The news coming out of Warsaw last week was hard to believe. The story said Poland was passing a law that dictated what the citizens were allowed to say about the most monstrous event in Polish history, the genocide of millions of Jews by the Nazis, many of them on Polish soil.
What the Poles could especially not do was write (or speak) the phrase "The Polish death camps." Those prohibited words were written in the law. The Holocaust death camps of course were not Polish; they were German. But government officials believed (so they said) that this mistake was often made, so they were eager to denounce and abolish this falsehood, a vile accusation calculated to demean Poland.
No example of this now criminal mendacity has been cited in the current controversy. Is it possible that the business about "Polish death camps" is a fiction dreamt up by a bureaucrat to give the law a sense of legitimacy? The man behind this bizarre legislation, as he is the man behind many such things in Poland, is Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland's de facto leader, head of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) Party, a right-wing populist (and now popular as well), national-conservative and Christian democratic faction.
The law he's set in motion is much more complicated than the first reports said. The text reads: "Whoever publicly and untruthfully assigns responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or the Polish State for Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich ... or for other crimes constituting crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, or war crimes ... is subject to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years."
This means, apparently, that citizens cannot criticize any other Polish crimes against humanity, even something the government may be committing right now, or next week. It's a screen that potentially hides government atrocities.
Inna Rogatchi, a scholar and filmmaker, finds the government's explanation hard to credit.
"After all," she says "everybody knows that the camps were a Nazi operation. No one thinks they were Polish. But the Polish legislators have used the argument over that phrase as a cover for a far more important part of this law." She believes most Polish media, the government and many Poles are stubbornly presenting an inaccurate picture of the new law. They are trying to insist that the whole thing is about one phrase denoting who built the concentration camps, and while doing so, are positioning themselves as the main victims of the Second World War.
Polish authorities seem anxious to show that Poles were not only innocent of building death camps, they were also innocent of a more common crime, anti-Semitism. A recent book on pre-1940 Poland, Primed for Violence: Murder, Anti-Semitism and Democratic Politics in Interwar Poland (University of Wisconsin Press), by Paul Brykczynski, effectively tells a quite different story.
In 1922, the newly created Republic of Poland democratically elected its first president, Gabriel Narutowicz. Less than a week later, he was assassinated. In the wake of these events, the radical right argues that only "ethnic Poles" should be allowed to run for office.
Telling this story, Brykczynski explores the complex role of anti-Semitism, nationalism and violence in Polish politics. While dealing mainly with Poland, he reveals the rise of the anti-Semitic right in eastern Europe.
Narutowicz, a professor of hydroelectric engineering, was elected with the support of a Jewish party. His Jewish backing infuriated anti-Semitic right wingers, who staged bloody riots in Warsaw and demanded that he resign. Instead he was assassinated, shot by Eligiusz Niewiadomski, an artist, while visiting an exhibition. Niewiadomski had connections with the right-wing National Democratic Party.
During his trial, he said he feared that the Jews were bringing socialism to Poland, making the country into "Judeo-Poland," a place (he said) without moral values. He had acted, in his view, as a true patriot. He had wanted to kill Józef Pilsudski (the revolutionary socialist) but believed that assassinating his ally was "a step in the fight for Polishness and for the nation."
Niewiadomski was sentenced to death and executed outside the Warsaw Citadel. Some right-wingers saw him as a hero and praised his patriotism. His grave became a shrine and that year more than 300 babies baptized in Warsaw were named Eligiusz. Anti-Semitism played a potent role in the politics of Poland, then as now.