In an exclusive interview, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki shares his thoughts on Warsaw’s relations with Jerusalem, Europe and the US, and reflects on his country’s past.
REPRINTS FROM THE JERUSALEM POST; BY GOL KALEV, DECEMBER 7 , 2018
The strong Polish-Israel alliance was tainted over the last year by a newly enacted Polish law criminalizing those who accuse Poland of being complicit in the genocide of its Jews. After months of tensions, an understanding was reached, which according to Prime Minister Morawiecki dispels the notion of a Polish Holocaust.
“I am happy that we were able to reach an understanding with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he says. “We issued a joint declaration, stating that we should help our nations fight such a narrative. Not just because it is blatantly erroneous, but because it diminishes the responsibility of those that were responsible.”
The Polish bill sparked a renewed debate about who is to blame for the Holocaust. After World War II, as Europe needed to be rebuilt, simplifications were made including narrowing of the blame. A European narrative emerged that “we were all victims of the Nazis.” But over the years, it became evident that such a narrative is historically flawed and that the Holocaust could not have happened in such dimensions without local cooperation throughout Europe. Morawiecki makes his view clear.
“The Holocaust was conceived, orchestrated and carried out by the Germans. The murderous intent to annihilate European Jewry was not only inhumane and abhorrent, but also unique in the history of mankind.”
But the prime minister puts the Holocaust in context of other German atrocities.
“The Germans also planned the extermination of other nations – of my nation, and that of other Slavic nations, under a Generalplan Ost. The fact that they did not succeed in killing our people entirely should not allow us to forget that. Poland was Germany’s first victim. We lost more than six million Polish citizens – three million of them with Jewish roots.”
Morawiecki underscores the German horrors in Poland.
“German death machinery was destroying our people with unprecedented ferocity. Over 900 villages were burnt to the ground, their population murdered. In Poland specifically, German Nazis punished those who provided any help to Jews with death for the entire family and sometimes neighbors.”
Indeed, out of 26,973 people who are recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, 6,883 are Poles who saved Jews. Yet, many other Poles slaughtered Jews. While the situation in every country was unique, there were nations that successfully saved their Jews. The entire Jewish population of Bulgaria was spared thanks to the audacious stance of the Bulgarian people, government, clergy and tsar. Bulgarians said “No” to Hitler’s demand to deliver their Jews. Similarly, the Danes were able to protect their Jews at great risk to their own lives. As those Europeans were saving Jews, others used the war as an opportunity to slaughter their Jewish neighbors. This occurred not just during the war but even after the Nazis left.
Morawiecki addresses this.
“Of course, Germans had some aides of other nationalities. These people also acted on territories occupied by the Third Reich and took part in their atrocities. Many of them were tried and executed for what they did, even during the war by the underground Home Army – a Polish resistance movement, acting on orders of the Polish government in exile.”
IRONICALLY, THE Holocaust Law that was meant to defend Poland’s past has reignited the debate about the country’s role in the Holocaust, perhaps exaggeratedly singling it out. After all, Nazi Germany did not invent antisemitism – it identified the intensity of European Jew-hatred and leveraged such sentiments to score favors with local populations in countries it invaded.
When asked if the Polish law turned what should be a discussion about European Holocaust into a discussion about Polish Holocaust, Morawiecki strongly protests the mere choice of word.
“Please do not use phrases such as ‘Polish Holocaust.’ It is misleading and offensive. Yad Vashem condemned using such phrases. It was their widespread presence in the media – albeit at times employed involuntarily – that sparked the debate.”
Morawiecki stresses the need for a separation between individual blame and collective blame.
“We cannot, and never will, agree to attribute the guilt of individual collaborators to our nation as a whole. Let us never forget that there was no Polish Pétain or Quisling.”
Referring to leaders of the organized collaboration in France and Norway, Morawiecki makes an interesting distinction. While in Poland there were individual collaborators with the Nazis, in France and Norway it was institutionalized – it was a French government that slaughtered its Jews. France outraged the world in November 2018 when it announced its plans to pay tribute to Marshal Pétain, murderer of the Jews of France and head of the collaborative Vichy government, for the role he played 30 years prior during World War I. Morawiecki reminds us that not only did Poland not have a Pétain, but it shares a rich history with its Jewish residents.
“We were fighting Nazis on all fronts to protect our nation and other nations alike, including Jews. We need to remember that we lived with the Jews in peace for 800 years – that is, until the Germans invaded us.”
