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. FBI Director James Comey in a speech on April 15, 2015, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Those two perhaps ill-chosen sentences near the end of an otherwise remarkable speech have created an international firestorm. Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski called Comey’s remarks “an insult to thousands of Poles who helped Jews” and showed “a lack of historical knowledge.“ Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said: “To those who are incapable of presenting the historic truth in an honest way, I want to say that Poland was not a perpetrator but a victim of World War II.”
Stephen Mull, the U.S. ambassador to Warsaw, apologized profusely for Comey’s comments after being summoned to the Polish foreign ministry. “Any suggestion that Poland, or any other countries other than Nazi Germany, bear responsibility for the Holocaust, is a mistake, harmful and insulting,” Mull told reporters at memorial ceremonies commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The FBI director’s words may have been ill-chosen, but they were not wrong. Comey did not blame Poland for the Holocaust; he simply said Poland had its share of accomplices, which is true. To recognize that some, perhaps many, Poles aided the Nazis does not undermine another historical truth: Poland suffered grievously under German rule. The Polish underground performed heroically during the Nazi occupation, and many Poles risked their lives trying to save Jews.
Perhaps no nation in Europe has a more tragic history than Poland. The Polish nation disappeared from the map of Europe from 1795 to 1918, victim of the collaboration of the three great empires of central and eastern Europe, Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. In 1939, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union agreed to carve up Poland. Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union two years later put Germany in control of all of pre-War Poland; the Nazis coerced tens of thousands of Poles to work as forced laborers for the German war machine under inhuman conditions. Poland — the home of more than three million Jews before 1939 — became a central arena for Germany’s “Final Solution.”
It is also true that Poland has an ugly history of anti-Semitism. In the early medieval period, Polish kings invited Jews fleeing persecution in western Europe to live in Poland, which soon became home to the largest Jewish community in Europe and the center of Jewish learning and religion. But by the 1600s, religious upheaval brought on by the Protestant Reformation and the weakening of Poland as a nation undermined the social fabric and spurred the rise of Polish anti-Semitism.
Poland’s Jews suffered legal discrimination. Universities and colleges established quotas for Jews. Jewish merchants, already closed on Saturday, the traditional Jewish Sabbath, were forced to close on Sunday as well. Official discrimination can be documented; unofficial discrimination by neighbor-on-neighbor often escaped the historical record.
Polish historians have shown how ordinary Poles took advantage of the German occupation to settle scores with Jews. Polish-born Jan Gross, who teaches at Princeton University, has documented the murder of Jews by Poles as the German Army watched. His book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, describes the massacre of 1,600 Jewish men, women, and children in one small Polish town. On July 10, 1941, Poles in Jedwabne hacked hundreds of Jews to death; they forced others to dig their own graves before shooting them. After an orgy of murder, the few hundred Jews still surviving were forced into a barn, which was locked, doused with kerosene, and set on fire.
Jedwabne was not unique. Nor did Polish persecution of Jews end with the defeat of Nazi Germany. A pogrom in 1946 in the town of Kielce in central Poland left forty-two Jews dead.
The research of Gross and other Polish historians documents that many Poles participated in the destruction of Jews and benefited from the German policy of annihilating Jews. A minority of Poles actively aided the Nazis in their murderous schemes, but many Poles benefitted from the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors by occupying empty Jewish-owned homes and apartments and seizing abandoned Jewish property.
Polish sensitivity is understandable, and Poland’s record of heroism in the face of German atrocities mixed with collaboration by its less scrupulous citizens is not unique. Many other Europeans commingled heroism in fighting the Nazis and collaboration in the murder of Jews. Austrians, Hungarians, French, and others need to examine their historical records, too.
Comey knows all this, which is why in his speech he said he requires every new FBI agent to visit the Holocaust Museum. He wants them, he said, to witness “the most horrific display in world history of our humanity — of our capacity for evil and for moral surrender. I want them to see humanity and what we are capable of.”
In other words, Comey wants his agents to understand that evil is universal.