Creating a “usable” past: On holocaust denial and distortion

Professor Yehuda Bauer at an award ceremony in Jerusalem,
 December 4, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
by Yehuda Bauer

Seventy-five years after the end of the Holocaust and of World War II—the context in which the destruction of European Jewry unfolded—these events are not merely matters of the past. They are the subject of a vast historical literature and other scholarly writings. The Holocaust has also garnered immense media attention and has served as inspiration for innumerable artistic works. However, those behind some of this output deliberately aim to deny, minimize, or distort history.

Denial and distortion of the Holocaust are clearly different, though closely related. Attempts have been made to define these concepts, but the line between the two is somewhat vague. Perhaps the reason is that our definitions of social, cultural, or political concepts are abstractions from reality—and reality is, and will always be, much more complicated than available concepts can describe. Often, we try to adapt reality to the abstractions, rather than change our abstractions to better reflect reality. This assumes, of course, contrary to post-modernist theories, that there are objective realities to be described. The Holocaust unfortunately did happen, though we may differ in our understanding (or misunderstanding) of it, and its denial can take various forms.

A noteworthy attempt at defining Holocaust denial and Holocaust distortion was made by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2013:

Holocaust denial is discourse and propaganda that deny the historical reality and the extent of the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, known as the Holocaust or the Shoah. Holocaust denial refers specifically to any attempt to claim that the Holocaust/Shoah did not take place. Holocaust denial may include publicly denying or calling into doubt the use of principal mechanisms of destruction (such as gas chambers, mass shootings, starvation, and torture) or the intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people. Holocaust denial in its various forms is an expression of antisemitism.… Forms of Holocaust denial also include blaming the Jews for either exaggerating or creating the Shoah for political or financial gain as if the Shoah itself was the result of a conspiracy plotted by the Jews.

That definition indicates that the examples of propagandistic statements enumerated can be classified as manifestations of Holocaust denial. However, the IHRA definition does not encompass all variations of denial. Thus, for instance, a denier might admit that it was the Nazi intent to annihilate the Jews, but that it failed because only a part of the Jewish people was murdered—perhaps a much smaller one than is usually claimed. The definition also states that accusing Jews of exaggerating the number of victims is to be counted as denial. Naturally, the question of what is meant by “exaggeration” immediately arises. What is the true number of victims that deniers argue Jews exaggerate? The iconic number is of course six million. However, no serious historian of the Holocaust will argue that that is the accurate figure. 1 Several major research efforts have been undertaken to establish with greater precision the number of those who perished, and they point to figures between 5.1 and 6.3 million, with a more or less accepted number of between 5.6 and 5.8 million as the most probable. 2

What lies behind these seeming discrepancies is that there are no reliable estimates for the number of victims in the general area of eastern Poland and the Soviet Union. Deniers latch on to that fact and conclude that “the Jews” exaggerate their losses. The answer to that charge is not only that many of the researchers involved in these efforts are non-Jews. Whether the true number of Jews who were murdered, starved, tortured to death, or who otherwise lost their lives because they were Jews and for no other reason is slightly below 5.6 million or slightly over 5.7 million should not be seen as a crux of controversy. Deniers are denying proven facts substantiated by vast documentation. The definition does not—because it cannot—satisfactorily address these points.

Until about 2000, denial of the Holocaust was widespread, chiefly, of course, in extreme right-wing circles. That year, the outcome of a trial in London unambiguously exposed British Holocaust denier David Irving as an antisemite (and, by extension, Holocaust deniers generally) and demonstrated that his claim—that the Holocaust, as presented by historians, never happened—was untrue. 3 Those proceedings effectively ended major efforts at denial in the West. What remains today are marginal manifestations of this phenomenon, mainly in the United States and some in Europe, as well as small groups of deniers in Australia and other parts of the world.

It is not the purpose of this text to analyze the history of Holocaust denial, but a brief sketch is necessary in order to understand the present situation. The pioneers of denial were actually left-wing pacifists in the US and France: Harry Elmer Barnes and Paul Rassinier (as well as Maurice Bardeche). Barnes opposed American participation in World War I, and then wanted the Americans to keep out of the struggle against Nazi Germany. That led him not only to justify Hitler's foreign policy, but also to attempt to identify positive aspects of his regime. Barnes was no friend of the Jews, and after the war expressed skepticism over claims that they had been the victims of mass murder. Rassinier was a French socialist who was arrested by the Germans, in part for helping Jews, and was incarcerated in several Nazi concentration camps, mainly in Dora and Buchenwald. He thought that the war against Germany was not justified, and he began doubting the evidence of the gas chambers. This then developed into a denial of the Nazi intention and policies to annihilate the Jews. In Germany, some SS veterans and intellectuals supported this notion, denying that there had been any mass annihilation of the Jews, though their main focus was on denying the number of victims and the intentionality of the genocide.

In the US, and then elsewhere as well, extreme right-wing intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals, some of German descent, took up the cause. The most notable among them were Austin App (a German-born professor of medieval English literature) and Arthur Butz (a tenured professor of engineering at Northwestern University). Butz wrote an influential book called The Hoax of the Twentieth Century that was first published in 1976. That same year, a wealthy denier, Willis Carto, founded the Institute of Historical Review, which published a pseudo-academic journal devoted to denial. This was paralleled in France by Robert Faurisson, a professor of literature at the University of Lyon. A common feature in the works of these deniers was the notion that the Western Allies had erred in aligning themselves with the Communist Soviet Union, the real enemy of the West, rather than joining the struggle waged by Nazi Germany. This, logically, led to an attempt to whitewash the record of the Third Reich and deny German responsibility for mass murder. These right-wing extremists were antisemitic and accused the Jews of having invented the Holocaust for economic and political gain.

In the West, this argument has been weakened. 4 Its crucial elements were (and remain) opposition to the democratic structures of most Western societies and justification of Nazi Germany as having been a vital, racially conscious, nationalistic society that should have been a model to the world. If Hitler's regime was to be admired, then the charge that it was a state of mass murderers had to be denied. In Nazi eyes, Jews were the most potent enemy and it was therefore the Jews who became their primary victims. Over successive decades, the genocide of the Jews became a central issue in the eyes of post-Nazi democratic regimes, and therefore had to be denied.

This is not the case with large segments of the Muslim world, both in Sunni and Shi'a communities. Holocaust denial is deeply embedded in radical Islam, through which it has gained great credence among intellectual and political leaders. Nazi war criminals who found refuge in Arab countries, especially in Egypt and Syria, exerted some influence and spread their ideas there, but it appears that the main sources were of local provenance. The logic is not difficult to understand: The Muslim world was subjugated by Western imperialism (and later by Soviet Communism in the Caucasus and Central Asia), and Nazi Germany seemed to many Muslims—mainly (though not exclusively) Arabs—to offer the promise of liberation from Western supremacy. The fact is that radical Islam was antisemitic from its very origin—based on the enmity toward Jews found in the Qur’an. It began in 1928 with the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt by Hassan el-Banna, who expressed sympathy and admiration for the Nazi movement.

During the war, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the most senior Muslim cleric in Palestine, threw his lot in with the Axis. He spent the years 1941–45 in Rome and Berlin promoting the destruction of the Jews and assisting to the best of his ability in the realization of that objective. The Mufti continued to tout his extreme anti-Jewish views after the war, actively participating in the 1947–48 struggle against the establishment of Israel and seeking to influence Arab policies in that direction right up until his death in Beirut in 1974. He did not, of course, deny the Holocaust—he had tried his best to advance its murderous agenda—but he did publicly and actively support its minimization.

In radical Islam, but also in many mainstream Islamic media outlets, one can discern two distinct ways of relating to the Holocaust: The first involves the denial of the fact of the genocide, and the second, approval of the idea of eradicating the Jews together with a promise to complete the job in the future. A typical statement in that spirit was made, for instance, by Sheikh Yousuf al-Qaradhawi (an Egyptian living in Qatar), probably the most influential theologian of radical Islam today, on January 28, 2009. On that occasion, he declared on Al Jazeera TV that Allah had punished the Jews for their insolence with the arrival of Hitler, and next time it would be the believers who would carry out that mission. 5 On June 28, 2009, again on Al Jazeera, he stated that he himself would die as a martyr killing Jews. On July 11, 2010, clergyman Hussam Fawzi Jabar declared on A-Nas TV in Egypt that “Hitler was right … in what he did to the Jews.” 6 Another Egyptian cleric, Mazen Sirsawi, declared on Al-Hekma TV on September 4, 2011, “[T]he Holocaust—that thing in which they say the Jews were massacred, and so on. If it really happened, they deserved it.” 7 This has been repeated in different variations by others.

The main trend, however—outright denial—is fairly common. Out of a very large number of cases, a few must suffice here: Fathi Shihab al-Din of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood insisted that the Holocaust was a fiction propagated by the American intelligence agencies to provide justification for dropping nuclear bombs on Japan. 8 The Shi'ite regime in Iran strongly denies the Holocaust, and this was especially the case during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A congress on denial was held in Tehran in 2006, and another in 2009. One Hamid Reza Nikbakhsh (a member of the Iranian World War II Society in Tehran) published an e-book entitled The Holocaust: The Jews’ Greatest Lie. Holocaust denial unites Sunni and Shi'ite radicals. Thus, Hussein Triki, the former Arab League representative in Argentina, a Sunni—and not a radical Islamist but rather a mainstream figure—appeared on the Iranian Al-Alam network on March 2, 2011, and said that “the Holocaust was invented by global Zionism. The proof of this is that they presented different figures.”

However, there are those in the Muslim world who reject denial, and their numbers are growing. A most recent example is the April 21, 2020, statement of Mansour Abbas, a Knesset member representing Ra’am—the political wing of the Southern branch of the Islamic movement in Israel, which is a part of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties. In a speech to the Knesset on Holocaust Remembrance Day, he expressed solidarity with the Jewish people and with Holocaust survivors and stated that denial is a remnant of Nazi ideology. Some religious functionaries, political figures, and journalists have made similar statements. On January 19, 2020, a high-level delegation of Muslim religious leaders led by Dr. Mohammed el-Issa of the World Muslim League visited the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau to demonstrate their empathy with Jews and to memorialize those who perished there.

One may perhaps sum up the situation by saying that in the West, outright denial has subsided, whereas in the Muslim world there is still an overwhelming consensus that the Holocaust did not happen or that its scope has been exaggerated, but the voices raised in objection to those views are growing stronger.

The IHRA definition was discussed and approved in 2013, before distortion became a major concern. 9 Of course, the misrepresentation of proven historical facts has always been a feature of public discussion about the past, and it is not really new or surprising that the memory of the Holocaust, a major event of contemporary history, has fallen victim to this phenomenon.

Sometimes distortion of the past is not the result of ill-will or conspiracy, but rather a desire to strengthen nationalist sentiment. For example, according to the popular American narrative of World War II, the US entered the conflict in Europe to save democracy. It pulverized Germany's military industry by aerial bombing; landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day; freed France; crossed the Rhine; and liberated the camps. According to that version of events, the Americans let the Soviets administer the coup de grâce, allowing them to conquer Berlin because they wanted to maintain their alliance with them.

There is much truth in that narrative, and yet it is a total distortion of history. The fact is that the Americans entered the European conflict because Hitler declared war on them. Had he not done so, especially considering the very strong opposition in Congress to American involvement in Europe, it is highly doubtful that the US would have joined the fray at that juncture—four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor—or anytime soon after. The bombing of Germany, as contemporary historians have demonstrated, was a failure: German military production rose constantly until late 1944, despite the destruction of German cities, and the German population continued to support the Nazi regime. Anglo-American troops certainly did land on D-Day and advanced into Germany, but the German army had essentially been defeated by then—by the Soviets, not the Americans. The West did supply the Soviets with arms and ammunition, foodstuffs, and many trucks, but the Soviets’ immense output of artillery, aircraft, tanks, and small arms was primarily their own achievement. Soviet losses are estimated at 27 million (at least) and much of the country was completely devastated. The victory in Europe was without a doubt a Soviet one, although with some important contributions by the Americans and the British. To be sure, the American narrative is not the result of willful distortion, but rather of a desire to sustain an uplifting national self-image.

To be sure, Holocaust distortion is another story altogether. The essential background to this phenomenon is the rise of authoritarianism, populism, dictatorial regimes, nationalism, and anti-liberalism that has been sweeping the world for the past two decades or so. This is no longer a question of right and left. For example, in Europe the liberal opposition to the nationalistic trend is led by Angela Merkel, head of a conservative party.

Liberalism as I understand it extends from liberal conservatism to welfare-state social democracy. As is well known, in a speech he delivered in Băile Tușnad, Romania, on July 26, 2014, to an audience of members of the ethnic Hungarian minority in that country, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán defined the type of regime he favored as “illiberal democracy.” Liberal democracy, he argued, had brought moral decline, corruption, and similar ills, which he opposed. Russia is led by a nationalistic tsar who heads a quasi-democracy, which, as is the case in most of these states, is backed by the religious establishment and enjoys the support of a majority that embraces nationalism. Poland and Hungary are quasi-authoritarian countries led by nationalist regimes that seek to recruit the Church to support them. Some Eastern and Southeastern European countries are veering in the same direction. The same was true of Italy, although in that country a weak anti-authoritarian government took power just in time to be confronted with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Hungary, Poland, and Russia, more or less free elections are held, and the majority of voters support their authoritarian rulers, as most Chinese probably support theirs. Of course, as indicated above, this is a distortion of the concept of democracy, which includes not only free elections and majority rule, but also freedom of expression, an independent judiciary, habeas corpus, the protection of minorities of all sorts, a tendency toward gender equality, and the practical possibility of replacing any sitting government in future elections. A system in which these features are undermined and degraded is illiberal democracy, the preferred system of nationalistic authoritarians.

Historical misrepresentation and distortion thrive in such systems. They arise from the desire to strengthen nationalistic authoritarianism by presenting a unified, positive image of the nation’s past as a counter to its detractors, whether real or imagined. Nowadays, the primary (but by no means only) problem is Poland, currently headed by the nationalist PiS Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or Law and Justice). Happily, PiS is confronted at home by a large and vocal liberal minority that rejects its striving for a “better” past.

Russia's insistence on promoting its own version of events has engendered a bitter struggle between the two nations as they each seek to establish their own “usable national pasts.” The notion of a usable past is key: In order to fortify national consciousness, and therefore the nationalist political leadership, a past has to be found that can be used to educate—more precisely, to indoctrinate—the nation, young and old. When such an uplifting past is unavailable, it has to be invented. After all, the real past is always a mixture of the good, the bad, and everything in between. Distortion of the past rests on a combination of truth and invention. The story that results from that fusion then becomes a component of nationalist ideology. Poland is no exception, as its quarrel with Russia over the past clearly indicates.

On the Russian side, a very unusual intervention was made in June 2020 by none other than President Vladimir V. Putin himself. In a lengthy article in an American conservative journal, 10 which deserves a detailed analysis of its own (something that unfortunately cannot be undertaken here), the Russian leader attempts to tell the story of the outbreak of the war, the war itself, and its aftermath from Moscow's perspective.

The main, historical part of that article is what interests us here. Putin accuses Poland of bearing co-responsibility, together with Great Britain and France, for World War II. Poland, he reminds us, through its annexation of Teˇšín [Cieszyn] in Silesia on October 1, 1938, participated in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Even as late as early 1939, Poland tried to reach an accommodation with Nazi Germany. The Poles refused to accede to an agreement with the USSR in August 1939 to forge a common front against Germany because they did not want the Red Army to cross Polish territory to fight the Germans. Poland finally, hesitatingly agreed to discuss this proposal, but by then it was too late.

Józef Lipski, the Polish ambassador in Berlin, is quoted (correctly) as having expressed support in September 1938 for Hitler's proposal to deport the Jews to an African colony. At that time, the policy of the semi-authoritarian Polish government was to reduce the number of Jews in Poland through various emigration schemes.

With the looming threat of a German invasion of Poland, Britain and France (Britain more reluctantly than France), pressured by public opinion in both countries, sent a low-level delegation to Moscow to see whether a common front against Germany could be established. Putin does not discuss the details: British Admiral (Retired) Sir Reginald Drax and French General Aimé Doumenc arrived on August 12, 1939—Drax without even a document confirming he was a plenipotentiary. When Marshal Kliment Y. Voroshilov, the Soviet negotiator, asked whether Poland had agreed to the Red Army crossing Polish territory to face the Germans and was told that they had not, the Anglo-French delegation was forced to admit that they had no way to aid the Soviets. It became clear that the British did not have ground forces of any size, and that the French intended to defend themselves by hunkering down behind the Maginot Line (between France and Germany, but not along the border with Belgium).

Stalin, Putin insists, really had no choice but to seek a modus vivendi with the Germans, given the state of the Soviet Army and a parallel Japanese threat to the Soviets from the Far East. Putin attacks the British and French governments, but also mentions the US, and says that the war became inevitable when the West (but not Churchill, a hero in Putin's eyes) caved in to Hitler at Munich in September 1938. The USSR, on the other hand, assured France and Czechoslovakia that it would fulfill its obligations under the political and military treaties it had signed with those countries.

On September 17, 1939, seventeen days after the German invasion of Poland, the Soviets invaded the territory that Putin takes pains not to define as Polish (the eastern part of Poland, present-day western Belarus, western Ukraine, and the Vilnius region in Lithuania), but only after the Polish government had fled to Romania (as Putin emphasizes) and fixed its new western borders along the Curzon line, which meant the Soviet annexation of Poland’s eastern borderlands (Kresy) with their large minority of ethnic Poles. Putin claims that as far as the Baltic countries are concerned, there was an “accession” [sic!] to the Soviet Union, “on a contractual basis” no less. So goes the Putin version of the outbreak of the war.

That of course is only one side of the story: Poles—and not only the leaders of PiS—accuse the Soviet Union of concluding a treaty of non-aggression (the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact) with Nazi Germany on August 23, 1939, which assured Hitler of Soviet collaboration in the fourth partition of Poland and immediately eliminated the danger of Germany having to fight a two-front war. The Soviet occupation led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Poles—and Polish Jews—to penal camps in the far north where they toiled in appalling conditions, many succumbing to disease and malnutrition. In April–May 1940, the Soviets, at the proposal of the head of their security forces, Lavrentiy P. Beria, and with Stalin’s approval, shot some 22,000 captured Polish officers and intellectuals, most of them in the Katyn forest near Smolensk (and in two other localities). The Germans were eventually ejected from Poland by the Red Army, and a Communist regime was imposed on its unwilling people, which held sway for some forty-five years.

Both narratives are factually correct but they distort reality. First, they diminish the responsibility of Britain and France for the events leading up to the war—the appeasement policy that began with Hitler's assumption of power and reached its zenith in the Munich agreement (September 1938) that dismantled Czechoslovakia. Second, they completely ignore the central fact that the sole responsibility for the war lay with Nazi Germany, and all the others played secondary roles of bumbling would-be opponents and half-hearted or willing collaborators.

The Polish–Russian struggle over the past has a direct connection to Holocaust distortion. Essentially, the Poles accuse the Soviets of having made the Holocaust possible by reaching an agreement with the Germans. The Soviet counterargument is that Polish antisemitism was a direct factor in the genocide. The Holocaust becomes a tool of mutual distrust and confrontation. In the eyes of PiS and its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, the present Russian government is a direct successor to Stalin and in that sense culpable for his many crimes. In other words, the Poles are implying that Stalin equals Hitler. Quite paradoxically, Stalin ruled the USSR through his position as general secretary of the Bolshevik Party and Kaczyński rules Poland through his position as the general secretary of PiS—a clear case of anti-Communists adopting a Bolshevik model of governance, which is not to suggest that the Polish style of leadership is in any way comparable to the murderous despotism of the Kremlin in Soviet times.

Why the focus on Poland? It is by no means the only “culprit.” German-occupied Poland was the epicenter of the Holocaust and therefore discussion focuses on that country. Of the 5.6–5.7 million victims of the Holocaust, close to 3 million were Jews who had lived within the borders of prewar Poland (out of a population of 3.3 million Jews). For Poles, the story of Polish–Jewish relations must serve as proof of Polish goodwill toward the Jews. When the real past does not lend itself to such an interpretation, a usable past is invented that combines real events and facts with fairy tales, and eschews any mention of uncomfortable truths. Partial truth becomes total distortion, which includes thought control in the service of a nationalistic regime drifting toward authoritarianism. That control is achieved partly through legal measures and partly through massive propaganda campaigns and attempts to control the media and the academy—all of which are met with fierce internal opposition. The efforts of the anti-Communist regime in Warsaw parallel those of the Soviet Union, where the results of the struggle to create a usable past were the most unpredictable element in the ruling ideology. The difference lies in the fact that while there was no effective opposition in the Soviet Union, there are important institutions in Poland that are bastions of democratic and liberal values, and there exists a great tradition of Polish liberalism, the standard bearers of which fight tooth and nail against authoritarian tendencies, including Holocaust distortion.

The official narrative in Poland runs something like this: Yes, there was a Holocaust, and it was terrible, claiming the lives of close to three million Polish citizens of Jewish descent. We, the Polish authorities, commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. We build museums, erect monuments, and maintain the sites not only of the destruction, but also of prewar Jewish life in Poland, which highlight the fruitful and peaceful coexistence of Poles and Jews for eight centuries. In fact, we love Jews (of course they would not tell you that they especially love dead ones, those who were killed by the Germans—obviously those who were killed by Poles are another story). The Jews were murdered by the Germans on occupied Polish soil, and to the extent possible, most Poles tried to help them. There was a very large number of rescuers, many of whom perished with their families, because the Germans found them and killed them together with the Jews whose lives they sought to save.

Yes, the narrative continues, there was antisemitism before and during the war, and there were individual Poles who betrayed Jews and delivered them to the Germans, but most Poles were not antisemites and actually attempted to help the Jews; the Polish Underground valiantly fought the German occupiers. The Polish government-in-exile in London published reports from Poland on the murder of the Jews and appealed to the Allies to help them. However, Jews in Poland were often passive and did not always facilitate their own rescue, and Judenräte [Jewish councils] appointed by the Germans often collaborated with them, as did the brutal Jewish police in the ghettos. Poles, on the other hand, never, ever, collaborated politically with the occupying authorities. In other occupied countries, local collaborators established political alliances with Nazi Germany. Some countries preserved their independence and allied themselves with Berlin. The Western Allies did nothing, or very little, to help the imperiled Jews of German-occupied Poland, and neither did the powerful Jewish communities in the US and Britain, while Poles valiantly fought against the Germans and helped their Jewish compatriots as much as they could.

The argument sometimes becomes quite virulent. Thus, on June 23, 2020, right-wing commentator Rafał A. Ziemkiewicz stated on Polish State TV:

The rule is … one can be imprisoned for denying the Holocaust, but why does that work only in one direction? … If that is the way Mr. [Jan] Grabowski wants it, let him not deny the Jewish responsibility for it, because it wasn’t the Poles who put these Jews into the wagons, tracked them down, escorted them out of the ghetto, but other Jews. The Jewish police did it, on the basis of lists prepared by the Jewish Judenräte, who betrayed them all. 11

Ziemkiewicz accuses Prof. Jan T. Gross of displaying “traces of psychological illness,” and Prof. Jan Grabowski of “falsifying every source.” Gross, of course, has been repeatedly vilified for his 2000 book Neighbors, which chronicled the destruction of the Jewish community in the town of Jedwabne by local Poles, and which precipitated a painful national debate. Grabowski has written extensively—and is still writing—on the attitudes of the Polish population toward the annihilation of Polish Jewry, and on the murder of Jews by local Poles.

As in nearly all cases of historical distortion, in the Polish one, there is partial truth but also a great deal of untruth. The facts are as follows: The prewar Polish government and the Roman Catholic Church were nationalistic and conservative, and supported nonviolent antisemitism such as an economic boycott and a numerus clausus. Their unabashed objective was to reduce the number of Jews in Poland. Antisemitic outbursts by right-wing supporters of the government, backed by large segments of the population, took place beginning in 1936. The Polish Socialist Party and liberal circles, which constituted a minority (the Socialists used to garner around 12 percent of the votes in rigged elections), opposed antisemitism and collaborated with the largest Jewish party, the socialist Bund—anti-Zionist, anti-religious, and anti-Communist.

Broadly speaking, the attitudes of Poles during the war were radicalized manifestations of their prewar proclivities: antisemitism on the one hand, and the liberal views of those who opposed it, on the other. As mentioned above, in 1939, Jews constituted about 10 percent of the approximately 33 million inhabitants of Poland, of whom some 21 million were ethnic Poles. The rest were Ukrainians (some 5 million), Germans, Belarussians, Lithuanians, and others. Close to 3 million Polish Jews were murdered by Germans in camps, ghettoes, and in ditches; others died of starvation and diseases as a result of German policies. About 300,000 (the figures are disputed) were deported by the Soviets to labor camps, many dying as a result of incarceration, while others were deported or fled to Soviet Central Asia as Germany invaded the USSR in 1941.

Liberal Polish historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and others have demonstrated that a large number of Jews (there is a disagreement among these academics as to the numbers, between 130,000 and 200,000 or more) were caught by the Polish “Blue Police,” some 18,000 strong, 12 which was part of the German administration. The police handed those hapless individuals over to the Germans to be murdered—or murdered them themselves. Other Jews were hunted by peasants and town dwellers and were either killed by them or turned over to the Blue Police.

It is true that there was no Polish political collaboration with the Germans, not because there were no Polish politicians who would have been willing to collaborate, but simply because there was an explicit German policy not to permit any kind of Polish political representation to take root. However, there was widespread, albeit partly forced, collaboration by heads of municipalities, townships, and villages; other officials; the Blue Police; the Polish Criminal Police (which was incorporated into the German Criminal Police, Kripo); and a large number of agents. A similar state of affairs obtained in other countries all over Europe. The Judenräte behaved in many different ways: some fully yielding to German orders even in a kind of anticipatory compliance, with most trying to rescue their communities by fulfilling German orders even while subverting them or attempting to change them through bribery of various kinds. Quite a number reacted by disobeying German orders—paying for that with their lives—or through armed rebellion. Most, though not all, members of the Jewish Police in the ghettos helped the Germans round up Jews.

The accusations against the Western Allies and the Jewish communities in America and Britain ignore the simple fact that Allied armies could not reach the Jews in German clutches. Allied bombers could reach areas east of Berlin only after November 1943, and practically speaking only in early 1944. It was then that P-51 Lightning fighter aircraft became available that could accompany Allied bombers to these areas, for instance to help, quite unsuccessfully, the Warsaw Rising in August–September 1944. All that time, the Polish Underground, which was fully aware of the mass murder of the Jews, did not attack, never mind immobilize, a single deportation train making its way through thickly settled Polish territory to the German extermination camps. 13

It is true that the Polish government-in-exile in London was instrumental in informing the British and other Allies about the situation of the Jews in Poland. This was especially so in 1942, when the report of the Bund about mass killings reached Britain and was published on June 2, 1942. That material was later used in a major Polish–British press conference and in the British daily press, in coordination with the British and Polish governments, and again on December 10, 1942. At that time, the Polish government-in-exile addressed a diplomatic note to the Allies reporting on the massacres of Jews and asking for a response. The result was the Allied Declaration of December 17, 1942, which recognized the fact of the murder of the Jews at German hands. 14 There was great opposition within the London Polish government to any pro-Jewish moves, but there also was a strong liberal element, led largely by Jan Stańczyk, a Socialist, and Stanisław Mikołajczyk, the minister responsible for contacts with the Polish Underground. The pro-Jewish statements were explained internally by the need to generate American Jewry's support for Polish interests, especially the demand to recognize Poland's 1939 borders, which included the Soviet-occupied eastern borderlands. In what may be called “positive antisemitism,” Polish nationalists saw American Jews as a major influence on US policies—a completely unrealistic and false perception—and wanted to court them.

The Underground in Poland, Armija Krajowa (AK) [Home Army], and its predecessor until February 1942, Związek Walki Zbrojnej (ZWZ) [Union of Armed Struggle], tried to prevent the London Poles from taking any pro-Jewish steps. Its commander, General Stefan Rowecki, who did not have a reputation for being an antisemite, warned London in his cable 354 of September 25, 1941, that any announcement that promised Jews a return to their properties and status after the war would dangerously diminish the support of the population for the underground and the government, because, he wrote, Polish society was antisemitic. The underground press clearly demonstrates that he was right. The exception of the few socialist and liberal papers proves the rule, as does the actual behavior of the masses discussed above. The Polish narrative also ignores the antisemitism rampant among the ranks of Polish troops fighting on the side of the Western allies, which the London government-in-exile did not manage to suppress.

There can be no doubt that a tremendously courageous minority aided the Jews at risk to their lives and those of their family members. Yad Vashem has recognized close to 7,000 Polish rescuers, and there were certainly many more who were not recognized because of Yad Vashem's justifiably strict criteria. We will never know the names of many others, because they and/or the people they helped did not survive, or the rescued did not recall their names, or were reluctant to come forward after 1945 because they feared they would be harmed in the postwar climate of radical Polish antisemitism. But even were we to triple the number recognized by Yad Vashem, we would still be left with a meager proportion of the approximately 21 million ethnic Poles who lived in prewar Poland. The proportion of rescuers in Hungary, Lithuania, or Latvia was much smaller still. As for Poland, the narrative that vastly exaggerates the number of rescuers actually diminishes their exemplary decency, which was all the more extraordinary given the fact that their behavior was so contrary to the prevailing social norms and that they were subject to the constant danger of denunciation by their compatriots to the Blue Police or directly to the Germans.

The usable past the Polish nationalists need is not readily available, and so it is created, not out of nothing, but out of a mixture of truths, half-truths, and the wish for it to have happened the way it is presented. 15 In this case, as we have seen, it occurs in the context of both a bitter internal struggle against the large but not very well organized liberal minority, and an external one against expansionist Russian nationalism. There are endless paradoxes inherent in this. Present-day Poland is an almost totally ethnically Polish state, the result of World War II; it was the Soviet Communist occupation that enabled the expulsion of almost all the Germans from what is now western and northern Poland, so the present ethnically “pure,” anti-Communist Poland is the result of the victory of Communism. Jewish Communists did play an important part in the Communist Polish governments until 1968, but they represented a small proportion of the Jewish survivors. The great majority of those Communists cut themselves off from their Jewish roots (until Poles reminded them) and they served the national Communism of Poland as best they could. What is left now of the once-important Jewish community is a rather small remnant, however vibrant, which the authorities do not hesitate to showcase to increase revenue from foreign tourists, especially Americans and Israelis, insofar as that activity enables them to transmit a nostalgic perspective of history that also perpetuates the distortion: 800 years of ostensibly harmonious coexistence.

It is certainly true that compared to the situation in Central and Western Europe, Polish Jews in past centuries experienced less persecution and enjoyed a high measure of juridical and financial autonomy (as long as they paid heavy taxes). There were also many cases of social, economic, and even military cooperation; Jews participated in the defense of Polish towns against Turks and Ukrainians. But there was also a history of discrimination, contempt, pogroms, and acts of violence, largely initiated by the Church, even after World War II. The authorities today speak of peaceful coexistence. As usual, this is a mixture of truths, half-truths, and outright lies. Holocaust distortion is in part based on this distortion of the more distant past.

When the PiS government came to power, it took control over a preexisting institution, the Instytut Pamięci Narodowej (IPN) [Institute of National Remembrance] and officially gave it a monopoly on determining historical fact, ostensibly based in part on independent academic research, but in reality, as determined by government ideology. As is well known, an amendment to an existing law, which dealt with what were called “attacks on the honor of the Polish Nation and State” that contradict government canon, was passed by the Sejm at the beginning of 2018. The facts, of course, are to be determined by the IPN. Criminal and civil prosecution was threatened against anyone who sullied the good name of the Polish nation or state. This aroused a wave of protest in liberal quarters in Poland and across the liberal and semi-liberal world, including in Israel and within IHRA. The basic issue is freedom of research: For a government and/or its official academic institutions to determine historical facts is typical of Bolshevism. We see, again, an anti-Communist government engaging in Bolshevik practices—an interesting novum.

In this situation, the Israeli government found itself in a quandary: Its economic and diplomatic relations, to say nothing of possible military ties, with Poland were rated good to excellent. A minor thing like Holocaust memory and its distortion could not be permitted to spoil the relationship. Prime Ministers Mateusz Morawiecki and Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the situation and nominated a joint group of supposed experts to find a solution. I still do not know who advised the Israeli side, as the two official representatives, Prof. Jacob Nagel, an expert on aeronautics, and Joseph Ciechanower, a former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and chairman of a major bank, are not historians or experts on Poland or the Holocaust. The whole process was shrouded in secrecy. What emerged from their efforts was published on June 27, 2018, in a common declaration signed by the two prime ministers. It endorsed the Polish narrative in its entirety—though admitting that there were some base individuals who behaved badly, not only Poles, but others (i.e., Jews) as well. The declaration stated its opposition to antisemitism and anti-Polonism (by Jews, of course), thus suggesting a level of symmetry—an outrageous distortion of history.

For its part, the Polish side removed the criminal penalties stipulated in the abovementioned law, but now, instead of threatening transgressors with up to three years in prison as the original version did, they would be subject to prosecution under civil law. This means that those accused of soiling the good name of Poland and its people, for example by researching and publishing the facts of Polish participation in the murder of Jews, could face major fines that would make their academic work on that historical topic well-nigh impossible; they would be afraid of even beginning to deal with the truth. A provision in the original law that exempted academics and other intellectuals if their statements were part of their normal work was eliminated, so that now anyone could be charged and fined.

When asked her opinion on the matter, Yad Vashem's chief historian, Prof. Dina Porat, said she could live with that declaration. The academics at Yad Vashem's Research Institute, however, could not. The policy of Yad Vashem has always been to refrain from commenting on politics. For the first time in its history, however, it abandoned that stance and issued two statements: one, a brief summary, and the other, a detailed analysis of the declaration, signed by the head of the Research Institute, Prof. Dan Michman, and Yad Vashem's two main experts on Poland, Prof. Havi Dreifuss and Dr. David Silberklang. It was, however, the unanimous expression of the views of all the institute's researchers (myself included), as the statements were circulated for comments and approved by all, with the blessing of Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev. The Israeli signature on the Polish–Israeli declaration signaled an abnegation of integrity on the subject of Holocaust memory and a victory for distortion. 16

If one attempts to analyze all this, several motives and contexts emerge. The actual struggle, not just in Poland, is internal. It pits a nationalistic, illiberal, majority relying in part on support from the provinces against liberal elements mainly concentrated in the urban centers. In Poland specifically, it is also a struggle of vitriolic ethno-nationalist segments of the local Roman Catholic Church (not the Vatican, which fights antisemitism and is today largely pro-Jewish), on the one hand, and an open-minded opposition, on the other. In its distortion, PiS nationalism can rely on the traditional and deeply engrained anti-Jewish attitudes of considerable segments of the population, which have nothing to do with the existence of the tiny local Jewish community. Still, that community does represent something of great importance. There is a ghost wandering through Poland, a void left by millions of Jews—an ethnic minority that played an important role in the country, who are gone, almost without a trace. Their possessions were taken over—first, during the war when the Jewish owners were murdered, mainly by Germans of course, though in some instances by Poles. Then “People’s Poland” arose and seized much of it through nationalization. After the fall of Communism, successive governments, whatever their hue, perpetuated that situation. They stubbornly refused to relinquish the property of Poland’s murdered Jewish citizens and placed considerable obstacles in the path of those who sought redress in the courts, including by limiting the rights of inheritance to first-degree relatives—thus excluding most potential Jewish claimants.

Despite the common Polish–Israeli declaration, relations have not improved, partly because of a contemptible and insulting statement made by then-Acting Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz that Poles imbibe antsemitism with their mother's milk, and largely because of a radicalization of Polish nationalistic tendencies, which recently have resulted in the electoral victory of the current president over his liberal challenger.

Distortion, then, is partly fed by the desire to retain the property of those citizens of Poland who were murdered, and in some cases even of the survivors—10 percent or so of the original Jewish population. The paradox is again obvious: The Jews were, and are again, being accused of being money-grubbers. All that they really want, say or imply some Poles, is money, whereas in fact, money is the thing the Polish nationalists want most, i.e., the assets of the victims and their heirs. This has even become official policy, playing its part in the struggle between nationalists and liberals, and quite openly so: The real money-grubbers seem to be the Polish nationalists. 17

I am, of course, aware of the imbalance in this attempt to present what lies behind distortion: The concentration on Polish history, while unavoidable, may itself lead to a distortion, simply because this phenomenon exists throughout post-Communist Europe and not just in Poland. It can be found, for example, in Hungary, the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Croatia. In the West, nongovernmental political forces and academics who espouse the same ideas engage in parallel attempts at creating a usable past. So do Jewish and Israeli commentators, but the difference lies in the fact that in the liberal and semi-liberal countries there is total academic freedom, and sources and views can be freely presented and examined.

No feathers were ruffled when Yad Vashem Studies published material about Jewish collaborators with the Nazis. One hopes that in Poland and in other post-Communist countries, Russia included, the day will come when no one recoils from publishing research that may not add to the luster of past generations. They will be all the stronger for it.

Behind all this lies a reality that many historians have recognized and dealt with: The Holocaust was indeed “Ein Meister aus Deutschland” [master from Germany], as the great poet Paul Celan wrote in his poem “Todesfuge.” However, it became a European-wide project, and without the participation of certain segments of the populations in countries occupied by Nazi Germany or allied with it, the Final Solution could not have been carried out, or at least not the way it was. With the best of intentions, official German statements express total responsibility for the genocide of the Jews, but in so doing, are inadvertently letting all the collaborators and facilitators off the hook—a phenomenon recently addressed by Grabowski in an article published in the Israeli daily Haaretz, in which he claimed that Germany was fueling a false history of the Holocaust. 18 Indeed, the story did not end seventy-five years ago. It is part of the present, or, to paraphrase William Faulkner, it is not dead; it is not even past.


1 It is not clear how the six million figure came to be established. Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization, said in his testimony before the Peel Commission on Palestine (established by the British Government in 1937) that six million Jews, chiefly in Eastern Europe, were searching for a homeland. He repeated that in August 1939, at the conclusion of the World Zionist Congress in Switzerland, just before the outbreak of the war, declaring that the war would create six million Jewish victims. What he meant was victims of dislocation and suffering, who would be looking for a homeland. At one point during the war, the SS appointed Richard Korherr to establish the number of Jews killed, and in January 1943, he came up with the number of over 1.2 million in occupied Poland (only), but that was before huge numbers of additional Jews were killed. This was repeated, at the same time, by SS Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle. Later, unsubstantiated rumors had it that Höfle was the one who came up with the six million figure. It appears that this number was current among Nazis and was repeated by the Jews. The confusion about numbers is not limited to the Holocaust; historiography is still grappling with, for instance, the number of victims of World War II generally.

2 See, for instance, the research conducted by a group of Israeli researchers, led by Israel Gutman, in Encyclopedia of the Shoah [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1990), which estimated the number to be 5.8 million. Also, economist and statistician Jacob Lestschinsky attempted, very early on, to calculate the correct number and came up with a similar figure. See Jacob Lestschinsky, Crisis, Catastrophe and Survival (New York, 1948). In Germany, a top-level academic group led by Wolfgang Benz, of the Berlin Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung, also came up with very similar results: 5.3–6.2 million. See Wofgang Benz, Dimension des Völkermords (Berlin, 1991).

3 Deborah E. Lipstadt, History on Trial (New York, 2005). The trial took place in 1999–2000 and the judgment was delivered by Justice (Sir) Charles Gray.

4 See John C. Zimmerman, Holocaust Denial (Lanham, 2000).

5 MEMRI, “Sheik Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi: Allah Imposed Hitler upon the Jews to Punish Them—Allah Willing, the Next Time Will Be at the Hand of the Believers,” excerpt from addresses given on Al-Jazeera TV, January 28 and 30, 2009,

6 MEMRI, “Egyptian Cleric Hussam Fawzi Jabar: Hitler Was Right to Do What He Did to the Jews,” excerpt from address given on Al-Nas TV (Egypt), July 11, 2010,

7 MEMRI, “Egyptian Cleric Mazen Sirsawi in Favor of Killing Apostates: ‘Beheading Them Should Be Easier than Cutting the Buttons off Their Shirts,'” excerpt from an address given on Al-Hekma TV, September 4, 2011,

8 MEMRI, “Former Muslim Brotherhood MP: The Holocaust—The Greatest Lie Of The Modern Age,” translated interview with Fathi Shihab al-Din in Egyptian weekly Al-Musawwar from March 6, 2013, published on MEMRI website August 8, 2013,

9 An early (and brilliant) analysis of distortion was offered by Michael Shafir in his article “Between Denial and ‘Comparative Trivialization’: Holocaust Negationism in Post-Communist East Central Europe,” Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, ACTA, No. 19, (2002). What I call here “distortion” he calls “deflection” or “deflective denial.” More recently, two colleagues have offered analyses of distortion in this journal: Robert Rozett, “Distorting the Holocaust and Whitewashing History,” The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, XIII:1 (2019), 23–36; and Michael Whine, “Countering Holocaust Denial in the Twenty-First Century,” ibid., XIII:3, 3–68. See also Rozett, “Diminishing the Holocaust: Scholarly Fodder for a Discourse of Distortion,” ibid., VI:1 (2012).

10 Vladimir V. Putin, “The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II,” The National Interest, June 18, 2020.

12 See Jan Grabowski’s newly published Na posterunku: Udział polskiej policji granatowej i kryminalnej w zagładzie Żydów (Warsaw, 2020).

13 For details, see my Could the US Government Have Rescued European Jewry? (Jerusalem, 2017).

14 The Bund Report was smuggled out to Sweden by the Swedish businessman Sven Norrman on May 21, 1942 (the date is not absolutely certain; it may have been May 16), and reached the London Poles at the end of the month. Polish Premier Władysław Sikorski insisted on its publication (June 2) against the advice of his Foreign Office (I translated it into English and published it in Midstream in April 1968). The diplomatic note of December 10 was based on reports of the Polish Underground in the wake of the great deportation from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka death camp (July–September 1942), and reports about Auschwitz. For details, see also Krystyna Marczewska and Władysław Ważniewski, Obóz koncentracyjny Oświęcim w świetle akt Delegatury Rządu RP na Kraj (Oświęcim, 1968, republished in 1999 by the State Museum in Majdanek).

15 The German poet, Christian Morgenstern, put it wonderfully: “ … weil, so schliesst er messerscharf, nicht sein kann was nicht sein darf” [because, he concludes, with knife-like sharpness, that that which should not exist, cannot exist].

16 This phenomenon was examined at length by Sam Sokol, “The Tension between Historical Memory and Realpolitik in Israel's Foreign Policy,” The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, XII:3 (2019). In this context, it may be noted that Polish nationalist propaganda zeroed in on a six-minute video clip screened at the international conference on Holocaust memory at Yad Vashem on January 23, 2020. That presentation contained a number of errors and inaccuracies (which very few people among the large number present noticed). In a later public statement, Prof. Dan Michman expressed regret at these mistakes. No regrets were ever expressed by official Polish sources for the endless stream of inaccuracies and errors in Polish propaganda.

17 On this subject, I recently crossed swords with a well-known Polish scholar who intimated that at the core of Jewish concerns about historical integrity is the desire to pursue Holocaust-era property claims in Poland. See Andrzej Nowak, “Guilt and Responsibility,” The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, XIV:1 (2020), and my response, “Pieniądze,” ibid.

18 Jan Grabowski, “Germany is fueling a False History of the Holocaust Across Europe,” Haaretz, June 22, 2020.

Author information

Yehuda Bauer is Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Academic Adviser of Yad Vashem. He also serves as honorary chairman of the intergovernmental International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Prof. Bauer has authored over twenty books, mainly on the Holocaust and genocide (including genocide prevention). He is the recipient of the Israel Prize (1998) and the Emet Prize (2017).

Source: tandfonline