A recent speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has sparked a minor diplomatic controversy with Poland. Last week, in remarks at the Museum’s annual dinner, FBI Director James Comey told an audience: “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. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.” In response, Poland summoned the U.S. Ambassador for an apology (which he delivered), and Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz archly responded: “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 two.”
That there would be some pushback on such a sensitive topic is not surprising. But the intensity of the anger, and the treatment of Poland’s complaints in the American press, is strangely detached from either the substance of Comey’s observation or the history of the war. Referring to the AP’s writeup of the controversy, Josh Marshall notes that the report treats Comey’s claim as “nonsensical or inherently offensive.” Echoing the point made by Poland’s Prime Minster, the AP writes: “Comey’s comments are particularly offensive to Poles not only because they had no role in running Auschwitz and other death camps where Jews were murdered during World War II, but because they were themselves victims of the Third Reich.”
This is, of course, true, but it’s also true that Comey never suggested otherwise. The uncritically-repeated criticisms of his remarks only serve to reinforce a tendentious interpretation of what he actually said. “Murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary” is a capacious phrase, and it doesn’t imply that Poland officially collaborated with the Nazis. Nor does it deny that Poland was a victim of the Third Reich. It is compatible with the recognition that people can be both victims and perpetrators, as Poland was.
If media reports focused less on the diplomatic spat and more on the history underlying it, this important point would be a part of the story. Poland was obviously a victim of the Nazis, but ordinary Poles also carried out crimes that mimicked the most horrific acts of the Third Reich. The AP’s point that the Poles were not responsible for running Nazi death camps ignores the fact that some Poles killed Jews of their own volition. To take a prominent example, the research of Princeton’s Jan Gross has described, in detail, how the 1,600 Jews of Jedwabne, Poland were wiped out by their neighbors over a single day in 1941. Gross notes that Jedwabne was occupied by the Germans, and he writes that the mass murder would not have taken place otherwise—indeed, it is possible that the killings originated with a German order. But it would have been highly unusual for the Germans to compel the locals to carry out that order, and Nazi participation was minimal during the killings, which were largely orchestrated by the town’s own mayor and carried out by its residents. Reviewing the evidence, Gross deems the Poles of Jedwabne “willing executioners.” As a 2012 feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education explained, “Gross’s books have struck such a nerve because they cut against the national narrative that Poland is exclusively a victim of history, not a victimizer.”
The debate over Comey’s remarks offers another opportunity to make the same point. It is no diminishment of Poland’s suffering or bravery to note that some Poles acted horribly—and the vehement response to his (rather vague) remarks only serves to further obscure the memory of people like the Jews of Jedwabne. They were victims of hatred too, even if they were never sent to a Nazi camp. They were killed by Poles— many of whom were victims of occupation, but who nonetheless committed horrific crimes of their own. Memorialization is incomplete, and the prevention of future atrocities is more difficult, if politics and pride prevent us from saying so.