Jews surrender to the Germans during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. 1943 (Source: Public Domain)

– 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.

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So, the words of Barack Obama in 2012, when the American president spoke about a “Polish death camp”, are actually the crowning achievement of this process?

No doubt, because a multitude of people were working on this speech. Decades of tales of “Polish death camps” and the crimes of “Nazis” have borne fruit in this way. Nobody from Barack Obama’s entourage had thought that perhaps such a term was harmful to Poles …

We often hear about interventions of Polish diplomacy over foreign media’s use of this deceptive expression, and we also hear about trials against notorious liars. In my opinion, we need a huge, high-profile trial in which Poles would demand multi-million dollar damages for distorting our history. Such a process, which would be very easy to win, could focus the world’s attention on this problem.

Like the trial that Viktor Kravchenko, a fugitive from the USSR, brought against French communists who accused him of spreading lies about the Soviet Union?

Yes. The Kravchenko case helped bring the truth about the nature of the Soviet system to light. The history of the amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland has shown that such tools are rather counter-effective, so we should not use them anymore. In the other hand, a massive civil lawsuit in the USA with multi-million dollar damages in the background – I am sure that such a case would do a lot of good for the Polish image abroad.

Are you not afraid, however, that Poland already has such a spoiled opinion in the West that any attempt to tell this story anew will be considered propaganda?

That is why you have to do it very meticulously and be prepare concrete arguments and data, and not simply act under the slogan “God, honor, fatherland” that are a symbol of Polish patriotism. No emotions, no screams, that the Polish nation is being hurt, that we were the victims. This is good for internal journalism for the purpose of refreshing the spirit. We have no chance in the West with this narrative. You have to reach for the archives, show what happened in occupied Poland. Historical work from scratch is needed here. We must publish well-prepared books in the West in which the facts will defend themselves.

We must, however, start with ourselves. We need to explain to our society why Poles were neither a nation of perpetrators nor accomplices. Those who manipulate history must be cut off from state funding. We have freedom of speech, so everyone can write whatever they like, but the Polish state cannot finance authors of books that fit into false narratives that are beneficial for our western neighbor. The Center for Research on the Holocaust of Jews creates such a vision of history, which effectively identifies Poles as accomplices during the Holocaust. Taking the theses of the Center’s main researchers seriously, it is difficult to draw a different conclusion. And this is a false conclusion. I cannot understand how it is possible for the Polish Academy of Sciences, under the umbrella of which the Center operates, to tolerate such a state of affairs.

However, the defenders of the Center point to the freedom of scientific research. Will cutting off these researchers from public money further worsen Poland’s image in the West?

First, we must realize that we have centers in Poland that supply the West with ammunition that allows us to slander our country. It all started with Jan Tomasz Gross. Now the group, led by Jan Grabowski, shockingly distorts the history of Poland. Their work is perfect for people who talk about “Polish death camps”. These people listen to news from Poland and are rubbing their hands together when yet another publication – paid for by Polish taxpayers’– shows Poles as murderers of Jews. There is no room for nuances, for explaining the context: war and the fall of the Polish state, encouragement from the Germans, lawlessness caused by the chaos of war – all this meant that social scum began to harm people on a large scale in Poland. Not only to Jews by handing them over and robbing them, but also to Poles. This context does not exist. It leaves the general impression that occupied Poland was hell for Jews because of the attitude of a large part of the Polish nation. That is why Grabowski is so popular in Germany. I live in Germany, I listen to the local public debate, I can see the atmosphere among local researchers. Poles do not realize how important Grabowski’s voice is in the milieu of German historians. He is a real celebrity! This is a man who regularly confirms the thesis that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were “Nazis” and … Poles.

Do you really think it’s that bad? Is it really possible that Nazis will never be associated with Germans again, and the Poles will become the perpetrators of the Holocaust?

This threat is very real. This is the reality that Poles have to deal with in the West. A lot of wrongdoing has already occurred. We are already perceived as accomplices of the Holocaust. If we do not counteract this notion effectively, we will be the main perpetrators of the Holocaust. We will be standing right next to the Nazis. Or we will become those Nazis ourselves.

There was a joke in during the People’s Republic of Poland: which propaganda was more effective? Communist or Goebbels’? Of course it’s communist. Because if Goebbels’ propaganda had been as effective as the communist, the Germans would not have known to this day that they lost the war. But paradoxically, German historical propaganda has achieved just that! Today, the Germans do not really know that they have lost the war. They generally believe that they were “liberated” by the Allies. They managed to reevaluate that period in history. This operation has nothing to do with historical reality. Perpetrators are made victims, and victims are perpetrators. Hence the use of the word “Nazis” and the phrase “Polish death camps”.

I realize that fighting these lies is like David against Goliath. The German narrative potential is incomparable to the Polish one, the more so as we have centers in Poland that support this narrative. We also have German consortiums in our media market that are making an amorphous mass out of history. Meanwhile, the historical facts are on our side. We must convince everyone to use the term “German Crimes”. If we neglect this, we will do ourselves a lot of damage.

Prof. Daniel Patrick Brown, American historian, author of the book “The Beautiful Beast. The crimes of SS-Aufseherin Irma Grese”, argued that “Nazis” will never cease to be associated with Germans, and using the term “German crimes” means that we are “freeing”Austrians from them.

I am afraid that prof. Brown underestimates human ignorance. It is quite a naive perspective. The Austrians were part of the Third Reich and they too were the perpetrators of mass murders and played a large role in the Holocaust. Of course: we can say that they were German-Austrian crimes, but pointing to the Germans is perfectly correct, because they were the driving force behind all these inhuman atrocities. Austria is a very interesting example of historical politics. This country has reached a level of cutting itself off from its past. The Austrians today call themselves the first victim of Hitler and the last victim of Stalin. I must admit that this is an absolute masterpiece in PR.

Prof. Bogdan Musiał is a historian specializing in 20th-century German history, the author of many works on German crimes in occupied Poland (including Kto dopomoże Żydowi… (“Who will help the Jew…”).

This article was published in 2021 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.