Poland’s central collective narrative is of a morally clean nation that has witnessed horror but not been its collaborator.
If there is a single thread to this narrative it is the notion that Poland is untainted by the Holocaust.
The standard denials of culpability in pogroms and purges of Jews during or after the war, however, have been slowly unwinding since the 2001 publication of a book called Neighbors [sic] by Jan Gross, a US historian of Polish-Jewish origin.
That process has taken on renewed speed with the publication of his latest book, Fear, in Polish about the last pogrom in Europe after the war.
Collective historical memories now seem to be flowing all at once and that collective memory appears to be split.
The Holocaust, one sometimes hears in Poland, is an industry beloved of the ‘West’, which has bought into it out of a collective sense of guilt. Poles, and other Slavic nations deemed sub-human by the Nazis, have always had a very different take on the war.
And then there’s issue of dealing with Poland’s communist past and the long-awaited trial of General Jaruzelski and his accomplices over the period of martial law that came about in response to the Solidarity movement.
The Jaruzelski case is partially linked to a broader campaign known in Poland as “lustracja” (lustration, an eerie echo of earlier “cleansings”) initiated by the Kaczynski twins, the key players in the Law and Justice (PiS) party, a rightist Catholic party that lost power at last September’s elections.
A law came into effect in March 2007 requiring hundreds of thousands of people in positions of authority to declare in writing whether they had cooperated with the communist secret services, or risk losing their jobs.
Jaruzelski, now 84, declared martial law 26 years ago. He also faces trial over another high profile case in which he is accused of ordering the militia to open fire on strikers in the Baltic ports in 1970. He was defence minister at the time.
The prosecutions are based on evidence collected over several years by the Institute of National Memory (IPN), an institution set up to sift through the many crimes committed in the communist and Nazi periods.
Prosecutors first filed charges against Jaruzelski for his role in martial law in April 2006, a few months after the election of PiS. Martial law saw thousands, including the current president, Lech Kaczynski, arrested and jailed.
Jaruzelski has always said his decision to impose martial law in December 1981, 16 months after the rise of Solidarity, was the lesser of two evils to stop a Red Army invasion of Poland.
But documents leaked from the Soviet and Polish Politburos indicate that the Kremlin had decided as early as April 1981 not to invade.
Jaruzelski has said he will seek to discredit Solidarity if he is brought to court on charges of imposing martial law.
The portents for going ahead with the Martial Law trial are not good, however, if the prosecution over the 1970 shootings are anything to go by.
For 14 years, on and off, Jaruzelski has sat in the dock in courtrooms in Warsaw and Gdansk for his part in the killing of 44 and injuring of more than 1,000.
Let’s go back for a moment to Kielce in 1946 where the only post-war pogrom of Jews in Europe took place.
Gross’s book Fear doesn’t reveal new historical facts, but lays out a detailed set of testimonies and a chronology of what happened.
Gross hit the Polish headlines in 2001, with a book on a massacre of Jews at Jedwabne, in which virtually all of that small Polish town’s 1,600 Jewish residents were killed in a single day in July 1941 by their Polish neighbours, not Nazis.
Gross argues that Polish anti-Semites detested their Jewish victims precisely for the suffering they themselves had caused to them, which caused such shame. “Jews were so frightening and dangerous…not because of what they had done or could do to the Poles, but because of what Poles had done to the Jews.”
Church leaders argued that by leading the effort to impose Communism in Poland the Jews had only themselves to blame. The Bishop of Kielce suggested that Jews had actually orchestrated the unrest to persuade Britain to hand over Palestine.
22 years later, after most of the remaining 250,000 Polish Jews had already left, events persuaded the remainder to leave.
A student uprising was thwarted by a cynical use of anti-Semitic rhetoric to undermine opposition to the regime.
The events took place against the backdrop of a power struggle within the ruling party, the communist PZPR.
First Secretary Gomulka had been accused in the late 1940s, together with a group of other communist leaders who had also spent the war in Poland, of nationalist deviation, removed from power and subsequently arrested.
The group of communists which emerged triumphant had spent the war in the Soviet Union, including a number of prominent Jews. In 1956 Gomulka returned and faced a party leadership divided into two factions. The reformist Pulawy group – which included leading Jewish communists – and Natolin, whose members had spent the war in Poland.
The 1960s saw a new force appear, the Partisans, a loose group of party leaders united by a similar political background, combining nationalism and communism, under the leadership of General Mieczyslaw Moczar, head of the interior ministry.
Moczar accused Gomulka of supporting these “Muscovites”. Gomulka succumbed, denouncing the student activists as “Zionist” agents. By the end of 1968, two-thirds of Poland’s Jews had been driven into emigration.
The regime trundled on into another round of brutality and infighting and two years later, in 1970, insurrection broke out in the Baltic ports: Elblag, Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin and was suppressed at the cost of many lives. Enter Jaruzelski.
The 1968 campaign was largely based on the myth of Judeo-communism (Zydo-komuna) and developed a popular stereotype of Jewish communism to purify communism: the Jews as the dark side of communism. Whatever is wrong in communism is due to them. Jews spread disease.
But those bad old days are gone, aren’t they? Not entirely. The PiS government (2004-2007) sold itself quite successfully as a party of “real Poles”, believers and families. It was a call to the faithful. Its spoke the language of “us and them,” of hidden interests and threats within the institutions of state.
The rhetoric was of the need to clean (to “lustrate”) public life. The enemies included gays, liberals, feminists.
The discourse plays on a similar set of grievances as before – a nation seeing itself as governed by foreigners or local proxies, a society divided against itself, a nation stripped of the power to define itself.
After his election defeat, Kaczynski’s concession speech referred to the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza, run by Adam Michnik, a significant figure in the Solidarity underground, and a Pole of Jewish background, as one of the enemies of the PiS project. It was clear what was being implied.
Last year’s election of the new government led by Civic Platform’s (PO) Donald Tusk can be seen as a rejection of this kind of politics of insinuation.