Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
When politicians manipulate history for political purposes, we should worry. When they write laws, ordering prison terms for those who counter their version of history, we should challenge them.
Polish President Andrzej Duda just announced he will sign a controversial bill making it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in the Holocaust. The developments in Poland come at the intersection of two troubling trends taking place in many countries – the upsurge in Holocaust denialism and the political manipulation of the truth for political purposes.
Poland’s bill rises from a legitimate concern. After behaving in largely heroic ways during World War II, Poles are tired of hearing others blame them for the horrors of the Holocaust, some of whose worst chapters took place on their soil. The law aims to defend the “good name of Poland,” but instead it criminalizes talk about historical truths.
The Nazis built Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and other death camps there, murdering 3 million Polish Jews. The Poles, whose country suffered horrifically under Nazi occupation, have bristled when hearing people refer to “Polish death camps.” Soon using words such as these could land you in jail for three years.
The law will inevitably turn the world’s attentions to the fact that even though Poland resisted and fought the Nazis and many Poles risked their lives to help Jews, there were, indeed, Poles who actively helped the Nazis. That is a historical fact, recounted by people who survived the massacres.
Instead of drawing attention to the heroism of the Polish nation, the law will highlight the misdeeds of these individuals. So why would the government make such a foolish, counterproductive move? Because it’s good politics at home.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, a right-wing nationalist party that has steadily eroded democracy in Poland and is turning it into a magnet for xenophobes, has found an issue that resonates across the nation, and is exploiting it to inflame “patriotic” feeling. The more the world complains, the more Poland’s ruling party can boast of defending the nation against the world.
The United States has warned Poland of “repercussions” – or costs to its international relationships – if it does not reconsider the legislation, and its alliance with Israel – until now a close friend of Poland’s – is in crisis.
Israel’s centrist opposition leader, Yair Lapid, tweeted his condemnation of the proposed law, writing that “hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier.” When the Polish Embassy in Israel responded that the law was to “protect truth against such slander,” Lapid fired back, “I am a son of a Holocaust survivor. My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles. I don’t need Holocaust education from you.” The Israeli parliament is considering changing the law banning Holocaust denial to include “denying or minimizing the involvement of the Nazi helpers and collaborators.”
Poland’s efforts to rewrite history are a new twist on Holocaust denial, which is a perverse maneuver that always has political and ideological objectives but usually hides under the deceptive claims of pursuing historical accuracy.
Denial goes hand in hand with other forms of ideological extremism. Not surprisingly, Holocaust deniers don’t hate only Jews; they are also prejudiced against other minorities.
In the United States, a Holocaust denier and brazen anti-Semite is on track to become the Republican nominee for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District. Arthur Jones, a retired insurance salesman, has run for the seat seven times. This time no other Republican is on the ballot. His website describes the “Holocaust racket” as a Jewish scam, uses the Confederate flag as “a symbol of White Pride and White resistance,” and his blog blames leftists for the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where an admitted neo-Nazi has been charged with murder in the death of Heather Heyer, who was protesting against white supremacists.
Jones’ Holocaust denials are built, like all others, on falsehoods. The Holocaust is one of the most thoroughly documented events in history – with mountains of data, testimony, and artifacts demonstrating beyond question that the Nazis set out to annihilate Europe’s Jews, and nearly succeeded, killing 6 million of them, along with tens of thousands of homosexuals, hundreds of thousands of Roma (Gypsies), disabled people and others.
And yet deniers persist.
When Trump became President, many worried about how much he would empower the extreme right. After all, his top aide, Steve Bannon, had boasted of making his website, Breitbart, a platform for the so-called alt-right. Those fears appeared to be borne out after the inauguration, when the White House issued a statement marking Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not even mention Jews or anti-Semitism, instead referring to “innocent people.”
Since then, Trump has made something of a course correction. Bannon is out, and this year’s statement was what you would expect from a normal presidency.
And yet the disturbing memories of Trump’s reluctance to condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists at Charlottesville cannot be erased.
His rhetoric may have even empowered true bigots to act on their worst impulses. Anti-Semitic incidents surged in the first year of the Trump presidency. In the seven weeks after Charlottesville alone, the Anti-Defamation League counted more than 200 incidents.
More than 70 years after the end of World War II, the Holocaust remains a testing strip, providing warning signs that should not be ignored, whether in an Eastern European country or a congressional district in Illinois.