– Today the use of the term “German extermination camps” is increasingly perceived as politically incorrect. In Europe, the left views this as reinforcing national stereotypes. It seems inconceivable, but it’s simply a fact – says prof. Bogdan Musiał, a historian specializing in the 20th-century history of Germany,
PIOTR WŁOCZYK: Where did this false formulation come from? Where are we to look for the origin of the term “Polish death camps”?
I believe I was one of the first historians to raise alarms on this matter and demand specific actions from the Polish state. In 2004, in Jerusalem, I wrote a paper on this subject. It was clear to almost all the researchers gathered there that the term “Polish death camps” is a false concept that harms Poland. Only one friend from Germany argued later in the discussion that I was exaggerating by raising the alarm. That, after all, nothing threatened Poland, because, as she argued, everyone supposedly understands that it is only about the geographical location. So it’s not really a problem. And yet this friend was not able to explain to me why, then, the Germans do not use the terms “Bavarian concentration camp Dachau”, “Austrian concentration camp Mauthausen”, or “Czech concentration camp Theresienstadt” … All I heard from her was that this is “a completely different matter”.
I think we are lacking concrete data, public opinion polls in the West, to conclude with certainty how people understand this false concept.
The claim that everyone knows perfectly well that it is only about location in occupied Poland is simply ridiculous. Right after the war, almost everyone knew who built the camps. Even some Poles used this phrase precisely in the context of the location or the victims killed there, and not in the context of the overseers. But that was in 1945 and what used to be obvious is not so obvious in the world now. Now, more than 70 years later, the situation is completely different. Over the last decades, due to the very intelligently conducted German historical policy, or rather historical propaganda, German crimes have been largely de-Germanized. Please note that today the use of the term “German extermination camps” is increasingly perceived as politically incorrect. In Europe, the left views this as reinforcing national stereotypes. It seems inconceivable, but it’s simply a fact.
In 2005, there was a scandalous battle in the EP over whether Auschwitz could be called a “German-Nazi” or merely a “Nazi” camp. The latter option was strongly advocated by liberals and socialists, including Germans, who argued that the former was not appropriate.
On the principle: “Not all Germans were supporters of Hitler during the war”?
This, of course, was what the liberals and socialists meant. But it is distorting history. There were very few such Germans. The lion’s share of the citizens of the Third Reich supported Hitler practically until the very end. No German politician in history had support on this scale. The Germans were faithful to him until 1944, when they stated that it may be possible to lose the war with him at the reigns after all. Up to that point, they had fought bravely on the fronts and eagerly established concentration and death camps.
But on the other hand, in 2019, during her visit to Auschwitz, Angela Merkel strongly emphasized that the camp was a “German, National Socialist labor and death camp”. “This name is valid as the full name”, said the German Chancellor at the time.
I understand that these words capture the heart of Poles, but we must still remember that the Germans conduct their historical propaganda. Merkel could afford to make such a statement in Poland to please the Poles. But she certainly did not want these words to spread around the world. Germans publicize what suits them. An example may be the so-called the Frankfurt trials that took place in the 1960s. At that time, a small part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau staff was tried. Germany is very proud of it. A handful of criminals were sentenced at the time, and the sentences were not too harsh. A special institute was even established in Frankfurt, the aim of which is to popularize in the world how the allegedly magnificent Germans came to terms with the past. This is a mirage, because the German state protected the vast majority of Nazi criminals from punishment and tried the absolute minimum in court for strictly image-building purposes.
German historical propaganda is conducted in very subtle terms and Poles generally do not notice this. And if anything, they are looking for the roots of the problem, not where the problem really lies. In Poland, the story of how the BND, the West German intelligence service, did everything to ensure that the “Nazis” ousted the Germans in the media space, and that the term “Polish death camps” appeared as often as possible is very popular on the right. The problem is that there is no evidence that this was a planned operation of sorts, precisely carried out by the German government. It is an overly naive approach to this problem.
So where does the term “Polish death camps” come from? How much ignorance, and how much conscious manipulation and lies is there in all this?
In the case of Germany, I think it breaks down roughly in half. If this isn’t a lie, then at least a subconscious manipulation. The Germans care about repeating concepts that fit their ideas.
However, this should be understandable to all of us. After all, it is in the interest of Germany, because no nation wants to be associated with crimes. Germany is a global export brand that must take care of its image. In order to understand the phenomenon of “Nazis” and “Polish death camps”, one has to look deep into the German psyche.
What do you see there?
If everyone around us repeats that the Germans themselves were victims of the Nazis, and on May 8th 1945, the German nation was “liberated”” from Hitler, then subconsciously – and this is the optimistic version for us Poles – we begin to tell the history of the war in this perspective. And this has its consequences in the media. What’s worse, however, is that this type of narrative can be seen not only among journalists, but also among German historians. The referenced friend of mine who was arguing with me in Jerusalem is just one example. Unfortunately, I often see phrases of this sort in scientific works published in Germany. In a book I recently read, I noticed how the “Nazis” took the local children to a “Polish labor camp” after committing a crime in Lidice, Czech Republic. There are no adopted recommendations to write in such a way about the history of the Third Reich. It just happens on its own. A nation with such a past will want to whitewash itself, and we must be aware of this. Poland cannot allow for this to stand.
What is the atmosphere on these issues in German primary and secondary schools?
In the broad spectrum of German society, the level of knowledge about crimes in Poland is embarrassingly low. This topic is a tiny detail in German schools that hardly anyone pays attention to. The school curriculum reflects German historical propaganda. There is much talk of murdering Jews, but if, on the other hand, it is said that on May 8th, Germany was “liberated” from Hitler, there can only be one conclusion…
This article was published in 2021 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.