The history of the victimization of Jews played a significant symbolic role in the establishment of the liberal order of the European Union and its expansion in 2004 to include some former Warsaw Pact states and Soviet republics. However, the attitude toward Israel and Jews in the Eastern bloc countries is somewhat different from that in Western Europe. A new Polish law passed in January 2018, forbids accusing Poland of complicity in the Holocaust. It did not stem directly from anti-Semitic sentiment (which was rather just a contributing factor), but was the result of Poland’s humiliating confrontation with the existential challenge of forging new post-Communist identities occupying much of Eastern Europe. Preventing the enactment of such laws in the future requires a deeper understanding of this and the need to cope with three existential motives for the countries of the region: (1) A need to whitewash their collective memory; (2) the need to formulate a positive national narrative; (3) the need to reclaim lost pride.
In Poland, in addition to the deeply entrenched historical revulsion toward the Jews, three factors combined to give rise to this law, which took the Western world and the State of Israel by surprise:
- Most of these countries were trampled under Communist rule. The communist narrative described the Soviet struggle as a liberation from Nazi tyranny. Following the renewed Russian imperialist push (the annexation of the Crimea, for example), the alternative Polish narrative describes both the Nazi and Soviet regimes as forces of repression that trampled the dignity and national identity of the Polish people. Nationalist narratives tend to, by their nature, present a binary picture devoid of nuance. The new narrative seeks to describe Poland as the “victim” and erase its image as an “accomplice”. Despite the Jewish and Israeli public’s willingness to admit that the Germans were solely responsible for creating the death camps, Polish government spokespeople attempted to assign parity to the losses suffered by the Jewish people with those suffered by the Polish people – a distortion of the historical record. Although it is true that not only Jews were murdered in Poland during the war (in all, six million Polish citizens were killed, among them three million Jews) the percent of Polish Jews killed stands at over 90 percent of the pre-war Jewish population, while the rate of non-Jewish Poles murdered stands at 11 percent). Jewish historians have determined that while 30,000 Poles assisted Jews during the war (6,500 of them were recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad VaShem), the number who collaborated with the Nazis against the Jews is around 300,000.
- Xenophobic Conservative Reaction: As is the case across much of Europe, a significant segment of Poland’s political spectrum is formulating a conservative, authoritarian, and nationalist response to the forces of globalization and the waves of Muslim immigration. Political leaders who cast doubt over the idea of the European Union are increasingly inclined to make provocative statements that directly contradict the narrative that the Holocaust was a seminal event leading to the establishment of the European Union. The denial, revisionism, or diminution of the Holocaust provides far-right European leaders an additional tool to enhance national pride (at the expense of the Jews) and an opportunity to garner widespread popular support. It is clear that this authoritarianism, with its anti-immigrant and anti-minority positions, is also fertile ground for anti-Semitism.
- Fear of Immigration: A significant factor in Hungary, for example, (less so in Poland) is an intensifying disdain of immigrants. Throughout Europe there is mass anxiety about the demographic future and therefore widespread support of conservative forces.