WARSAW, Poland – Poland's governing party is seeking to shape the country's future by controlling perceptions of the past.
The conservative Law and Justice party's strategy includes the use of museums, film, public television and other tools to promote certain episodes in Poland's history, like the anti-communist resistance after World War II. More controversial, though, are attempts to suppress discussion and research into painful topics, primarily Polish violence against Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Law and Justice, which since last year has wielded more power than any party in post-communist times, sees the moves as harnessing history in a mission to build a stronger nation state. President Andrzej Duda said the nation's new "historical policy offensive" aims to create a new generation of patriots and "to build up the country's position in the international space."
Critics see historical revisionism that will produce little beyond national self-righteousness and will prevent an honest reckoning with the country's wartime history — an extremely complex story that includes suffering and heroism of the highest order but also cases of murder and betrayal by Poles of defenseless Jews.
"They want to narrow our view of the past," said Pawel Spiewak, director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. "They want to use the state apparatus to force their new view of political history, and this is very dangerous."
Duda waded deeply into controversy when his office announced earlier this year that it might strip a prominent Princeton Holocaust scholar, Jan Tomasz Gross, of a state honor that he received in 1996.
Polish nationalists have long demonized the Polish-American academic for a body of work focused on Polish violence against Jews during and after the war. The controversy surrounding him began with his 2000 book "Neighbors," about the 1941 massacre in the village of Jedwabne, where Polish villagers burned hundreds of Jews alive in a barn. Last year Gross caused a new outcry with a highly provocative claim that Poles killed more Jews than they killed Germans during the war, something that challenges the nation's self-image.
Duda's office said it was considering the move against Gross in reaction to 2,000 angry letters about him.
Prosecutors have also summoned Gross to appear next month in an investigation into whether he committed the crime of slandering Poland.
Just the threat to strip Gross of the honor brought letters of protest from prominent scholars. If strengthening Poland's international position is truly an aim, the tactic is backfiring, creating a widespread impression that authorities who are already facing criticism for undermining democratic institutions are also prepared to stifle free scholarly inquiry.
Gross, who was born in Poland to a Jewish father and a Christian mother and who left his homeland following the communist regime's notorious anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, is extremely critical of Poland's new direction. He said he has long been attacked by a segment of the population that is "right-wing, Catholic, nationalist and xenophobic."
"What is new to me is that this is a segment of the population that now has managed to put its representatives in all of the government offices," he said. "They use a foul and violent language to describe me as a traitor, as someone who hates Poland."
Poland's historical policies are wide-ranging, and also include efforts to undermine the legacy of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, part of an effort to show that the entire political order that Walesa helped create is tainted. But it is the Holocaust policies that resonate most powerfully across the world, especially in Israel and the United States.
With disputes raging, Duda opened a museum last week dedicated to the Ulma family — Poles slaughtered by the Nazis for sheltering Jews. He strongly condemned anti-Semitism and noted that the German murderers were helped by a Polish policeman in their hunt for the family. He called for remembering "the truth about heroism but also the sad truth about meanness."
Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich praised it as a "brave" speech and "one of the strongest condemnations, if not the strongest, of anti-Semitism by a Polish leader."
But historian Jan Grabowski was not impressed. He noted that Duda, who has said in the past that Poles need not apologize for Jedwabne, claimed incorrectly that "hundreds of thousands of Poles" helped Jews during the war, a hugely exaggerated number that promotes a larger narrative of Polish heroism.
"Duda's speech is a huge step backwards from the historical truth and towards a more aggressive abuse of the memory of the Holocaust," said Grabowski, author of "Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland."
The Justice Ministry is also preparing a new law foreseeing prison terms for anyone who refers to Auschwitz or other German death camps in occupied Poland as "Polish."
That project comes in reaction to years of anger at foreigners referring to "Polish death camps" — language even used once by U.S. President Barack Obama. Poles find that wording extremely offensive since Poles were among the victims of the camps and had no role in running them.
"Enough of this lie," Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said. "There must be accountability."
Michal Bilewicz, a Holocaust researcher at Warsaw University, said: "the new law aims to silence Polish historians as it is obvious that this law would not be effective in sentencing anyone outside of the country."
Spiewak, the director of the Jewish Historical Institute, says he now has to worry about whether researchers at his center might end up in prison.
The historical offensive comes amid a strong anti-migrant mood in Poland and as the ruling party is also centralizing its power in a way that undermines democratic institutions, most dramatically the independence of the constitutional court.
The trend resembles recent moves in Hungary, where historical revisionism has gone hand-in-hand with Prime Minister Viktor Orban's creation of what he calls an "illiberal state." Hungarian authorities have been rehabilitating wartime anti-Semites and portraying the country as the victim of German aggression when it in fact was allied with Hitler most of the war.
The high emotions surrounding Polish wartime behavior touch on what some call a Polish "obsession with innocence" — a conviction the nation is morally blameless thanks to its resistance and widespread suffering, with millions killed in the war.
Dariusz Stola, director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, said he believes many cling to this conviction of innocence because it is all they have.
"Poles lost the war. They lost a lot: family members, cities, libraries, churches, 20 percent of their territory and national independence. Little was left but their innocence," Stola said. "When you lose everything it's good to at least be innocent."
Still, he condemned the historical policies as "radical, unreflective and, of course, harmful."
"Poland was on the right side of this war, and Poland lost it to Hitler and then lost it to Stalin," Stola said. "We are not responsible for what happened 70 years ago but we are responsible for what we do with this past today. And I think the right thing to do is to talk about it."