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.


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

Jun 25th 2019
"Trump’s vindictive bluster has steamrolled economic-policy deliberations – ignoring the lessons of history, rejecting the analytics of modern economics, and undermining the institutional integrity of the policymaking process. Policy blunders of epic proportion have become the rule, not the exception. It won’t be nearly as easy to spin the looming consequences."
Jun 19th 2019
Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sectors in the world, and has the great advantage of producing no carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is raising the average surface temperature of the earth. India is now for the first time in history investing more in solar energy than in coal. There is a simple reason for this. Coal costs roughly 5 cents a kilowatt hour to generate electricity. India just let a bid for 1.2 gigawatts of solar energy and four companies scooped it up at 3.6 cents a kilowatt hour.
Jun 19th 2019
Extract: "Abe has reportedly nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize – at the request of the US – for opening talks with North Korea. And he has offered to mediate in America’s dispute with Iran. (His recent visit to Tehran – where he reportedly asked Iran’s leaders, at Trump’s request, to release detained Americans – made clear that, even squeezed by sanctions, Iran has no interest in negotiating with a serial violator of signed agreements.) What Trump calls an “incredible partnership” is, in reality, a largely one-sided relationship. But, for Abe, appeasing Trump is not so much a choice as a necessity: he must prove to Japan’s people and their neighbors, particularly the Chinese, that he knows how to keep Trump on his side."
Jun 17th 2019
Extarct: "We know well the damage that corrupt leaders do to their people. We should therefore have much more to say about the quintessential corruption entailed by tolerating lies. Such tolerance allows the poison to spread through the body and soul of democracy, undermining democracy’s institutions by attacking the invisible norms and tacit understandings that support them."
Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "
Jun 3rd 2019
Extracts: "Sooner or later, all smaller powers dependent on global markets would have to choose a side, unless they are somehow strong enough to withstand both American and Chinese pressure. With China and the US both demanding clarity, even economic giants like the European Union, India, and Japan would be faced with an intractable economic dilemma."
May 24th 2019
Waging a war against Iran, or even thinking of doing so, is sheer madness. Trump has thus far wisely rejected the warmonger National Security Advisor John Bolton’s outrageous advice. Waging another war in the Mideast, this time against Iran, would have not only disastrous consequences for the US but will also engulf our allies from which they would suffer incalculable human losses and destruction. Bolton was the architect behind the devastating war in Iraq in 2003, which inflicted more than 5,000 US casualties and a cost exceeding two trillion dollars, allowed Iran to entrench itself in Iraq, and gave way to the rise of ISIS.
May 24th 2019
The private Tasnim news agency reports from Iran that in a speech to thousands of university students, Iran’s clerical leader Ali Khamenei made an unusual and extraordinary criticism of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over their handling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.
May 4th 2019
Accusing Iran of being a rogue country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting extremist groups and terrorism, persistently threatening Israel, and destabilizing the region in its relentless effort to become the dominant power may well all be justified. The question is, what would it take to stop Iran from its destabilizing activities and help make it a constructive member of the international community, and avoid military confrontation with either the US or Israel or both?
Apr 29th 2019
Some of the most famous scientific discoveries happened by accident. From Teflon and the microwave oven to penicillin, scientists trying to solve a problem sometimes find unexpected things. This is exactly how we created phosphorene nanoribbons – a material made from one of the universe’s basic building blocks, but that has the potential to revolutionise a wide range of technologies.
Apr 28th 2019
Easter visitors to London have found some streets and buildings occupied by “Extinction Rebellion” activists, warning of climate catastrophe and rejecting “a failed capitalist system.” Followers of central bank thinking have seen the governors of the Bank of England and Banque de France warning that climate-related risks threaten company profits and financial stability. Both interventions highlight the severity of the climate challenge that the world faces. But warnings alone won’t fix the problem unless governments set ambitious but realistic targets to eliminate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions, backed by policies to ensure the targets are achieved. Zero net CO2 emissions by 2050 at the latest should be the legally defined objective in all developed economies.
Apr 25th 2019
LONDON – Russian efforts to influence European elections have received plenty of media attention. But the same cannot be said of interference by conservative Christian groups based in the United States, some with links to President Donald Trump’s administration and his former adviser, Stephen Bannon.
Apr 24th 2019
.............the version of the report released is only the start of wide-ranging and intensive House investigations.