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Is Poland's Holocaust law changing US attitudes towards Ukraine’s memory laws?

Judging by a new congressional letter, Poland's recent "Holocaust law" is catalysing US lawmakers' perception of Ukraine's own "decommunisation" laws. 

An open-air exhibition in honour of SS Halychyna, a Waffen SS division made up of Ukrainian volunteers, in Lviv. Source: exhibition organisers. On Wednesday evening, more than 50 US Congressmen joined together in issuing a letter to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan demanding that his agency exert diplomatic pressure on Ukraine and Poland in response to recent “incidents of state-sponsored Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.” Citing this week’s public festival in Lviv celebrating the 14th Galician division of the Waffen SS, as well as recent historical memory legislation emanating from both Kyiv and Warsaw, the lawmakers call on the Polish and Ukrainian governments “to unequivocally reject Holocaust distortion and the honoring of Nazi collaborators and fully prosecute anti-Semitic crimes.”

Prompted by the international outcry over Poland’s bill, which prohibits falsely accusing the Polish state and Polish people of “crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes” committed during the Second World War, the letter is significant in that it marks the first real sign of widespread political opposition to Ukrainian revisionism in the United States. Passed in mid-2015, Ukraine’s own package of bills, known collectively as the “Decommunisation Laws”, proscribed the use of Nazi and Communist symbols as well as the “public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for independence of Ukraine in the twentieth century.”

Specifically named in the legislation were the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its militant offshoot the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Both organisations were radically anti-Semitic and anti-Polish and engaged in widespread violence against both groups. By the end of the Second World War, several thousand Jews and up to a hundred thousand Poles (though estimates vary) were dead at their hands. This wasn’t a hidden agenda. In its 1941 manifesto, the Stepan Bandera wing of the OUN explicitly called on its members to “liquidate undesirable Poles, Muscovites, and Jews”. A significant portion of the group’s leadership served at one time or another in German-led military formations engaged in crimes against humanity. This reality has been obscured by the Ukrainian government and its in-house historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, who heads the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. Under Viatrovych, the OUN and UPA’s pasts have been whitewashed and a new narrative in which they actually saved Jews was presented.

Many in the west, sympathetic to Ukraine and pressured by their own Ukrainian diaspora communities, were uncomfortable criticising a newfound ally in a way that would lend credence to Kremlin propaganda

Despite the thematic similarities between the Ukrainian and Polish bills, when President Petro Poroshenko signed Decommunisation into law three years ago, the international reaction was relatively muted. The OSCE Representative on Media Freedom and USHMM condemned the new policies as an unacceptable burden on freedom of expression, as did the Simon Wiesenthal Center and dozens of western historians. However, Ukraine was fighting a hard fought war against Russian revanchism and Kyiv had strongly indicated that in the post-Maidan period it was desperate to enter the western orbit. Alongside its military efforts in eastern Ukraine, Russia was also pursuing its war on the battlefield of ideas, painting Ukraine’s leadership with the brush of fascism and anti-Semitism and playing up its own myth of the Great Patriotic War. The general consensus among academics and journalists at the time was that many in the west, sympathetic to Ukraine and pressured by their own Ukrainian diaspora communities, were uncomfortable criticising a newfound ally in a way that would lend credence to Kremlin propaganda. Memory issues just weren’t a priority.

“Generally, I welcome this effort and yes, the reactions to the Polish and Ukrainian memory laws are strikingly disproportionate,” commented Swedish historian Per Anders Rudling, an expert on Ukrainian nationalism. “Perhaps my reaction is based upon the fact that as a historian working primarily on Ukraine, I am more directly affected by [bill] 2538-1, which directly outlaws ‘disrespect’ for the ultra-nationalist groups whose atrocities I am researching. Perhaps this is reflective of how Washington assess the general geopolitical importance of Poland and Ukraine, respectively, but the Ukrainian memory laws have been restricting what can be said and written for over three years already. To my knowledge, this is the first Congressional letter issued on these laws.”

January 2016: a rally in honour of wartime nationalist Stepan Bandera's birthday in Kyiv, Ukraine. (c) Sergei Chuzavkov / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Poland’s history law, on the other hand, elicited a strong and sustained international backlash, featuring heated condemnations from Israel, western governments and Diaspora Jewish communities. Part of this obviously stems from Poland’s position as a member of the European Union and its slide toward far right ultra-nationalism. Like Hungary, Poland has attempted to reduce the independence of the judiciary, curtail the influence of civil society and promote a nationalism of grievance. Efforts to rewrite history, coming as they do as part of a larger rejection of western norms, takes on greater significance. (Ukraine was widely perceived as moving in the opposite direction, embracing reform and western models after the 2014 revolution.)

For Jewish communities and Israel the story is slightly different. Pre-war Poland was the home to one of the largest Jewish communities in world history and currently plays an important role in Jewish historiography. As one of the primary locations in which the Nazis carried out their Final Solution (Jews from across Europe were murdered on Polish soil), it has also become a common destination for Jewish students from around the world looking to explore their collective past. Poland simply has a greater resonance for non-Russian speaking Israelis and diaspora Jews than does Ukraine.

The importance of the Congressional letter rests on the fact that even after Poland passed its own law, there was little attention paid to similar policies enacted in Hungary, Ukraine or the Baltics

Another significant difference between the two countries (and the response to their respective laws) is that while Ukraine made little to no effort to export its new guidelines on acceptable history, Poland has done the opposite. While Ukraine has promoted an alternate narrative of the war, it has taken little action against historians or activists arguing against it. On the other hand, nationalist activists in Poland have already filed a criminal complaint against an Argentinian newspaper for committing “an act to the detriment of the Polish nation.” The implications are important. Poland appeared to be committed to enforcing censorship both at home and abroad. (Ironically, both Kyiv and Warsaw each condemned the other’s memory laws while promoting their own.)

The importance of the Congressional letter (even if it has zero policy impact) rests on the fact that even after Poland passed its own law, there was little attention paid to similar policies enacted in Hungary, Ukraine or the Baltics. “I would argue no one has paid any attention to the Ukrainian situation even in light of the new Polish news,” argued UCLA historian Jared McBride.

Citing a recent event he attended at which attendees asked him exclusively about Poland, McBride asserted that “even the most involved Jewish communities and organizations still have no idea about Ukraine. In almost all of the public press on the Polish situation it is extremely difficult to find any reference to Ukraine's laws, not to mention other similar activities in the Baltics. I have not seen anyone address why Ukraine constantly gets a free pass. I think part of the answer is they were smart enough to word their laws better than Poland — though the effect is ultimately the same.”

However, that may be beginning to change.

“My sense is that Ukraine’s law was not covered at the time as widely as Poland's law has been recently,” a source knowledge of the deliberations behind the Congressional letter told me. “The attention and outcry about Poland’s law spurred folks to take another look at the issue.”

And while some memory activists, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff, have criticised the Congressional letter for not including revisionism in other countries such as the Baltics, the source said that he “expects Congressional attention to these developments in Eastern Europe to continue and expand to other countries who are taking similar actions.”

27 April. This article has been updated to reflect the wording of Poland's new memory law. 


About the author

Sam Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Israel. He has worked as a reporter for the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and as an international and Jewish affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. He is currently writing a book on anti-Semitism, propaganda and national memory formation in post-Maidan Ukraine.


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