The stupidity and unenforceability of Poland’s speech law

The Streisand effect is one of the curious byproducts of the Internet age. Named for the singer — who tried to suppress a photograph of her Malibu mansion, only to have the picture seen far more widely as a result — it occurs when an attempt to hide, remove or censor something from public view backfires badly.

The Streisand effect is now in full swing in Poland, where a simultaneously incompetent and malevolent government has passed a law — rapidly, in the middle of the night — intended among other things to criminalize the term “Polish death camps” and other expressions implying that the Polish nation was responsible for Auschwitz and other camps built by German Nazis. The national dislike of this term goes back many years and is shared widely by all political groups, for understandable reasons. Millions of Polish citizens, including many who were not Jewish, died in these camps, among them university professors and Catholic priests, both groups deliberately targeted for extinction. Unlike in France, Belgium, Italy and most other European countries, there was no fascist, pro-German or collaborationist government in Poland during the war, and no Polish SS formation. The Nazi occupiers intended to destroy Poland as a nation, to Germanize a large chunk of the country and to turn the rest of it into a German agricultural colony.

Nevertheless there were individual Poles who did terrible things to Jews during the war and afterward, just as there were individual Poles who did heroic things. The debate about how much Poland, as a nation, bears responsibility for these individual crimes has gone on for a long time and has had depressing as well as uplifting aspects. At times the conversation has been ill-tempered. But for a quarter century, dedicated Polish historians, diplomats, politicians and curators have also tried to reconcile different memories and heal wounds; one of the results was Poland’s superb museum of Jewish history, jointly built by the international Jewish community and the Polish state. Another result was the hitherto excellent Polish-Israeli relationship, which has had big cultural as well as political benefits. Every summer, for example, a Jewish festival in Warsaw (there are others in other cities too) brings Israeli pop singers to a square near my apartment, and the concerts are always packed.

The imposition, now, of a three-year prison penalty for anyone who participates in the conversation about the past in ways that irritate the current ruling party is simply ludicrous, even laughable. Will the long arm of the Polish state reach out to academic conferences in Tokyo or Buenos Aires if someone uses an incorrect phrase? Will people be punished for politically incorrect memoirs? In a pompous speech the Polish prime minister gave supporting the law, an automatic translation service made it appear as if he himself said that “camps where millions of Jews were murdered were Polish.” Should he go to prison, too? Should Google Translate? The very stupidity and unenforceability of this law is what has brought on the Streisand effect: Beginning in Israel but moving quickly across all forms of social media around the world, the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” has suddenly spiked and has now been used many more times than ever before in history.

To Poland’s anti-pluralist ruling party that doesn’t matter, because the real purpose of the law was never Poland’s international image. In a sharp break with all previous democratic governments of the left, right and center, going back to 1989, this government does not care how isolated or ridiculous the country becomes. On the contrary, foreign criticism offers another chance to solidify the support of “patriots” who oppose the “slander” of the country, against “traitors” who do not. One pro-government journalist gave the game away when he declared that the criticism of the law in Israel was an element in an international conspiracy against the Polish government. On cue, Polish social media has been saturated with the howls of anti-Semites defending their country against this terrible attack.

I have no doubt that the Israeli government is also using this nasty little controversy for its own purposes. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not been disturbed by the Hungarian government’s long-standing and well-funded campaign — on billboards, in the noisy state and pro-government media — against billionaire George Soros, with its clear anti-Semitic overtones, since he dislikes Soros’s philanthropic support for liberal causes. His decision to make an issue of this absurd Polish law instead no doubt gives him a chance to solidify his domestic support as well. Taking a stand on the past is so much easier than dealing with the complex present.

The irony is that none of the protagonists of this story can actually remember World War II, or the terror that it brought to the Jews and to Poland. But that is part of the explanation: As genuine memories of the horror recede, cartoon versions of history, easily manipulated, have come to replace them. This illiterate “debate” is one of the more sordid results.

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