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Poland and Its Tormented Past

BLOG - 7 February 2018

Warsaw has passed a law to criminalize any mention of Polish responsibility in the extermination of Jews. Were it to be enacted, it would be the last sign of the populist drift of Central and Eastern Europe.

A people shows strength when it is capable of confronting the complexity of its history. It shows weakness when it adopts a defensive view of its past. In Poland, after the lower house, it was  the upper house’s (the Senate) turn to pass a law criminalizing any reference to Polish responsibility in the extermination of Jews during the Second World War. This law not only tackles an issue of the past. If it were enacted, it would change the present and condition the future of relations between Poland and its history, as well as between Poland and Europe. It would contribute to rebuilding a wall, which this time would be intentional, between the two Europes.

Regarding history, it is obvious that although the death camps were physically located in Poland, they were not Polish but Nazi. The unfortunate phrase "Polish death camp" used by President Obama himself - he immediately apologized afterwards - is simply inaccurate.

"The country has suffered too much to agree to be part, if only marginally, of the guilty, when it was in fact a triple victim: that of Nazi Germany, of Soviet Russia, and later of Communism."

Yet it is also clear that "some" Poles took part in the persecution and extermination of Jews. In his book "Neighbors", the American historian of Polish origin Jan Gross describes the massacre of hundreds of Jews by their Polish counterparts in the city of Jedwabne in 1941. More recently, the renowned historian Jan Gabrowsky, in his book "Hunt for the Jews" goes so far as to say that nearly 250,000 Jews were delivered to the Germans, as direct victims of denunciations and manhunts.

Though on a much larger scale, the debate in Poland is similar to that which emerged and is still ongoing today in certain circles in France. Should our country apologize to its Jewish fellow citizens for the 1942 Vel’ d'Hiv Roundup? According to Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand, "Vichy was not France". Jacques Chirac, François Hollande, and later Emmanuel Macron embraced the opposite stance - which to the author of these lines seems both more factual and more humane.

In Poland, the aim today is to criminalize any "deviance" in thought. The country has suffered too much to agree to be part, if only marginally, of the guilty, when it was in fact a triple victim: that of Nazi Germany, of Soviet Russia, and later of Communism. According to the new Polish leadership, the Nation’s unity and greatness do not allow for the introduction of gray areas in an uplifting historical narrative. Although there were three million Jews killed in Poland, there were also three million "purely" Polish victims.

"Aren’t Poland and Hungary getting closer to Russia than to France or Germany?"

In the aftermath of the fall of Communism, the new Poland’s priority was to get closer to Europe and its values. Warsaw was more ready than it is today to confront the black, or even simply gray aspects of its history, and thus to overcome them. Wasn’t it after all the normal price to pay to "return to Europe" and become a fully-fledged member of a club based on reconciliation and democratic values?

Today, in Western Europe, populists in power, as in Austria, remain the exception. In Central and Eastern Europe, after the reelection of Milos Zeman as President of the Czech Republic, populism is becoming the new norm, and “classic” liberal democracy almost the exception. Aren’t Poland and Hungary getting closer to Russia than to France or Germany? If this evolution is confirmed, the day may come when Poles and Hungarians will have to choose between Eastern and Western Europe. Unless, of course, the West joins the East in its populist drift.

Not long ago, the debate on values in Europe was only an issue with regards to Russia. Between the value of geography and the geography of values, the choice seemed crystal clear. Moscow was closer to Paris in mileage, but Paris was closer to Washington in terms of values. This question of values now threatens Europe’s unity. What should we do with countries that continue to accept our support, but vehemently and sometimes even provocatively reject our principles? We must certainly show some understanding for this part of Europe, as it has a different political culture and therefore finds it more difficult to apply democratic principles, since they haven’t been rooted in its culture by its history and geography.

"A day will come when "we" in turn will have to say to them: [...] do not rush to rebuild walls that you have had so much trouble demolishing."

The notions of balance of power and of rule of law as advocated by Montesquieu are at least intuitively understood, even by the current President of the United States. Donald Trump knows that he has to respect judges’ power and that he is not almighty against Congress. In 2018, with a populist majority in power, Poland no longer seems to know its limits, with some of its citizens going as far as denouncing Lech Walesa as "traitor to the Nation".

Not so long ago, Central and Eastern Europe were still looking up to Western Europe with hope and envy. Today, they are constantly trying to distance themselves from “us” and flag our weaknesses, whether regarding our "softness" on the refugee issue or our loose moral standards.

A day will come when "we" in turn will have to say to them: "If you really do find us too loose and decadent, go see elsewhere, towards Moscow. You can, like Russia, refuse to confront the complexity of your history. But do not forget that, strategically, the West is still protecting you and the East still threatening you. So do not rush to rebuild walls that you have had so much trouble demolishing."
 

Translated and published by kind permission of Les Echos 

 

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