by Tristan Mabee
If you have used Google, Facebook, or YouTube lately, you may have seen an advertisement discussing how Concentration camps within Poland were German Death camps. Some readers may have even heard of the new #germandeathcamps media campaign. And, as Radio Poland noted, the GermandDeathCamps.info website launched to support the campaign received 100,00 hits in the first week alone. The ad campaign was created due to the fact that Poland passed a highly controversial law stopping people within Poland, and discouraging people abroad, from stating that the Polish government as a whole took part in the Holocaust. The term “Polish death camps” is now illegal in Poland.
This is quite a precarious argument to make, which The Atlantic’s Edna Friedberg noted in a February 6 feature on Poland’s role in the Holocaust. To say that every single person of Polish nationality did not take part in the death camp process and the organized extermination of “undesirable” people is simply false. There were a few groups of Polish people who willingly assisted the Nazis in their deeds. Yet, to say that Poland as a nation during that time was ambivalent toward or even approving of the Holocaust is also completely false.
Currently, many Polish are arguing that they were one of the nations that helped persecuted Jews the most. To be fair, this is a mostly accurate statement. Poles are represented by the largest number of recipients when accounting for the “Righteous Among Nations” award, which is only given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save persecuted Jews during the Holocaust.
With this campaign, Poland put itself in an interesting position, and nations around the world have also weighed in for and against the law. Germany's foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, underscored that Germany alone was responsible for the Holocaust, and that there were only individual collaborators within Poland who helped the Germans. Israel strictly opposes the law, citing the bill’s potential to whitewash Polish history. American politicians also heavily oppose the law, citing that it limits free speech. That’s the most worrying portion of the law, the limit on free speech. Yes, when someone talks about “Polish death camps,” he or she is speaking incorrectly. Yet whether a fine and potential jail time is the correct punishment is certainly debatable, and certainly unconstitutional here in the U.S.
This is why many American organizations, like The Washington Post (in a January 31st editorial) oppose the law: limiting free speech, in any context, is a surefire way to polarize groups and the people behind them. Furthermore, taking to social media and even applications like Youtube to gain support is an interesting move. The law itself may be less significant than the media campaign surrounding it. Using paid ads and government social media accounts, the Polish government has made a bid to gain support for their bill, at home and abroad. This new method seems to have backfired on them by drawing worldwide focus to this law. The way government agencies use social media has changed. However, Poland's social media experiment seems to have failed as the #germandeathcamps campaign has highlighted the problems with government interference on free speech instead of rallying supporters.