In his latest CARR Insight blog, Senior Fellow, Professor Dan Stone, examines a troubling episode of two historians being prosecuted for a short passage in their latest book and its broader repercussions for the study of history (including Holocaust history) more generally.
In the English-speaking world, theorists of history have long sought to put academic historians in their place. Their work, we often hear, only talks to other scholars, has little or no impact on the public sphere, where people are more likely to enjoy films when they want ‘past-talk’. Academic history – at its worst characterised by a patrician style, and an implicit determinism that the past had to turn out the way it did – reinforces established power relations, thereby working against progressive ideas. As Hayden White wrote, “It is a troubling fact that ‘history’ or ‘historical consciousness’ or ‘historical knowledge’ has functioned more or less effectively over time as one of the instruments deployed by dominant social groups in the effort to ‘control the imagination’ of the multitude or at least of elites destined to control the multitude.”
There is some truth to these assertions. Yet the involvement of historians in discussions over Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, human rights violations in China and Myanmar, or the outpouring of words in the wake of Trump’s election defeat and the (in Timothy Snyder’s words) ‘pre-fascist’ storming of the Capitol on 6 January, indicates that historians are not all the patsies of power that they are sometimes painted as.
More significant, historical research still, it seems, has the ability to speak truth to power and for those in power to get exercised about it. Prosecuting historians in the public sphere – let alone the law courts – might seem like the last refuge of those who feel their position to be only weakly entrenched but that does not make it any less dangerous for those who believe in academic freedom, the right to free speech in general, and, of course, evidence-based research. Two historians, Barbara Engelking (Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw) and Jan Grabowski (University of Ottawa), have recently been prosecuted in Poland for allegedly slandering a former village elder from the Podlasie region in a short passage of their book, Night without End. Based ostensibly on the defamation of an 80-year-old woman’s uncle who, she claims, is wrongly depicted in the book as a murderer and thief of Jews when in fact he was a rescuer of Jews, it is clear that the case is politically motivated by the Polish state and, according to an important article in Gazeta Wyborcza, funded by the Polish government through the Non-Governmental Organisation that has brought the prosecution, the Polish Anti-Defamation League. What is at stake is less the specifics of this particular case – although it is important – but the place of scholarly research in a supposedly democratic society and the protection of a free media and independent universities and research institutes.
The Institute for National Memory’s new journal, Polish-Jewish Studies, is the academic mouthpiece for the government’s position, and has attacked Engelking and Grabowski in ostensibly more refined, scholarly terms. It is an outlier, as several of the most important Holocaust research institutions around the world, including the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the Wiener Holocaust Library, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah have all condemned the prosecution. But the attack on Engelking and Grabowski is just the latest in a series of attempts to control historical interpretations of the Holocaust in Poland, with the most notable being when a Paris conference was disrupted by Polish nationalists led by a priest from the Polish Catholic Mission in Paris.
For example, on 31 January 2021, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Remembrance Centre, expressed concern over the trial and used their website to “emphatically reiterate[…] its principled position elaborated back in July 2018, which stated that any effort to set the bounds of academic and public discourse through political or judicial pressure is unacceptable.” It continued: “Legal proceedings against Holocaust scholars because of their research are incompatible with accepted academic research norms and amount to an attack on the effort to achieve a full and balanced picture of the history of the Holocaust and on the veracity and, reliability of its underlying historical sources.” Similarly, on 3 February 2021, the Council of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities expressed its “profound concern regarding the initiation of legal proceedings in Poland” against Engelking and Grabowski. It went on in the same vein: “Any attempt to constrain academic discourse by extraneous means, such as political or legal pressures, is unacceptable. It threatens severely to impinge upon academic freedom in general and, specifically, upon efforts to probe the period of the Holocaust and to present a full, credible and balanced depiction of the terrible events of that period.”
Sadly, statements by bodies across the world identified as ‘Jewish’ play into the hands of those who see a Jewish conspiracy at work to attack Poland’s good name and to undermine the claim that Poles were uniquely victims of Nazism. The party line is being fostered by Polish embassies across the world, which are promoting the ‘Poles as rescuers’ narrative – again, one for which there is considerable evidence, but it is not the whole story – and defending the government’s position. The stance taken by Polish elites unfortunately encourages wilder antisemitic claims.
For example, and among the statements quoted by Wojciech Czuchnowski in Gazeta Wyborcza, one reads, of Grabowski: “A Jew, sick with hatred for Poles, and meanwhile as a Polish scholar he spits on the Polish nation and falsifies history. We pay him and he slanders us and defiles our nation.” Another: “We dream of having here Turkey and Erdogan.” The first typifies the claims of those seeking to ‘unmask’ Grabowski as a Jew, as though this fact is incompatible with being a Pole, and to ‘reveal’ that what is presented as historical research is simply an anti-Polish campaign. But the second is chilling, for it aligns the Law and Justice government with other anti-liberal and authoritarian regimes across the world. Another example of this was the university where this author works who recently received a long email, purporting to be from an association called the Federation of Turkish American Associations, accusing Royal Holloway of the “tolerance of hateful propaganda and racial supremacism” put out by me and my colleagues in the Holocaust Research Institute; in other words, of teaching and researching about the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Omer Bartov recently noted that, in the wake of the attack on the Capitol, this is not the time for the US to celebrate Trump’s defeat but to “begin reforming the society that brought him to power.” The challenge of the radical right has not gone away. Indeed, the problem is even more pressing when illiberal regimes now seek to leverage Holocaust memory for their own ends, as in Erdogan’s recent speech which, as Eldad Ben Aharon noted, was “cynical, selective, and self-serving.” It is of course to be hoped that the case against Engelking and Grabowski is thrown out; but the larger point about the politicisation of scholarship and the stifling or censorship of research in a member state of the European Union should send shivers down the spine of all who believe in academic freedom.
Professor Dan Stone is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London. See full profile here.
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