Poland’s Holocaust law is about much more than anti-Semitism

Josef Gregory Mahoney and Piotr Sochon say that behind Poland’s controversial new law lurk some disturbing suspicions regarding the country’s Jewish community – but also anti-EU and anti-German sentiment, not to mention nationalist and economic concerns over potential Holocaust reparations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 3:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 3:23pm

The Polish legislature’s passage of the “Law on Institute of National Memory” on February 1 has provoked outcries of anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denying, especially from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with politicians up and down the Israeli political spectrum and elsewhere echoing his concerns. However, while anti-Semitism is a growing concern in Poland and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, and while it may well be an important subtext of this legislation, the bill has other targets and implications that have been neglected in the media.

While anti-Semitism is a growing concern in Poland, many of the law’s supporters are not anti-Semitic. The very swift and vocal opposition from Israel caught many Poles off guard and put them on the defensive. This is true both among the multitudes who observe each year the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by wearing yellow daffodils on their lapels, and in all likelihood includes others like Polish President Andrzej Duda, whose wife is the daughter of a well-known Jewish writer – despite the fact that he is closely associated with Law and Justice (known as PiS, the abbreviation for its name in Polish), the party currently in power and which passed the bill.

Nevertheless, the term “Jewish communism”, first used in the 19th century as a slur against Karl Marx’s ethnic background, has acquired contemporary, post-communist currency in some popular, non-official discourses, particularly among some supporters of PiS and others on the right. This term is linked to historical memories of what many Poles consider to be Poland’s second great tragedy, its domination by the Soviet Union following German defeat in the second world war.

Relatedly, some rightists believe that “Jewish people have betrayed Poland three times”: first, they are blamed for cooperation with the Soviets; second, for being Zionists and betraying the Soviet bloc in 1968; and, third, for corrupting the new politics that emerged in 1989, insomuch as some of the leaders who helped usher in that new period and a constitution were Jewish and are now targeted by some on the right, including prominent PiS leaders.

Indeed, perhaps the real aim here is to delegitimise the politics of 1989 in order to build a durable supermajority capable of passing a new constitution that would give PiS far-reaching powers, one of which would be complete “democratic control over the judiciary”.

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It should also be clear that Germany is likewise one of the main targets of the legislation. To be sure, many in Poland have winced over unfortunate and inaccurate references to German concentration camps based in Poland during the second world war as “Polish death camps”, and the last straw was probably when former US president Barack Obama used this term in a speech in 2012. PiS supporters have been at the forefront of this issue, first proposing similar legislation in 2013, when the current opposition party, Civic Platform, was in power. The anti-German stance becomes clearer when PiS supporters insist that the death camps be referred to as “German”, not merely “Nazi”, with the implication that the latter term avoids laying responsibility squarely on Germany.

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This anti-German stance shows up elsewhere as well, with PiS supporters frequently labelling pro-continent domestic opposition like Civic Platform as being “Merkel’s puppets”, in reference to long-serving German Chancellor Angela Merkel. There is a connection here to PiS’ anti-immigration position, insomuch as Merkel’s soft position on immigration is viewed by right-wing critics in Poland and other European countries as a type of atonement for Germany’s historical crimes, that in turn also affords Germany today a moral high ground and, through its power in the European Union, the ability to pressure others to acknowledge this and follow suit. This, of course, runs counter to the politics of nationalist parties like PiS that want to gain control over the historical narratives they view as justifying their brand of politics.

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A final issue is a growing effort in the United States to implement legislation that may make it easier to sue the Polish government for an estimated US$65 billion in property losses suffered by Jewish people during the second world war. While many in Poland believe this, in effect, would hold the Polish people accountable for German crimes, there is also a concern that this could ruin Poland economically. To make matters worse, Poland and PiS in particular, take many of their foreign policy cues from the US, and US support for those seeking compensation would greatly undermine this current pillar of Polish nationalism. Thus, in addition to an anti-Semitic undercurrent, an anti-Germany foreign policy and cross-currents in domestic politics, the threat of legally enforced compensation might be another reason why the Polish law was passed.

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Duda has yet to sign the bill into law and has some time to consider it before doing so. He faces incredible pressures at home to support it and, conversely, the opposite from abroad. Whichever path he chooses, in tandem with broader efforts afoot, puts him on the threshold of a new historical moment in Polish politics and international relations. Whether he signs it or not, the law might already have set a precedent to be followed by other countries in the region experiencing similar political developments.

Josef Gregory Mahoney is professor of politics and director of the International Centre of Advanced Political Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Piotr Sochon is a lawyer from Warsaw and is also based at the ECNU