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Gessen, My Critique, and the Polish Trap

Note from LeftEast editors. The present text is simultaneously published  in Polish in Kultura Liberalna. An earlier version of this text in English, including the author’s original letter to The New Yorker, used incorrect pronouns for Masha Gessen. The present text has been corrected.

On Saturday, March 27, I first learned of a little controversy regarding Masha Gessen’s article that appeared the day before in The New Yorker. I had already read the piece, though not closely. I saw it as important for disseminating information about the Polish government’s reprehensible crackdown on critical (i.e., non-heroic about Poles) holocaust research. But to anyone who already knew anything about the matter, in Poland or outside, Gessen offered nothing new. That was fine. They are a journalist who focus on global authoritarian trends, and are allowed not to be a specialist. But on that Saturday, people alerted me to a couple of lines in the piece (which have now been revised), saying the government was trying to “exonerate the nation of the murder of three million Jews.” Oh no, I thought, such words will only let the Polish government off the hook, allowing it to pose as the maligned victim when the point is to highlight its pernicious behavior trying to repress the honest study of history. The book that the government has been attacking – Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski’s edited collection, “Night Without End” – documents in detail the complicity of a certain, though unknown percentage of Poles in the killing of Jews. But “three million” is the number of Poland’s total Jewish holocaust victims. An insinuation that Poland bears responsibility for the deaths of all of them is something no one has ever alleged (and no one would ever believe). And isn’t it best to leave vague but emotional concepts like “the nation” out of this?

Photo: LeftEast

So I wrote a personal letter to The New Yorker on Saturday calling for the retraction of these words, while harshly criticizing Poland’s official repression of research. When the magazine did not respond, I decided to post the letter on my Facebook page on Sunday. I thought that would be the end of it. But then on Monday some Polish friends, wanting to ensure, as did I, that PiS and its institutions not be able to deflect the charge of weaponizing their “historical politics”  against truth, suggested I try to gather other scholars’ signatures. We expanded my original letter to include a similar call by the Polish Academy of Science’s Holocaust Research Center, and mistakenly added a couple of lines about Poles having also saved Jews. (This conceded too much to the government’s campaign, which denounces every account of vicious anti-Semitism that lacks a ritual highlighting of Polish valor – as if one could not write a single text about American racism without a line stating that “many whites are good people.”) We hoped to publish the text both in the New Yorker and in Gazeta Wyborcza.

And here is where I fell into the trap! I should have known there was a trap. I had so far eluded it, mainly because I have written only sporadically on Polish-Jewish matters. But I should have known that the Polish right litters the discursive terrain on this topic with mines set to explode anytime anyone says anything that does not fit into its heroic narrative. For, unbeknownst to me, it turned out that from Sunday evening, when I posted my letter on Facebook, to Monday morning American time (afternoon in Poland), when I started working on gathering signatures, this utterly minor problem of a few words in an American magazine had turned into a Major Affair of Polish State. The Ministry of Foreign Relations announced “a decisive diplomatic response”,  the government-appointed Director of the Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau denounced Gessen, the Polish Embassy was directed to get involved – all concerning a few words from a private citizen writing in an American weekly magazine. I now saw the trap: the Polish government and its right-wing propaganda machine are organized precisely for this kind of effort. How could I have thought there was a chance for discussion? They would have reacted exactly the same whatever words Gessen used. As Jan Hartman, a columnist for the weekly Polityka, noted in a piece published the same day, Polish right-wing discussions on Poles and Jews rarely even reach the point in which “the level of deception and manipulation would be minimal enough for decent people to intervene and try to straighten it out.”

(Original) Letter to The New Yorker
Dear New Yorker – It is good that Masha Gessen has written about the scandalous campaign of the Polish government to stifle critical research into the holocaust that unfolded on Poland’s soil. But one of their* claims, which figures also as the subtitle of the text, is a wrong and dangerous distortion of what the historians have shown, and will only allow the regime to double down on its persecution of such research. Gessen writes of “the Polish government’s ongoing effort to exonerate Poland of the deaths of three million Jews,” and the subtitle reads: “To exonerate the nation of the murders of three million Jews, the Polish government will go as far as to prosecute scholars for defamation.” But the reprehensively maligned book in question (“Night Without End”) speaks only about the certain, unclear percentage of Poles who took part in pogroms of Jews under German-occupied Poland and who gave them up to the Gestapo. That is hideous, terrible, and well-documented enough, and is the kind of history the present Polish government is inexcusably trying to keep from being studied and publicized. But that is most definitely not the same as the claim – supported by no historian – that the Polish “nation” murdered all of Poland’s three million Jewish victims! The Nazis, with their mass death camp deportations from most Polish towns and cities, are of course directly responsible for the overwhelming majority of deaths of Polish Jews. Unfortunately, these crucial errors will now feed the Polish government’s malicious propaganda machine attacking these brave historians, this time for claiming something they never did. I strongly urge you to issue a correction, thus allowing the necessary discussion to proceed.

And there I was, trying to gather signatures for a nice letter aimed at making an honest discussion more possible. How naïve! By mid-afternoon American time, when I became aware how the entire right-wing media and blogosphere and the Polish state itself  had pounced on Masha Gessen, it was clear that any further effort on my part was not just a fool’s mission but a service to the nationalist right. Any letter I published would have been used for the PiS-world to say, “See, even the left rejects Gessen!” I thank my Polish friends who began alerting me to the trap that awaited. One wrote that any public call of mine for the New Yorker to rescind the few words would become yet another “ritualistic tool of regression,”  which would “harm Holocaust research, if it is even possible to harm it more than it is at present .” I did not fully agree, but given the now-obvious mobilization of the entire Polish government in response to Gessen’s transgression, I responded that “maybe I really am conceding too much. After all, we need more articles on this subject in English, and here I am condemning one that already exists.” And The New Yorker had, in the meantime, changed the wording.

So I withdrew the letter. Some of those whose signatures I requested had agreed to sign, others refused, and others ignored my request – all of which now seem to be legitimate responses to a loaded, trapped situation. I feel like a character from an old Milan Kundera novel, trying to do “the right thing” in relation to an authoritarian regime, and finding that whatever you do, the regime is one step ahead, and will use your good intentions for its own bad purposes.

The problem, of course, is that this shouldn’t be a trap! It should be possible for me to demand westerners use precise language to talk about complex topics and not have my call coopted by Polish nationalists. It should be possible for a westerner, or anyone else, to make a gaffe without official Poles falling into hysterics. It should be possible for Poland to fully confront its anti-Semitic and racist past without eliciting ritualistic responses that “No, Poland is good, and you are bad for saying otherwise.” Those demanding Poland confront its past are not saying that “Poland is bad” (whatever in the world that might even mean), but only – well, that Poland should confront its past; and to the extent it does not, then reflect on what the refusal means.

Constant denial is so transparently a case of bad faith. Anti-Semitism was an essential staple of the interwar right, which became murderous during the wartime occupation (though I often find it hard to see how it would not have become murderous if there had been no war). All the insistence otherwise just elicits the Shakespearian response: “Thou doth protest too much!” Every thoughtful person in the world can only hear Poland’s frenetic denials as an admission of guilt. If Poland wishes to change that situation, then we need more volumes like “Night Without End” (the book that has been the object of official Polish attacks), translated also for others (this is a call to western publishers), and not this nauseating, totally unpersuasive triumphalism. All this is of course so obvious that I can’t believe I need to say it. But I just learned again, alas, that I do.

David Ost is currently at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and normally teaches politics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York. He has written widely on eastern Europe, with a focus on labor, class, democracy, and the new right. His books include Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics, Workers After Workers’ States, The Defeat of Solidarity, and the special-issue edited collection “Class After Communism.” Recent articles include “The Endless Innovations of the Semi-Periphery and the Peculiar Power of Eastern Europe,” “Workers and the Radical Right in Poland,” “The Sham of ‘Living in Truth’: A Critique of Vaclav Havel,” and “The Surprising Right-Wing Relevance of the Russian Revolution.” He has two forthcoming book chapters: “The Contradictions of Labor Support for Democracy,” and “Rejecting Lenin for the Left.” His current book project is titled “Workers, The Neo-Fascist Allure, and the Transformation of the Left.”