‘Patriotic’ move threatens academic freedom

Jan T Gross, a professor of history at Princeton University and one of the leading scholars of the Holocaust, is threatened with being stripped of a high state decoration, the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit, which he has held since 1996.

The move is directly related to the dramatic political change sweeping the Polish Republic. Since last November Poland has had a right-wing government that has declared the “restoration of Polish national pride” as one of its fundamental goals and the centrepiece of its political project.

According to the Polish authorities, the state will henceforth put much more emphasis on ‘patriotic’ education, which will stress heroic periods and glorious themes in national history.

A more critical examination of the less ‘positive’ aspects of our past is definitely not on the agenda for the ruling Law and Justice party, known as PiS. And in the recent history of Poland no subject has proved to be more charged with emotions than the role of Polish society in the killing of Polish Jews during the Holocaust and no scholar more involved in this kind of research than Jan T Gross.

Ever since 2001 when Gross published his seminal Neighbors – a story of Jedwabne, a small town whose Polish inhabitants, in 1941, brutalised and later burned alive hundreds of their Jewish neighbours – Poles have been forced to look at their own past in a different light.

Gross went on to publish two more books: one discussed the 1946 pogrom in Kielce, where a Polish mob driven into a frenzy by tales of blood libel, massacred 40 Jewish men, women and children, survivors of the Holocaust. The last book, published in 2011, focused on the massive theft of Jewish property perpetrated by locals during the Holocaust and after the war.

Sanitised view of the past

Unsurprisingly, works by the American scholar have raised fury among nationalists for whom Gross has become the most visible threat to their idealised and sanitised vision of the past.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Andrzej Duda, the new president of Poland, initiated a procedure to strip Jan T Gross of the Order of Merit, a high Polish decoration which was given to the American professor for his past opposition to the communist regime.

The gesture, however petty and immature, is meant as a clear warning to open-minded people who are vocal in their criticism of the present government. It is a sign of the new 'historical policy' in which the state dictates, on the one hand, what kind of the past has the official seal of approval and, on the other hand, what kind of research constitutes an act of national treason.

What view of the past president Duda wants was made clear during the presidential campaign last year. In the opening statement of the first presidential debate Duda accused the outgoing president Bronislaw Komorowski of having “apologised for Jedwabne”.

According to Duda, there is nothing in their history that the Poles have to apologise for and, once in office, he said he would initiate an energetic campaign to “reinforce national pride”. Judging by official declarations concerning Professor Gross, Duda has been true to his word.

Whether Jan T Gross’ decoration is taken away from him or not is – in the end – of little relevance. The fact that the government and the president of a large European country are seriously contemplating such a gesture is a different matter.

Even more disturbing is the news of new legislation moving at a rapid pace through the Polish parliament. According to Patryk Jaki, deputy minister of justice, the new law will impose a sentence of five years in jail for people who “blame the Polish nation for Nazi or Stalinist crimes”.

The chilling effect of these words on scholarly pursuits and on the independence of historical research in Poland will be obvious and immediate.

Jan Grabowski is professor of history at the University of Ottawa, Canada.