During World War II, some people in Poland cheered the Nazis and helped them kill Jews. Saying so is now a crime in Poland. A new law imposes prison terms of up the three years for anyone who asserts “that the Polish nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes.”
The purpose of this new law is entirely political. It wins cheers from chauvinistic nationalists, of whom there are evidently many in Poland. That provides votes to politicians who rail against the world and picture their nation as an innocent victim of history.
By adopting this new law, Poland guarantees new scrutiny of its unsavory World War II record. It also reinforces its image as an increasingly undemocratic country that is falling back under authoritarian rule. The law, however, has implications far beyond Poland. It is a phantasmagorical attempt to abolish history.
Denial is a powerful force in individual psychology. Facing the awful truth about everything would be too much for anyone to bear. Most people, however, strive to maintain at least some relationship with reality.
Nations should seek the same balance. No nation is so unremittingly evil that it must flee from its history. Few, however, are as innocent as their citizens like to believe. Most have reason to avoid deep self-examination.
The writer Philip K. Dick famously defined reality as “what continues to exist whether you believe in it or not.” Poland’s government rejects that view. Other countries might take note. Many have developed fantasies to cover unpleasant truths of their history.
The logical next step is to follow Poland’s example: pass laws that ban the speaking of those truths. Imagining what those laws might say is as easy as lying.
Austria: It is illegal to say that Hitler was born here, that most Austrians were thrilled when he absorbed Austria into the Third Reich, and that he was welcomed with delirious enthusiasm when he visited in 1938.
China: It is illegal to say that our army conquered Tibet in the 1950s and forcibly annexed it.
France: It is illegal to say that our troops supported Rwandans who carried out the 1994 genocide, and then, after their defeat, moved them into the Congo, where they have been rampaging ever since.
Great Britain: It is illegal to say that British imperialism was one of history’s most monstrous projects, brutally looting nations and sparking much of the chaos and hatred that now shakes the world.
India: It is illegal to undermine Hindu nationalism by pointing out that a Muslim emperor built the Taj Mahal.
Indonesia: It is illegal to say that our government sponsored a spasm of mass murder in 1965 in which as many as a million people were killed in the space of a few months.
Israel: It is illegal to say that our country sits on land that once belonged to Arabs, or that we chased them away in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in order to make room for victims of a crime that Arabs did not commit.
Latvia, Lithuania, Croatia, and Ukraine: It is illegal to say that our citizens joined Nazi death squads and concentration camp detachments in extraordinary numbers.
Pakistan: It is illegal to say that our government has sheltered Osama bin-Laden, harbored the Taliban, and encouraged murderous attacks on civilians.
Saudi Arabia: It is illegal to say that our country has been the world’s principal sponsor of terror for more than a generation.
Turkey: It is illegal to say that that Kurds lived this region for centuries before Turks arrived, or that our government has destroyed hundreds of Kurdish towns and villages in military campaigns.
United States: It is illegal to say that our country was built on the bones of slaughtered Indians and enslaved Africans.
Wallowing in past sins is as unhealthy for nations as it is for people. Denying those sins, however, is at least as pernicious. Historical facts are stubborn. They can be interpreted in endlessly various ways, but cannot be altered. Governments do no service to their people by protecting them from the reality of their past.
Even many of our most revered heroes had deep character flaws. In order to admire them, it is not necessary to overlook or deny those flaws. Most people are combinations of virtue and vice, high and low instincts, benevolence and selfishness.
The same is true of nations. The blots on their histories do not overwhelm their achievements.
Poland has much glory to celebrate, but today its government insists that every chapter of Polish history has been equally glorious. That is not true of any country. No law can change the fact that some Poles killed Jews during World War II, or that Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps were in Poland. Those realities do not make Poland a worse country than others. Instead they offer modern Poles a wonderful chance. Learning about crimes that our forbearers committed may help us behave better in the future. Ignoring or denying them can lead entire nations into isolation, anger and conflict.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.