Scape-ghosting: Polish Legal Therapy to History

Poland is ethnically, religiously, and linguistically homogeneous, without minorities to scapegoat. It may be necessary then to resort to scape-ghosting, blaming ghosts to maintain social cohesion.

There was only one past. History was not made of multiple parallel universes. History, past events, cannot change. Historiography, the representation of past events, changes and historians can and do disagree sometimes. Historiography changes and historians disagree generally for three reasons:

Historians must choose which of the many probable things they know about the past are worth mentioning and which can be left out.

First, the discovery of new evidence can cause historiographic revision. Progress in historiography usually follows innovations that allow historians to systematically utilize new types of evidence, such as the discovery of the archive as an evidential treasure trove in the first half of the 19th century, or the later discovery of the usefulness of non-documentary evidence such as the shapes of fields or artistic depictions of everyday life. Second, significance driven revision and difference results from changes and disagreements about what historians consider significant or important in history. At the very least, historians must choose which of the many probable things they know about the past are worth mentioning and which can be left out. Finally, aesthetic, moral and political values cause historiographic differences.

If each competing state or political group promotes its own versions of the past, the result should be a plurality of inconsistent historiographic narratives.

Philosophers of historiography have been debating whether historiography can and should or should not be morally or politically value-laden. Isaiah Berlin for example argued that the presence of values in historiographic interpretation is inevitable, or there could be no assignment of responsibility, praise, or blame to past historical agents. Be that as it may, it is surely impossible to write historiography free of cognitive values. Cognitive values determine what we consider knowledge. Kuhn suggested that the scientific community is constituted by cognitive values that direct scientists to choose theories that are more accurate, consistent, applicable to different types of evidence, simple, and fruitful in discovering new evidence. Cognitive values in historiography prefer historiographies that are based on critical and comparative approach to the broadest scope of evidence.

Historiography Tells Us More about Who Wrote It

Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, and various post-modernists agreed that differences between historiographies do not reflect different evidence but different political values or power relations that may be expressed in “discourses.” Historiography would then tell us more about who wrote it than about history. If these relativist philosophies of historiography have merit, a state may want to join the power struggle, via legislation or executive action, to promote its own power and interests. For example, Bolshevik historiographies found it hard to keep up with changes in the power structures, but they tried.

If each competing state or political group promotes its own versions of the past, the result should be a plurality of inconsistent historiographic narratives. However, this interpretation of historiography runs into difficulties when compared to the actual history and sociology of historiography. There is just too much agreement among large and heterogeneous communities of historians to accommodate the kind of political reduction that relativism prepares us to expect. For example, historians of all nationalities, religious affiliations and non-affiliations, and all political shades agree on much of what happened in the Holocaust and even on some of its causes and effects. Holocaust deniers, by contrast, are a homogeneous group of Neo-Nazis whose views indeed can be reduced to political values.

Masaryk Demonstrates the Universality of Cognitive Values

The emergence of a uniquely heterogeneous consensus in historiography came to be associated with Ranke and his methods, though it had deeper interdisciplinary origins in the 18th century. This paradigm has been based on shared cognitive values. Scientific historiography is marked by the hierarchical precedence of cognitive values to other values. As long as the hierarchical precedence of cognitive to other values is preserved, historiography can accommodate myriad different and conflicting other values and ensuing historiographic interpretations.

Governments that attempt to subjugate the judiciary, suppress civil society, and control the mass media will also attempt to determine historical consciousness and play God in changing history itself.

Unscientific historiography, by contrast, allows therapeutic values that evaluate historiographic propositions and narratives according to their effect on the psychological well-being of their intended audience to trump cognitive values. Common therapeutic values in historiography include the denial of historical guilt, e.g. Holocaust denying, the promotion of self-respect, e.g. national myths, and the elimination of a sense of alienation and absurdity, e.g. through conspiracy theories. Inconsistencies between therapeutic and cognitive values in historiography manifest themselves in social conflicts between homogenous therapeutic communities and members of the uniquely heterogeneous historiographic community that share cognitive values. During the nineteenth century, for example, various forged “ancient” poetic documents surfaced in Europe, but were then exposed despite their therapeutic value for nationalists. The universality of the cognitive values of scientific historiography is demonstrated by Tomáš G. Masaryk’s dual role as the foremost leader of the Czech national movement and as the chief opponent of the forgeries.

