Polish pressure forces Holocaust historian to self-censor

Scholars fear threat of lawsuits is deterring academics from exploring Polish complicity in genocide

April 14, 2021
Warsaw, Poland - September 1, 2012 Holocaust memorial - a building from Warsaw ghetto with pictures of jews on the facade.
Source: iStock

Historians fear that mounting pressure against scholars who implicate Poles in the Holocaust is having a chilling effect on research across Europe, with one France-based researcher saying she will tone down her upcoming book and shy away from naming names.

Audrey Kichelewski, an associate professor of contemporary history at the University of Strasbourg who is writing a book about post-war trials of Poles, said she would be “very cautious with the vocabulary” she used and would not cite defendants’ names for fear of being sued by living relatives.

It is the latest episode in what critics say is a concerted effort by Poland’s right-wing government and supportive groups to aggressively enforce a narrative of exclusive victimhood, stressing the heroic stories of Poles who risked their lives to save Jewish compatriots, but downplaying accounts of complicity in the Holocaust unearthed by some historians.

A 2018 legal amendment would have threatened jail for those who implied the Polish “state” or “nation” was complicit in Nazi crimes, although the law was repeatedly watered down after an international outcry and stripped of its criminal component.

In February, a Warsaw court ordered two scholars – Barbara Engelking, director of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, and Jan Grabowski, professor of history at the University of Ottawa – to apologise after they detailed the case of a mayor of a Polish village who had allegedly betrayed a group of Jews to Nazi occupiers.

In the same month, a Polish journalist revealed that she was questioned by police for writing that Polish complicity in the Holocaust was a “historical fact”, although the case was later dropped.

And last month, an ultra-conservative Polish Catholic group threatened to sue a French radio station for “infringing the reputation of the republic of Poland” by supposedly implicating Poland in Nazi war crimes during a programme.

The Polish League Against Defamation, which backed the case against Professor Engelking and Professor Grabowski, has launched lawsuits against newspapers and broadcasters in Spain, Italy and Germany, invoking concepts such as a right to “national pride” for Poles.

Several leading researchers issued warnings about the impact of the pressure on Holocaust research.

“I am afraid the chilling effect is already there, but I cannot prove it as it is invisible, by definition,” said Dariusz Stola, professor of history at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

“My own sense, not based on any deep analysis, is that such fear has been sinking in over the past years – but it is hard to pinpoint,” said Karel Berkhoff, co-director of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure.

Jan Gross, a professor of history at Princeton University who in 2015 was himself the target of libel action by the Polish government, said he was unaware of concrete examples of self-censorship. “But I am afraid that a lot of young scholars may be turned away from specialising in this field,” he said.

However, Professor Engelking questioned whether historians would be deterred.

“If someone censors their own work, they don’t boast about it and we read their text without knowing that it has been censored,” she said. “It seems to me that the academic community does not allow [self-censorship] and cannot be intimidated.”

The Polish government did not respond to a request for comment.



Print headline: Pressure from Polish right compels Holocaust historian to self-censor

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