WARSAW — Poland’s senate leader has appealed to Poles living abroad to report to the authorities any statements deemed to hurt “Poland’s good name” — part of a wider campaign by the government to defend the country against what it calls “historical untruth” and “slander.”
The letter, posted recently on the Senate’s website and reported by German media Thursday, is linked to a controversial new law that penalizes attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany during the World War II to the Polish nation. The government insists it is not to block historical research, but critics say its wording is unclear.
The legislation that criminalizes accusing the Polish nation or state for the crimes of the Holocaust has sparked a diplomatic crisis with Israel, which says it will inhibit free speech about the Holocaust. The United States also strongly opposes the legislation, saying it could hurt Poland’s strategic relations with Israel and the US.
Observers say the campaign, which also includes ads on YouTube, is a means for the ruling Law and Justice party to consolidate its power by rallying voters around the idea that Poland needs to be defended against a hostile outside world.
In his letter sent last week to Polish organizations in the world, Senate Speaker Stanislaw Karczewski appealed to millions of their members to “document and react” to signs of anti-Polish sentiment and “statements and opinions that hurt (Poland’s good name),” and to report them to Polish diplomatic missions.
The letter acknowledges individual Poles committed shameful deeds during the war, but that they were not typical of the entire nation.
In Germany, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party called the letter “regrettable.”
“This partisan tactic consists of spreading the feeling in Poland that they’re being treated unjustly abroad,” Norbert Roettgen told the Thursday issue of the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung.
“This political behavior by the government and by the [Law and Justice] party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski is a shame and very regrettable,” he added.
As currently written, the legislation calls for prison terms of up to three years for attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or nation. The law also sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish.
One key paragraph of the bill states, “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.”
The condemnation in Israel came from across the political spectrum, with some lawmakers accusing the Polish government of outright Holocaust denial as the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day last month.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Polish law “baseless” and said, “history cannot be rewritten.”