In an irony of ironies, Poland’s legislature has crafted a sort of Holocaust denial law which is, in itself, a form of Holocaust denial. The law would threaten three years in prison for anyone who accuses either the Polish state or Polish nation of being responsible for the Holocaust. It would outlaw, in particular, the phrase “Polish death camps.” It is as if the genocide has no geographical location. Rather, it could’ve happened in a far-flung galaxy. Essentially, the Poles are saying “someone did the Holocaust, but it wasn’t us.” I presume that “someone” means, the Nazis.
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But the law overlooks the fact that the Nazis were incredibly pragmatic and efficient in achieving their goals. They knew their jobs would be infinitely easier if they persuaded local inhabitants to aid them. In some countries in which an indigenous fascist government remained in power like Vichy France, Hungary, Italy, etc. the Nazis simply absorbed local officialdom into the process of genocide. In other countries, in which the Germans ruled as occupiers, they recruited like-minded locals to help with the dirty work. This is what happened in Holland, the Ukraine, Poland and other countries.
It is impossible to say the Polish state was responsible for the Holocaust because in effect there was no such state during WWII. But the Polish people? Indeed, Poles in the thousands, if not tens of thousands collaborated with the Nazis. In one terrible incident, they burned down a barn in Jedwabne filled with the remaining 340 Jews in the town (possibly as many as 1,600). There were hundreds of incidents in which Poles spied on or betrayed Jews in hiding. In many cases, they were paid handsomely by the Germans for their collaboration. In other cases, Poles acted out of anti-Semitic motives.
We should remember that even after the Holocaust, when Jews tried to return home from the camps, Poles threatened and sometimes even murdered them. As late as 1968, the Communist regime renewed the dark smears of Jew-baiting by purging Jews who had arisen to roles of prominence in the professions or Community Party. This resulted in the flight of thousands of remaining Jews, many of whom immigrated to Israel.
So to the question: is the Polish people responsible for the Holocaust? Yes, it is. Is it solely responsible? Of course not. The author of the genocide was clearly Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. But he could not have exterminated six-million Jews, including nearly 3-million Polish Jews, without the willing support of local populations like the Poles.
We should not make the mistake of Daniel Goldhagen who essentially claimed that all of German history led up to the Holocaust; that it was, in effect, bred in the bones of the German people and in its very DNA. That sort of sweeping generality isn’t true of Poland, as it probably wasn’t true of Germany. There were Poles who rescued Jews at great risk to themselves. There are Polish Righteous Gentiles designated by Yad Vashem.
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But the new Polish law is a form of Holocaust denial, a common malady afflicting neo-Nazis and Jew-haters everywhere. The Polish Law and Justice Party bears classic hallmarks of the worst of the far-right political parties ascendant in Europe today: it hates immigrants, especially Muslims; it hates democracy and a free press; it hates any locus of power outside of Poland itself (i.e. the EU); it loves the Church and a nostalgic version of Polish history.
In denying the role of Poles in the Holocaust it is assaulting truth and falsifying history. While no one assigns full blame to Poles, they committed unspeakable crimes. And enough of them did, that yes, the nation as a whole owes a debt to the victims; and a moral accounting to the world. Just the way Germany itself has done (while few other countries have).
There is something incredibly ironic and hypocritical about Bibi Netanyahu’s outrage regarding the new Polish Holocuast law. The Israeli prime minister makes common cause with every European fascist in sight including Marie LePen, Viktor Orban, Nigel Farrage and others. These aren’t liberal humanists by any stretch of the imagination. They are the political inheritors of the legacy of the Brownshirts. Some of them, like LePen come from a family of Holocaust deniers. Others couch their anti-Semitism in a thin veneer of populist anti-globalism, like Orban, who uses George Soros as his anti-Semitic dog whistle. So where does Bibi get off lecturing the Poles on Holocaust denial? If it weren’t for this law he’d be jumping into bed with them as well.
The truth is that Bibi loves European Nazis (and American as well) because he’s the Israeli equivalent of one. Just as the Euro-right are the inheritors of the Brownshirts, Bibi is the inheritor of Meir Kahane. Were it not for Kahane, there could not be a Netanyahu. Kahane is our Hitler and Bibi is his progeny.
Bibi’s enemy of course isn’t Jews, just as Hitler’s enemy wasn’t Germans per se. Though both hate/d leftists and liberal democrats with a profound passion. Instead, Bibi targets Palestinians and Muslims in ways that echo Hitler’s early attacks against Jews. Where we are headed no one knows.
But one thing I do know is that Meir Kahane today would be popularly acclaimed as Israel’s prime minister.