The German Historical Institute in Warsaw is usually a place for balanced academic debate based on facts and pertinent arguments rather than high political emotion. On Tuesday evening, however, the institute was the scene of a political outburst that turned violent. Fortunately, the only damage caused was to the technical equipment.
The outburst occurred during a lecture by Jan Grabowski, a renowned Polish-Canadian professor of history and Holocaust researcher.
Only a few minutes after Grabowski had begun to speak on the announced topic, "Poland's (growing) problems with the history of the Holocaust," radical right-wing MP Grzegorz Braun leapt to his feet shouting "Enough!" and stormed onto the podium, grabbing the microphone and smashing it on the lectern several times.
He then tore out the cables and knocked over the loudspeaker. Turning to the shocked audience, he announced that the event was over.
Police and security powerless
Neither the security guard in the room nor the police officers who were called to the scene were able to remove Braun and his supporters from the room. The MP referred to his immunity and claimed that the situation was an emergency.
When the director of the institute, Milos Reznik, reproached Braun for damaging institute property, the MP became abusive: "A German in Warsaw is not going to tell me I shouldn't damage something. Get out of Warsaw, now!"
Lecture called off
Despite being booed by audience members and called a "disgrace," a "fascist" and a "Russian doormat," Braun refused to budge. "I am defending the Polish nation against a provoked attack on historical sensitivity," he told the police officers.
After fruitless discussions with the MP, the police asked those attending the event to leave the room.
Extreme right-wing agitator
It was only when the event had been called off that Braun left the building, where he boasted of his victory to his supporters outside.
Braun belongs to the Confederation Liberty and Independence, a small parliamentary group consisting of nine MPs. It has links to Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany party.
Spectacular protests are an integral feature of Braun's political activity. In recent years, he attracted a lot of attention with his protests against COVID-19 restrictions. He once threatened the health minister in parliament with the words: "You will hang!"
He also considers the independent media to be his enemies. In 2012, he declared that one in 10 journalists at the Gazeta Wyborcza daily newspaper and the private television channel TVN should be shot.
Opposition before the lecture
Before Grabowski had even arrived at the institute on Tuesday, his lecture had ruffled feathers and raised hackles. On May 25, Jakub Kumoch, former chief foreign policy adviser to President Andrzej Duda, took to Twitter to vent his anger about the visiting academic.
Kumoch, who media reports say is likely to become Poland's next ambassador to China, was obviously most angered by that fact that the lecture was being held at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw.
'Provoking a scandal'
Of all people, he said, the Germans had no right to teach the Poles anything about the Holocaust. "Once again, just in case. A German historical institute," he tweeted. He went on to accuse the institute of "provoking a scandal" so that the German newspapers would have something to write about.
"We are reaching a new level of violence against academics," Grabowski has since told the Internet portal Wirtualna Polska. He said the current situation reminds him of the situation in 1937-1939, when academics were attacked and their lectures interrupted in Poland.
Throwback to the 1930s?
This opinion is shared by historian Szymon Rudnicki, author of numerous publications about the Polish radical right wing in the interwar years from 1918 to 1939). "I feel as if I have been transported back to the 1930s," he told DW.
"What can I say?" institute director Reznik told journalists. "The situation speaks for itself. We have seen who is afraid of the debate about important topical problems." He pledged that the institute would take up the theme of the lecture at a later date.
When asked whether the decision to call off the event had not been a capitulation, Reznik replied: "If the academic says that he sees no way to continue the lecture, we have to accept that."
Controversial figure in Poland
Grabowski lectures at the University of Ottawa in Canada. His publications have made him a lot of enemies in Poland — especially within the right-wing government. Among other things, the book "Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in German-Occupied Poland," which was first published in Polish in 2018 and which he co-edited with Barbara Engelking, triggered a wave of protests.
In the book, he highlighted the problem of violence perpetrated by Christian Poles against Jews, in particular after the liquidation of the ghettos by the Germans in 1942, when survivors sought help from Polish families in the country.
The results of his research were criticized by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. But Grabowski was backed up by the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
In recent times, the Polish government has stepped up its pressure on independent academics investigating critical aspects of Polish-Jewish relations during World War II.
"I will not finance any research work that seeks to slander the good name of the Polish state," Education and Science Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek said at a meeting with a delegation from the European Parliament in Warsaw in mid-May. This statement led to strained relations with the Israeli government and Holocaust researchers worldwide.
This article was originally published in German.