Feb 19th 2018

The Politics of National Memory

by Shlomo Ben Ami

Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

MADRID – When, on a visit to Warsaw in 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt suddenly dropped to his knees before the Monument to the Ghetto Uprising, Władysław Gomułka, Poland’s communist leader, whispered, “wrong monument.” Gomułka would have preferred a tribute to Poland’s fallen soldiers in World War II. Poland’s current ultra-nationalist government, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, would probably have agreed.

In fact, the PiS government is attempting to reshape Poland’s WWII narrative – and not in a whisper – with a new law criminalizing mention of the complicity of the “Polish nation” in the crimes of the Holocaust. While Poles are justifiably offended by use of terms like “Polish death camps” – they were German-run camps, located on occupied Polish territory, and should be remembered as such – the law amounts to a dangerous attempt to use history as a political tool.

For Poles, the prevailing narrative of the Holocaust is exceedingly frustrating. After all, three million Polish Catholics were killed during WWII, and Poland would have been wiped off the map if Hitler had won. Over 6,700 Poles – more than any other nationality – have been honored by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations” for standing up to the Nazis and saving Jews.

Yet, when Israelis make pilgrimages to the land of the Holocaust, it is Poland that is their destination. By contrast, Germany – where the destruction of both Poland and European Jewry took shape – has become a land of promise and opportunity for Israeli youth.

But, however shameful or frustrating, the truth is the truth. Even Polish President Andrzej Duda has acknowledged that there are two sides to Poland’s WWII history. In March 2016, inaugurating a museum honoring the hundreds of Poles killed for helping Jews during the Holocaust, he called for “the whole truth, sometimes distressing and appalling,” to be told.

Yet the law that Duda has just signed criminalizes discussion of distressing and appalling truths. One such truth is the murder, described by the historian Jan Grabowski, of about 200,000 Polish Jews by their non-Jewish neighbors. Another is the massacre, examined by the journalist Anna Bikont, of at least 340 – and, according to other authors, as many as 1,600 – Jewish men, women, and children in the town of Jedwabne. Jews were massacred in Poland even after the war, most notably in the Kielce pogrom, in which a mob of Polish soldiers, police officers, and civilians murdered at least 42 Holocaust survivors.

For the PiS, the new law is a smart, if cynical, political move. The party’s leaders are well aware that when then-President Aleksander Kwaśniewski acknowledged in 2001 the truth about the Jedwabne massacre, the townspeople heckled him as a puppet of “international Jewry.” Focusing on the ways Poles were victimized by the Nazis – or, even better, responded to that victimization with heroism – has proved very effective electorally.

It has even worked on foreign politicians. US President Donald Trump’s speech last summer at the same monument where Brandt fell to his knees was well received by the Polish public precisely because he did not deviate from the PiS-endorsed narrative.

Of course, Poland is not the only country that has been tempted to edit history in ways that play down complicity in wartime crimes perpetrated against Jews and others. Other former communist countries in Eastern Europe – namely, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Hungary – have also come to favor a nationalist narrative of victimhood and resistance. Given that all were undeniably victims of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, minimizing their role in the Holocaust hasn’t been all that difficult to achieve.

Even countries with much longer democratic traditions have struggled to come to terms with their histories of collaboration in the Holocaust. For years after the war ended, the Netherlands propagated a narrative in which the Dutch nation struggled heroically to save its Jews from the Nazi extermination machine. In fact, there was large-scale collaboration by the Dutch bureaucracy with the Nazis, and Dutch citizens played an instrumental role in deporting 80% of the country’s Jewish population to concentration camps.

As for France, it was only after the 1969 documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity” (which, tellingly, was barred from French television until 1981) that the national narrative of anti-Nazi resistance began to unravel, revealing truths about the country’s far-reaching complicity. Only 26 years later did a French president, Jacques Chirac, officially acknowledge the role French collaborators played in the deportation of 90,000 Jews to Nazi death camps.

The past is always vulnerable to political manipulation. And, indeed, the editing of history has been essential to national narratives almost everywhere. In the United States, history textbooks focus on the colonists’ heroic battle for independence in the Revolutionary War, not on the genocide carried out against their new country’s indigenous population.

Stories of Israel’s War of Independence focus on the struggle against the invading Arab armies, rather than Israel’s own violence against the dispossessed and displaced Palestinians. When the war was over, the Palestinian problem was conveniently defined as one of “refugees” or “infiltrators.”

Israel has gone so far as to try to force this narrative on its Palestinian citizens. Its 2011 “Nakba Law” authorizes Israel’s finance minister to withhold funding from institutions that reject Israel’s character as a “Jewish state” or that commemorate the country’s Independence Day – which Palestinians call the Nakba (catastrophe) – as a day of mourning.

When it has suited him politically, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been willing even to pervert the history of the Holocaust. It was not Hitler who first came up with the idea of exterminating the Jews, he declared in October 2015, but a Palestinian leader, Grand Mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini. That is as cynical and grotesque an abuse of memory as anything the PiS has concocted.


Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "