– 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…
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.