Blogs > Cliopatria > Clean Hands

Jun 26, 2007 4:30 pm


Clean Hands



[Crossposted at The Rhine River.]

What's in a name? NPR reported last week on how the Polish government wants to change the name of Auschwitz in order to emphasize that it was a German camp, not a Polish camp. According to the story, the Polish government feels that the extermination camp is mistakenly associated with Poland, because it lies on Polish soil. Much of the story concerns how UNESCO is handling the request, mostly focusing on contentious issue with regard to what kind of heritage site it is--a memorial, a museum?

For the life of me, I can't think of any time when I encountered someone who made this mistake. Sure, it was a German extermination camp, and no one would contend with that. However, NPR missed an opportunity to reveal how the current ruling duo on Poland, the Kaczynski brothers, suspected of fascist leanings, have been running afoul of historical memory, trying to draw sharp lines between victims and perpetrators, and attempting to seal Poland's victimhood.

Recently, the government required politicians and scholars to sign statements attesting that they never collaborated with the secret police during the communist era, a matter which was closed a decade ago. Historian Bronislaw Geremek caused a stir when he refused. Auschwitz itself has been used as a political chip: a Russian exhibit was closed because it did not recognize the Soviet occupation of Poland at that time.

The Kaczynski brothers' efforts raise serious questions, not just about Polish memory, but memories of collaboration, resistance and victimhood in general. How far can the Vichy paradigm be pushed? Polish resistance was virulent and organized, and consequently, Poles became special targets for German repressive measures. Resistance does not, however, cancel out collaboration. Even in this, Poles were different from French or Czech counterparts: collaboration and profiteering from the occupation occured at the lowest levels. There is no Polish P├ętain.

Most resistance was based on sovereignty or ideology, whether in France or Poland. Seldom was Nazism opposed en toto. It's fair to say that population engineering was opposed on the grounds of sovereignty and ideology, and genocide was seldom confronted directly by any resistance movement.

The Holocaust may have been an institution that Germans brought to Poland. Anti-semitism was not (something that Saul Friendlander reiterates in his new book). Despite their resistance, Poles could easily accomodate this aspect of Nazi policy. Moreover, pogroms occured spontaneously without Nazi supervision, as they did during the war, in Jedwabne, and after, in Kielce.

Victimhood and resistance has been put before less savory aspects of the war experience. Poland was hardly unique. The pattern of post-war politics in all European nations was to use them to promote one's own legitimacy. Since the 1960s historians have unpacked these myths, noting places where (minor) collaboration occurred or how resistance was closer to self-preservation than outright opposition (Bishop Galen comes to mind). The Vichy paradigm has not penetrated Polish memory. A dissertation by Anetta Rybicka was revoked largely because the Polish academy was unwilling to consider collaboration.

Polish memory already dismisses the possibility of participation in genocide. It's not clear that Poles have confronted this part of their past, but why go further? Lech Kaczynski's speech at the 60th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom seems determined to minimize anti-semitism as an enduring feature of Polish culture. Calling attention to the Germanness of Nazism may make homegrown authoritarianism less onerous.




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Jonathan Dresner - 6/26/2007

The difficulty of acknowledging a complex and unheroic history is one of the great themes of modern politics.

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