Was there Nazi Collaboration at an Institutional level in Poland?

Was there Nazi Collaboration at an Institutional level in Poland?

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Following recent legal regulations in Poland prohibiting any association of Polish culpability with the Holocaust and concentration camps, the question that arises is whether there was any Polish collaboration with the Nazi regime at a national or at any institutional level?

Is there evidence of the government, bureaucrats or public sector institutions in Poland actively collaborating with the Nazis, and of them conspiring against their Jewish population and, if so, in what way and to what extent was it carried out willingly?

Both sides were basically against this idea.

While it was occupied, Poland never formally "surrendered" to Germany, making it hard for the Germans to deal with any semblance of the Polish government. Several high level leaders who were approached by the Germans to collaborate declined to do so. Several low level Polish leaders who offered their services to Germany had their offers declined. In the end, the negotiations foundered because Germany wanted, if not "unconditional surrender," something very close to it, with no real concessions given to the Poles.

The main public institutions that collaborated with Germany in Poland (after a fashion) were the Judenrat, the Jewish councils that the Germans set up in the ghettos when the Jews were forced into them.

The Press in the Third Reich

When Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, the Nazis controlled less than three percent of Germany’s 4,700 papers.

The elimination of the German multi-party political system brought about the demise of hundreds of newspapers produced by outlawed political parties. It also allowed the state to seize the printing plants and equipment of the Communist and Social Democratic Parties, which were often turned over directly to the Nazi Party. In the following months, the Nazis established control or exerted influence over independent press organs.

During the first weeks of 1933, the Nazi regime deployed the radio, press, and newsreels to stoke fears of a pending “Communist uprising,” then channeled popular anxieties into political measures that eradicated civil liberties and democracy. SA (Storm Troopers) and members of the Nazi elite paramilitary formation, the SS, took to the streets to brutalize or arrest political opponents and incarcerate them in hastily established detention centers and concentration camps. Nazi thugs broke into opposing political party offices, destroying printing presses and newspapers.

Sometimes using holding companies to disguise new ownership, executives of the Nazi Party-owned publishing house, Franz Eher, established a huge empire that drove out competition and purchased newspapers at below-market prices. Some independent newspapers, particularly conservative newspapers and non-political illustrated weeklies, accommodated to the regime through self-censorship or initiative in dealing with approved topics.

50 Short Questions and Answers on Nazism and the Rise of Hitler

Fascism was first propagated by Benito Mussolini. Under the Fascist system power of the state is vested in one person or a group of persons.

The two fascist powers were Germany and Italy.

2. Give the name of the book written by Hitler. Mention two ideas expressed by Hitler in the book.

Name: ‘Mein Kampf Hair’ Ideas:

(i) The book expressed Hitler’s belief in the superiority of the Aryan race.

(iii) His desire to once more make Germany a powerful nation.

3. How did the US help Germany to overcome the 1923 financial crisis?

‘German bonds’ were sold to private American investors which helped Germany pay its reparations to Britain and France.

4. Name the four countries included in the Allied Powers in World War II.

England, France, Russia and USA were included in the Allied Powers.

5. Which countries were known as Axis Powers in World War II?

Germany, Italy and Japan were known as Axis Powers.

6. List the single most factor for the victory of the Allies in World War I.

The single most important factor for the victory of the Allies in World War I was the entry of USA in 1917. The Allies were strengthened by US entry.

7. What factors enabled the recast of Germany’s Political System after World War I?

The factors which enabled the recast of German policy after World War I were the defeat which Imperial Germany suffered in World War I and the abdication of the German Emperor.

8. What was the German Parliament called?

The German Parliament was called Reichstag.

9. How were the deputies of the Reichstag appointed?

The deputies of the Reichstag were elected on the basis of universal adult franchise including women.

10. How did the Republic of Germany get its name?

The Republic of Germany was named Weimar after the name of the town where the constituent assembly had met and framed the new Constitution.

11. Why was the Weimar Republic not well received by the people of Germany?

The Weimar Republic was not well received by the people because many in Germany held the Republic responsible not only for the defeat in World War I but also for the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

12. Who were called the ‘November Criminals’?

Supporters of the Weimar Republic, mainly Socialists, Catholics and Democrats were mockingly called the ‘November Criminals’.

13. Mention two most important clauses of the Treaty of Versailles.

The two important clauses of the Treaty of Versailles were:

(i) German area of the Rhine Valley was to be demilitarised.

(ii) Germany was to pay war reparation for loss and damages suffered by the Allies during the war.

14, when and between whom was the Treaty of Versailles signed?

Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919 between Germany and Britain, France and USA.

15. What does the term Great Economic Depression signify?

Great Economic Depression (1929-1934) signified the collapse of US economy which began with the crash of the Wall Street Exchange in 1929. It had repercussion all over the world and led to sustained large scale unemployment.