The sense of economic insecurity that followed the recession that started ten years ago triggered archaic mental mechanisms that were acquired.

Scape-Ghosting

The hierarchical precedence of political therapeutic values to cognitive values is typical of political systems where the balance between the branches of government is skewed in favor of the executive. Governments that attempt to subjugate the judiciary, fix elections, suppress civil society, and control the mass media will also attempt to determine historical consciousness and play God in changing history itself, or at least how it is perceived.

Read literally, there is not much to object to in the new Polish “Holocaust Law.” Indeed, it appears redundant. Nobody in his right mind who knows anything about history has ever claimed that Poles planned the Holocaust or ran death camps. Without context, the “Polish Death Camps” can mean camps on occupied Polish territory, camps commanded by Poles, or camps where victim Poles were killed. In the context of Obama’s speech that commemorated the heroism of Jan Karski, Obama obviously meant the first. This use of the expression “Polish death camps” goes back to 1944 when the existence of extermination camps began to be revealed in the mass media. It clearly meant camps designed and run by the Reich on occupied Polish territory. Likewise, everybody knows that the Polish state ceased to exist (except in exile in London) in September 1939 and that individual Poles displayed a range of reactions to the Holocaust from heroic self-sacrifice to venal robbery and murder, while most Poles where somewhere in the middle, so there is nothing to generalize about the behavior of the “Polish nation.”

It would seem then just as reasonable to enact a law that would punish anybody who claims that Pol Pot was a Pole who committed genocide under the influence of pot, or that Polygamy is a practice typical of traditional Polish Gminy. Among the ignorant, the repetitive declaration of innocence may even create an impression of guilt; if you are innocent, why protest your innocence as if you are guilty?!

The Triggering of Archaic Mental Mechanisms

What is this law for then? One possible political purpose is to scare, to fan and encourage xenophobia by inventing a bogus conspiracy to frame Poland for Nazi crimes. This may be as effective as the nonexistent Moslem hoards who would like nothing better than to move to Visegrad countries once they make it to Europe, rather than to the wealthy welfare states in Northern Europe. Scared people would support politicians who promise to protect them from dangers they invent.

They bait the audience by denouncing ridiculous forms of Polish guilt that nobody advocates, and then switch the target to far more controversial historiographic issues.

We live in a pathological juncture in history. The sense of economic insecurity that followed the recession that started ten years ago triggered archaic mental mechanisms that were acquired while our ancestors lived in tribes of hunter-gatherers under extreme evolutionary selective pressures. When there was insufficient food for all, group cohesion required scape-goats. Poles and other East Europeans serve as such scapegoats in Brexit England, Mexicans were useful for Trump, but Poland is ethnically, religiously, and linguistically homogeneous, without minorities to scapegoat. It may be necessary then to resort to scape-ghosting, blaming ghosts to maintain social cohesion.

Historiographic Bait and Switch in Poland

The therapeutic politics behind the Polish law utilize a bait and switch tactic. They bait the audience by denouncing ridiculous forms of Polish guilt that nobody advocates, and then switch the target to far more controversial historiographic issues. Two are obvious, I will then add a third:

The German bureaucracy kept good records of the number of Jews they killed. When historians deducted that number from the number of Jews who were registered as living in Poland in 1939 and further deducted the number of survivors in 1945, they got 200,000 people unaccounted for, a number too large to be explained away by statistical errors and inaccuracies. It is likely that most of these 200,000 hid from the Germans, especially in the Polish countryside, yet they did not survive the war.

There is evidence that at least some of them were killed in the last stages of the war by people who were neither Germans nor collaborators. Anecdotic evidence suggests that some of these Jews were murdered and robbed by peasants who promised to protect them, others were murdered earlier in communal eruptions of ethnic violence, whereas others were murdered by organized units of Polish partisans in service of a vision of mono-ethnic Poland. The bait, the fact that Poles did not collaborate with the Germans and did not operate death camps, does not exclude the switch, the reality of murder in the country-side.

