Senate backs bill proposing jail terms for those who attribute crimes of Nazi Germany to Poles
The entrance to Auschwitz in Poland. The US said the proposed legislation could undermine free speech. Photograph: Alik Kęplicz/AP
Poland has sparked a diplomatic row with Israel and drawn warnings of repercussions from the US after its senate approved a controversial bill penalising any suggestion of Poland’s complicity in the Holocaust on its soil.
Backed by the lower house last week, the draft legislation calls for fines or prison sentences of up to three years for anyone intentionally attempting to attribute the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish nation – for example, by referring to “Polish death camps”.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has said the bill – which the president, Andrzej Duda, who backs it, now has 21 days to sign into law – is needed to protect Poland’s international reputation and ensure historians recognise that Poles as well as Jews perished under the Nazis.
But it has met with criticism in the US as a threat to free speech and triggered vocal protests in Israel, which believes it could allow history to be distorted, historical facts to be criminalised and the role some Poles played in Nazi Germany’s extermination of the Jews to be whitewashed.
“Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, Emmanuel Nahshon, tweeted on Thursday after the senate vote. “No law will change the facts.” Israel “adamantly opposes” the bill’s approval, he said.
The Israeli housing minister, Yoav Galant, one of several ministers to denounce the legislation, said he considered it “de facto Holocaust denial”, adding: “The memory of six million [Jews murdered in the Holocaust] is stronger than any law.”
The transport minister, Yisrael Katz, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party, said the law “constitutes the renunciation of responsibility and denial of Poland’s part in the Holocaust” and called for the Israeli ambassador to Poland to be recalled for consultations.
An opposition MP, Itzik Shmuli, said the bill made Poland “the first nation to legislate Holocaust denial”. History would judge Poland twice, he said, “for its role [in the Holocaust] and its despicable attempt at denial”.
Schmuli and other MPs drew up draft legislation of their own earlier this week aimed at amending Israel’s law on Holocaust denial to make it a crime punishable by jail to diminish or deny the role played by those who aided the Nazis in their persecution of Jews.
Poland defended the bill as necessary. “We, the Poles, were victims, as were the Jews,” Beata Szydło, a senior PiS figure, said before the vote, which passed by 57 votes to 23 with two abstentions. “It is a duty of every Pole to defend the good name of Poland,”insisted Szydło, a former prime minister.
But although the bill exempts artistic works and scientific research into the second world war, the US state department said it could “undermine free speech and academic discourse”, adding that it was also “concerned about the repercussions” for Poland’s “strategic interests and relationships”.
Poland’s foreign ministry said it hoped that “despite differences in the assessment of the introduced changes”, the draft legislation “will not affect the strategic partnership between Poland and the United States”.
Donald Tusk, the European council president and a former Polish prime minister, said the bill had tarnished Poland’s reputation.
“Anyone who spreads a false statement about ‘Polish camps’ harms the good name and interests of Poland,” Tusk said on Twitter. “The authors of the bill have promoted this vile slander all over the world … as nobody has before.”
The rightwing, socially conservative and strongly nationalist PiS is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the EU over a series of laws it has pushed through parliament that Brussels argues undermine the bloc’s fundamental values by threatening the independence of Poland’s judiciary and media.
Many observers believe the party has reignited the debate on the Holocaust as a deliberate ploy to further fuel nationalist sentiment among its voters. Israel set up a working group to open up a dialogue with the Polish administration over the bill, but the attempt to modify it appeared to have failed.
Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, called the bill “unfortunate” in a statement, saying it was “liable to blur historical truths” about the complicity of “segments of the Polish population in crimes against Jews”.
It stressed that while it was indeed incorrect to refer to “Polish death camps”, the right way to combat historical misrepresentations “is not by criminalising such statements but by reinforcing educational activities”.
Poland’s 3.2 million Jewish population was Europe’s largest when the country was invaded by Germany in 1939. More than three million – around half of all the Jews killed in the Holocaust – were murdered in German-built and operated death camps in Poland, including Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibór.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates the Germans also killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Poles, and thousands of Polish civilians risked their lives to protect Jewish neighbours: 6,706 Poles are recognised as “righteous among nations” by Yad Vashem.
But recent research has shown that some Poles also participated in the Nazi atrocities – a revelation that has challenged the country’s accepted narrative and which surveys show many Poles still reject.