16. The Nazi Party was renamed after which organisation?

The Nazi Party was renamed after the National Socialist German Workers Party.

17. What was the significance of the Enabling Act?

The Enabling Act enabled Hitler to sideline the Parliament and rule by decree.

18. What were the provisions and significance of the Fire Decree (Feb. 28, 1933)?

Provisions of the Fire Decree enabled indefinite suspension of civic rights like freedom of speech, press and assembly that had been guaranteed by the Weimar Republic. It was significant because it enabled Hitler to acquire power and dismantle the democratic structure.

19. How did Hitler propose to bring about economic recovery in Germany?

Hitler proposed to bring about economic recovery by aiming at full production and full employment through state funded work creation programmes.

Secondly he sought to accumulate resources through expansion of territory.

20. Which concept of Hitler’s ideology revealed his desire for an extended empire?

The geopolitical concept or concept of living space revealed his desire for an extended empire.

21. What was the Nazi argument for their imperialist ambitions?

The Nazi argument for their imperialist ambitions was, the strongest race would survive and the weak perish. To retain purity of the Aryan race they had to dominate the world.

22. Who were the supporters of the Nazi ideology?

Nazi ideas found support in the army and the class of big landlords. They received the full backing of the industrialists who were alarmed at the growth of the socialist and communist parties.

23. Give two steps taken by the Weimar Republic in 1923, to acquire political stability in Germany.

To acquire political stability in Germany, the Weimar Republic:

(i) Introduced a new currency called Rentenmark. This considerably strengthened Germany’s monetary system.

(ii) A new method was negotiated between Germany and the Allies for payment of separation dues. Thereby the French Army withdrew from the Ruhr region.

24. What is meant by the term appeasement? Who adopted it towards whom?

Appeasement means a policy of conciliating an aggressive power at the expense of some other country.

The Western powers namely Britain and France adopted a policy of appeasement towards Germany and Italy.

25. What was the reason behind the Western powers following a policy of appeasement towards Germany in the years before World War II?

The only reason behind the appeasement policy of the western powers towards Germany was to ensure that German aggression remained directed against Communist Russia.

26. What marked the beginning of World War II?

The invasion of Poland by German>’ on September 1, 1933 marked the beginning of the World War II.

27. Who were the signatories of the 1940 Tripartite Pact?

Germany, Italy and Japan were the signatories of the 1940 Tripartite Pact.

28. Why Hitler’s attack on Soviet Union is in 1941 regarded ‘a historic blunder’?

Hitler’s attack on Soviet Union in 1941 is regarded as a historic blunder because henceforth German armies had to simultaneously fight on two fronts. While Germans were fighting the aerial bombings of the British on the western front, the eastern front remained exposed to the powerful Soviet armies.

29. Name some countries which became victims of Hitler’s aggressive policy.

Some countries which became victims of Hitler’s aggressive policy were-Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium, France, North Africa and Russia.

30. What was the immediate cause for American entry in World War 11?

Both US and Japan were competing for domination in the Pacific. The immediate cause for American entry in World War II was the sudden bombing by Japan on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, destroying American ships and aircraiXs.

31. Mention the msyor events of 1941 that turned the war into a global war.

The German invasion of Soviet Union, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and United States entry in the war turned the war into a truly global war.

32. Which country used atomic bombs during World War II?

USA used atomic bombs during World War II against Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

33. What event brought the end of World War II?

Hitler’s defeat and the US bombing of Hiroshima in Japan brought the end of World War II in 1945.

34. Hitler’s ideas on racialism were based on which thinkers?

Hitler’s ideas on racialism borrowed heavily from thinkers like Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer.

35. Who according to Hitler topped the racial hierarchy? Who formed the lowest rung of the hierarchy?

The Nordic German Aryans were at the top while the Jews were located at the lowest rung of the racial hierarchy.

36. Who according to the Nazis were ‘desirables’?

Pure and healthy Nordic Aryans alone were considered ‘desirables’ by the Nazis.

37. Who were regarded and treated as ‘undesirables’ during the Nazi regime?

Jews, many Gypsies, blacks living in Nazi Germany, Poles and Russian civilians belonging to German occupied territory, were treated as ‘undesirables’. Even Germans who were seen as impure or abnormal were classed as ‘undesirables’.

38. How did the common people react to Nazi behaviour and propaganda of Jews?

Many common people reacted with anger and hatred towards Jews, others remained passive onlookers scared to protest, many others protested braving even death.

39. What does the term ‘Holocaust’ refer to?

The term Holocaust refers to the atrocities and sufferings endured by Jews during Nazi killing operations.

40. What was Hitler’s World View?

As per Hitler’s World View there was no equality between people, only racial hierarchy.

41. (a) What does the term ‘Genocidial War’ refer to?

(b) List the three stages leading to the extermination of Jews.

(a) The term Genocidial War refers to the mass murder of selected groups of innocent civilians in Europe by Germany, during World War II.

(b) The three stages in the extermination of Jews were exclusion, ghettoisation and annihilation.

42. For what was Auschwitz notorious during the Nazi period?

Auschwitz was notorious for mass scale gassing chambers used for mass human killing.

43. What did Nazis fear most after the fall and death of Hitler?

Nazis feared revenge from the Allies after the fall and death of Hitler.

44. Where and when did Hitler and his propaganda minister Goebbels commit suicide?

Hitler and Goebbels committed suicide collectively in the Berlin bunker in April, 1945.

45. (i) Why did Germany attack Poland? (ii) What were its consequences?

(i) Poland’s refusal to return Danzig, and a rail road corridor through Poland linking East Prussia with the rest of Germany led Germany to attack Poland. (September 1, 1939). (ii) This led Britain and France to deliver a joint ultimatum to Germany demanding a cessation of hostilities and immediate withdrawal of German forces from Poland. When Germany refused to comply both the countries declared war on Germany, leading to the start of the Second World War.

46. Why did Germany want Sudentenland?

Germany wanted Sudentenland because:

(i) It had a substantial German population.

(ii) This area also formed l/5th of Czechoslovakia.

(iii) Had the largest ammunition factories in the world.

47. When did the Second World War end in Europe?

After the Soviet armies entered Berlin and Hitler committed suicide, Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 7, 1945. All hostilities ended on May 9, 1945.

48. Why was the International Military Tribunal set up in Nuremberg and for what did it prosecute the Nazi’s?

Germany’s conduct during the war raised serious moral and ethical questions and invited worldwide condemnation. Therefore, the International Military Tribunal was set up in Nuremberg to prosecute Nazi War Criminals.

The Tribunal prosecuted the Nazi’s for Crimes against Peace, for War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity.

49. How did the Jews feel in Nazi Germany?

So thorough was Nazi propaganda that many Jews started believing in the Nazi stereotypes about themselves. The images haunted them. Jews died many deaths even before they reached the gas chambers. Even then many a Jews lived on to tell their story.

50. The retribution meted out to the Nazis after World War fl was far short in extent of their crimes. Why?

The retribution of the Nazis was far short of the brutality and extent of their crimes because the Allies did not want to be harsh on defeated Germany as they had been after World War I. They came to feel the rise of Nazi Germany could be partly traced back to the German experience at the end of World War I.

Brown shirts

Under the tile Hugo Boss, 1924-1945, the book recounts the history of the man who founded a clothes factory in Metzingen, Baden-Wuerttemberg in 1924.

One of his first big contracts was to supply brown shirts to the early Nazi party.

After the war Boss, who died in 1948, sought to argue that he had joined the party in order to save his company.

"That may have been the case, but one may not interpret Hugo F Boss' remarks to mean that he was personally far from National Socialism," said Mr Koester, his words quoted by The Local Germany news website.

"That was certainly not the case."

By 1938, the firm was producing army uniforms, and eventually it manufactured for the Waffen SS too - though it did not, apparently, design the SS uniform.

From April 1940, Hugo Boss was using forced labourers, mostly women.

A camp was built in the area of the factory to house the workers and, according to the abridged English version of Mr Koester's report, "hygiene levels and food supplies were extremely uncertain at times".

Mr Koester notes that Boss tried to improve conditions in 1944, a year before the war ended, by asking to house his workers himself, and attempting to improve their food situation.

"We can only repeat that the behaviour towards the forced labourers was at times harsh and involved coercion, but that concern for their welfare was also displayed, rendering simplistic characterisations impossible," he writes.

The company said on its website it wished to "express its profound regret to those who suffered harm or hardship at the factory run by Hugo Ferdinand Boss under National Socialist rule".

After the war Boss was tried and fined for his involvement in Nazi structures.

Aktion T4: Extending the Euthanasia Program

"Euthanasia" planners quickly envisioned extending the killing program to adult disabled patients living in institutional settings. In the autumn of 1939, Adolf Hitler signed a secret authorization in order to protect participating physicians, medical staff, and administrators from prosecution. This authorization was backdated to September 1, 1939, to suggest that the effort was related to wartime measures.

The Führer Chancellery was compact and separate from state, government, or Nazi Party apparatuses. For these reasons, Hitler chose it to serve as the engine for the "euthanasia" campaign. The program's functionaries called their secret enterprise "T4." This code-name came from the street address of the program's coordinating office in Berlin: Tiergartenstrasse 4.

