The Current Manipulation of History in Poland: A Disturbing Development – An Interview with Katrin Stoll
Katrin Stoll, PhD, is a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw (currently a member of the research group “Functionality of History in Late Modernity”) and a free-lance translator from Polish into English. She studied English and History at the University of Bielefeld and wrote her PhD thesis at the Department of History at Bielefeld University. It was published under the title „Die Herstellung der Wahrheit. Strafverfahren gegen ehemalige Angehörige der Sicherheitspolizei für den Bezirk Białystok“ (de Gruyter, 2012). Katrin is co-editor of several books including Personal Engagement and the Study of the Holocaust (with Noah Benninga, Vallentine & Mitchell, 2016), 8. Mai 1945. Internationale und interdisziplinäre Perspektiven (with Alexandra Klei & Annika Wienert, Neofelis Verlag, 2016) and Die Transformation der Lager. Annäherungen an die Orte nationalsozialistischer Verbrechen (with Alexandra Klei & Annika Wienert, transcript Bielefeld 2011). She also published articles on the subjects of Holocaust testimonies and historiography including an analysis of the work by survivor historian Szymon Datner.
Katrin, we are here at a conference where we talk about heritage and identity. You work on Poland, and I was wondering what happens there when the UNESCO declares something to be cultural heritage. Do people identify with it?
Well, one example of a site considered national heritage with which the majority of people in Poland identify is the Old Town of Warsaw. It was rebuilt in Early Socialism between 1951 and 1953. It was a collective enterprise, a national project, and it had this impetus of defiance and resistance. The attitude was: “We do not accept the fact that the Germans destroyed our national heritage, so we are going to rebuild it.” And as we heard from Nikolas Drosos yesterday: The UNESCO recognition for the attempt to rebuild the old town came in 1980.
Can you give an example of an UNESCO declaration Poles have difficulties with?
One example would be the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Let me briefly explain why: Auschwitz-Birkenau is associated throughout the world with the “final solution”, the murder of the European Jews. But in Poland only a tiny minority of people considers Jews and Jewish history to be part of their own past, history and culture. And many Poles, especially right-wing Poles, consider the international recognition of Auschwitz as a symbol of the Holocaust and break in civilization as an attack on their status as first victims of the National Socialist occupation policy in Poland. On the one hand, there exists this deep concern that Polish victimhood is marginalized and not taken into consideration enough. On the other hand, there is the fear that Poland could be held responsible for the German state crime of the Holocaust. This becomes apparent by the request of the Polish state that the name of Auschwitz concentration camp on the UNESCO heritage list be changed to “Auschwitz-Birkenau. German Nazi Concentration and Extermination camp (1940 to 1945)”. The new name was approved in 2007. The request for the name change is emblematic of that particular fear which is deeply rooted in Polish society and which has increased since the debate about Polish perpetration during the Holocaust. The concern about the “good name of Poland and the Poles” becomes apparent by the fact that Polish diplomats and the Foreign Ministry keep track on who uses the term “Polish concentration camp”.
Why is “Polish concentration camp” an issue of concern?
It implies that the main perpetrators of the Nazi crimes were not the Germans but the Poles. But any sane person knows that the Germans, the SS established the concentration and extermination camps. The fear of being held responsible is completely irrational. Unfortunately, it is also manifested in certain legal measures. The Polish penal code for example includes an article that makes the “defamation of the Polish people” a punishable offence. Recently on 16 August 2016, the Polish government adopted changes to the laws enabling further measures for the defense and protection of the so-called “good name of Poland and the Polish nation”. Under the pending law, which passed the first reading in the Polish parliament (Sejm), those who ascribe to the Polish nation responsibility or co-responsibility for the German Nazi crimes will be subject to fines or three years of imprisonment. This is an attempt to regulate history from above.
And what role does heritage play in that discussion?
I would like to come back to the opening of the conference here. Heritage is connected with identity but it can also be an expression of anxiety. Maybe the debate about Auschwitz-Birkenau and the anxieties it provokes in Polish mainstream society could be considered an example of this latter definition.
