On a sweltering summer day, July 10, 1941, hundreds of Jews were murdered by their Polish neighbors in the village of Jedwabne, almost 100 miles northeast of Warsaw. Babies were killed. Men were tortured. Women were raped. A young girl was decapitated and her head used as a soccer ball.
Villagers whose lives had not been extinguished with axes, clubs, and knives were rounded up and taken first to the market square and then to the outskirts of town, where they were herded into a barn. The wooden structure was doused with kerosene and set alight. Women, children, and men were burned alive as the jeering crowd watched. Their cries of agony reverberated throughout the village. Looting of the victims’ homes followed as peasants from neighboring villages showed up to take part in the plunder.
A monument erected near the barn where the Jews were immolated blamed Poland’s Nazi occupiers for the pogrom. Townspeople walked by the plaque for decades, knowing that it was a lie. Sixty years later, Polish Jewish historian Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland uncovered the truth, drawing on documents long buried in archives and interviews with survivors: The massacre was perpetrated by the local villagers rather than their German occupiers. Similar massacres were reported from nearby towns, including Radzilow, Szczuczyn and Wasocz.
Neighbors opened a Pandora’s box, releasing demons that have continued to haunt Eastern Europe for centuries. The fraught history of Polish-Jewish relations prior to, during, and following the Holocaust have been given a stark edge by the 2015 ascension of Poland’s nationalist-populist, right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. In 2016, then-Education Minister Anna Zalewska sparked controversy by declaring the murder of Jedwabne’s Jews by Poles to be a matter of opinion, with differing historical perspectives.
In 2018, Article 55A was passed, making it a crime to publicly accuse Poland of taking part in, organizing, or being responsible for Nazi or communist offenses. A similar law has been used to threaten criminal charges against Gross, who was expelled from Poland during the communist regime’s state-sponsored antisemitic campaign of 1968—for “defaming the Polish nation.” Critics—including the United States, the European Union, and Israel—have argued that distortions of historical facts erode the public’s understanding of the genocide while disrespecting its victims.
Holocaust denialism is easy to identify and straightforward to explain. However, some governments are now engaging more subtly and insidiously in a new form of distortion: They alter the facts of their history for contemporary political purposes.
While acknowledging that genocide took place, these contemporary distorters strive to absolve their own nations and people of any involvement, attributing all responsibility to their Nazi occupiers. The argument that a victim cannot be a victimizer disregards the historical reality of the widespread collaboration and bystanderism of local populations as well as the presence of domestic antisemitism, which provided an integral component of the Holocaust’s machinery and persists to this day.
Although all countries try to shape their historical narratives, in democracies, free speech and open academic inquiry foster critical public debate. In the absence of such principles, history can become a tool used to capture votes, seize power, and advance authoritarian ends—realizing author George Orwell’s warning that “[h]e who controls the past controls the future.”
Distortion has become a particularly vexing problem in Eastern Europe. The Holocaust unfolded most gruesomely there, owing to the sheer number of Jews in the region and unparalleled brutality of the Nazi occupation. Many locals who did not participate in the persecution did nothing to stop it because they could not or dared not. While the systematic and industrial genocide was initiated, implemented, and enforced by the German Reich, it became a European-wide endeavor when ordinary Germans, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Romanians, Croatians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and others became complicit in the destruction of their neighbors.
Of all European countries, Poland had the largest portion of its citizens become eyewitnesses to the extermination campaign; Gross concluded in a 2015 article that Poles murdered more Jews than they killed Nazis during the occupation. Such disclosures precipitated a state of national dismay when Poles were viewed no longer exclusively as the eternal victims of war but as perpetrators of some of its atrocities. The Jedwabne affair was shockingly at odds with their self-image as a heroic, glorious, and innocent people who, risking their own lives, did everything in their power to save their fellow countrymen.
During more than 40 years of communist rule, vast numbers of Poles and other Eastern Europeans found comfort in a historical narrative that portrayed them as valiant victims of German and Soviet occupiers—which dovetailed with systematic efforts by Warsaw Pact governments to rewrite history. Officially, the question of Jewish suffering was placed on the margins of class struggle and became part of national martyrdom and communist anti-fascist triumph in efforts to provide the Eastern Bloc’s totalitarian regimes with ongoing political legitimacy.
The PiS government continues to harness the nation’s historical experiences of foreign invasion, occupation, and subjugation to position itself as a staunch defender of its sovereignty, values, culture, and faith. This approach has led to the discrediting of political adversaries, including those who scrutinize the country’s World War II history, by labeling them as unpatriotic. Such tactics foster a siege mentality, particularly among the government’s core supporters, in which Poland must once again defend itself from external enemies and traitors within—a mindset the party uses to distract attention from the erosion of democratic norms and institutions.
After Article 55A criminalized blaming Poland for Nazi-era crimes, a Polish government-funded nonprofit, sued the historians Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking for their research in Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in German-Occupied Poland. Their book noted that two-thirds of Jews who had gone into hiding had been either killed or betrayed by Polish citizens. Despite being acquitted at a higher court, the two historians were subject to a government-sponsored campaign of vilification and intimidation. Although Grabowski and Engelking appealed the case and won in August 2021, Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro called their win a “judicial attack on justice,” allowing historians to “lie with impunity,” Time magazine reported.
It is happening in nearby countries too. Although full-fledged democracies, such as the Baltic states, have long engaged in downplaying and minimizing the role of local Nazi collaborators, the spread of right-wing populism and nationalism throughout Europe has accelerated the trend of making historical distortion official government policy in various countries. When a positive and idealized past is not available, it must be created—in the words of Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, “out of a mixture of truths, half-truths, and the wish for [the past] to have happened the way it is presented.”
Government-run institutions, museums, schools, media outlets, and monuments honoring nationalist figures have all been bent to these aims. Partial truth becomes total distortion, which includes thought control in the service of nationalistic regimes dismantling fundamental democratic rights and freedoms, along with the rule of law.
In Hungary, Budapest’s House of Terror Museum—led by a former advisor to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban—paints a picture of that country’s 20th-century experience as a victim of foreign regimes while omitting the Hungarian government’s complicity in the Holocaust. The narrative begins with the start of German occupation in 1944, ignoring both Hungary’s decision to join the Axis Powers in 1940 and Hungarian forces under the rule of then-regent Miklos Horthy having killed around 60,000 Jews before the occupation began.
The story conveniently forgets that it was Hungarian police and other officials who herded almost 430,000 Hungarian Jews first into ghettos and later onto death trains destined for Auschwitz. They did it practically on their own, inspired by the Germans but without direct Nazi involvement. Revisionism by omission has been endorsed by Orban’s right-wing populist government and embraced by a surprising number of Hungarian intellectuals.
The memory of the Holocaust has been debated and revisited and debated again, so why does all this still matter more than seven decades after the end of World War II? The postwar international order led to the establishment of multilateral institutions tasked with protecting human rights and maintaining international peace and security. Significant resources were invested in honoring the victims of the Holocaust, educating people about the genocide, and studying its causes.
Nations that created and subscribed to the liberal postwar order hoped that an understanding of history would provide warning signs against racism, antisemitism, and crimes against humanity; advance a universal standard for human rights; and serve as a powerful deterrent against authoritarianism.
These hopes were not broadly realized. Genocides and systematic human rights abuses occur with alarming regularity to this day, as democratic freedoms decline in every region of the world, leaving more than a third of the global population living under authoritarian rule.
The continued and widespread distortion of a universal symbol of humans’ capacity for evil erodes our understanding of the Holocaust, disrespects its victims, and undermines its legacy—including global efforts to prevent contemporary genocides and crimes against humanity.
As author William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Confronting the ghosts of the past is essential for post-communist Europe to face its remaining demons.
The international community must remain vigilant when historical records are distorted to serve the partisan interests of the day. States need to educate the public, implement legal measures, and support research and documentation while sounding political and diplomatic alarm bells when politicians play with historical facts.
Until then, the cries from Jedwabne’s burnt wooden barn will continue to echo into our time.
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