The second historiographic switch is of the history of Polish anti-Semitism, especially in the nineteen thirties, after the death of Pilsudski. Polish-Jewish relations go back half a millennia and had their ups and downs. Historians distinguish between historical periods, social classes, and regions, so sweeping generalizations are usually misleading. Pre-war Polish anti-Semitism was not genocidal and not racist in its German sense. The anti-Jewish laws of the thirties were designed to encourage Jewish emigration. In the context of what would happen, to the extent that Polish anti-Semitic policies in the thirties were successful in pushing Jews out of the country, they saved lives. But they were not intended to save lives.

Pre-war Polish anti-Semitism was not genocidal and not racist in its German sense. The anti-Jewish laws of the thirties were designed to encourage Jewish emigration.

The third historical issue that seems to be suppressed on all sides is the relation between Polish nationalism and Jewish nationalism, Zionism. Polish and Israeli nationalists do not like to recognize the obvious similarities. Slavic and Middle East experts rarely cross over into each other’s disciplines and languages. Anti-Israeli activists and Palestinian nationalists are stuck intellectually in seventies-style revolutionary Marxist anti-colonialism and apply post-colonialist or apartheid models to analyze Zionism both because of the implicit teleology in the models, expecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to end in “Algeria” or “Zimbabwe,” because they do not know Polish pre-war history. Yet, Zionism evolved as one of the last nationalist movements in Europe, largely in reaction to other nationalist movements that affected Jews who lived initially in the Czarist and Austro-Hungarian empires, and later in independent Poland. The Zionist immigrants then treated their “Jews,” the Palestinians, pretty much as they had been treated in Europe, which gives us the “Austro-Hungarian” liberal Zionists, the “Russian” right-wing Zionists, and the “Polish” center.

Shooting Oneself in the Foot

Paranoids may be persecuted, and the world is still a dangerous place for Poland. Not because of some international anti-Polish conspiracy, but for the obvious geo-political reasons of the last quarter millennia. Poland is stuck between bigger and stronger Russia and Germany. It has always depended on forging alliances with stronger nations that can balance those powers. Today, Germany is not politically threatening, but Putin’s Russia is aggressive and imperialist. The last thing Poland needs at this juncture is to throw gasoline on the Russian century-old propaganda campaign that attempts to paint Poland and the other independent countries and national movements between Russia and Germany in SA brown colors.

Paranoids may be persecuted, and the world is still a dangerous place for Poland. Not because of some international anti-Polish conspiracy, but for the obvious geo-political reasons.

If Poland’s fellow members of NATO conclude that Poland is too different and politically exotic if not weird, they just may decide to excuse themselves from involvement when Putin’s hybrid warfare gets going. Do not expect Putin to bomb Warsaw or send tanks to Gdansk, but he would move gradually to pull Poland back into his sphere of influence, control its government, energy supply, and foreign policy. Just look how a character like Miloš Zeman became the President of the Czech Republic, and how pro-Russian populists gained control of Hungary and, most recently, Italy.

Do not expect Putin to bomb Warsaw or send tanks to Gdansk, but he would move gradually to pull Poland back into his sphere of influence, control its government, energy supply, and foreign policy.

It is understandable that many Poles find Jews interesting: though the relations of Poland with Germany, Russia, and the Habsburgs were much more important, they were mostly painful and nobody can blame Poles for wishing to forget them. The historical interactions with Poland’s neighbors to the east—Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Lithuanians had their frictions (and sometimes the Jews were caught in the middle in serving the szlachta) but they were hardly exotic. Jews appear from the outside to be far more interesting than they actually are. Many of the Polish rabbinical discussions are of esoteric topics such as the recommended lengths of side curls, the shape of beards, whether they should wear their socks above or below their pants, and whether it is forbidden to make tea on the Sabbath because it is, or not, like cooking. It is understandable that a homogenous society would consider with nostalgia those periods when it was more diverse and pluralistic. However, the Jews cannot come back. Living, loving, or quarreling with ghosts—as anybody who reads Shakespeare knows—only ends in joining them.

Aviezer Tucker

is the author of The Legacies of Totalitarianism (Cambridge University Press 2015), A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence: From Patocka to Havel (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2000).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 03/2018

The Face of Europe

Europe has been changing. How many faces and what kind of faces does Europe have? Where the border of European wealth and political culture lies? Will we expect deeper integration of EU in the years to come? Get to know the real face(s) of Europe.

Download PDF