Poland has added its name to the countries seeking to criminalize unpopular opinions or speech. In a law that attacks both free speech and historical scholarship, the Polish government is seeking to make it a crime to imply the country bears any responsibility for atrocities carried out on Polish soil by Nazi Germany. Violators who simply argue Polish complicity in war crimes could face five years in prison.
Russia moved in 2015 to criminalize denial of genocide under the same misguided approach. I previously wrote about a similar law passed in France as not just a denial of free speech but academic freedom. The law was later struck down. The Russians moved just weeks after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Switzerland also violation freedom of speech for its criminalization of the denial of the killings of Armenians as genocide. The European Court of Human Rights found that Switzerland violated a Turkish politician’s right to freedom of speech by convicting Dogu Perincek for denying that the 1915 Armenian killings in the Ottoman empire constituted a genocide: “It was undisputed that Perincek’s conviction and punishment, together with the order to pay compensation to the Switzerland-Armenia Association, had constituted an interference with the exercise of his right to freedom of expression.”
The government wants to deter people from referring to “Polish death camps” — a common description in the media and historical works. It would now be a crime to say that Poland “took part, organised or was co-responsible for the crimes of the Third Reich”.
In 2012, the White House said President Barack Obama “misspoke” at a public event when he referred to “Polish death camps”.
This is a terrible development for Poland that reflects a growing trend in the West of criminalizing speech. The best answer to false historical arguments is more not less speech. Arguments can be rebutted and claims refuted. Compelled acceptance of an official history is to deny fundamental rights of free speech in Poland — an ironic twist for a nation first ravaged by the Nazis and later abused by the Russians. I can certainly understand the anger in Poland which lost over 6 million of its citizens (roughly equal numbers of Christian and Jewish Poles) in World War II. However, Poland has aligned with the West and should commit itself fully to Western values of free speech and academic freedom.