By Katharina Geiselmann

The Polish Sejm has passed a Law at the beginning of this year, which makes it illegal to blame Poles for any crime committed during the Nazi occupation. Even though it also covers crimes committed during the Communist era (and war crimes by Ukrainian nationalists), it came to be known as “The Holocaust Law” in the debate that it sparked all around the world. This shows not only the sensitivity of the topic of the Holocaust, but also that 73 years after the victory over the Nazis, it seems the different Holocaust narratives are rather dividing than uniting Europe. Can, and should a consensus be reached when it comes to Holocaust memory? Or is the motto united in diversity a legitimate solution for the European memory? Especially the latest EU-enlargement challenges the concept of a common European memory, as the Western countries have agreed on their memory more or less, while new members have not been included yet, and bring other, fresher memories to the table: the communist past. Considering that the Holocaust, however, is said to be part of the European memory as negative founding myth[1], in cooperating Eastern narratives and agreeing on what and how the Holocaust is to be remembered is an integral part of the integration process.

One should think it is easy to find a consensus on the basic facts. The categories of who the victims, who the perpetrators, and who the bystanders were, should be relatively easy to decide. Yet, the Holocaust Law was precisely said to be drafted to avoid the blurring of lines between the perpetrators and the victims. The language in which we talk about the Holocaust then, is the problem. More specifically, the term “Polish Death Camps” was said to imply the Polish were complicit in the Nazi crimes. In fact, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance launched a campaign to make sure it is recognized that this is not the case, for example by spreading the video “The Unconquered”, portraying the suffering and heroism of Poles. Trucks with the script “German Death Camps” in the colors of the German flag and “#Respect us, Poles saved over 100 000 Jews” were seen all around the world. I argued in a paper written for the Intensive Programme in June 2018 that because the term “Polish Death Camps” has an ambiguous semantical meaning, as the adjective here can denote the location of the camps, as well as imply who was running them, the Law itself can hardly be enforced, as anyone can argue that they used the term with the first meaning in mind. Secondly, looking at the Law itself, vague concepts such as “the Polish nation” hint at the fact that the Law might have never been meant to be enforced.[2] It becomes apparent here that the Polish government is using the Law as a message, either to the domestic or the international audience. In the debate around the Law they are painting a picture of Polish heroism and enforcing a narrative of victimhood.

This is where the Polish narrative differs from others. For most, the victims of the Holocaust were the almost 6 million Jews.[3] Poles, on the other hand, are fighting for an inclusion in the category of victims. In the debate around the Law, Polish officials are narrating a story in which Poles are in the same category as Jews. Similarly, some in the US Polish-American community are fighting for the term ‘Holocaust survivor’ to be applicable not just to Jewish victims, but also to Poles and Christians, as “they believe—not without reason—that if they are denied that name, their suffering will not be perceived by the Americans”.[4] Many (especially Western Europeans) might say, that the resurgence of nationalism is responsible for this focus on the status as victim, period. Auschwitz-BirkenauHowever, one must look beyond superficial judgements, and consider the link between Holocaust memory and Polish national identity. Euroculture lecturer – and Director of the Centre for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University (Krakow) – Prof. dr. hab. Zdzisław Mach explains that because a movement in the 19th century arose which saw Poles as the ‘Christs of the nations’, “admitting that Poland bears any guilt would wreck the whole structure on which the ethnic and romantic version of Polish national identity rests”.[5] It seems then that by forbidding anyone to blame Poles for Nazi-crimes, and seeking recognition for the suffering of Poles, the collective Polish identity is sought to be strengthened.

One tool for this is also the strategy of Othering Germans. Polish officials in the debate have focused to a great extent on the real perpetrators of the Holocaust, and on what they have done to Poles. Indeed, scholars in the debate have often expressed their concern for Polish bilateral relations. One would expect the Law to at least raise eyebrows in Berlin. However, the only official response the Law received was a short and passionless statement by Sigmar Gabriel, who assured the Poles that “it was the Germans” who were the perpetrators.[6] National newspapers, according to a study I conducted for an earlier paper, indeed covered the Law but framed it as an issue that concerned Jewish communities, Israel, the US, but never mentioned any impact on Germany. Of course, in these newspapers, one talked about Nazis, not Germans, further distancing themselves from the past. I believe that when one looks closer at the German collective memory, one finds that the often praised successful Vergangenheitsbewältigung (i.e. dealing with one’s past) is not as successful as thought, if it has indeed happened, and that the country is slowly but surely, like a pool with water, filled with, how Cohen calls them, “Get on with it-attitudes”.[7] The German collective memory seems flawed in the way that it includes the Holocaust very much, but as something of the past and not-to-be-negotiated, with no effect on the present. Trying to revive or negotiate history, or stressing its implications for the present, for example Poland demanding war reparations from Germany[8], will only increase the water pressure. Similarly, calling out Poles who argue for an inclusion in the category of victims, will only fuel the rhetoric of ‘everyone is attacking us’. It is indeed a tricky situation.

