Poland faces isolation over Holocaust bill

Poland faces isolation over Holocaust bill

Poland, along with its neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe, has recently received severe criticism from Brussels on its democratic backsliding and efforts to curb an independent judiciary, free press and other constitutional safeguards such as the rule of law.

The Law and Justice Party

The ruling Law and Justice Party has formed a de-facto alliance with the other Visegrad Four nations of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, in opposing EU refugee quotas, promoting illiberal democracy as an alternative to liberal democratic values, and in maintaining close ties with Russia that are alarming to western EU members. The Polish government’s latest controversial move can be viewed as an act of revisionist history with its passage of the ‘Holocaust Bill’, an effort to absolve the Polish state of any responsibility for the roundup and deportation of Jews to concentration camps during World War II. The bill also authorizes jail time for anyone convicted of even suggesting that Poland played an active role in the Holocaust. Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most notorious concentration camps where 1 million people were killed is located in Poland, and over 3 million Jews who lived in Poland were murdered by the Nazi regime.

Implications of the bill

The Law and Justice Party is unlikely to win over any hearts and minds in Brussels with this piece of legislation, which once again places Poland firmly on Europe’s periphery, with greater exposure to and influence from Moscow and Eurosceptic forces in the region. After the unprecedented threat of sanctions from Brussels over efforts to clamp down on the rule of law and an independent judiciary, there are legitimate arguments as to whether Poland would be admitted to the EU as a member state at the present time. The ‘Holocaust Bill’ serves to further alienate Central Europe’s largest economy from Western Europe, and the bill raises additional questions as to which elements of Polish history are seen as acceptable by the current government, which remains a fragile and dangerous precedent for nations in Central and Eastern Europe that are still coming to terms with their past in ways that more democratically developed nations such as France or Britain are not.

The bill also stands in sharp contrast to the way Poland’s neighbor to the west, Germany, has dealt with its tragic past in 20th century European history. Germany is now rightly seen as a model for learning to cope with and confront its difficult history, and unlike in the United States, Germany has banned the presence and symbols of Nazi and white supremacist propaganda from public forums. The Polish government has clearly decided to take a different route, prompting criticism from the Israeli ambassador, who decided to denounce the legislation at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. President Duda responded that Poland has a right to ‘defend ourselves from an evident slander, an evident falsification of historical truth’, namely regarding the phrase ‘Polish death camps’, which many Poles view as offensive and historically inaccurate.

Rewriting history

The ‘Holocaust Bill’ does not amount to Holocaust denial, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu claims, but it eliminates responsibility by the Polish state for crimes committed during the Holocaust, as Poland was under the control of occupying Nazi forces. The bill does, however, conform to a longstanding nationalist and populist streak within the Law and Justice Party, which in seeking to protect Poland’s image and place in European history, is actually further alienating it from the broader international community.

The act of “rewriting history” as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian noted, “is never a very good idea”, and the bill is particularly problematic if Holocaust survivors face possible criminal penalties for providing testimony that incriminates Poles. The Polish-Israeli relationship is in dire straits at the moment, with an advisor to President Duda accusing Jews of ‘passivity’ during the Holocaust, and claiming Israel is ‘fighting to keep the monopoly on the Holocaust’, a statement which has clearly anti-Semitic overtones.

Increasingly isolated

Poland has become more illiberal and authoritarian than other EU member states in recent years. However, anti-Semitism has been growing not only in Poland but across Europe, with attacks on synagogues and Jewish schools, most notably in France, as well as in the Nordic states, which have also suffered from a deterioration in ties with Israel. With the far right AfD as the second-largest party in the German Bundestag, the National Front retaining significant support in France, and the Sweden Democrats gaining a larger share of the votes, the liberal, more tolerant response will continue to be tested and viewed by the far-right as inadequate to their more nationalist and populist agendas. Some of these actors may see Poland’s Holocaust Bill as fuel to the fire of their cause.

However, European governments are very unlikely to bow to such pressures. Poland may be aiming to protect its image and safeguard its history, but the manner in which it is trying to do so is ultimately polarizing, destabilizing and harmful to relations with key European and Middle Eastern allies. Moreover, it stands in sharp contrast to Germany and its liberal democratic peers in the European Union who are willing to have an open and frank discussion of their histories without succumbing to nationalist and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Categories: Europe

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.