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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