Forming a New Polish Political Consciousness
Part Three: Confronting Polish Responsibility for the Shoah in Paris
Editor’s note: in two prior essays on the challenges Polish scholars are confronting in their efforts to bring attention to Polish-responsibility for portions of the Shoah, Prof. Wagner discussed the origins of, and the historical and contemporary resistance to, the New Polish School of the History of the Shoah. In this third and final part she discusses the diplomatic and academic contexts and offers an analysis the current state of anti-Semitism in Poland.
In two prior essays on this topic I discussed the origins of new historical research on Polish responsibility for aspects of the Shoah, the rise of resistance to such research, and how media, religious and academic elites are driving this resistance. But these are not the only venues where this conflict between academic research and national identity are being played out. In fact, the conflict has leaked over in to official international diplomatic relations as well.
For example, on March 1st Frederique Vidal, the French Minister of Scientific Research and Higher Education, sent a formal letter to Jarosław Gowin, the Polish Minister of Science and Higher Education, condemning the protests. As L’Histoire en rafale has noted, Ms. Vidal argued that these “serious disturbances could appear to be supported by representatives of the Polish state.” This is not just idle accusation, she notes, because a member of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) was not only present at the conference protests but “expressed himself without condemning the perturbations.” Even more, Ms. Vidal added, the IPN subsequently “criticized the conference on social networks” and the Paris Polish Embassy “relayed the IPN’s messages on its Twitter account.” Such action, she concluded, “can only appear… as an unacceptable interference in a scientific debate.”
Mr. Gowin’s response came just three days later. In it he disagreed that the Polish government had a hand in encouraging or supporting the protests around the conference. In addition, he noted his surprise that speakers at a history conference would present opinions critical of the Polish government. Mr. Gowin further wrote that he is “confident that [Ms. Vidal] understood how unfounded and useless were your worries that the Polish government may have limited the freedom of academic research or tolerated any anti-Semitic excesses.” Mr. Gowin concluded his letter by expressing his concern about the increase of anti-Semitic acts in France and welcomed Ms. Vidal an “ally in a battle against all forms of anti-Semitism.”
Despite such demurrals, not all have been convinced by Mr. Gowin’s words. No less eminent a media source than Le Monde, in fact, judged the Polish response to be insufficient. But how ought we to evaluate this diplomatic repartee? In two ways, I think.
First, it should be noted that, as a minister of the Polish academia, Mr. Gowin should know that intellectuals regularly engage the public. It is a part of their work. It ought not be surprising that historians show concern about contemporary Polish politics. Indeed, is there anyone better suited to comment upon potentially problematic changes than historians? In particular those who specialize in the study of historical periods disrupted by ultranationalist movements?
But, secondly, this is not only a debate around the proper academic uses of free speech. Freedom also concerns persons. And in democratic societies persons – whether industrial workers, white collar professionals, or academics – are also engaged citizens. In this instance Polish intellectuals often feel that they have a particular duty toward the society that supported their education. The Polish academics doing this historical work are not simply unconcerned experts; they feel a responsibility toward Polish society.
Such Polish scholars are, today, in a challenging political and academic situation. While Polish scholars have expressed their gratitude for the solidarity shown by the French scholars who voiced their indignation about the protests, there is also a recognition that this kind of academic freedom is lacking in Poland. Such freedom is inhibited not only by an increasingly-nationalistic Polish government – or even out of fear that certain kinds of scholarship will be perceived as signs of “disobedience.” It is, in fact, inhibited for a much more practical reason: the erosion of the Polish academy.
For years Polish academics have lived under constant pressure, a pressure caused by incomplete governmental reforms that have impacted both their daily work and their career progress. Work conditions are difficult. Salaries remain low and expectations remain high. This environment, especially when coupled with the effects of certain neo-liberal changes aimed at transforming the university into a corporation, has had negative effects on Polish scholars and scholarship.
At the moment there is some hope that the “Parisian events” might mobilize the Polish academic community. And scholars associated with the Polish Academy of Science have indeed been increasingly engaged: sending letters, published declarations, and circulating petitions in support of those who spoke at the conference. Still, such scholars are not in the majority, and this lack of strong voices in the Polish public sphere – voices capable of condemning the anti-Semitic character of these “patriotic” actions – is notable.
The absence of official scholarly or diplomatic condemnations of such racist actions is unsurprising. For the present Polish government, historical memory is an important political tool. For them the recovery of national pride, of Polish honor, coincides with a rejection of any complexity in Poland’s past. Their aim is to present a black-and-white picture in which Communists were bad and interwar Poland was a democratic paradise. Such efforts amount to what Zygmunt Bauman called a “retrotopia” – the celebration of a glorious past when everything was better. And current NPSHS scholarship disrupts this retrotopic narrative.
