Sorry. Comey Had a Point

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The US is in a minor diplomatic row with Poland of all countries. And it’s over the Holocaust. Last week FBI Director James Comey made a statement that appeared to suggest the Poles (and Hugary for that matter) were responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust on something like a par with Germany. The Poles are outraged and demanding apologies. And the US Ambassador to Poland has now apologized on the United States’ behalf.

This AP report gives a basic run-down of the story and treats it largely as a nonsensical or inherently offensive claim.

From the AP …

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. In all, 6 million Polish citizens were killed during the war, about half of them Jewish and the other half Christians, with many Polish priests, members of the intelligentsia and political resistance killed in Auschwitz and elsewhere.

Poland also had a committed anti-Nazi resistance movement and Polish fighters fought alongside the Allies throughout the war. Poles see themselves as heroes of the war who have never been properly recognized, making comments like Comey’s hurt even more.

But it’s not quite that simple. Comey’s quote did seem to suggest that Polish and Hungarian guilt over the Holocaust was comparable to that of Germany. The exact quote was …

“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.”

Poland especially was brutally occupied by the Nazis and huge numbers of Poles died. But the idea that Poles bore some complicity for the Holocaust is not some crazy idea or a simple gaffe. Indeed, there is a voluminous literature about the complicity of Polish citizens in the murder of their Jewish fellow countrymen and women, both formally and informally. Indeed, there are numerous examples of Poles enthusiastic cooperating in the murder of Polish Jews, either in concert with Nazi occupiers or simply out of spontaneous desire and opportunity to do so. More murders occurred in the aftermath of the war as people feared Jews would try to reclaim their property that had been seized during the war.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the history here, in large part because it’s complicated and highly controversial. I would be interested in commissioning a piece from someone with expertise on the subject. But it is fair to say that Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust and their descendents, while often nostalgic for Poland, ended up with some very dark memories of their non-Jewish fellow Poles.

It’s complicated. And the United States’ immediate diplomatic needs are not entirely bound by the history books. But Comey ain’t crazy. Far, far from it.

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