One can be too naive about the “marketplace of ideas.” The power of rhetoric and the cognitive limits of our species ensure that there are no flawless means of finding let alone promoting truths. Still, I think it’s accurate to say the most damage to the reputation of the crank historian and Holocaust denier David Irving was done not by his prosecution and imprisonment in Austria but by the careful, devastating deconstruction of his work by genuine scholars.
On a practical as well as moral level, then, I disagree with prohibitions of historical ideas, from the ban on Holocaust denial that exists throughout most of continental Europe to the law against assertions of national complicity in the Holocaust that’s soon to take effect in Poland. Questions should be asked and answered without fear of punishment, and falsehoods should be contradicted, not prohibited. And while as a foreigner I accept the right of the Polish people to allow and prohibit whatever speech they like, I think it is misguided. Poland is strong enough to bear, and respond to, accusations against its national history. When, for example, Barack Obama lazily referred to “Polish death camps” in 2012, the then-president sent a letter of apology.
Nonetheless, one should be empathetic enough to appreciate the pain Poles feel when they are lumped in with the Nazis. Poland, after all, lost millions to Hitlerian oppression. Generalplan Ost aimed to eliminate the Polish people, and men, women, and children died in brutal massacres. At the time of the Warsaw Uprising, for example, tens of thousands of Polish civilians were butchered in the Wola district. As a reward for his work, the leader of the German soldiers—the psychopathic, pedophilic Oskar Dirlewanger—was nominated for the Iron Cross.
Poles did much to save Jewish victims from the Nazi genocide. More are members of the Righteous Among the Nations than men and women of any other country. There were Poles who collaborated with the occupiers, but that was the case wherever jackboots trod. There were hideous examples of anti-Jewish violence after the war, but they were by no means the national norm.
Poles have faced a series of colourful libels against their national character. The Times columnist Giles Coren once wrote a piece claiming the grandfathers of Polish immigrants “used to amuse themselves…by locking Jews in the synagogue and setting fire to it,” and responded to complaints with “F**k the Poles.” It is inconceivable that a writer who used such slurs with regard to people of other ethnicities could maintain his influential and profitable career, yet Coren has. Kate Maltby, writing for the Guardian, claimed it was a disingenuous maneuver by the Polish government to take Prince William and his wife to Stutthof concentration camp rather than Auschwitz because the former was “initially built to imprison ethnic Polish leaders among the resistance and intelligentsia.” Such is the ignorance of Western Europeans to Central and Eastern European suffering that Maltby was unaware that Auschwitz was also initially used to imprison Poles.
There has been a perverse compulsion among Western European and American commentators to suggest that Poland and other Central and Eastern European societies are bigoted and backwards. And criticisms of their governments have blurred into libels of their peoples. When a march took place in Warsaw on Independence Day last year, for example, Western commentators claimed that “60,000 Nazis“—”fascists and white supremacists” to a man—had been marching. It was left to local commentators to observe that “neo-Nazis, white supremacists and overt fascists” had been “a small minority.”
Such hysteria has now erupted again. The American Jewish group the Ruderman Family Foundation released a video that featured men and women barking “Polish Holocaust!” and ended with the ludicrous demand that the United States, which is allied with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, sever ties with Poland. The American Jewish Committee condemned the video and it was retracted but it spoke to the need for a cooling of the rhetorical temperature. Historical wounds on both sides should be acknowledged and respected.
None of that is meant to soften my words against censorship. I believe most people see through the media hysteria and casual slurs, and that Poles need not fear their acceptance. Nor am I claiming that there are no ahistorical, chauvinistic perspectives in Poland—there are, including the MP who claimed that Jews were unanimous supporters of the Soviets, and asked if a single Pole had ever been saved by a Jew. (He perhaps was unaware that hundreds of the victims of Katyn were Jewish, and that when the Home Army opened the Warsaw Concentration Camp during the Uprising, many Jewish prisoners took up arms and joined the fight.)
Still, while defending the right to free inquiry and free expression, Westerners should acknowledge the injuries that have been done to Polish people, and avoid a patronizing and fearmongering perspective on their current political situation. Such a tone encourages defensiveness and does nothing in the service of the truth.
Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He was written for The Conservative, Quillette, Areo, and The Catholic Herald.