Foreign Affairs

Polish Threats to Life and Liberty

The name “Auschwitz” calls to mind at least two fundamental facts of its reality — the first being its historical place, representing the epitome of human cruelty at its most inhumane, and the second of its literal place in Poland. Yet, some baffling legislation was signed into law on Tuesday, making phrases such as “Polish death camp” illegal.

Essentially, the law criminalizes any association that implicates the Polish state in the crimes of Nazi Germany, albeit with minor exceptions for the arts and sciences. But to any member of a free society who enjoys freedom of expression, this action by a nationalist, populist-controlled Sejm — Poland’s lower house of parliament — is deeply troubling. The infringement on civil liberties often marks the tightening of executive control, especially where historically valid criticisms of government are concerned.

One reaction might be to consider the Polish law in light of German laws prohibiting speech sympathetic to Nazi ideology. After all, Germany’s ban on Nazi imagery dates back to 1949 and, though technically an infringement on freedom of speech, is not usually judged a grave violation of civil liberties.

German restrictions on speech, however, aren’t aimed at distancing Germany from its dark past, but preventing any future revival of Nazism. Furthermore, the German government is more than willing to admit its role in the Holocaust, memorializing the millions of lost lives and educating students with visits to concentrations camps, so they might engage with history firsthand. Germany wears its shame and disgrace on its proverbial sleeve.

The Polish prime minister justified the bill, stating that the “truth must be protected because it is part of the truth about the Holocaust,” as concentration camps were built by Nazis and not the Polish government. But in what free society does imprecise language warrant penalty? The modern German government does not punish its citizens for describing Auschwitz or Dachau as “German” instead of “Nazi,” as if they committed some vague crime of semantics — it bans malevolent imagery in an endeavor to prevent such horrors from ever occurring again.

So, what does it mean for the Polish government to penalize speech incriminating its past?

This law is but another example of a recurring motif with Poland’s majority Law and Justice Sejm — the strengthening of executive control. In December, the Polish parliament passed the latest in a series of legislation constituting a massive reform of its judiciary system, effectively crippling its independence as a separate branch of government. In the name of reducing corruption, the Sejm was given more power in selecting judges and revised retirement ages — coincidentally forcing out many justices critical of the government. So severe was this legislation that the European Union invoked Article 7 of the EU treaty, threatening Poland’s voting rights and furthering the divide between the Polish state and the EU.

Animosity toward the EU has been growing steadily in the Polish government, especially since the 2015 migration crisis. In accordance with popular opinion, the government reversed the previous government’s agreement with the EU to allow a certain number of refugees into Poland. A Pew Research Center study found 71 percent of Poles disapproved of how the EU was handling the refugee crisis, revealing Polish anxieties toward welcoming potentially dangerous refugees.

This disapproval reflects sentiments expressed during the controversial Independence Day march in November. What is usually an annual, non-threatening display of patriotism–the equivalent to our barbeques and fireworks — was hijacked in 2017 by intolerant, far-right groups. Those espousing the official slogan “We want God” were accompanied by Nazi sympathizers and advocates for “Clean Blood” and a “White Europe” in an “overt demonstration of xenophobia and fascism.

To many Poles, the influx of Muslim refugees poses a fundamental threat to the stability of Poland’s predominantly Catholic society. Accordingly, the foreign minister described this vitriolic march blatantly disguised in patriotism as “a great celebration of Poles, differing in their views, but united around the common values of freedom and loyalty to an independent homeland.”

It seems that in the last three months, the Polish government has pursued a frightening combination of two transgressions — the permission of xenophobic hatred and the overextension of executive power — against the lives and liberties of those under its governance.

The existence of extreme, far-right groups in Poland is not merely a reflection of cultural anxieties, but often also a violent reality for minorities. According to Deutsche Welle, attacks in Poland on Muslims and Africans are now “10 times higher than in 2000.” In June of last year, Muslim schoolgirls were verbally abused for speaking Persian, refused purchases, and physically threatened. And only a few weeks ago, a 14-year-old girl was attacked in Warsaw because of her Turkish ancestry.

Polish society’s treatment of its notably non-white immigrants extends far beyond xenophobia. And when its government attempts to pass legislation punishing critiques of its questionable past, one wonders how easily the law may approach prohibiting criticisms of its alarming present.

The disgrace of any nation’s past is not cause for the blatant erasure of history, but often serves as an essential reminder of how we must avoid those mistakes in the future, even if they were not entirely our fault. If the Polish government truly wants to protect the truth of history’s injustices, perhaps it should consider condemning the injustices being committed by its own citizens in the current moment — otherwise, it runs the risk of approaching the very institution from which it hopes to dissociate itself.

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