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Remembering people, not nations, in discussing the Holocaust

Stanislaw Strasburger
March 11, 2018

There is a heated argument going on in Poland at the moment about how the Holocaust can or should be discussed. Stanislaw Strasburger would like to see a fundamental change in the discourse.

A portrait of Stanislaw Strasburger
Image: Mathias Bothor

At the Munich Security Conference last month, Poland's prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki responded to a journalist's question by saying that "there were Polish perpetrators, just as there were Jewish perpetrators" of the Holocaust. The journalist had been talking about his Jewish mother, who had only just escaped in time when her Polish neighbors were about to denounce her during the Nazi occupation in World War Two. Almost a month later, Morawiecki's words are still making waves, not just in Poland and Europe but in Israel and the US as well.

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"To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," wrote Theodor W. Adorno in 1951. The famous philosopher later qualified his radical distrust of the ability of culture – and thus also of language – to deal with the horror. The problem, however, remains: How should we talk about the Holocaust?

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Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaking at the Munich Security Conference
Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki: 'There were Polish perpetrators, just as there were Jewish perpetrators'Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Kienzle

What words tell us

This problem is currently obscured by the media uproar over Morawiecki's remarks. What terminology do we use to speak of the horror of our recent past? And what exactly do we understand by such apparently unambiguous words as "perpetrator" and "victim"?

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"There are three terms proposed by Raul Hilberg that are widespread in Holocaust research: 'perpetrators,' 'victims' and 'bystanders,'" explained the historian Professor Andrzej Zbikowski from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, in an interview with the news website Oko press about Morawiecki's comments. "The word 'perpetrator' is basically used to refer to Nazis," Zbikowski explained, "and sometimes also representatives of institutions or associations that collaborated with the Nazis, be they Lithuanian, Ukrainian or Belorussian…Jews cannot be described as perpetrators."

The specific peculiarity of genocidal persecution is that you cannot renounce your role as victim. Once I am classified by the Nazis as a "Jew," my fate is sealed. Even if I collaborate, this doesn't change. If, on the other hand, I am persecuted as a "Communist," I do – at least in theory – have a choice: I could abandon my world view, which would give me at least a chance of survival. When speaking of perpetrators from what are, in fact, victim groups, scientific historical discourse provides differentiated linguistic tools. One speaks of "derivative power," for example, with reference to Nazi collaborators.

'Call things by their name'

It is still unclear whether Morawiecki intended to defy this linguistic usage or was simply displaying the deficits of his knowledge. His remarks also demonstrate a lack of empathy and political clumsiness. This particular confusion is, however, significant.

Boguslaw Chrabota, the editor-in-chief of the respected daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita, recently wrote a sarcastic commentary in which he accused Poles of being eager to "engage in an absurd rivalry in which they repeatedly behave as if they themselves were the victims [of history], just as much as the Jews." There are those in Poland whose response to the debate about Morawiecki is that at last someone has had the courage to "call things by their name." They say that "Jewish perpetrators" is a justified designation – especially if there is to be reference to "Polish perpetrators."

A stone wall surrounding a square of grass with some square patches of dirt makes up the memorial for Jewish victims in a small Polish town
A memorial in the Polish town of Jedwabne for the 1600 Jewish residents who were burned alive in 1941Image: picture-alliance/dpa/E. Krafczyk

Distancing oneself from the language of the perpetrators

What is to be done? Media outrage, as well as attempts – be they from Washington, Tel Aviv or Berlin – to exert direct political influence on how the Polish prime minister ought to speak are simply played up by those in power in Poland. This makes many Poles feel angry and undermines their already dwindling belief in democracy. So not only must Europe, the economy and defense submit to the dictates of the most powerful – now memory must do so as well? Instead of reflection and dialogue, they call for polarization and confrontation, both on the domestic political front and in terms of foreign policy. They are preparing for war – though, so far, it is only a war of words.

Chrabota's commentary is in Rzeczpospolita's weekend supplement, the cover of which shows a Star of David made up of two interwoven flags, one Polish, one Israeli. The headline reads: "We are one people."

I would like to go a step further. Do we really need to allocate memory according to perceived ethnic affiliations? The very first thing the perpetrators tried to take away from their victims was their individuality as human beings. Shouldn't the horror primarily be explained at an existential level, for precisely this reason? Arbitrary national labelling was both the language and the tool of the perpetrators. It's time we stopped using this language once and for all.

Stanislaw Strasburger is a writer and cultural manager. His novel "The Story Seller" has just been published in German translation. The author was born in Warsaw, and divides his time between Berlin, Warsaw and various Mediterranean cities.

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