“They threw me to the ground, handcuffed me, then dragged me into a police van where I was punched in the face several times,” Rafal Suszek, a university lecturer, tells me.
He had been taking part in an anti-fascist event in Warsaw last week on the day that Poland’s Law on the Institute of National Remembrance, known as the “Holocaust law”, came into force.
At the same time, far-right marchers shouting nationalist messages were advancing through the city carrying burning torches.
Suszek had been one of the protesters trying to block the far-right groups, but, like many of those who try and stand up against the rising tide of Polish nationalism, he found himself bruised, cuffed and arrested.
Under the controversial Holocaust law, it is now considered a crime for anyone, apparently anywhere in the world, to accuse “the Polish Nation” of complicity in crimes committed by the Nazis during World War II. In addition to mandating how people will be allowed to talk about Poland’s past, the law also has dangerous ramifications for Poland’s future.
The initial aim of the law, which is contrary to Poland’s obligations under international human rights law, was to prevent people from describing Nazi German death camps in occupied Poland as “Polish camps.” But its scope actually goes much further.
The issue at stake is not about the events surrounding World War II, but freedom of expression and the excessive use of the law to crackdown on dissenting opinions. By outlawing any utterance or written statement or image that is seen to damage “the reputation of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Nation”, or suggests Polish responsibility for or complicity in “Nazi crimes”, it further restricts the right to freedom of expression and will have a wider damaging effect.
From peaceful protesters to historians, teachers to journalists, anyone who openly disagrees with the official nationalist narrative in Polish politics and its take on history – namely that Poland and Poles were solely “victims” of historical events and not perpetrators of any crimes – is at risk of being targeted by prosecution and jail.
The law also allows the authorities to prosecute these “crimes” outside the territory of Poland, including by targeting foreign media outlets. The Holocaust law was used for the first time last week when the Polish Anti-Defamation League (PDL), a nationalist organization close to Poland’s government, filed a complaint against an Argentinian newspaper.
The paper, Página 12, had used a 1950 photograph of anti-communist Polish fighters alongside an article about the pogrom in the town of Jedwabne where hundreds of Jews were killed by their Polish neighbours during World War II. According to the PDL, this amounted to a “manipulation aiming to harm the Polish nation”.
The Speaker of Poland’s Senate has clarified that the law is aimed at Polish citizens, including those living abroad. In a recent letter, he called on Poles overseas to document “all manifestations of anti-Polism…expressions and opinions that harm us” and urged them to notify their embassies “of any slander affecting the good reputation of Poland.”
Within Poland, peaceful protesters taking to the streets to express their opposition to historical revisionism have been repeatedly targeted by the police.
On Wednesday, in an act of mass disobedience, more than 40 activists in Warsaw and Wroclaw read out a statement in front of the office of the Regional Prosecutor, describing crimes committed by Poles against Jews during and after the war. After the reading they went inside the building an demanded that they get prosecuted for breaking the Holocaust law. The case is being investigated.
Two weeks ago I was in Hajnówka, a town on the border with Belarus, for a memorial marking the 72nd anniversary of the massacre of over 70 ethnic Belarusians by a battalion of Polish soldiers in 1946. The gathered relatives and supporters of those killed lit candles and talked about the past.
A few hours later, a far-right, xenophobic group, the National Radical Camp, held a rally in the town to celebrate the soldiers who had committed the massacre. They marched through the town chanting “death to the killers of motherland”.
At one point, two women counter-protesters appeared holding a banner that read, “My motherland is humanity”. They were immediately approached by riot policemen who pushed them against a fence, allegedly in order to make sure they did not obstruct a lawful assembly.
The Holocaust law, which has been mainly driven by the ruling Law and Justice Party, is an additional tool for the authorities to suppress dissenting views at a time when it is already increasingly difficult to express political dissent in Poland. Hundreds of cases against peaceful protesters are currently pending in the courts and many more are being investigated by the authorities.
Those who openly challenge the crackdown on judicial independence, undue restrictions on human rights, and the rise of xenophobic far-right nationalist groups are threatened with detention, arrest and prosecution for the peaceful exercise of their human rights, amidst a widespread campaign of demonization in the government-controlled media.
For people like Suszek who dare to stand up for their convictions and raise their voices against hatred, the Holocaust law looks set to silence dissenting opinions. Suszek told me: “Needless to say, this will not change my determination to take the uncomfortable historical truth to the streets and protest against xenophobia, racism, and plain neo-fascism in the public space.”
Suszek’s courage not to be silenced should be welcomed by all who believe in freedom of expression.