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Advocacy Briefs: AHA Condemns Polish Law Criminalizing Public Discussion of Polish Complicity in Nazi War Crimes

AHA Staff, April 2018

In February, Polish president Andrzej Duda signed a law criminalizing references to Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes. The AHA issued a statement condemning the law. Radosław Czarnecki/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0On February 9, 2018, the American Historical Association issued the following statement condemning a Polish law that criminalizes references to Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes. At press time, 50 scholarly associations and affiliated societies had endorsed this statement. 

The American Historical Association strongly condemns the bill drafted by the Polish legislature and signed into law by Polish President Andrzej Duda on February 6, 2018, that states, in part: “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes—shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.”

In practice, this legislation pertains specifically to histories that document and explore Polish participation in violence against Jews during World War II. It therefore threatens free pursuit of historical inquiry.

The AHA’s stance is consistent with its long-standing objection to any and all previous efforts by the Polish government or by any party to stifle speech and to restrict the content of scholarship concerned with Poland’s role in the Holocaust and related war crimes. On November 14, 2016, the AHA sent a letter to President Duda expressing concern over the Polish government’s treatment and potential prosecution of Jan T. Gross, professor of history at Princeton University, who was facing a libel investigation from Polish authorities for publishing historical accounts of Poles killing Jews during World War II. That letter already made clear the very real dangers, beyond the specific case of Professor Gross, of criminalizing scholars and scholarship that explored Polish involvement in the Holocaust. As we stated then: “More generally, we are concerned with the law currently being discussed in the Polish parliament that would subject to strong penalties anyone convicted of ascribing to the Polish nation or the Polish state the responsibility for crimes against humanity that prosecutors themselves attribute to other perpetrators—in the first instance, the German Third Reich. We feel strongly that this law will allow police and judicial authorities to overrule the judgments of trained historians, and that it will threaten the ability of historians to conduct impartial research that might reveal facts that these authorities find uncomfortable. No nation’s past is free of blemishes, and Poland will do itself no favors in the eye of world opinion by passing such a restrictive and prejudicial piece of legislation.”

The American Historical Association stands by that statement now, seeing in the new law, signed on February 6, a threat both to historians’ freedom of speech and to the future of historical scholarship, which depends upon open inquiry and the pursuit of impartial truth. We urge the Constitutional Tribunal of Poland to reconsider this law.


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