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Incoming Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gives a speech to present his program to lawmakers on December 12, 2017
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski

Poland's March 1968 events revisited

Jo Harper
February 17, 2018

As Poland approaches the 50th anniversary of a notorious anti-Semitic campaign, some of its leaders call for a clampdown on historical debate and speak darkly about enemies within. The echoes of '68 are hard to ignore.


Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party recently passed a law penalizing public statements that falsely and intentionally attribute Nazi crimes to Poland under the German occupation, to the alarm of historians and advocates of freedom of speech. 

At the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki rejected criticism of the law, commenting that it wouldn't be punishable to say that there were Polish perpetrators of atrocities in World War II. But prominent Polish historian Jan Gross believes the law is a means to reframe historians', journalists' and teachers' scopes and frames of reference. "The law actually doesn't refer to Polish extermination camps at all and its wording is vague," Gross told DW. "It is thus legally ambiguous and probably designed to be so, to scare, but with very little legal power of enforcement," he said.

Jan Gross, a Polish-American historian at Princeton University
Jan Gross is a Polish-American historian at Princeton UniversityImage: picture-alliance/picturedesk.com/R. Newald

Two key years for Poland: 1941 and 1968

There are more Poles than any other nationality honored in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and it is a well-known fact that they did not collaborate with the Germans in World War II, one of the few governments in occupied Europe not to do so, Gross said. 

"But there are many holes in the narrative that Poles were uniformly good and clean," he added.

New Holocaust law controversial

Two key dates are prominent in the Princeton University historian's discussion of the action being taken by PiS today: March 1968 and June 1941. Both touch on the delicate relationship between Poland and its once-large Jewish community.

In 1968, a power struggle within the Polish communist ("Workers'") party between supporters of reforms in neighboring Czechoslovakia and those against led to what the authorities called an 'anti-Zionist' campaign – so named after Israel's US-backed Six-Day war with Soviet-backed Egypt in 1967. But in effect, it was a purge of Poland's last remaining Jews.

Historical photograph of a student protest march in Warsaw on March 8, 1968
The student protests of March 1968 outside Warsaw University preceded Poland's anti-Zionist campaignImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

From its prewar population of approximately 3 million, Poland's Jewish community numbered perhaps 50,000 in 1968, of which an estimated 13,000 to 20,000 emigrated as part the communist regime's offer of so-called "One-Way Tickets."

Gross believes there are clear similarities between that era and what's happening today. 

"Both use and used xenophobia to beef up popular support. While 1968 was more brutal, what we have now is in some respects more frightening precisely because this is not a communist government or system," he said. 

The second key date is June 1941. 

In 2000, Gross wrote his groundbreaking book, "Neighbors," in which he provided evidence that Polish Catholics in the northwestern Polish town of Jedwabne murdered most of the Jewish-Polish inhabitants of the town on July 10, 1941. 

The town of Jedwabne in north-eastern Poland, the site of a massacre by Catholic Poles of their Jewish-Polish neighbors in 1941
Jedwabne, in northeastern Poland, is the site of a massacre by Catholic Poles of their Jewish-Polish neighbors in 1941Image: picture-alliance/dpa

A forced emigre from Poland after the 1968 anti-Semitic campaign, Gross has been accused by some in PiS of being selective with the facts in "Neighbors" and, in effect, demonizing Poland. 

But he defends his work, saying he does not ignore context, as some have claimed.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany had recently invaded the Soviet Union, stepping into an area of what had once been a part of Poland under Soviet occupation. At this time, Germans started to exterminate entire populations of Jews wherever they found them as they advanced eastward, at this stage mainly via mass shootings, gassings in vans – or, when possible, with the help of the local population. 

Add to the mix the fact that many Catholic Poles blamed their Jewish neighbors for cooperating with the Soviets after 1939, an enemy that most Poles feared as much as they did the Nazis. 

Rewriting history

English historian Norman Davies, author of 'God's Playground'
English historian Norman Davies is the author of 'God's Playground'

"PiS is openly rewriting history," said Gross. "It wants Poles to remain victims to underline that there was no complicity in the persecution of Jews. [PiS leader Jaroslaw] Kaczynski is simply manipulating the truth. He did the same with Lech Walesa, Solidarity and the Smolensk air crash." Gross said.

Norman Davies, the British historian who wrote a classic history of Poland, "God's Playground," agrees that the new law is an attempt by PiS to rewrite history, but adds that it is connected with nostalgia.

"As with Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, this is nostalgia for something Poles believe was taken away from them," Davies told DW.

"The Jedwabne story is very healthy for Poland," Davies said. "It is a more honest view. And yet of the 10,000 such towns in Poland, this happened in only a handful. It wasn't a typical event. It wasn't widespread and the terror in German-occupied Poland was felt by all," he said.

Xenophobia and the refugee crisis

While Kaczynski's relations with Poland's Jewish community are publicly amicable, many believe that the xenophobia of 1968 is today expressed in more subtle ways. "PiS is using a kind of historical politics that was typical of the communists. Poland is no longer a democracy; it is now run by a secret politburo, with Kaczynski like the old communist first secretary," Davies said.

Poland has, for example, refused to take in any refugees under the planned EU quota system and Kaczynski has talked of refugees as carriers of disease. 

Of the estimated 1,200,000 refugees who arrived in Europe in 2016-17, the Polish government agreed to take in just 1 percent. Kaczynski later questioned even this and Warsaw eventually refused to take any.

"For PiS, what matters is a radical right program, in which Jews as carriers of un-Polish ideas can be replaced by Muslims, refugees, or secular ideas," said Anita Prazmowska, a historian at the London School of Economics.

Anthony Polonsky, professor emeritus of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University, believes PiS is not an intrinsically anti-Semitic party. "The Kaczynski brothers came into politics during the 1968 crisis and see anti-Semitism as a communist phenomenon. As a result, Kaczynski has avoided anti-Semitic tropes in his ideological discourse," Polonsky said, adding: "This is a very right-wing, but not anti-Semitic government."

Kaczynski has in fact been openly critical of anti-Semitism in Poland and a keen supporter of Israel, despite the recent spat over terminology.

And one prominent representative of Poland's now roughly 6,000-strong Jewish community cautions against equating the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968 with the current dispute over Poland's World War II-era legacy. "It would be completely wrong to say that 1968 and 2018 are the same thing," Michael Schudrich, Warsaw's chief rabbi, told DW. "Even if there are some noises of a similar tone."

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