But other Europeans did not live in peace with the Jews. European Jewish history is marked with repeated cycles of persecution, rejection and hatred. France, for example, long before the Holocaust, deported the Jews on three different occasions and engaged in state-sponsored antisemitism, spanning multiple branches of government and military, during the Dreyfus Affair.
As Europe evolved, so did its opposition to the Jewish nation. When Europe was religious, it was manifested in religious persecution. When Europe became increasingly secular, it funneled its opposition to national hatred. Whatever form Judaism took, Europeans were there to oppose it. Some argue this continues today. Theodor Herzl, the visionary of the Jewish state, reflected in 1896: “In vain are we loyal patriots, our loyalty in some places running to extremes… In countries where we have lived for centuries, we are still cried down as strangers.”
This raises a question if the time has come for a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” between Europe and the Jews. Morawiecki responds.
“We support historical research, and we urge academics to investigate the truth about the Holocaust and World War II. I am a historian myself and historical truth is dear to me. My government is also very supportive of maintaining the Jewish heritage. We are renovating Jewish cemeteries, and the Warsaw Ghetto museum will soon be created in our capital.”
Indeed, such investments by the Polish government contribute to renewed interest in Poland within the Jewish world, as well as to Jewish heritage tourism in Poland. The Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, for example, is attended by thousands of Jews every year. But the prime minister points to a bigger issue of relevance to Jews in Poland.
“Modern Poland is one of the safest and most friendly places for Jews in Europe. Only recently, a report by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights showed a very worrying tendency across Europe – antisemitic incidents are on the rise almost everywhere. One of the few places where it is diminishing is Poland.”
INDEED, THE threat to Jews and Judaism is shifting. Morawiecki underscores this point.
“All across Europe, synagogues are protected with heavily armed police or even military forces. In Poland, there is no need for that. We, of course, condemn any hatred against Jews and prosecute it with full force – but I am happy to say that incidents of such hatred are marginal and do not represent the views of our nation.”
But the threat to Jews is not only on the individual level, it is also on the national level. Here, once again, alarming voices are coming out of Europe attacking the Jewish state’s right to defend itself, seemingly continuing the pattern to re-funnel European opposition to Judaism. This includes various European leaders’ criticism of Israeli use of force during terrorist attacks and of Israel’s self-defense operations in Gaza.
Morawiecki assures, “Counteracting terrorism is our common cause. There is no justification for murderous intentions or actions of organizations such as Hamas. Israel has a right to defend itself, to protect its citizens, and Poland supports that right.”
As for those who criticize Israel’s right to self-defense, Morawiecki states firmly, “There is a Latin phrase, though originally written by a Greek poet, Pindar: ‘Dulce bellum inexpertis.’ War is only sweet for those who have not experienced it. Both Israel and Poland know what war is.”
The prime minister put these realities in context of the broader Polish-Israel relationship.
“Only last month, Poland celebrated the centenary of regaining its independence, whereas last spring, Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of its statehood. We know what it means to live within an independent country, but we also know what it means to lose this freedom. Moreover, we know well that sometimes the use of force is a necessity.”
With this understanding, Morawiecki reaffirms, “Undeniably, the escalation of tensions should never be the final answer. The best way to resolve a conflict is to use diplomatic channels and other peaceful means. We will always support Israel in reaching such a solution.”
POLAND’S SUPPORT needs to be placed in context of its evolving role in Europe. When asked if the balance of power in Europe is shifting, the prime minister points to Poland’s success.
“The economy has improved our position on the European stage over the past years. Our GDP growth is one of the fastest in the EU, 5.7% in the last quarter, and it’s been around 5% for the second consecutive year.” Morawiecki attributes this growth to Polish government policies.
“We managed to implement a bold approach; we named it a Responsible Development Strategy. It provides a more inclusive social model with increased welfare spending and higher minimum wages. At the same time, it includes a healthy public finance policy, tightening leaks in our tax system, keeping inflation at bay, maintaining a record low public deficit and historically low unemployment.”
This could have been accomplished in part since Poland does not have the immigrant issues that Western European countries face. As immigration become a core issue of debate, Morawiecki shares his philosophy.
“Regarding migrants, we have a different approach. We welcome individuals who seek to contribute positively to our society. We have accepted many migrants, and they are hard-working. They are building a future here, and integrate well into our culture. They are also contributing to our economy and support the fast pace of our development.”
