Poland, the Holocaust, and the Fight for Historical Truth

July 10 2018

At the end of June, Poland revised its controversial law that criminalized “publicly and untruthfully assign[ing] responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or the Polish state for Nazi crimes.” Thanks to the revision, violators would no longer be subject to prison terms—yet the law remains on the books. Arch Puddington argues that this piece of legislation closely resembles the totalitarian habit of trying to rewrite the past, which is still practiced today by Russia and China:

According to officials of [Poland’s ruling Law and Justice, or PiS, party], the law was made necessary by what they suggested were widespread references to “Polish death camps” a phrase that placed blame on Poles for Nazi atrocities. To describe this justification as disingenuous is an understatement. The phrase, “Polish death camps,” is inaccurate. But the phrase usually refers to Nazi camps located in Poland, like Auschwitz. Poles are not being stigmatized for the crimes of Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich.

Poland has been the victim during a number of Europe’s darkest chapters. But serious historians have generally treated Poland with sympathy and admiration, sympathy for its suffering and admiration for its heroism in the face of oppression, including resistance to the Nazis [and] rebellion against Soviet domination. . . .

The comments of PiS officials suggest that the real issue is not Polish death-camp references but historical writings that attempt to deal honestly with the complex relationships among Christian Poles, Jewish Poles, Nazis, and Soviets during the war period. To point to the role of Christian Poles in crimes against Jews clashes with a PiS nationalist story that seeks to minimize the role of non-Catholic Poles in the nation’s history. A similar phenomenon is under way in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has advanced a semi-official version of the country’s history that downplays such details as Hungary’s wartime alliance with Germany and the actions of the Arrow Cross, a fascist group, and the historical significance of the country’s Jewish population. . . .

In championing the death-camps law, the PiS government is ironically joining with [its] arch-enemy Russia [in embracing] historical revisionism. Indeed, the comments of PiS officials often echo those of Vladimir Putin and his acolytes. In both countries, there are comments to the effect that demands for a reinterpretation of history is evidence of a society “getting up off its knees.” There are also claims that the redefinition of history through state action is strengthening sovereignty. In fact, all the evidence tells us that regimes that demand mangled versions of history actually surrender a measure of sovereignty by ensuring that those who write honest accounts will be scholars from beyond the country’s borders.

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More about: Freedom of Speech, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Poland, Vladimir Putin

When It Comes to Syria, Vladimir Putin’s Word Can’t Be Trusted

July 13 2018

In the upcoming summit between the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki, the future of Syria is likely to rank high on the agenda. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has already made clear that Moscow won’t demand a complete Iranian withdrawal from the country. Donald Trump, by contrast, has expressed his desire for a complete U.S. withdrawal. Examining Moscow’s track record when it comes to maintaining its past commitments regarding Syria, Eli Lake urges caution:

Secretary of State John Kerry spent his last year in office following Lavrov all over the world in an attempt to create a U.S.-Russian framework for resolving the Syrian civil war. He failed. . . . President Trump [now] wants to get to know Putin better—and gauge his willingness to help isolate Iran. This is a pointless and dangerous gambit. First, by announcing his intention to pull U.S. forces out of the country “very soon,” Trump has already given away much of his leverage within Syria.

Ideally, Trump would want to establish a phased plan with Putin, where the U.S. would make some withdrawals following Iranian withdrawals from Syria. But Trump has already made it clear that prior [stated] U.S. objectives for Syria, such as the removal of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, are no longer U.S. objectives. The U.S. has also declined to make commitments to give money for Syrian reconstruction.

Without any leverage, Trump will have to rely even more on Putin’s word, which is worthless. Putin to this day denies any Russian government role in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Just last month, Putin went on Austrian television and lied about his government’s role in shooting down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Why would anyone trust Putin to keep his word to help remove Iran and its proxies from Syria?

And this gets to the most dangerous possible outcome of the upcoming summit. The one thing that Kerry never did was to attempt to trade concessions on Syria for concessions on Crimea, the Ukrainian territory that Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. There was a good reason for this: even if one argues that the future of Ukraine is not a high priority for the U.S., it’s a disastrous precedent to allow one nation to change the boundaries of another through force, and particularly of one that signed an agreement with the U.S., UK, and Russia to preserve its territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its cold-war-era nuclear weapons.

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More about: Crimea, Donald Trump, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin