“Life, as we find it, is too hard for us,” Sigmund Freud wrote. “In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.”
Since coming to power in Poland in 2015, Law and Justice, the nationalist populist party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has embarked on a series of palliative measures. The most recent is a draft law outlawing accusations of Polish participation in the Holocaust and other war crimes that took place during the German occupation of Poland. In the past 10 days, the bill has been approved by both legislative houses, the Sejm and the Senate. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, was given 21 days to decide whether to sign the bill.
This draft law is part of a program introduced in the past two years, named by the Law and Justice government “a good change.” The change has included attempts to legalize government control of the media and introduce draconian anti-abortion laws. Law and Justice has also debased public language, conjuring phrases reminiscent of the “newspeak” of the Communist years. Liberals have become “pigs cut off from the trough.”
“Volksdeutsch” once referred to Poles who, during the Nazi occupation, betrayed Poland by registering as ethnic Germans to secure the occupier’s favor. Now, “becoming a ‘Volksdeutsch’ ” describes Polish citizens who ask the European Union to investigate the government’s constitutional violations — for example, denying the force of law to decisions of the Constitutional Tribunal and passing laws that abolish an independent judiciary.
Communists once spoke of “enemies of the people.” Today Mr. Kaczynski labels those who criticize the government “the worst sort of Poles.” They are those who reject the “joyous mood” of authentic Poles, otherwise called Law and Justice supporters. The “worst kind” have taken to the streets to protest in larger numbers than Poland has seen since Solidarity.
To Mr. Kaczynski, these demonstrators have “trampled on all that is holy in our culture,” in particular his vision of unblemished Polish heroism and martyrdom.
The government has purged cultural institutions of critical voices. For decades, Martin Pollack, the Austrian author and translator of Polish literature, has been indispensable in East-West dialogue. In 2011 he was awarded the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding. After publishing an essay criticizing Law and Justice in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, he was blacklisted from the Polish Cultural Institute. The series of literary evenings with Polish authors Mr. Pollack had organized in Vienna was canceled.
In 2016, Law and Justice’s minister of culture, Piotr Glinski, announced an intention to in effect liquidate the Gdansk Museum of the Second World War. By then the $120 million project had been eight years in the making; it opened in 2017. The museum has an international scope; the main exhibit begins with the collapse of the liberal order intended after World War I: Italian fascism, German Nazism, Polish authoritarianism, Soviet Stalinism, Japanese imperialism.
The Polish historian Anna Muller, who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, helped design the exhibits. She met with a Polish priest, Mikolaj Sklodowski, who was born in 1945 in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. He showed her a medallion of St. Nicholas that his mother hid in a bar of soap while in Ravensbrück. He gave it to her for the museum.
In 1938, 24-year-old Jakub Piekarz left the small town of Jedwabne in eastern Poland for the United States. Three years later, just after the Red Army had withdrawn and the Wehrmacht had invaded the town, Jedwabne’s Jews, including Mr. Piekarz’s parents, were murdered by their Polish neighbors. In 2000, the historian Jan Tomasz Gross published a book about the massacre; what followed was the most important debate on the Holocaust to take place in post-Communist Europe. Mr. Piekarz (by then Rabbi Baker) died in 2006. In 2013 Ms. Muller visited his daughter in New York; she gave Ms. Muller her father’s letters, photographs and the passport with which he had left Poland in 1938.
The museum now has over 13,000 donated artifacts like Father Sklodowski’s medallion and Rabbi Baker’s passport. The government believes that the museum insufficiently expresses “the Polish point of view.” The museum’s original director, Pawel Machewicz, has been dismissed.
For now, the original main exhibition remains, but the five-minute concluding film has been removed. The censored documentary moves chronologically from the Nuremberg trials through the Korean War, the Ku Klux Klan, Stalin’s death, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the testing of an atomic bomb, the Polish “anti-Zionist” campaign of 1968, Nelson Mandela, Polish Solidarity, Ronald Reagan’s meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, Sept. 11, the Iraq war, the recent hell of Aleppo and refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. It is set to the music of “House of the Rising Sun.”
