Silencing The Past: Moulding Our Holocaust Narratives

By Uygar Baspehlivan
On the 26th of January 2018, the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Polish parliament legislated a law that would ban any discussion of Polish crimes against humanity during the Holocaust. The bill, as stated, aims to “eliminate public misattribution to the Polish nation or the Polish state of responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich,”[1] including a strict ban on discourse such as using the expression “Polish death camps.” Its outrageous dismissal of basic human expression and right to discourse aside, the legislation should remind us of a deeper underlying issue, that is, how we, as the world, have decided to remember the Holocaust.

In our historicising of the Holocaust, perhaps for a search for comfort or perhaps for an easier acceptance of this inhumane act, we have formulated our remembrance of the genocide under our familiar nation-state framework. As we have nationalised complicity and re-issued the narrative of the genocide through a normative system of references, we made ourselves capable of understanding the Holocaust in terms we are comfortable with: that is of a war of nations against nations. In the process, we have forgotten about, or decided to forget about the absolute universality and reproducibility of what happened in Central Europe during the second world war. The Polish legislation reveals us this truth in the most forceful way.

Nationalising our remembrance of the Holocaust has been the case since the Israeli government, under David Ben-Gurion, as Hannah Arendt argued in her brilliant book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil”, decided to try Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann in an Israeli court with the goal of writing and staging a national narrative of the holocaust. As Arendt contends: “At no point, either in the proceeding or in the judgment, did the Jerusalem trial ever mention the possibility that extermination of whole ethnic groups- the Jews, or the Poles, or the Gypsies- might be more than a crime against the Jewish or the Polish or the Gypsy people, that the international order, and mankind in its entirety, might have been grievously hurt and endangered.”[2] This re-formulation of the genocide narrative has allowed the Israeli nation to inscribe a normative understanding of their selves, as the nation who is the victim. This narrative certainly has come in handy when they were accused of their own crime against humanity after their maltreatment of Palestinians has been scrutinised.

On the opposite side, as the victim of the Holocaust is nationalised, the perpetrator has also been put under a national framework. As we remember the Holocaust, we remember Germans as the nation that committed the genocide, which they did, but this understanding of it have engendered a discursive process through which the fact of anti-Semitism in non-Nazi Europe before and during the Holocaust have been silenced from the mainstream discourse. As much as there were courageous and heroic people who have fought against the Nazi regime and protected those who were to be executed, there were equally co-conspirators and collaborators from all around Europe, even Jewish people.[3] To stress the absolute universality and reproducibility of what happened, we have to constantly remind ourselves of this, rather than silencing and putting it under our familiar framework of the nation-state. In fact, the genocide was not, as the Polish legislation states “committed by the German Third Reich.” It was committed by a way of thinking, a discourse so powerful that it can find residence in any human being under the right conditions.

However, establishing the opposite understanding, nationalising it and thus normatively inscribing it, as the Polish legislation did, comforts us all. It comforts Israel with a sense of security as they finally were able to find their own nation. Their victimhood as a nation comforted them as they have mystified their own complicity as a people. It somehow comforted Germany as they found an outlet in the nation-state framework to express their collective guilt. They have assumed a normative position by taking the role of responsibility-bearer. By the virtue of their guilt, they have stripped the rest of the world from accountability and comforted themselves in the responsibility. Most of all, however, this nationalist framework of the Holocaust has comforted the rest of the world. As we have normatively codified the mysteries of this inhumane act and categorised it into our familiar terms of the good and the bad, we are acquitted. As Germans were left with shame and the Jewish people were given their own nation, compensation for their victimhood, we are assured that “this can never happen again.” Through nationalising it, we have forgotten about “the absolute universality and reproducibility” of it all.

The Polish law reveals us the concretisation of this mindset. Although they did not create the extermination camps, there were certainly a significant number of Poles who collaborated in the crimes against humanity conducted in the WWII. In fact, and most crucially, the violence against Jewish people started way before Germans arrived in Poland. The Polish nationalist discourse argues that Germans have forced the Polish people to do their dirty work. However, in many cases, it is observed that the pogroms have started before. The forthcoming book from Jason Wittenberg and Jeffrey Kopstein, “Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust” documents “219 such pogroms in cities and small towns across eastern Poland…where local Poles and non-Jews beat, robbed and raped and murdered their Jewish neighbours.”[4] The denial of this collaboration is an endeavour in constituting the good self. Through the law, the virtue of being Polish exempts the complicit from having committed a crime against humanity. It racialises Poland’s understanding of genocide. It subliminally promotes the case for “the incorruptibility of the Polish.” Denying their role, they categorise themselves outside the nationalised Holocaust narrative of the evil nation. This narrative repeats itself in how Erdogan denies what happened to Armenians in 1915, “committing genocide doesn’t exist in our culture.”[5] It is not genocide that is primarily being denied through these ideas, but perhaps in a more sinister manner, the ability of the nation, by birth or by culture, to commit these inhumane acts. Most dangerously, this discourse opens the path towards the repetition of these vices. By nationalising holocaust and assigning guilt and shame to nations, and not to ideas that can harbor inside any mind and any society, the ever-existent potentiality for recurrence is forgotten.

It is a tragedy that the Polish parliament has resolved to silence the past the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day. With the erasure of the past, the Polish people perhaps also erased the ability to learn from the past. It is to be remembered, not to be silenced, the fact that the Holocaust was not a one-time deal, not an act of the Germans against the Jewish, but an act of a people against another people. It was not “the nation” but the universal discourse of nationalism which allowed what happened. In consideration of these, we ought to constantly remind ourselves of Primo Levi’s words: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.”[6]

[1] “Communique of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on amendment of the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance”

[2] Hannah Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”, (London: Penguin Books, 2006), p.276.

[3] Raul Hilberg, “The Destruction of European Jews”

[4] Jason Wittenberg and Jeffrey Kopstein, “Yes, some Poles were Nazi collaborators. The Polish government is trying to legislate it away”, Washington Post,

[5] Hürriyet, “Sizinki soykırım Karabağ’dan çıkın”, 10 February 2008, 8201463 , accessed 14 March 2017

[6] Primo Levi- The Holocaust Memorial- Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe



Uygar Baspehlivan is a Graduate of International Relations at King’s College London. He is also the Student Advsior of Identity Hunters. His research interests include nationalism, critical theory, identity politics, language, and film theory.

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