GAFFE UNDERSCORES HIS ADMINISTRATION’S HISTORICAL IGNORANCE AND CULTURAL INSENSITIVITY.
By Paweł Piotr Styrna l June 2, 2012
The Poles not only did not collaborate with the Germans and erect death camps, but perished in concentration camps built by both totalitarian invaders they actively resisted, the Nazis and Soviets.
Just when Poles and Americans of Polish descent may have felt that President Barack Obama was incapable of offending and disappointing them anymore than he already has, the incumbent once again proved them wrong.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has scrapped the agreement on Third Site anti-missile installations in Poland – and, adding insult to injury, he announced the decision on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in cahoots with the Nazis. He was absent at the funeral of Poland’s late presidential couple, Lech and Maria Kaczyński, in the wake of the Smolensk Plane Crash, choosing instead to play golf. More recently, he asked Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev for more “flexibility” regarding the Missile Shield, thereby suggesting that Obama intends to yet again sacrifice Polish interests on the altar of an accommodation with Russia. His “hot mike” slip, in fact, exposed his willingness to lie to Americans in general, regardless of their ethnic background.
Now, the 44th President has managed to insult both Polish-Americans and Poles, while posthumously conferring the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the late Jan Karski (1914 – 2000). The brave Polish underground courier warned a disbelieving West about the Holocaust, after infiltrating the Warsaw Ghetto and a Nazi German death camp, which Obama falsely referred to as a “Polish death camp.” Even Poland’s usually low-key and docile Tusk government is demanding a public apology.
There are important reasons why Poles bristle upon hearing this infamous term. After all, no such thing as “Polish death camps” ever existed. The concentration, forced labor, and extermination camps in Poland were conceived, erected, and operated by the Nazi German invaders and occupiers. Generally, Poles not only refused to collaborate – which earned Poland the distinction of being “a land without a Quisling” – but were themselves imprisoned and murdered in the Nazi German camps. Since Stalin colluded with Hitler to start the Second World War by invading and partitioning Poland, many Poles were also deported to and perished in the plethora of Soviet camps constituting the Gulag Archipelago, or Bolshevik killing fields, such as the Katyn Forest, site of the infamous 1940 massacre, located in Russia’s Smolensk Oblast.
In fact, while conceiving the ‘Final Solution’ in their diabolical minds, the German National Socialist leadership looked to Soviet passive extermination through exhaustion and exposure as a model. They toyed with the idea of deporting millions of Jews and Slavs (including Poles, Czechs, and Ukrainians) to the mosquito-infested swamps of Siberia east of the Ural Mountains. The infamous Reinhard Heydrich – one of the chief architects of the Holocaust – referred to the northern Gulag as an “ideal future homeland” for European Jewry (see Norman Naimark, Fires of Hatred). However, Hitler’s Operation “Barbarossa” failed to achieve its ultimate objective: the conquest of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s deportation sites in Siberia, the Far East, or Central Asia were simply not available to the Germans. The Nazis also considered building their extermination facilities in occupied Ukraine. The factor which most likely altered their decision was the shortage of rolling stock (see Leon Poliakov, The Harvest of Hate). Thus, the choice of occupied Poland – the country with the largest Jewish population in the world prior to the war – as the main site for German death camps was simply a function of location, logistics, and convenience.
The shorthand “Polish death camps” perpetuates a false impression that the Poles were somehow complicit in the Holocaust and the Nazi terror. The pedigree of this canard originates in Soviet Communist propaganda during and after the war, which claimed that non-communist Poles were Nazi collaborators and accomplices in the Holocaust. While false, this narrative sought to legitimize the Soviet destruction of the Polish underground resistance and the subjugation of Poland. It also helped console the post-Yalta guilt of the Western Allies. The Communist propaganda outlived the Stalinist era, however, and became both an element of liberal pop-culture and the post-modernist discourse of the leftist academia in the West. Accusing the Poles of complicity in the Holocaust became a weapon in the hands of tenured radicals to attack Christian, patriotic, and traditional values – both in Poland and throughout the West. Thus, influential newspapers (e.g. The New York Times), media outlets, and major publications stubbornly continued to speak of “Polish death camps” for years.
Therefore, the gaffe seems to indicate that glaring gaps exist in Obama’s knowledge of history. It also demonstrates that the administration – which claims to be very knowledgeable of, and respectful and sensitive toward, other cultures – is actually quite ignorant, disrespectful, and insensitive. Obama is the first U.S. President to commit this error. His choice of words further reveals the degree to which Obama and his speechwriters have been influenced by post-modernist, pop-cultural intellectual shorthands. Finally, the entire scandal highlights the current administration’s callous habit of slighting America’s allies.
Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to