invaded by two aggressors—Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia—and partitioned between them shortly thereafter, pursuant to a secret deal between Hitler and Stalin. Therefore, a sovereign Polish state had ceased to exist before the Germans developed and implemented their devilish plan to annihilate the Jews. By the way, the Poles were the first nation the Germans had selected for extermination in the Auschwitz death camp. But it is not about bargaining who suffered first or who lost more lives. It is about historical truth, which clearly shows that during the war the Germans hated both the Poles and the Jews. Hence, there is no reason why the Poles should accept or condone false accusations of complicity in the Holocaust.

It would be naïve to think that all Poles displayed bravery or acted with honor during WWII. Scumbags can be found in every single nation, including the Polish one. There were some Poles who collaborated with the German occupier. Some of them robbed, betrayed, or even killed their Jewish neighbors. However, it is unfair to judge the whole wartime Polish nation or state (which in fact did not exist) by the misdeeds of its black sheep. Proportion is of the essence here. The number of Poles who sold their souls to the enemy was marginal. The Polish Underground State hunted them down and executed them. There was no mercy for those who took the side of the German aggressor. And that is another reason why Poland rejects any claims suggesting it was implicated in the Holocaust.

The majority of Poles adopted a passive attitude to what the Germans brought upon the Jews. But it is hard to blame them, given that in German-occupied Poland every day was a struggle to stay alive. But most importantly, compared to many other European countries, the Polish government never collaborated with the occupier and there was no Polish delegation or administration at the disposal of the Germans. This explains why the terror inflicted on the Poles was more brutal and vicious than elsewhere.

In 1940, Hans Frank, governor-general of the occupied Polish territories, said: “In Prague, big red posters were put up on which one could read that seven Czechs had been shot today. I said to myself, ‘If I had to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests of Poland would not be sufficient to manufacture the paper.’” The quote by this German war criminal quite accurately reflects the nature of the German occupation of Poland. Having said that, it is hard to condemn the Poles for having cared about their own survival first. Notwithstanding the above, there were many Polish citizens—Irena Sendler, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, Witold Pilecki, Wiktoria and Józef Ulma, to name a few—who risked their very lives to help the Jews, as the Germans punished any such attempts with death.

It is hard to estimate the exact number of Poles who engaged in helping their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust and the war. Yet, it is indisputable that among the Poles there were many more “righteous” people than traitors. Nevertheless, many articles and other type of content in worldwide media have been published and are published each year that falsely claim the Poles could have done better. Some of them go as far as suggesting that the WWII Polish society turned its eyes away from the Holocaust, thus turning its back on the Jews, or even that Poland was complicit in this genocide. Pushing such narratives can have a detrimental effect on the Poles and their country. In fact, more and more audiences worldwide become convinced that it is Poland that bears responsibility for the tragedy of the Jews and the war.

The other side of the same coin is a separate, ongoing campaign whose aim is to erase from the memory of entire societies the undeniable truth that the Holocaust was a German crime. For many years Germany has been doing its utmost to “denationalize” its WWII-era wrongs. A statement recently made by the German foreign minister has shown how it works in practice. On Nov. 20, 2020, Heiko Maas tweeted: “Exactly 75 years ago the Nuremberg trials started. This was where men sat on trial for the most heinous crimes in history. Yet the judges granted them a fair trial. A triumph of civilization over inhumanity.” His words lack a mention of the fundamental truth that it was German war criminals who were tried in Nuremberg.

This omission was intentional and it was made as part of a well-planned campaign to take the burden of Nazi politics and crimes off the shoulders of the current German state. These efforts will eventually create a wide breach in social awareness. As a result, Poland is facing the risk of being perceived one day as solely responsible for the Holocaust. In the near future, lies may prevail over the truth about those dark days. Poland and Israel must not let that happen.

In today’s world, social communication—media and social media—has become a powerful tool of influence. Media coverage can affect the lives of individual people, change their attitudes, and shape their behavior. It even has the power to shape the mindset of a whole nation. Therefore, media is often used to besmirch a rival nation or state or to stir up hatred toward it (e.g., prior to and during military aggression).

Poland is unfortunately familiar with this mechanism, because we have been targeted by Russia’s information warfare efforts for quite a while. The Kremlin, among others, exploits lies about history to smear the Poles and gain strategic advantages. As of December 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with other top Russian officials, have stepped up their efforts to libel Poland by means of slanderous statements or ridiculous press conferences. Since then, Russia has accused WWII-era Polish authorities of collaboration with Hitler at least a couple of times. Russian propaganda spreads biased content in order to push the same narratives as those mentioned before. The aim is to make international public opinion believe that the history of Poland is filled with crime and atrocities that the Poles are trying to whitewash. And the power of social communication may amplify the hostile effect of such efforts.

To put it in a wider context, Russia wants to see Poland isolated on the international arena, particularly within the NATO community, because it aims to weaken the allied guarantees for Poland and discourage other member states from defending it if needed. This underhanded plan seems to be more attainable in a world where Poland is widely believed to have helped the Germans kill the Jews.

The Russian information warfare activities and the worldwide anti-Polish smear campaign described earlier in this article, share a common outcome: They may lead to Poland being internationally isolated and besmirched. If both efforts prove successful, this will seriously affect the country’s level of security. For Poland it is a high-stakes game, because pushing lies about our history is only one of a multitude of measures used by Russia. The Russian “toolkit” also includes planting political provocations, violating the airspace, disinformation, pressure campaigns in the energy sector, cyberattacks, aggressive propaganda, etc. It is highly likely that the Kremlin would not refrain from “going hard” on Poland, including using subversion, hybrid operations, or even military provocations. Regardless of its selected measures, Russia has one goal—to destabilize Poland and all of Central and Eastern Europe.

The issue discussed in this article clearly shows why the Poles are so sensitive about every single attempt to manipulate the history of their country. Poland has to defend its corner and protect its image. Apart from the preservation of historical truth from manipulation, the security of the whole country—its citizens and residents—is at stake here. The latter group includes a lot of Jews and Israelis. That is the reason why Poland and Israel should team up to tell the truth about the Holocaust, German crimes, and the attitude of the Poles toward the Jews. As a matter of fact, the stakes are high not only for the Poles.

Stanisław Żaryn is the spokesperson of the Minister-Special Services Coordinator and head of the National Security Department in the Chancellery of Poland’s Prime Minister.