Poland Criminalizes Mentions of “Polish Death Camps”
Poland has formally enacted legislation criminalizing public statements suggesting that “the Polish nation was complicit in crimes committed by Nazi Germany” during the Second World War. Poland’s President, Andrzej Duda, signed the bill into law on Feb. 6, 2018, after it passed through both chambers of the Polish parliament. This occurred despite pressure from Israel and the United States amid widespread criticism from historians, journalists, and free speech advocates.
After re-gaining independence as the Second Polish Republic in 1918, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany on Sept. 1, 1939, thus starting the Second World War. Sixteen days later, the Soviet Union, per the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, invaded Poland from the east. Later that month, on Sept. 28, Poland’s capital, Warsaw, fell to German forces after a three-week siege. The last vestiges of Polish military forces capitulated on Oct. 6, 1939.
Polish territory was initially split between occupying Nazi German and Soviet forces. However, Nazi forces occupied all of Poland after the start of their invasion of the Soviet Union, which began in the summer of 1941. Nazi Germany then proceeded to construct six extermination camps in occupied Polish territory: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. These Nazi death camps killed approximately 2,700,000 Jews and other “undesirables” by the end of the Second World War.
Poles constituted the majority of the victims; rough estimates place six out of the 11 million victims as Polish citizens. About half of the six million were Polish Jews and the other three million were Polish Christians.
Poland has strongly objected to the use of terms like “Polish death camp” and “Polish concentration camp” since the atrocities of the Holocaust were discovered and published. Poles claim that this terminology implies that the camps were built by the Polish people instead of by the Nazi regime. Use of these controversial terms by politicians and the media — accidentally or otherwise — draws considerable protest from the Polish government, such as in 2012, when then-US President Barack Obama used the term “Polish death camp” in an award ceremony for a Polish resistance fighter.
Poland’s Oct. 2015 parliamentary elections delivered the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) control of both chambers of the parliament. The combined control of the Polish presidency — secured by PiS candidate Andrzej Duda in May 2015 — and the parliament, led the new government to enact a series of controversial policies, which have been accused by the European Union and the United States as illiberal and undemocratic.
On Jan. 26, 2018, the lower house of the Polish parliament — the Sejm — passed a bill to amend the “Act on the Institute of National Remembrance” to criminalize “claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or… otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes.” The bill establishes numerous punishments against transgressors, including fines, restrictions of liberty, or imprisonment of up to three years, although “artistic or academic activity” is exempt.
The Israeli government formally condemned passage of the bill, overshadowing annual ceremonies held on Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27. The Polish Senate passed the bill without amendment on Jan. 31 and sent the bill to President Andrzej Duda to sign.
President Duda signed the bill into law on Feb. 6, 2018, with the bill slated to take effect in three months. The Polish President stated that the bill “protects Polish interests… our dignity, the historical truth… so that we are not slandered as a state and as a nation.” However, in an apparent acknowledgement of the immense criticism of the bill, President Duda requested that Poland’s constitutional court consider the legislation and issue clarifications about unclear provisions of the new law.
The law has triggered a firestorm of criticism from numerous governments and organizations. Israeli government ministers condemned the bill as an instance of “Holocaust denial” while US State Department officials warned that the bill infringes upon free speech and could be used as a tool to target Holocaust survivors and historians. Multiple media outlets and academics depicted the bill as potentially having a chilling effect on open Holocaust discourse in Poland, including the issue of individual Poles who assisted or personally took part in the killing of Jews during the Holocaust. Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center expressed concern that the bill could “blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”
The Polish government, however, appears to remain unperturbed. On Feb. 6, President Duda denied any Polish institutional collaboration with “the German industry of death” while a war of words tinged with anti-Semitism erupted between Israeli and Polish political party officials during the following weekend. The Polish Prime Minister’s Office rolled out a “#GermanDeathCamps” online media campaign on Feb. 14, claimed by some to be an online propaganda effort to sway public opinion in favor of the new legislation.