It is not at all anti-Polish. It is cosmopolitan — and peculiarly devastating because it forces us to question what is particular and what is universal, which horrors we have left behind, and which remain with us.
The rejection of the universal — the insistence on Polish exceptionalism — is at the heart of Poland’s “historical policy,” which aims to control the narrative of the 20th century in such a way as to glorify and exonerate Poles. The underlying principles are simple: a trope of Christ-like martyrdom; a Manichaean division between innocence and guilt, and an assurance that everything bad came from outside.
It was the publication of Mr. Gross’s “Neighbors” that motivated the first attempts, in 2006 during the first Law and Justice government, to enshrine historical policy by criminalizing the denial that Poles were innocent of any Nazi or Communist crimes. At that time, the Polish historian Dariusz Stola protested against the abdication of responsibility: “If neither groups of nor individual Polish citizens had anything to do with these crimes, then why all the ado about the iniquities of the Communist regime?” he asked. “After all, everything bad was done by some alien creatures, most likely Martians.”
Several years ago, the Polish courts declared the original law unconstitutional on technical grounds. But on Jan. 26, the Sejm renewed the project, approving an article stipulating a punishment of up to three years in prison for those who “publicly and against the facts attribute to the Polish nation or the Polish state responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich” or for “other crimes against peace, humanity or war crimes.”
The Polish Center for Holocaust Research responded: “We consider the adopted law a tool intended to facilitate the ideological manipulation and imposition of the history policy of the Polish state.”
In this context (arguably not entirely unlike the present one in the United States), xenophobia — against Jews, Ukrainians, Muslims, Roma, L.G.B.T. people and others — is expressed with ever more impunity. Between 2015 and 2017, reported hate crimes increased 40 percent. In April 2016, the Council of Ministers liquidated the Council Against Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance created in 2013.
In May 2016 the Polish playwright Pawel Demirski was brutally beaten for defending a Pakistani man being harassed by soccer fans. In September, the historian Jerzy Kochanowski was riding on a tram in Warsaw with a visiting German colleague. A man approached Mr. Kochanowski and told him to stop speaking German. Mr. Kochanowski explained that his friend did not speak Polish. Then the man began to beat him. The tram driver declined to call the police; Professor Kochanowski ended up in the hospital with five stitches.
Last Nov. 11, Polish Independence Day, thousands of nationalists marched under the slogans “We want God” and “Poland only for Poles.” Later, the Polish historian Marek Chodakiewicz, who has been among Mr. Gross’s most vicious attackers, and who now occupies a chair of Polish studies at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, wrote that the so-called March of Independence “grew from the need to demonstrate our pride in the fact that we belong to a historical continuity, which is worthy of defending against threats emerging from liberalism and lefty-ism, including Marxism-lesbianism and multiculturalism.” The Polish press reported that President Trump consulted Mr. Chodakiewicz in preparing the speech the president delivered last July in Warsaw.
(A week after the nationalists’ march, a Polish journalist asked me how I felt watching the demonstrations. Very much like how I felt watching the white supremacists march in Charlottesville, I told him.)
In his book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” the American political scientist Daniel Goldhagen argued that Germans had for generations been infected with virulent anti-Semitism. They were bad people who enjoyed killing Jews. Mr. Goldhagen’s greatest opponent from beyond the grave was Hannah Arendt. “For many years now,” she wrote late in the war, “we have met Germans who declare that they are ashamed of being Germans. I have often felt tempted to answer that I am ashamed of being human.”
In explaining Mr. Goldhagen’s appeal, the Czech political theorist Pavel Barsa wrote, “if Goldhagen is right, then we can all sleep soundly.”
Alas, because Arendt and Freud were right and Mr. Goldhagen was wrong, we can never sleep soundly again. Among Freud’s unpleasant messages is this: What threatens us is never securely outside of ourselves. Historical policy — like nationalism more broadly, in Poland as elsewhere — serves as an evasion of responsibility, an attempt at psychic consolation through the exporting of guilt, a desire to find a safe place in the world.
Marci Shore is an associate professor of history at Yale and the author, most recently, of The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution.