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Polish government rewrites history

    People celebrate Poland's Independence Day in Krakow
    People celebrate Poland's Independence Day in Krakow

    The passage of time is supposed to be a great healer. It can also expose wounds which were only partially covered. In Poland, we see the latter.

    The governing right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) has announced legislation which, if enacted, will make it a crime to refer to "Polish concentration camps" or "Polish death camps".

    It is understandable that Poles are offended about German camps in Nazi occupied Poland being called Polish, but the bill goes further: it mandates three years in prison and a fine for anyone claiming that the Polish people or state were responsible for the Nazis' crimes or collaborated with them.

    This legislation is therefore about something else.

    It is about a wider push to rewrite history and further Polish nationalism. Part of that push is an attempt to whitewash centuries of Polish antisemitism and its role in the Holocaust in order to portray the country only as a noble victim.

    The warning signs were apparent during last summer's election in which the PiS came to power. The then president, Bronislaw Komorowski, referred to the 1941 Jedwabne massacre and acknowledged the historical record by saying: "The nation of victims was also the nation of perpetrators." His victorious opponent, Andrzej Duda, later described this as an "attempt to destroy Poland's good name".

    The behaviour of the PiS has led to the EU opening an investigation into whether Poland is breaking the EU's democracy rules.

    Attacks on media organisations are what most alarms the EU, but there are also concerns over individual freedom of speech, notably the threat to strip historian Jan Gross of his Order of Merit for suggesting Poles may have killed more Polish Jews in the Second World War than did the Germans.

    The government's defence minister has said that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are probably genuine, and one of its MPs believes that Polish Jews are represented by the Knesset rather than the parliament in Warsaw.

    These are worrying times for the 10,000 or so Polish Jews who are the remnants of the 3.2 million pre-war population.

    They know there was a pogrom against them in 1946 and that, in 1968, the Communist party conducted a witch-hunt against "Zionists". Since the fall of Communism, there have been signs of antisemitism returning to religious education classes within the Catholic church and, in this decade, hundreds of Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. A fundamentalist Christian broadcaster, Radio Maryja, which has ties to the PiS, stands accused of Islamophobia and antisemitism and has been censured by the Vatican.

    A 2013 poll found that 44 per cent of students believed that "Poles and Jews suffered equally during the Holocaust", and a 2014 survey by Warsaw University said that 63 per cent of Poles believed there was a Jewish conspiracy to control international banking and the media.

    "Law and Justice" is not a fascist party, but is authoritarian, nationalistic and is the most successful of a wave of similar groupings that are growing across the continent. Their attempts to re-tell history along ethno-nationalist lines may well be repeated elsewhere.

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