When memory becomes a battleground

In Poland, a political crisis often resembles a street fight -- it quickly becomes an emotional affair with no strategy beyond immediate retaliation.

Ada Petriczko
Ada Petriczko NewsMavens, Poland
When memory becomes a battleground - NewsMavens
Rails leading to Auschwitz. Wikicommons.

These last few days, the Polish political scene has seen an array of political and diplomatic failures. In a baffling move, the parliament accepted a controversial new bill from the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), one that punishes anyone who implies that the Polish state or the Polish nation were complicit in the Nazi death machine. 

Why they chose to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day in this manner is not clear. The international scandal that has resulted, however, was certainly not part of the plan.

Nor was the fact that many people worldwide heard the phrase “Polish death camps” for the first time this week as a result of this debacle. According to Google Trends, on January 27 alone the search phrase was used by 23 to 28 million web users. Meanwhile, the phrase “German death camps,” was entered a million times. There was no need for Russian fake news -- Poland devised its own media massacre.

The draft of the bill was first introduced in 2016 but re-entered the political discourse at the end of January 2018 following news of neo-Nazi groups active in Poland. It was, in all likeliness, a strategic move meant to appease the Polish far-right, which cherishes the belief that Poles behaved impeccably during WWII.

However, what Jarosław Kaczyński -- the ruling party’s chief strategist and actual leader of the country -- seems to have forgotten, is that information travels fast these days. International media picked up on the news within minutes.

What was supposed to be a little treat for the far-right triggered an international diplomatic crisis.

Israelis were quick to respond. While their concerns were more than understandable, some reactions were just as short-sighted and hot-blooded as the sentiment behind the new Polish bill. Journalist and politician Yair Lapid, for instance, accused Poles of murdering his grandmother, even though it is  common knowledge that his grandparents came from Serbia and were murdered in KL Mauthhausen in Austria. 

In both Israel and Poland, the situation exposed prejudices that were thought deeply buried, but that were, in fact, festering just below the surface of a thin layer of diplomacy. As David Harris points out, the affair could soon become a textbook example of how solid diplomatic relations between two countries can be shattered in days.

What’s next, Poland? If we don’t act fast, a serious crisis in Polish-Israeli relations is sure to ensue. Especially as, according to the latest poll, support for Poland's ruling party went up by 6% and is at 49% now -- a level of support unprecedented since 1989.

The question I fear answered is why do these polls keep on going up?

If the new law passes, Poland will join democracy champions like Turkey and Russia, the only nations in Europe which penalize speaking up against one’s country. Needless to say censorship signals a state’s weakness, not strength.

The bill states that: “whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich [...] shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.”

Right, so as long as we’ve got the facts sorted, we’re covered? Not quite. Facts are social constructs. After all, new facts often erase old ones in our collective memory. And if a fact is a construct, then history is a narrative that can be interpreted and modified with time.

More than anything else, this situation exposes the conflict between the right and the left when it comes to history.

To the conservative majority, history is a powerful political tool and a source of identity. There is hardly a speech or an event that fails to mention Poland’s heroic and tragic past. We are either saviors and martyrs, or traitors. It is a one-dimensional, black and white vision of the past, typical of adventure novels and children’s literature.  

The left, on the other hand, wish to prove that Poland is a mature country that can admit its mistakes and grow from constructive criticism. And this is precisely why the new bill, which prohibits debate and penalizes any effort to start one,  is so scary to them. 

The Polish government calls for an end to “the indoctrination of shame”. But why not teach the importance of shame? Shame can be necessary to navigate a complex moral landscape. A nation that is shameless will never grow as it will perpetually hide from its uncomfortable truths. It will avoid debate instead of engaging in it. A childish approach indeed.

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