When Poland’s nationalist government passed a bill last week criminalizing use of the phrase “Polish death camps” in reference to concentration camps German Nazis ran in Poland during World War II, they never expected the firestorm it would provoke in Israel and the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the law as “baseless,” saying, “the Holocaust cannot be denied,” while the U.S. State Department said it undermined free speech. Pressure has mounted on Warsaw to rethink its legislation.
Poland’s leaders have had to put on a brave face and bluster their way through the storm without appearing to back down. After all, the ruling Law and Justice party represents an authoritarian-minded and nationalistic right-wing electorate that will forgive anything except perceived weakness — and which does include some anti-Semites. This is why the government in Warsaw has consistently tolerated demonstrations such as last November’s Independence Day march in which far-right groups led tens of thousands of people, some carrying banners demanding a “White Europe” with “Pure Blood.” Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak later described the march as a “beautiful scene” and when queried about the racist slogans told reporters he “didn’t see” them.
Polish President Andrzej Duda has spent the past few weeks engaged in a balancing act to appease his hard-line base while leaving the door open in a way that has calmed official Israeli criticism for the moment. He eventually signed the controversial bill into law this week, but he simultaneously requested that the government-controlled Constitutional Tribunal review it to ensure that the law fully complies with Polish freedom of speech rights, opening the door to amendments. While the Israeli government has acknowledged this gesture, emotions continue to run high on the ground there, with dozens of Holocaust survivors protesting the signing of the bill outside the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv on Thursday, carrying signs bearing slogans such as “No law can erase history” and “Poles, we remember what you did.”
Poland’s government is terrified of a long-lasting confrontation with Israel, mainly because of the clout it has with the United States, which it considers Poland’s only real guarantor of security against an aggressive Russia. Having alienated Western European powers such as Germany and France with its aggressive nationalist rhetoric and consistent flouting of European Union democratic norms, Warsaw retains Washington as its only powerful friend.
Poland is therefore desperate to reach a compromise with Netanyahu’s government on a law it produced purely for domestic purposes. Poland’s government expected the bill to go largely unnoticed abroad, clearly underestimating the furious reaction in Israel, both from the public and Netanyahu himself, a man Warsaw considers an ideological ally.
Law and Justice came to power in 2015 on the back of a parliamentary campaign that openly stoked fears of the 7,000 predominantly Muslim refugees the sitting Polish government had agreed to accept in the EU’s relocation program. They argued the refugees would bring terrorism, sharia, and epidemics to Poland. Ever since, this electoral strategy has proved remarkably effective with Polish voters, and the party has positioned itself as a player on the team of Netanyahu’s Israel and Donald Trump’s America: defenders of Western Judeo-Christian civilization from the fanatical Islamic barbarians of the East and their politically correct Western liberal apologists blind to the danger they pose.
This is the ideological configuration in which Poland’s ruling party feels comfortable and that it believes brings the greatest political advantage on the domestic and international front. This is why its leaders were very proud of Trump’s visit to Warsaw last year, busing in friendly crowds for his speech and nodding approvingly when the U.S. president declared Western civilization under attack, saying, “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.”
This is why in 2017, party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski described Israel as the “frontier embassy of our [Western] civilization … the most humane civilization that has ever existed.” For Kaczynski and his party, the real enemies are those they consider not part of the Judeo-Christian civilization and, of course, the Western liberals whose political correctness has left it vulnerable.
However, despite praising Israel at events commemorating the Holocaust, Kaczynski has often sent different messages to his electorate. Domestically, Law and Justice has embarked on a national reorientation project aimed at entrenching a Polish identity built on ideas of collective moral purity and superiority. According to Kaczynski, the first step to accomplishing this is to rid his fellow citizens of the “‘pedagogics of shame,’ the tendency that has dominated Poland over the past 20 years.”
As he tells it, “anti-Polish” foreign elements aided by treacherous homegrown liberals have constructed a narrative in which “responsibility for the Holocaust has been internationalized, with particular emphasis on Poles.” This will be “resisted decisively,” he promised after his party won power. Kaczynski was alluding to accounts by Holocaust historians such as Jan Gross, a prominent Jewish professor born in Poland, who in 2001 wrote a book called Neighbors, describing in graphic detail the 1941 Jedwabne massacre by Polish villagers of up to 1,600 Jewish men, women, and children who were locked up in a barn and burned alive. As part of fulfilling Kaczynski’s promise to “resist” this “anti-Polish” narrative, in 2016, President Duda considered stripping Gross of the Polish Order of Merit he had been awarded in 1996.
The current controversial bill is the latest effort to fulfill Kaczynski’s promise, part of Law and Justice’s project to entrench a new Homo polonicus, unburdened by self-doubt and bothersome feelings of guilt, but empowered in the knowledge he is part of a nation that has never departed the moral high ground.
This is why the current Education Minister Anna Zalewska could not bring herself to admit Polish involvement in the massacre during a 2016 television interview, saying instead that the pogrom was “a historical fact that has led to many misunderstandings and very biased opinions.” Accounts of what happened are “contested,” she insisted. With regards to the 1946 Kielce pogrom, the deadliest postwar attack on Polish Jews, Zalewska blamed “anti-Semites” but seemed unwilling to admit those anti-Semites were Poles. These discursive acrobatics are part of Kaczynski’s determination to rid Poles of the “pedagogy of shame,” replaced with an unquestioning pride in Polishness. Whereas religion emphasizes the perfection of God, Kaczynski’s nationalism has replaced God with the nation. Whatever the actions of nationals, the nation remains infallible. It is not anti-Semitism that drove Law and Justice to pass its controversial law, merely the desire to affirm the moral purity of the Polish nation.
But there are some critics whom even Kaczynski fears. Like all authoritarian movements, Poland’s ruling party is dominated by people ever-ready to lash out at those they consider too weak to defend themselves, but they are very fearful of tangling with the strong. They feel safe bashing Muslim migrants; they face no serious consequences for that. They feel confident mocking EU elites for “blind political correctness” because they know the latter’s distaste for public confrontation.
But they also know that the days when Jews could be treated scornfully without social and political consequences — the way they treat Muslim migrants today — are well and truly over. The Israeli government is strong and willing to defend the issues it cares about very fiercely. And they realize that should push come to shove, Washington would never choose Poland over Israel. So Poland’s ruling party is running scared. It has saved face with its supporters by the president signing the bill, but behind the scenes, its members will be making desperate efforts to seek a compromise with Israel in the next few weeks.
It is thus possible that the legislation will be watered down, perhaps to a much more precise definition of what exactly it means to accuse Poland of co-responsibility for the Holocaust, leaving the Polish government with just enough to present the law as a moral trophy to its nationalist supporters. From their perspective, this symbolic declaration of Polish innocence will be enough to boost their patriotic credentials while leaving Poles with a lighter conscience over the events of World War II.
Perhaps the greatest lesson from this incident should be learned by the technocrats in Brussels, who have long seemed at a loss when it comes to dealing with an aggressive Polish government that has consistently flouted EU democratic norms and the rule of law ever since taking power more than two years ago. Poland is the largest beneficiary of EU development funds while contributing just 3 percent of the economic bloc’s overall GDP. It is worth reminding the Law and Justice government of this reality from time to time. Poland needs the EU more than the EU needs Poland.
Decisiveness and strength are the only signals the current authorities in Warsaw really respect. If the Polish government is confronted firmly and with a credible threat of consequences, it might maintain its bluster in public to save face with its nationalist electorate, but behind closed doors it will likely sing a far more compromising tune.