PARIS — A people brings glory upon itself up when it is able to confront the complexity of its history. On the contrary, it dishonors itself when it takes on a defensive posture with its past. In Poland, both houses of the legislature have now voted in favor of a law criminalizing any reference to Polish responsibility for the extermination of Jews during World War II. This piece of legislation is not just about the past. If signed into law, it would both change the present and shape the future of relations between Poland and its history, Poland and Europe. It would contribute in rebuilding a wall, willingly this time, between the two Europes.
It is clear that if the death camps were physically in Poland, they were not Polish, but Nazi death camps. The unfortunate sentence used by President Barack Obama himself — he immediately apologized for it afterwards — about "Polish death camps" is simply a crude falsehood.
Yet it is also clear that "some" Poles did take part in the persecution and extermination of Jews. In his 2001 book Neighbors, Polish-American historian Jan Gross described the massacre of hundreds of Jews by their fellow Polish citizens in the city of Jedwabne in 1941. More recently, the prominent historian Jan Gabrowsky’s 2013 book Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, goes so far as to assert that nearly 250,000 Jews were handed over to the Germans, direct victims of denunciations and manhunts.
Though it is taking place in a much more exacerbated fashion, the debate in Poland is reminiscent of the one that raged in France, and continues to linger even today in certain circles. Should our country apologize to French Jews for 1942 Vel' d'Hiv roundup, we asked ourselves? For former presidents Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand, the Vichy regime "was not France." Jacques Chirac, François Hollande, and now Emmanuel Macron, took the opposite view — which, to me, seems historically and humanly more accurate.
What is now taking place in Poland is about criminalizing any "deviant" thought. The country suffered too much to accept to find itself — if only marginally — on the guilty side, when it was a triple victim: of Nazi Germany, of Soviet Russia, and finally of the Communist yoke. According to the new Polish government, the nation’s unity and greatness do not allow for the introduction of grey areas in a narrative of historic reworking. Sure, three million Jews were killed in Poland, but there were also three million "pure" Polish victims.
French police arresting Jews in Paris in 1941 — Source: Bundesarchiv
In the aftermath of the fall of Communism, the priority for new Poland was to move closer to Europe and its values. At the time, Warsaw was more willing to confront the dark, or simply grey, areas of its history and thus transcend them than it is now. Wasn't that the price to pay to "return to Europe" and become a full member of a club based on reconciliation and democratic values?
Today, in Western Europe, populists are nowhere near power, except in Austria. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, after Milos Zeman's reelection as President of the Czech Republic, populism is becoming the norm and “traditional” liberal democracy is almost the exception. On the questions that matter most, aren't Poland and Hungary edging closer to Russia, than to France or Germany? If this trend is confirmed, the day may come when Poles and Hungarians will have to choose between Eastern and Western Europe. Unless, of course, the West joins the East in its populist drift.
Not so long ago, the debate on values inside Europe was only held in comparison to Russia. Between the value of geography and the geography of values, the choice seemed clear. Moscow was closer to Paris in distance, but as far as values went, Paris was closer to Washington. This question of values now threatens Europe’s unity. What do we do with countries that continue to accept our aid, but vehemently and sometimes provocatively reject our principles?
If you really find us so soft and decadent, go look elsewhere, go to Moscow.
To be sure, we must show understanding towards this part of Europe that does not share our political culture and which, therefore, finds it more difficult to apply democratic principles that haven’t been rooted in its culture, because of history and geography.
The notions of balance of power and the rule of law, in the sense that 18th-century philosopher Montesquieu intended them, are at least intuitively understood, even by the current President of the United States. Donald Trump knows that he must respect the power of judges and that he is not all-powerful in the face of Congress. In 2018, with a populist majority in power, Poland no longer seems to know any boundaries, and some go so far as to denounce Lech Walesa as a “traitor”.
It wasn't so long ago when Central and Eastern Europe were still looking at Western Europe with hope and yearning. Now, they are constantly trying to distance themselves from "us" and denouncing our weaknesses: whether it is our "softness" on the refugee issue, or our moral permissiveness.
A day will come when "we," in turn, will arrive at the point in which we must tell them: "If you really find us so soft and decadent, go look elsewhere, go to Moscow. Like Russia, you can refuse to confront the complexity of your history. But don't forget that, strategically, it's still the West that is protecting you and the East that threatens you. Don't rush to rebuild walls that you've had so much trouble bringing down."