The prime minister notes what open immigration policies have done to Europe.
“We cannot espouse the model of some countries – the policy to invite just about anyone to cross our borders, grant lavish social benefits and foster the creation of ghettos, which nourishes radicalism, due to a lack of integration.”
Morawiecki is clear. “Our first duty is to protect our citizens.”
This sounds somewhat different than the rhetoric of some other European leaders. US President Donald Trump advocates America first and for other leaders to do the same for their countries, while some in Europe seem to focus on a greater collective: EU first or perhaps humanity first. French President Emmanuel Macron went as far as to say in Trump’s presence, “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.”
This adds to the growing philosophical divide between Europe and the United States: Europe’s universalism, post-nationalism, zealous secularism vs America’s particularity, ideology, one nation under God. Morawiecki weighs in on this Europe-US divide.
“I think that even if some differences exist between the EU and the US, we have more in common than divides us. Also, neither is the US as conservative, nor the EU as deficient of moral values.” But the prime minister is well aware of how things are evolving.
“Some politicians in Europe keep underlining the differences, stressing that America and Europe are separate forces. Recently, I even heard that we should create a pan-European army to defend ourselves not just from Russia or China, but also from the US.”
Does Macron’s stunning call for a European army to defend itself, “including against the United States,” symbolize the beginning of a shift? German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to support Macron, echoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s statement that such a European army “would show the world that there will never again be war in Europe” (The army to end all wars?). Morawiecki offers his perspective on this verbal European arms race.
“I think that such misguided ideas stem from personal prejudices against the current US president rather than a diligent geopolitical analysis.”
But still, Trump is the elected president of the United States. Does such European rhetoric put old alliances at risk? Morawiecki advises caution.
“Of course, America has its interests, and Europe has its own. They are, however, aligned in so many areas that it would be unwise to announce a dramatic geopolitical shift just because some Europeans dislike President Trump.” Morawiecki takes issue with such dislike of the president.
“Whether we like him or not is irrelevant. He was democratically elected by the American people two years ago and we need to respect that free choice.”
Some 70 years since liberating Europe, it is astonishing that leaders need to remind Europeans that America is a sovereign country entitled to make its own choices. Morawiecki insists that the US-Polish relationship is not a partisan issue.
“Poland is one of the few countries that is simultaneously pro-European and pro-American. It has been like that under the Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations and it is like that now. Over 80% of our society shares these sentiments, and they enjoy all-partisan support on our political stage, apart from some radical margin, maybe.”
SOME IN the United States argue that given such realities, America should pivot towards Central/Eastern European countries at the expense of the EU (so-called “New Europe”). When asked if he sees the potential for such realignment, Morawiecki states, “Because we are also pro-European, we do not want to become the US’s only ally in the EU, at the expense of our fellow member states. Our intention is rather to be a keystone, to hold our European alliance together and convince other countries that we should remain close with the Americans. Most of us are part of NATO as well.”
Instead of a European army, the prime minister points to something else that provides stability.
“Good transatlantic relations are key to maintain peace in Europe in the years to come.”
One of the arenas in which the US-European divide has been played out is in the Israeli capital. This comes to bear in the intense pressure the EU is reportedly putting against nations wishing to move their embassies to Jerusalem. When asked what he can share about Poland’s current view on potentially moving its embassy there, Morawiecki is clear.
“Poland fully supports Israel’s sovereignty.”
Yet Morawiecki acknowledged the complexity of the capital conundrum.
“We are aware that the Jerusalem issue is fiercely debated among the people in Israel and worldwide. Any steps in this respect must be taken with caution. Our position needs to be coherent with that of our international allies. It is thus too early to make any further declarations at this point.”
Perhaps Poland can soon fulfill a yearning its Jews could only dream of: “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki meets Rabbi Shalom Ber Stambler. (photo credit: KATARZYNA GWIZDOŃ-CIACHOROWSKA)
Europe and Jerusalem: a 2,300 Year-old conflict
Europe’s Choice: 70 Year-old attempt to downplay European guilt
Germany’s right and Jerusalem: Impact of German elections
Austria’s right and Jerusalem: Impact of Austrian elections
For more on European involvement: Europe
And on Jerusalem and Zionism: Jerusalem
Europe and Jerusalem features Jerusalem Post articles by Gol Kalev