People in Poland seem to be very concerned about their national identity. In your speech at this conference here you mentioned the psychoanalyst and writer Sama Maani who works on the perception and construction of identity. I wonder how is identity – and there seems to be a lot of top-down decisions on what identity is – how is identity determined in Poland? Is it constructed by the nation state? Is it constructed by the people? And when you speak about anxiety – who is included in the “we” and who is excluded in “the others”, whom we are afraid of maybe?
This is a very good question! I can say that identity in Poland has traditionally been constructed along the lines of an ethnic-religious understanding of community. In other words: There is a full identification, and full self-identification, with Poles and Catholics, expressed by the term “Polak-katolik”. From that perspective, the “others” are obviously non-Christian Poles, for example Jews, a major minority in Poland before the Second World War. Before the war one third of Warsaw citizens were Jews, but this group was excluded from the “we”. Furthermore, and this is something we are observing now in particular, there is the fear of “imagined others”. I use the term “imagined” because due to the German extermination policy Poland is now one of the most homogenous countries in Europe. There are hardly any visible minorities. Nevertheless, there is this fear of imagined others, of the Jews, and others. From a study carried out by Warsaw University in 2014 it becomes apparent that 69 percent of Poles do not want any more people with a different color of skin to live in Poland. Obviously, these “imagined others” play an important role when it comes to the construction of Polish national identity.
At the same time I am optimistic. Under the pressure of the right-wing government we see an extra-parliamentary opposition emerging in Poland. In November 2015, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy was established. Another, a new “we”, is in the process of being constructed, something we cannot really decipher yet. But there are various people who disagree with the establishment of an authoritarian regime, and they take part in protest demonstrations regularly. The impressive protest of Polish women throughout Poland against outlawing abortion completely was great! I myself participated in the demonstrations. There were more than thirty thousand people on the streets of Warsaw. For the first time I saw young people demonstrate, especially young women. So, maybe the new “we” will – first and foremost – not be based on religion and ethnicity but rather on citizenship and human rights.
So, the new narrative could also be “we are resisting against oppression”?
This is an old narrative. It is part of Polish history, and “Solidarność” is a good example. But Solidarity was also based on an ethnic-religious concept. Nevertheless, I hope that the idea of citizenship is becoming more important now. I believe though that this demands emancipation from religion and the Catholic Church, which is still a very important player in Polish society and a moral authority. Moreover, the right-wing government and the Catholic Church are closely connected. The former promotes an idea of culture that focuses on Polish suffering and a messianic understanding of the history of Poland. The key idea is that Poland – as “Christ among the Nations” – is subjected to specific suffering and injustice and threatened by evil because it was chosen by God. We can take the plane crash in Smolensk in Russia in April 2010, in which the President of Poland and the highest representatives of the Polish state died, as an example. Recently, a movie called “Smolensk“ was made. Bottom-line of the film is that the plane crash was a conspiracy, an attack orchestrated by the Russian secret service. This myth is becoming part of official state ideology now. Representatives of the Polish state, including the current president Duda and the party leader Kaczyński, were present at the premiere of the film.
Obviously there is a construction of Polish history taking place – but some parts are left out because they do not fit the narrative. I read lately that the Polish government wants to establish a “policy of national pride”. I wonder what role historians play in it or what is expected of historians like you?
They basically expect from historians what you just said: a one-sided story-telling of Polish history, one that exclusively focuses on national heroes. The dark sides are supposed to be eliminated from view, for example antisemitism and the murder of Jews during the Holocaust committed by Poles and not by Germans. All these difficult subjects are supposed to be brushed under the carpet now. Instead, the emphasis is placed on hero-worship. The Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk is a case in point: It was initiated during the period of the Platforma Obywatelska government, the predecessor of the current right-wing government. Originally an international project, it had a scientific board giving advice to the curators of the exhibition. When Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) took over in 2015, the cultural minister of the new government ordered three assessments from right-wing historians. They reviewed the concept of the exhibition and came to the conclusion that it is “not Polish enough”. To the contrary, they stated that it was “too cosmopolitan”, which one could also read as “too Jewish”, as the historian Ulrich Herbert, a member of the scientific board, pointed out in an interview with Deutschlandradio Kultur. The reviewers also criticized that the exhibition did not elaborate enough on the “positive sides of the war”, meaning Polish resistance, also Polish victimhood, Polish valor and sacrifice. At the end of the day, the right-wing historians demanded that the exhibition be revised. This interference is based on an understanding of history as identity politics, an attempt to dismantle an international project. As a result, the opening of the museum had to be postponed. PiS is currently looking for ways to dismiss the current director. What strikes me is the fact that these right-wing historians and politicians openly speak of history as a version of the past that may be manipulated according to the interests of a small group in society. You said that this development might be connected with the attempt to exclude difficult subjects from public discourse, antisemitism most certainly. But what will the ramifications be for academia as such? Where will these topics be discussed in the future? What happens when historians are supposed to serve political purposes and when state prosecutors, politicians and the police establish the historical facts? The manipulation of history for political purposes is also a cause of concern in the international academic community.
