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VICE News

Poland backs down from its Holocaust law, showing international criticism still works

A U.S. backlash influenced the decision.

by Tim Hume
Jun 27 2018, 9:00am

Poland’s hopes for a permanent U.S. military base on its soil may be behind a surprise Wednesday reversal by the government over its controversial Holocaust law, analysts say.

Poland’s nationalist government in March approved a law that made it a criminal offense — punishable by up to three years in jail — for anyone who alleged the Polish nation or state was complicit in Nazi Germany’s crimes.

The legislation, which Poland said was necessary to defend its international reputation, drew a huge outcry from Israel, the United States and European allies, who said it was an attempt to whitewash history.

On Wednesday, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki unexpectedly moved to water down the law by making it a civil, rather than criminal offence — removing the threat of jail time. The amendment, which Morawiecki described as a “correction,” was backed by the lower house of parliament and will now voted on by the Senate.

A lawmaker from the ruling Law and Justice party, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that international criticism, especially from the U.S., had influenced the decision.

Piotr Buras, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Warsaw bureau, told VICE News that the move was a reaction to international blowback, particularly from the U.S. and Israel.

Poland wanted to avoid potential damage to its foreign policy interests — specifically its desire for a permanent American military presence in the country. Last month, it emerged that Poland’s Ministry of National Defense had offered to pay up to $2 billion for a permanent U.S. military base on its soil to act as a bulwark against Russian aggression.

“Poland wants to strengthen the Eastern flank of the alliance as well as its bilateral security relationship with the U.S.,” said Buras. “Warsaw would like to have American soldiers deployed in the country on a permanent basis, and the spat over the Holocaust legislation is detrimental to this fundamental interest.”

READ: Poland’s nationalist government is cracking down on protesters — unless they’re far-right

Poland has also recently come under pressure from European Union partners, who launched a discussion Tuesday on threats to the rule of law in Poland from controversial judicial reforms.

Poland was the first country invaded by Nazi Germany, and its population — ethnic Poles and Jews alike — suffered immensely. About 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population of 3.2 million were killed during the genocide, accounting for about half of all Jews killed in the Holocaust. Millions of non-Jewish Poles were also killed.

While most Jews living in Poland were murdered by the Nazis, historians say many were also killed with the complicity of the Poles, who denounced Jews or directly participated in violence against them. Thousands of Poles also risked their lives to protect Jewish neighbors.

Cover image: An inscription 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sits above the main gate at the Auscwitz-Birkenau concentration camp museum in Auscwitz-Birkenau, Poland, on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.