The Canadian Historical Association Speaks Out about Poland’s New History Law, a comment by David Dean

On December 6, 2016 the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) wrote an open letter to the Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo urging the Polish government to reconsider the passage of legislation that would punish anyone who refers to “Polish death camps” or “Polish concentration camps.”[1] The proposed legislation is designed to protect “the good name” of Poland.[2] The CHA fears that the new law will encourage attacks on academic freedom and stifle research and debate.

barbed_wire-boyer-flickr

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons: Auschwitz Birkenau by Jennifer Boyer is licensed under CC BY 4.0. Taken May 31, 2011. (Direct link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenniferboyer/6621400503/in/album-72157628686905383/)

When University of Ottawa historian Professor Jan Gabowski wrote an article protesting the new law in Canada’s weekly Macleans magazine, the Chargé d’affaires at the Polish Embassy, Łukasz Weremiuk responded saying that the legislation was designed to protect “our collective memory against defective codes of memory.”[3] Such Orwellian speak is indeed worrying for all historians. As the CHA put it, “It is our strong belief that “defective” histories are best challenged through research, evidence and debate, rather than by criminalizing collective memory.”[4]

At issue is more than accurately describing the camps situated in Poland as “German Nazi” rather than “Polish”. This has already been established internationally as correct terminology, recognized for example by UNESCO’s 2007 re-designation of Auschwitz.[5] The Canadian private broadcaster CTV and American President Barack Obama are among those who were forced to make amends after mistakenly referring to “Polish” camps.[6] Rather, the fear is that the current government in Poland is using the law to push a particular narrative of Polish history that denies any Polish involvement in the Holocaust. Such fears seem justified when earlier this year Education Minister Anna Zalewska questioned whether Poles were involved in the 1941 Jebwabne massacre, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.[7]

For international public historians, the fact that the national association of historians in Canada felt it important to protest publicly about history and historical research in Poland is very significant. Such professional associations usually focus on the immediate needs of members and when they do make public statements these are almost always in relation to issues within their own national boundaries. The CHA has indeed been a vocal critic of governments at home, for example over the cancellation of the long form census, reduced funding and devaluing of the national library and archive, and changes to the national history museum all under the watch of the last Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Yet the CHA has also complained to the Hungarian ambassador about the proposed destruction of secret police archives and, more recently, gone public to declare its concern about restrictions to academic freedom in Turkey.[8]

Why is such international advocacy important? In our telephone conversation, Professor Joan Sangster, President of the CHA, told me that the CHA represents all Canadian historians wherever they are working, and whatever the focus of their research and writing. This means that the CHA has an obligation to think internationally and globally as well as nationally and locally. In terms of process, the CHA has an advocacy officer who may bring a matter to the attention of the CHA’s executive, or a CHA member may ask the advocacy officer or the executive to consider taking a public stance on a particular matter. Sangster told me there is not a “conscious policy” to make such interventions on all issues, rather they are dealt with on a case by case basis and, in the case of Poland’s new law, this was judged to be a matter of significance for all Canadian historians. She and I shared common ground in thinking that the new Polish law needs to be seen in the context of revising meta-narratives of nationhood,[9] something which another conservative government had been seeking to do here at home in Canada not so long ago. It is important for all historians to be vigilant, for us all to think internationally and globally about the work that we do, and in this IFPH also has an important advocacy role to play.


[1] http://www.cha-shc.ca/?action=show&lid=BVWSF-4YGTA-XWMH3&desc=The-CHA-opposes-the-new-concentration-camps-legislation-in-Poland – sthash.7zqCbLQg.dpbs (all sites cited were accessed 16 December 2016).

[2] http://www.thenews.pl/1/9/Artykul/266732,Use-of-term-‘Polish’-death-camp-could-mean-3-years-in-jail.

[3] http://www.macleans.ca/news/world/as-poland-re-writes-its-holocaust-history-historians-face-prison/; http://www.macleans.ca/news/world/the-polish-embassy-in-ottawa-responds-to-jan-grabowski/.

[4] http://www.cha-shc.ca/?action=show&lid=BVWSF-4YGTA-XWMH3&desc=The-CHA-opposes-the-new-concentration-camps-legislation-in-Poland – sthash.7zqCbLQg.dpbs.

[5] http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/363/.

[6] http://www.cbsc.ca/ctv-television-and-ctv-newsnet-re-news-reports-ghettos-and-concentration-camps-in-poland/; https://www.yahoo.com/news/obama-says-regrets-polish-death-camp-gaffe-110255389.html?ref=gs.

[7] https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/07/14/polish-education-minister-blasted-for-jewish-massacre-remarks.html; https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/09/24/poland-wrestles-with-its-past-and-present.html.

[8] These are all readable online on the Advocacy Issues section of the CHA’s website: http://www.cha-shc.ca/english/advocacy/advocacy.html – sthash.d8uzPrsD.dpbs

[9] See, for example, the recent controversy over the Second World War museum in Gdansk, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/10/arts/design/museum-of-the-second-world-war-in-poland-debate.html.


You may also like...