Rewriting History in Eastern Europe

Poland's New Holocaust Law and the Politics of the Past

Supporters of the Holocaust bill gather in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, February 2018. Agencja Gazeta / Reuters

Last week, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a controversial law criminalizing statements that attribute responsibility for the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities to “the Polish nation.” In a televised speech, Duda said that the law protects Poland’s interests, dignity, and the historical truth, “so that we are not slandered.” The move sparked an outcry in Western countries. Human Rights Watch warned that it would have “a chilling effect on free expression.” Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, said that the Polish government should not attempt to “rewrite history.” And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the law “baseless.” “I strongly oppose it,” he said. “One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied.”

The law is just the latest part of a broader effort at historical revisionism. Last year, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (known as PiS) took over a World War II museum in Gdansk in an effort to restructure the exhibitions to emphasize Polish suffering and heroism. The museum’s director was fired, its advisory board was reshuffled to include right-wing pro-PiS historians, and an exhibit on contemporary conflicts across the world was replaced with a patriotic animation on Poland’s struggle from the beginning of World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union. PiS also began talk of requesting new reparations from Germany and started removing the “monuments of gratitude” to the Red Army erected by the Soviet Union after World War II.

Nor is Poland the only postcommunist country that has tried to reframe the history of its role in World War II and defend the part it played in the Holocaust. Hungary, Ukraine, and the Baltic states have all made similar moves. Critics of such policies say they falsify history; their defenders argue that they represent a normal and necessary part of state building or even valiant attempts to preserve historical truth. In reality, these developments have little to do with historical accuracy or state building. The recent rise

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