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Deutschland Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel im ehemaligen KZ Dachau
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/K. Joensson

Merkel reiterates German culpability for Holocaust

February 11, 2018

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has avoided wading into an international war of words over a recent Polish law criminalizing suggestions Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. The US and Israel have not been so reticent.


German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, declined to comment on Saturday when asked her views on a new Polish law that imposes punishments ranging from a fine to a three-year jail term for using the phrase "Polish death camps."

"Without directly interfering in the legislation in Poland, I would like to say the following very clearly as German chancellor: We as Germans are responsible for what happened during the Holocaust, the Shoah, under National Socialism (Nazism)," Merkel said in her weekly video podcast.

A Polish government spokeswoman welcomed Merkel's remarks, the Polish press agency, PAP, reported, as Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki prepares to hold talks with Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday.

Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki (C) at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at Auschwitz II-Birkenau marking the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of the camp on January 27, 2018
Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki (C) at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at Auschwitz II-Birkenau marking the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of the camp on January 27, 2018Image: picture-alliance/abaca/O. Marques

Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said recently that Poland "can be sure that any form of falsification of history, like the term 'Polish concentration camps,' will be unequivocally rejected and strongly condemned by us."  

"This organized mass murder was carried out by our country and no one else," Gabriel said.

Poland was the center of Ashkenazi Jewry before the Holocaust, with around 3.5 million Jews living in the country before the outbreak of World War II in 1939. By the end of the war, just 10 percent remained.

According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, between 30,000 and 35,000 Polish Jews were saved with the help of non-Jewish Polish citizens. Yad Vashem honors 6,706 Poles, more than any other nation.

However, research undertaken in the late 1990s by the US-Polish historian Jan Gross also shows that some ethnic Poles had been directly involved in the murder of Polish Jews, casting Poles' relationship with the Holocaust in a more complex light.

A reconstruction of the Jedwabne pogrom in 1941 in which Poles forced their Jewish neighbors into a barn and burnt them to death
A reconstruction of the Jedwabne pogrom in 1941 in which Poles forced their Jewish neighbors into a barn and burnt them to deathImage: S. Lawrence

The law

Those found guilty of using the term 'Polish death camp', and for suggesting "publicly and against the facts" that the Polish nation or state was complicit in Nazi Germany's crimes, could receive up to three years in prison under the new law. This means saying "Polish death camp" — shorthand for Nazi-run Auschwitz-Birkenau that sits on Polish soil — is illegal.

The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), the state body tasked with researching, documenting and prosecuting Nazi and Communist-era crimes, will also be able to claim compensation from anyone "damaging the reputation" of Poland.

PiS says the law is necessary to ensure that Poles are recognized as victims, not perpetrators, of Nazi aggression in World War Two.

Inside Europe: Israeli anger at Polish Holocaust speech bill

Duda signed the law on Tuesday but also asked the country's constitutional court — a body that has been filled with ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) appointees — to review it. He has asked, for example, for clarification on what exceptions will be made for "artistic and academic" expression included in the law.

Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich told CNN a lack of clarity in the bill has led to a "distortion of facts."

"The way the law was written and presented failed to meet its goal and that's something we are going to have to work on," Schudrich said.

It is not clear, for example, what it would have meant when ex-US president Barack Obama used the phrase in 2012, before later apologizing.

In a recent poll, 40 percent of Poles support the bill, while 32 percent have a negative opinion about it.

Victimhood rivalry

Andrzej Zybertowicz, an adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda, said Israel's negative reaction to the law stemmed from what he called a "feeling of shame at the passivity of the Jews during the Holocaust."

Zybertowicz called Israel's opposition to the new law "anti-Polish" and said it shows the Mideast nation is "clearly fighting to keep the monopoly on the Holocaust."

"Many Jews engaged in denunciation, collaboration during the war. I think Israel has still not worked it through," Zybertowicz said in the interview in The Polska- The Times newspaper on Friday.

Freedom of speech concerns

Israel and the US criticized Duda for signing the bill into law last week. Israel said the law curbs free speech, criminalizes basic historical facts and stops discussion about the role some Poles played in Nazi crimes.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement that the new law will likely "have a wider chilling effect on free expression."

"Laws that criminalize historical discussion — whether denial of, or responsibility for, genocide — have a chilling effect on free expression even if no one is prosecuted under them," the statement read.

The new law comes as PiS and the EU remain at loggerheads, with Brussels claiming Warsaw is rolling back on democratic norms and institutions. PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski regularly claims Germany owes Poland compensation for the wartime damages inflicted on his country. 

jbh/bw (Reuters, AP)

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