All in all, it seems there was not much uproar in Germany or EU about the politics in Poland. This leads me to the question of whether Poland is trying to re-negotiate a common European memory more inclusive of the Eastern experience. The trucks seen all around the world and the video about who the “unconquered” Poles (one should note that it was in English, and thus not intended only for the domestic audience), shows that there is a wish to be heard abroad. It is also a fact, that other post-communist countries show the same focus on transmitting an image of their nations suffering across the borders. In theory, a Europeanizing public sphere should be the platform to contest and discuss memory, thus shaping a common one. If this Law is interpreted as an attempt of negotiation, the Western countries, who have already agreed on their narrative, have blocked Poland from shaping the memory. Instead, the historians involved in this debate have been the most engaged. Subsequently, they have enormous power in shaping a European memory. This also means that the shaping of European memory is not confined to European borders. One of the most prominent scholars (who was accused of “slandering the Polish nation” in his book about anti-Semitism in Poland)[9], Jan Gross, lives in the US. That the Law has sparked a debate around the world, but received scarce responses in Europe, points to a public sphere that is not functioning in a way beneficial to EU integration.

Discussing a common memory means agreeing on a common identity. In this way, the Holocaust brings enormous potential, as absurd as it seems, to unite the EU. If the post-communist European countries are supposed to be integrated in the EU[10], the old Member States need to be willing to enter an open dialogue. In no way do I intend to diminish the role of the Law as tool of the Polish government to use the past to their advantage, showing their voters that they are fighting for the Poles. But in the current state of the EU, it is obvious that if this project is to not just survive, but for the countries to grow together, Western countries need to look beyond the memory politics and genuinely be interested in what the Poles and other post-communist countries experienced, and how their national memory and identity was formed.

[1] Leggewie, “A Tour of the Battleground”, 219.
[2] Of course, it was tried to be enforced in the case of an Argentinian newspaper. However, Law legally cannot apply to the whole world, as it is Polish legislation. Thus, one would have to find an instance in Argentina that wants to sure the newspaper. Interestingly, the punishment for using the term “Polish Death Camps” of up to three years prison was removed from the law after international pressure in June.
[3] Wolenski, “Executioners“, 267.
[4] Krajewski, “Speaking about the Holocaust,” 243.
[5] Mach, “Poland’s National Memory,” 64.
[6] “Foreign Minister Gabriel on the Holocaust legislation in Poland.” Federal Foreign Office.
[7] Cohen, Germans, 116.
[8] “Polish lawmaker,” Reuters.
[9] “Anti-Semitism Book Could Land Historian in Jail”, Spiegel Online.
[10] Of course this issue is also highly relevant for the accession of further Eastern European countries.

This article was written as part of a series; it is based on a paper written by the author within the framework of the Euroculture Intensive Programme, held in Krakow in June 2018. To read more about the IP 2018 and its theme “Where is Europe?”, click here.

Featured picture credit: Krzyż na sali obrad Sejmu RP, Piotr Drabik.

Smolensk EU EP commemorative ceremony
European Parliament commemorative ceremony for victims of Smolensk disaster (credit: European Parliament): an attempt to “Europeanise” a national tragedy?


Main sources used for the article:
“Foreign Minister Gabriel on the Holocaust legislation in Poland.” Federal Foreign Office, February 4, 2018.
“Anti-Semitism Book Could Land Historian in Jail.” Spiegel Online, January 18, 2008.
“Polish lawmaker: due reparations from Germany could stand at 850 billion.“ Reuters, March 2, 2018.
Cohen, Yehuda. Germans: Absent Nationality and the Holocaust. Garnet Publishing Ltd, 2010.
Krajewski, Stanislaw. “Speaking About the Holocaust in Today’s Poland.” In The Holocaust. Voices of Scholars, edited by Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, 233-244. Cracow, 2009.
Leggewie, Claus. “A Tour of the Battleground: The Seven Circles of Pan-European Memory.” Social Research (2008): 217-234.
Mach, Zdzisław. “Poland’s National Memory of the Holocaust.” In The Holocaust. Voices of Scholars, edited by Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, 61-72. Cracow, 2009.
Wolenski, Jan. “Executioners, Victims and Bystanders.” In The Holocaust. Voices of Scholars, edited by Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs, 267-278. Cracow, 2009.

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