The Politics of Memory: ‘A Purposeful Ignorance and A Depoliticization of Public Discourse’

The Implications of the Polish Holocaust Law

By Sabrina Nordlund

Dr. Jobbitt weighs in: “There might be a significant number of Poles who are concerned about this, but they don’t have the tools to resist it.” Unfortunately dear reader, neither do you.

More and more often we are reading things in the news that force us to question: what is going on with the world? The latest in this string of news stories is the recent outlawing of discussions around the Holocaust in Poland. More specifically, the Polish government passed a law that makes discussing any Polish collusion with Nazi occupiers punishable by up to three years imprisonment. To someone completely new to the topic, it seems there are so many things wrong with this that we don’t even know where to begin. Is this a result of Holocaust deniers gaining political power? What does this say about free speech?

Immediately, readers might assume that this way of thinking is isolated to Poland. Journalists are quick to point to Poland’s complicated past as the reason for the law, implying that it has nothing to do with their Western reader. Unfortunately, stories like these do impact you. This is not to say that Poland’s own past has nothing to do with this new law, but rather that this trend of policing history is not unique to Poland or to this one instance. This is a global trend and it involves you.

The bill that brought the Polish Holocaust Law was proposed by Poland’s leading party, the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS). They argue that terms such as “Polish death camps” imply that Poland is responsible for the atrocities committed at the concentration camps. However, the law itself extends far beyond these realms of discussion, outlawing any mention of Poles being “complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.” Recent research has shown cases where anti-Semitism was felt strongly in occupied territory, and prompted people to aid the Nazis in their war crimes. Because the law outlaws any critical discussion or research into this aspect of the war, it has sparked outrage internationally, specifically from Israel and other prominent Jewish communities and organizations.

Since the fall of the USSR and the opening of archives, historians have had increased access to government documents and primary records that allow them to research extensively behind ‘the iron curtain.’ One such historian is Jan Gross, a prominent researcher who has documented the collusion of Poles with Nazi occupiers. This bill will not only silence the voices of historians like Gross, but also prosecutes those who critically discuss their research. Within hours of the legislation being passed a nationalist group, the Polish League Against Defamation, filed a case against the Argentinian newspaper Pagina 12 for using a photo of anti-Communist resistance fighters in an article about the Jedwabne pogrom, a massacre which saw more than 300 Jews killed by their Polish neighbours while under Nazi occupation in 1941.

There is a genuine fear that this law is blatantly trying to manipulate popular public understandings of Poland’s wartime experience along nationalist lines. What’s worse is that this tactic is not exclusive just Poland, where such attempts are made obvious by laws like the Holocaust Law. Across Eastern Europe, an extreme right-wing movement is growing, and the policing of research and history is rising with it. Dr. Steven Jobbitt of the Lakehead History Department has spent his academic career focusing on the history of contemporary Hungary. Since 2010, the extreme right-wing movement has been growing and is putting pressure on how Hungary presents its history. The opportunities for researchers on Hungarian history are growing increasingly limited, Dr. Jobbitt states: “My colleagues in Hungary, there are some who are just afraid … so instead of them focusing on that they’ll do something that’s safe, that’s not going to antagonize the government or the people… You can still do good academic work, but you’ve essentially been silenced.”

“I hope I’m wrong, but what if I’m right” is a common musing Dr. Jobbitt makes, as he grows increasingly concerned about the future of the discipline and what it means for the future of society. Historians today have to seriously consider where their funding will come from. Fewer history professors are hired on a full-time basis, causing a wealth of potential researchers who are spending time trying to make ends meet, rather than being able to research and contribute to the discipline. When professors are in classrooms their students are only half present, usually either because of drowsiness from working full time to fund their education, or because they’re simply distracted by technology. In an age where history classrooms are increasingly underfunded and undervalued, there is a real threat that state-controlled rhetoric could become commonplace, leading us down a dangerous path of forgetting the more complex and accurate stories of history.

What does this mean for you? It means that what you are learning about your history and the history of other countries is coloured by what the state wants you to know. Sounds like a conspiracy theory, doesn’t it? The policing of research has been a common occurrence throughout history and still persists today. It is no secret that our society is undergoing a massive shift with the technological revolution. The discipline of history does not yet know where it fits into this shift yet, but academics suspect it’s not a very good place. The policing of research has been a common occurrence throughout history and persists today, unfortunately we have never been so poorly equipped to respond.

Dr. Jobbitt recognizes that without adequate knowledge of the complex stories of history, it is easy for the public to buy into a certain narrative. “How would you even know when you’re being duped?” He asks, “How will you know where the holes are, where the silences are? You don’t. Because you just don’t have the tools to engage.” It is easy for our views to be molded and shaped by what we hear. If all you know about Poland is that they have a new Holocaust Law, any article you read about it and why that law exists becomes the truth for you. The reality is that the reasons for the Holocaust Law and the implications it has are far too complex for any journalist to explain in a 2,000 word article. Furthermore, many journalists are not held up to any historically literate standard: they aren’t required to give both sides of a story, and are oftentimes funded by political parties with a clear agenda. At a time when you believe technology is opening you up to more information, the very resources that encourage you to understand history in your own way are eroding, and so too is your ability to critically engage with the world around you.