Last week, FBI director James B. Comey wrote an opinion piece about the importance of Holocaust education published in the Washington Post. But this seemingly anodyne exercise on Yom HaShoah has landed Comey in the middle of a diplomatic incident as well as earning himself a scolding from the Post’s Anne Applebaum for seeming to inaccurately describe the government of Poland as an accomplice of the Nazis during the Holocaust. However, Applebaum’s defense of Poland goes a little too far. Though she’s right to draw a bright line between the complicity of Germany and that of other nations, especially Poland, in mass murder, she too somewhat distorts the issue by seeming to downplay the role anti-Semitism throughout Eastern Europe played in facilitating the destruction of European Jewry. But the main lesson we should draw from this brouhaha is that by engaging in arguments that seek to whitewash some of those who behaved atrociously during the 1940s, we are distracting ourselves from the real threats facing Jews, Poles, and Europeans in 2015.
Comey is in trouble because of the following passage in his Post piece:
In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.
That first sentence enraged Poles, who rightly pointed that either through bad punctuation or ignorance, Comey was lumping Poland in with Nazi Germany. That’s profoundly wrong as there was, as Applebaum rightly points out, no Polish collaborationist government as there was in France, Norway, and some other occupied nations. Moreover, unlike other ethnicities that were treated badly by the Germans but not treated as subhumans Poles were also singled out for atrocities by the Nazis and suffered mass slaughter. Polish Jews suffered far more than their non-Jewish compatriots and were targeted for extinction while most Poles were not. But Poles still are right to take umbrage at any notion that they were, as a people, direct accomplices in the way that many in the Baltic States and Ukraine, to take just two examples, were.
Applebaum is also right to note that the murder of Hungarian Jewry didn’t begin until that Axis ally collapsed as Germany assumed direct rule over Hungary.
But Applebaum goes too far when she claims that the sole fault for the Holocaust rests on “German state terror” or that participation in the mass murder on the part of Germans or their non-German accomplices was prompted primarily by fear and that those who did so “knew they were terribly, terribly wrong.” That interpretation of history serves some purpose for the people of contemporary Europe because it allows them to claim that those of their forebears who were part of the apparatus of death or cheered it were in some ways also victims. But such an assertion ignores the role that anti-Semitism played in Europe, especially in those countries of Eastern Europe where the most grievous mass slaughters of Jews took place.
Let’s specify that in a narrow sense Applebaum is right that Germany must always accept the lion’s share of the blame for everything that happened during the Holocaust. But it is disingenuous to claim that their task of singling out the Jews and then murdering them was not eased by the willingness of even the most poorly treated subject populations in Eastern Europe to treat Jews as worthy objects of persecution.
Nor can it be asserted with any credibility that the mass slaughters, especially those in areas that had been seized from the Soviets, were not materially aided by large numbers of non-Jewish local collaborators. While these populations had good reason to despise their Soviet overlords, nothing excuses their assistance of mass killings or the willingness of so many of their men to serve in volunteer units fighting beside the Nazis.
If they did so, it was not just because they feared the Nazis but because they, like so many Germans, believed the Jews deserved to be expropriated, deported, and or killed in cold blood. This “eliminationist” mentality, as historian Daniel Goldhagen described it, wasn’t so much the product of fear as it was of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism that rendered the Nazis’ ideology palatable to many who might otherwise have found it impossible to make common cause with what was a fundamentally revolutionary and socialist concept. Killers of Jews did not seem much troubled by their consciences, including those Poles that engaged in pogroms against the remnant of Jewish survivors that attempted to return to their homes after the war. The Nazis may have ruled by fear but they don’t seem to have needed it to convince so many people to either take part in their war against the Jews or to be quiet about it.
Applebaum, who is married to a prominent Polish politician, is understandably devoted to defending the good name of Poland, which, for all of the problems of its past, does not deserve to be lumped in with the Nazis as Comey seemed to do. But when Poles or other Eastern Europeans waste their time trying to parse this history so as to deny even minor complicity for the anti-Semitism that facilitated the Holocaust, they are wasting their time and ours.
Contemporary Poland is not responsible for the malevolent culture of Jew hatred that dominated its society in the 1930s and even during the war in which that country was also subjected to atrocities. Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, including countries whose populations did collaborate en masse with the Germans, now lives under the threat of Russian aggression. Thus, Poles have better things to worry about than whether some in the West are able to recall the role played by non-German Jew-haters in the Holocaust.
By the same token, Jews, who face a rising tide of global anti-Semitism fueled by an Islamist variant of the same eliminationist spirit that animated the Nazis, need not re-fight the battles of the past.
Comey should correct his punctuation but let’s not try and revise history to soothe contemporary national egos. Nor should we hold onto illusions about evil acts only being motivated by fear. As we face a new generation of aggressors like Russia and potential mass-murderers in ISIS and Iran, it’s a mistake to forget that evil is every bit as persuasive as fear.