This is partially what accounts for the saying that, in Poland, anti-Semitism is a problem not of Jews but of Poles. The problem is admitting that there can be any difference between Jews and Poles. Here is how the logic goes: Poland’s difficult past, a past in which practices of categorization imposed divisions between religion, ethnicity, and nationality, has made-invisible the major criteria for inclusion in democratic countries: citizenship. But in a democratic society there can be only one category, that of citizen. Any other categorization amounts to exclusion and so becomes proof that Poland is not a democratic society. And so must be rejected.
The story of anti-Semitism in Poland is a story of refusing difference. When one part of society refuses to recognizes that those who are different can still be included – when the majority  labels a given minority “other” or “stranger” – this is the beginning of the discrimination process. And, in Poland, this process is the story of anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism as the Auto-Immune Disease of Polish Society
It is in this way that we can think of anti-Semitism in the body of Polish society as something like lupus in the body of a healthy person.
Lupus, an auto-immune disease, occurs in the human body when healthy cells suddenly begin to perceive neighbor cells as “other” – as “stranger” cells. These healthy cells receive a “danger” signal and begin to kill off their neighbors. In other words, lupus is the name we have for what happens when war breaks out inside the human body. This war can be stopped only when killer-cells can be taught to recognize neighbor cells not as a danger but as part of the same human body.
This is precisely what is at stake with regard to Polish anti-Semitism. And the social challenge is to learn how to convince the Polish population – especially people like the “patriots” who protested the NPSHS conference – that the very persons they are attacking are Polish citizens; part of the same social body. In their efforts to form a new, inclusive, Polish consciousness the New Polish School of the History of the Shoah took up this very challenge. They took it up in hopes that, by holding Poland accountable for its past, they might contribute to rebuilding a multicultural Polish society.
And it is precisely this that explains why this effort is being opposed by Polish “patriots.” These protestors are right that the Paris conference did more than present “innocent” historical reports. The conference, and NPSHS scholarship as a whole, is an attempt to forge tools that can be used to better understand the complex social processes that led one group of Poles to massacre their neighbors. This is scholarship concerned not only with the Polish past but with its present. It is this that explains the conflagration of raw emotions their work stokes.
But instead of rejection and denial Poles should be grateful for this challenging work – we should study it and allow it to shape us. The historical analysis being done by NPSHS scholars brings precious knowledge to light, teaching us about how each stage of such violent phenomena unfolds – including how it often begins by engaging in and tolerating the very hate speech that was in evidence during and after the Parisian conference. We must learn from our past in order to heal our collective lupus.
With lupus the problem is not with sick cells. The problem is that healthy cells become violently defensive without reason and that other, non-defensive, healthy cells remain passive. The similarity with Polish society today is striking. In 1962, the American sociologist Everett Hughes, wrote a paper untitled “Good People and Dirty Work” in which he analyzed Nazi crimes by focusing not on perpetrators but the silent observers, the “passive participants” who allowed such action to happen. Hughes concluded that observers who do not react to others’ criminal behavior see this behavior as having resolved an unspoken problem; a problem that already exists in their society but with which society has been unwilling to deal.
Like the research presented in Paris, Hughes’ work should not be read as simply historically descriptive. Neither this passivity nor this history is a specialty of Poles. It happens in all parts of the world. It happened 70 years ago across Europe and it happens now each time we refuse to react to the death of refugees in the Mediterranean. The solution to this problem, however, does not come from denial – the violent, harassing protestation of Polish innocence – but from accepting facts. It is this that will allow us to develop, in Poland as in every other place or time in human history, a new political consciousness, one that allows for difference.
Izabela Wagner (PhD EHESS-Paris) is associate professor in the department of Philosophy and Sociology at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Warsaw. She is also an associated researcher at IDHES-Paris. She is the Author of Producing Excellence: The Making of Virtuosos, Becoming Transnational Professional, and has written several articles about work conditions, the construction of careers, and the international mobility of artists and scholars. Since 2016 she has been investigating the phenomenon of refugees in Southern Europe.
 It should be noted here that the categories of majority/minority operated differently in the past, not always reflecting mathematical proportions. Before World War 2, for example, there were both cities and towns where Polish Jews were numerical majority and Polish-non-Jews the minority. Speaking here about a majority/minority relation refers to dominated groups rather than numbers, that a discriminative relationship was reinforced by specific racialized laws.