“When you find yourself in a hole, don’t call for a bulldozer” is a useful maxim in diplomacy. The prime minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, is not a man to follow it. He seems to believe that any problem can be solved with a sufficiently powerful bulldozer. His Law and Justice party has already passed a law making it a criminal offence to suggest that “the Polish nation” was in any way responsible for the murder of six million Jews. This has infuriated opinion in Israel, and disturbed impartial historians everywhere. Worse was to come.
When an Israeli journalist asked him on Saturday whether this meant he could be jailed in Poland for writing the true story of how his mother’s family had had to flee the Gestapo because their Polish neighbours were planning to denounce them, Mr Morawiecki replied: “It is not going to be punishable to say there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators.” This was disgraceful. It blurs the morally vital distinction between those few Jews who collaborated with the Germans because they were confronted with agonising choices between evils, and those many Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and other eastern Europeans who collaborated freely, from whatever mixture of greed, bloodlust and antisemitic enthusiasm.
It could be said in Mr Morawiecki’s defence that Poland was by no means the only nation where the Jews were persecuted by their neighbours. Around three million of those killed in the Holocaust died more or less where they had lived, slaughtered in their villages all across the Baltic republics, Belarus, and Ukraine, as well as in Poland. None of those countries have had a proper reckoning with their pasts, or with their own role in the horror. But it is only Poland that is so publicly neuralgic on this subject. In part, this is a reaction to the admirable work done by a few Polish historians in excavating their own past, and finding where the bodies were buried. There have been detailed analyses published of the mass murders at Jedwabne, in 1942, and Kielce, in 1946, when the surrounding Polish farmers slaughtered their Jewish neighbours. More generally, the Polish historian Jan Grabowski reckons that Poles were responsible for the deaths of at least 200,000 Jews during the war, often by betraying them to the Germans who actually did the killing.
This is not an argument for the unique depravity of the Polish people. Nor does it absolve the Germans from their terrible responsibility. But the Germans have faced up to what they did in a way that no other country has. It would be just and reasonable for the Polish leaders to say that these crimes were committed under terrible conditions in a country that suffered dreadfully from war and occupations, and even to add that there are many other countries that have not confronted their past squarely. No Nazi-occupied country in Europe sheltered its Jewish populations wholeheartedly, with the possible and partial exceptions of the Danes and the Dutch. It is facile to suppose that either Britain or the US would have behaved better under the strains of crushing defeat and occupation. The real darkness at the heart of the Holocaust is not the identity of the victims, but of the murderers.
With all that said, Mr Morawiecki’s latest remarks suggest that nations as well as people can suffer from neuroses, in which they simply cannot face the realities of their situation and hide from them inside fantasy worlds in which they can imagine they have done nothing truly wrong.