Report

Eastern European Laws on World War II History Spark Congressional Reaction

Will a letter sent by concerned lawmakers encourage leaders to change course or further polarize politics?

Rep Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks at a rally on April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for MoveOn.org)
Rep Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks at a rally on April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for MoveOn.org)

What countries in Eastern Europe might have once assumed were domestic debates over World War II history are spilling over into major international disputes and causing problems for their relations with the United States.

Last month, more than 50 members of Congress sent a letter to the State Department that expressed concerns about “state-sponsored Holocaust distortion and denial.” The lawmakers note that both Poland and Ukraine recently passed laws relating to World War II history and claim these are connected to rising incidents of anti-Semitism.

The April 23 letter has drawn ire and sparked debate in Poland, Ukraine, and certain academic and political circles in the United States.

The letter writers, almost all Democrats, “respectfully request that you respond to our serious concerns with a detailed description of what actions the State Department is taking to work with the Polish and Ukrainian governments, and other governments in the region, to combat the rise of anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial and distortion.”

At issue for lawmakers are pieces of legislation passed in Poland and Ukraine relating to World War II history. The laws now put two Western allies — Poland is a member of NATO and Ukraine receives U.S. aid — in a difficult position: The two governments need advocates in the U.S. Congress, but they are also benefiting from domestic support for their respective legislation.

The Ukrainian law, passed in 2015, recognizes certain political organizations and individuals as “fighters for Ukrainian independence.”

Among these were the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which were involved in violence against Jews and Poles. In a 1941 manifesto, the wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists led by Stepan Bandera, a World War II partisan revered by some in Ukraine, raised a call to “liquidate undesirable Poles, Muscovites, and Jews.”

The congressional letter also cites recent incidents of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, including the use of Nazi salutes at a march honoring the 75th anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army last November.

Three years after Ukraine, Poland passed its “Holocaust law,” criminalizing accusations of the Polish nation being complicit in Nazi atrocities. Polish wartime leaders did not collaborate with the Nazis, though individual Poles did. How many and to what degree is the subject of rigorous academic debate.

Both the U.S. State Department and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, criticized the threat the law poses to free speech and discussion. The Israeli government said the law was akin to Holocaust denial.

The Polish law provoked outrage in Israel and the United States, and brought the earlier Ukrainian law back into view. It also attracted congressional attention, including from Democrats David Cicilline, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ro Khanna, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

Khanna, from California, says he has a large Israeli expatriate constituency, and he also expresses concerns that the U.S. government is sending arms to the government in Ukraine, which, in turn, supports a neo-Nazi battalion.

“[Ukranian President Petro] Poroshenko himself doesn’t have Nazi sentiments — his government has provided aid to the Azov Battalion,” Khanna says, referring to an entity of the Ukrainian National Guard with neo-Nazis in its ranks. “That battalion has very much engaged in incidents in neo-Nazism.” (A provision by Khanna tacked on to a recent aid package to Ukraine bars that aid from going to the Azov Battalion.)

Yet Khanna’s own views on Ukraine break with other members. He says current U.S. policy toward Ukraine should be more restrained and says that the United States should not have supported the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-backed president of Ukraine who was removed from power by Ukrainians in the 2014 revolution. “I think that strategic blunder cost us Crimea.”

Cicilline disagrees with the idea that the United States should move toward a more restrained foreign policy in Ukraine, saying, “I don’t share that view. I think we have an opportunity and I think Ukraine is an emerging democracy.”

A State Department spokesperson wrote in an email to Foreign Policy, “As always, the Department will respond to Congressional correspondence as appropriate.’’

Some think the congressional letter was long overdue. “As Ukrainian Jewish Committee director I feel highly encouraged by the House letter,” Eduard Dolinsky, the director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, said in a statement. “Ukraine is trying to build new and democratic society, but nevertheless Ukraine’s Jewry faces difficult challenges counteracting attempts of glorification of those who participated in the brutal murder of one and a half million of Ukrainian Jews.”

The governments of Poland and Ukraine have both denied the claims of anti-Semitism made in the letter.

“Sir, I would appreciate if you indicated a single law passed in my homeland Poland (recently or not), which glorifies Nazi collaborators and/or denies Holocaust,” Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki tweeted in response to Khanna.

Neither the Polish nor Ukrainian Embassy responded to a request for comment.

A congressional staffer familiar with the issue expressed skepticism over lumping Poland and Ukraine together — Poland considers the groups lauded by the Ukrainian law to be murderers.

Georgiy Kasianov, a Ukrainian historian who looks at national memory, says that the letter was too genera, and got specifics wrong. For example, the letter alleges Holocaust denial; these laws don’t deny the Holocaust (though other experts note that Holocaust denial includes denying participation in its perpetration).

Further, while there is anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Kasianov says, it isn’t manifesting itself as the letter says it does. “Xenophobia is not just about anti-Semitism,” he says, pointing also to Russophobia and anti-Polonism.

Even supporters of the letter, such as historian Jared McBride, wish it had been framed differently.

“There are a lot of other things at stake here. As a scholar, I would have liked the letter to focus more broadly on the issue of free speech,” he says, later adding that memory laws are detrimental to it.

In any case, the letter does not appear to have induced either the Polish or Ukrainian governments to change their laws or positions on their pasts. And so far, it isn’t having an immediate impact on U.S. policy.

On Monday, congressional concerns aside, it was reported that the first set of anti-tank javelin missiles arrived in Ukraine, its memory laws intact.

Update, May 6, 2018, 3:10 pm: This post has been updated to clarify the definition of Holocaust denial. 

Emily Tamkin is a foreign affairs reporter at BuzzFeed. She was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2016-2018. @emilyctamkin

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