A true paradox of this age of 24-hour news cycles and big data, where everything is verifiable and every moment is captured on smart phones, is that news itself is being called “fake,” with facts casually disputed as lies.
And it’s getting worse. Once settled history is now also plagued by distortions if not outright fantasy. The unflattering stories of nations are being reinvented, or just flatly denied.
In Slovakia, Jozef Tiso, who, in 1947, was hanged for having committed crimes against humanity against Slovakia’s Jews, is being hailed as a hero, feted with parades and memorials in his honor. In 2015, Ukraine criminalized any statements denying the heroism of two paramilitary units that had killed Jews during the Holocaust. More recently, it banned an award-winning book for a single paragraph that accused Ukrainians of murdering Jewish children. Not to be outdone, Lithuania is prosecuting Jewish partisans who fought the collaborators who assisted the Nazis. Croatia and Hungary are moving to expunge the guilt of its World War II collaborationist governments, as well.
In this new era of ultranationalist fervor, right-wing groups that had once been the wing-men for the Nazis are in fashion again.
Some of this may be related to Eastern Europe’s unwelcoming stance toward asylum seekers from Syria. There is nostalgia for an earlier inhospitable time in Europe when governments took a hard line with strangers. Longing for more homogeneous days — like a cleansing of ethnic-cleansing — some countries are rewriting their histories, whitewashing the darkness of their pasts, and glorifying former mass murderers. All of this revised history has two things in common: an unabashed sympathy for fascism; and a rehabilitation of those who either killed or were complicit in the killing of Jews.
(Such selective remembrance bears some similarity with this summer’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which was ostensibly organized to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The morally inconvenient crime of slavery, however, which General Lee fought to preserve, was apparently absent from the minds of the protestors.)
Poland has taken an even wider detour from its Holocaust history. Curiously coincident with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, lawmakers debated a measure that would outlaw any suggestion that Poland was involved in the crimes of the Nazis. Referring to “Polish death camps,” for instance, would carry a jail sentence. The camps were, after all, Germany’s idea. Poland, unwittingly, only supplied the soil. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki expressed the country’s frustration by stating, “Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase.”
The bill passed in both the lower house of the Polish Parliament and the Senate, and the Polish president signed it into law on Tuesday. The sentiment of the president, Andrzej Duda, was revealed at an earlier conference dedicated to revising his country’s history, where he said, “Historical politics should be conducted by the Polish state as an element of the construction of our international position.”
That sounds like a cynical validation of “fake history.” Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, charged, “The law is baseless, I strongly oppose it. One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied.” Duda is not unmindful of the diplomatic damage this Holocaust censorship law may cause. Meanwhile, Polish parliamentarians, taking advantage of the populist mood, are polishing up their anti-Semitic rhetoric, charging a Jewish conspiracy to extract Holocaust reparations from Poland, and claiming that Jews were disloyal to Poland both during and after World War II. One even wrote on Facebook, “The Holocaust against the Poles continued after World War 2.”
All of this is part of a more disturbing ahistorical, anti-Semitic trend in Poland that can be traced to the Law and Justice Party, which captured the presidency and parliament in the 2015 elections. In demonstrating its far-right bona fides, the party implemented anti-democratic reforms almost instantly. In November 2017, tens of thousands of far-right nationalists marched through the Polish capital on Independence Day, torches held high, chanting, “Pure Blood, Jew-free Poland,” “Sieg heil,” “We don’t want Muslims here,” and “Ku Klux Klan.” Some of the banners read: “Death to the enemies of the homeland,” and “White Europe of brotherly nations.” In 2015, the leader of the Law and Justice Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, referred to Syrian refugees as disease carriers.
Poland’s government has held a special animus for Jan Gross, a Polish professor of history at Princeton University and an eminent Holocaust scholar. He endured a precipitous fall from Polish grace, having once been a national hero before Poland underwent this fierce reversal of its own history. Gross authored two highly acclaimed books that spotlighted Poland’s moral failure during the Holocaust: “Neighbors,” which revealed the 1941 massacre in Jedwabne where 1,600 Jewish men, women and children were murdered by their Polish neighbors; and “Fear,” which dissected the Kielce pogrom and the murderous welcome Jews received from Polish villagers as they stumbled back home after the Holocaust.
For these books, Gross was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit in 1996. Under this new government, however, there was a change of heart, consistent with the racing pulse of rewritten history. In 2015, they weighed whether to prosecute Gross for insulting the Polish nation when he wrote that “The Poles … did in fact kill more Jews than Germans during the war.” In 2016, they threatened to strip him of his medal, emboldened by 2,000 letters from Poles who didn’t approve of the history this professor had shared with the world.
To some extent, however, the Poles have a point. Even Yad Vashem released a statement agreeing that “Polish death camps” was a “historical misrepresentation.” It is also true that aside from the six million Jews (half of whom were Polish), the Poles were among the Nazis’ largest victims, with 1.9 million casualties. Moreover, as compared with other nations occupied by the Nazis, the Polish government never surrendered or collaborated with Hitler. The Polish people fought the Nazis bravely until they were liberated by the Soviets. And Poland has the largest numbers of citizens honored at Yad Vashem as “righteous among nations.”
Of course, more Jews lived in Poland than in any other European country, and 90 percent of them did not survive the Holocaust. Yes, there were more rescuers in Poland, but there were also more people who were complicit in the genocide of the Jews by turning in or rounding up their neighbors and, in some cases, joining in on the chaos by killing Jews directly. Poland was at war with the Nazis, but the majority of its citizens were not unsympathetic to the Nazis’ plan for a Jew-less Europe.
Today, that sordid Polish history is in danger of being forgotten. Gross has said that most Poles don’t know, or don’t wish to know, that Jews were the single largest victims of the Nazis, and were systematically selected to die in those camps. The government has taken advantage of that ignorance and concocted a far more favorable history with the Polish people in the role of either martyrs, victims or freedom fighters.
Other nations have peddled similar tales. The former Soviet Union, for instance, only spoke of themselves as victims of the Nazis, never mentioning Jews. Austrians have long self-identified as the “Nazis’ first victim,” consistent with their abysmal record of acknowledging complicity in the deportation and death of Austria’s Jews.
The danger is no longer, as George Santayana once said, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With facts so easily dismissible and history fabricated on the fly, the risk today is not knowing what the past even was.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and Distinguished Fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He is the author of the forthcoming “The High Cost of Free Speech: Rethinking the First Amendment.” www.thanerosenbaum.com