Dark times, it seems, for historians who want to work on their subjects without a political bias. But Poland is not Turkey yet, right?
No, but I think that the most important debates and international Holocaust conferences will take place outside of Poland in the future. I am organizing a Holocaust conference at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw in December 2016. The head of the Holocaust Research Institute in Yad Vashem, Professor Dan Michman, asked me how this new law I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation is going to affect the conference. Of course, nobody can predict what will happen, but scholars might be more cautious, they might refrain from coming to Poland.
And Polish scholars might speak differently when they are in other countries?
Yes, and this is a pity. Polish Holocaust historiography has achieved a lot in the last ten to fifteen years, since Jan T. Gross published his book “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne” in 2001. As yet, Holocaust historiography has been marginalized in Polish academic discourse but now the Polish authorities are trying to penalize scholars doing researching on the subject. The attempt is to produce self-censorship, to scare people, and to stop them from applying for scholarships etc. But I do not think they can turn back the clock because too much has been achieved, and so far Poland is not Turkey. As I said at the beginning, my hope is that due to the tradition of Polish resistance and anarchism – to which I feel very much drawn – people will say “stop” and “no more”.
The attempt to reinvent a national narrative that is homogenous and excludes other parts of history is not just a Polish phenomenon. It is happening all over the world, especially in Europe right now. Despite the fact that we have a European Union right now, national narratives get stronger in particular when it comes to the discussion on refugees. People are not afraid of speaking their mind anymore. What could be the alternative to these national, homogenous narratives in Europe?
First of all, you are right: Everywhere in Europe, nationalism is on the rise these days or is becoming the hegemonic public discourse. Nationalism is not a phenomenon limited to Poland. In Germany you have the AfD and Pegida, and there are similar groups in Croatia, France, and other European countries. The only alternative to this nationalist, homogenous narrative is, I think, fidelity – as the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek puts it –, “fidelity to the emancipatory core of the European legacy”: the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Sama Maani, whom you mentioned before, emphasizes that the emancipatory values of the European enlightenment and French Revolution are particular in that they emerged in a specific historical context, but that they are universal at the same time, which means that egalitarianism and fundamental human rights transcend this specific historical experience of Europe. They are universal and we cannot say that they do not apply to certain groups of people such as refugees. It is surprising how one could possibly forget what Kant wrote on world citizenship 200 years ago. We have to rehabilitate his thoughts. For Kant for example, the category of ethnicity was not a truth category at all. It was something akin to making use of private instead of public reason. I elaborated on that in my paper, on the idea of universal singularity and on the conceptualization of societies as transformation entities instead of societies based on a certain ethnic origin. The settler countries like Canada, New Zeeland, Australia, and to a certain extent the USA as well, are based on the idea that multiculturalism is something that we can be proud of.
It is an advantage, not a threat.
Exactly! Multiculturalism can be something enriching and not necessarily threatening. But on the other hand, we have to rehabilitate – and Sama Maani makes this point as well – secularism and emancipation from religion. Criticism of religion was one important feature of the Enlightenment. The lack of the separation of state and church, to return to the case of Poland, is a big problem. It does not really exist. I am not saying that I am against religion but I consider religion to be a private matter. It should never dictate our public lives. We need a neutral public space and a state that protects minorities.
Secularism would be a great start, I guess.
This interview was conducted during the course of the Annual Conference 2016 „Making, Sustaining, Breaking – The Politics Of Heritage And Culture“ of the Forum Transregionale Studien, Max Weber Stiftung, Cluster Asia and Europe in a Global Context (Universität Heidelberg) and the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut that took place October 12 to 14, 2016 in Heidelberg.