According to Hitler's directive, Führer Chancellery director Phillip Bouhler and physician Karl Brandt led the killing operation. Under their leadership, T4 operatives established six gassing installations for adults as part of the "euthanasia" action. These were:

  • Brandenburg, on the Havel River near Berlin
  • Grafeneck, in southwestern Germany
  • Bernburg, in Saxony
  • Sonnenstein, also in Saxony
  • Hartheim, near Linz on the Danube in Austria , in Hessen

Euthanasia Program Using a practice developed for the child "euthanasia" program, in the autumn of 1939, T4 planners began to distribute carefully formulated questionnaires to all public health officials, public and private hospitals, mental institutions, and nursing homes for the chronically ill and aged. The limited space and wording on the forms, as well as the instructions in the accompanying cover letter, combined to give the impression that the survey was intended simply to gather statistical data.

The form's sinister purpose was suggested only by the emphasis placed upon the patient's capacity to work and by the categories of patients which the inquiry required health authorities to identify. The categories of patients were:

  • those suffering from schizophrenia, epilepsy, dementia, encephalitis, and other chronic psychiatric or neurological disorders
  • those not of German or "related" blood
  • the criminally insane or those committed on criminal grounds
  • those who had been confined to the institution in question for more than five years

Secretly recruited "medical experts," physicians—many of them of significant reputation—worked in teams of three to evaluate the forms. On the basis of their decisions beginning in January 1940, T4 functionaries began to remove patients selected for the "euthanasia" program from their home institutions. The patients were transported by bus or by rail to one of the central gassing installations for killing.

Within hours of their arrival at such centers, the victims perished in gas chambers. The gas chambers, disguised as shower facilities, used pure, bottled carbon monoxide gas. T4 functionaries burned the bodies in crematoria attached to the gassing facilities. Other workers took the ashes of cremated victims from a common pile and placed them in urns to send to the relatives of the victims. The families or guardians of the victims received such an urn, along with a death certificate and other documentation, listing a fictive cause and date of death.

Because the program was secret, T-4 planners and functionaries took elaborate measures to conceal its deadly designs. Even though physicians and institutional administrators falsified official records in every case to indicate that the victims died of natural causes, the "euthanasia" program quickly become an open secret. There was widespread public knowledge of the measure. Private and public protests concerning the killings took place, especially from members of the German clergy. Among these clergy was the bishop of Münster, Clemens August Count von Galen. He protested the T-4 killings in a sermon August 3, 1941. In light of the widespread public knowledge and the public and private protests, Hitler ordered a halt to the Euthanasia Program in late August 1941.

According to T4's own internal calculations, the "euthanasia" effort claimed the lives of 70,273 institutionalized mentally and physically disabled persons at the six gassing facilities between January 1940 and August 1941.

Slavery and the Holocaust: How Americans and Germans Cope With Past Evils

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Race and the Memory of Evil

What can be compared to the Holocaust? Everything? Detention camps on America’s border? Nothing? This history war, generally the province of academics, has recently become part of American political discourse.

Into this discussion comes Susan Neiman’s “Learning From the Germans.” Neiman, who has lived in Germany for much of her adult life, and who directs Berlin’s Einstein Forum, contrasts Germany’s response to the Holocaust with America’s response to slavery and centuries of racial discrimination. Her concern is not “comparative evil” — which event is worse — but “comparative redemption,” how each community has responded to and reframed the memory of its unsavory past. Neiman contends that postwar Germany, after initially stumbling badly, has done the hard work necessary to grapple with and come to terms with the legacy of the Holocaust in a way that could be a lesson to America in general, and the American South in particular.

For two decades after World War II, Germany — East and West – practiced “moral myopia.” Communist East Germany claimed that since it was a postwar antifascist state and all the former Nazis were in West Germany (they were not), it bore no responsibility for genocide. West Germans, in Neiman’s words, “from dogcatcher to diplomat,” falsely insisted that only the Third Reich’s leadership knew of the mass murder. “Our men were gallant fighters, not criminals,” one German told her. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer appointed former Nazis to some of the government’s highest jobs, thus telegraphing the message that, on a personal level, all was forgiven. Even the reparation process, Neiman says, was “meanspirited and arduous.” Auschwitz survivors received a smaller pension than former SS guards and their widows. Simply put, Germans, East and West, refused to articulate the words: I was guilty.

What changed? In the late 1960s West German children and grandchildren of Nazis began to struggle with their families’ crimes. Having watched the televised Eichmann and Auschwitz trials, and inspired by student protests sweeping Europe, young Germans demanded an honest account of past wrongs. That confrontation with history, while hardly complete and now under attack from right-wing forces, remains far more extensive and honest, Neiman says, than anything that occurred in the United States regarding slavery and discrimination.

Born and raised in the South, Neiman moved from Berlin to Mississippi to research this fascinating book. She actively sought people and institutions engaged in “remembering.” She found eerie similarities between the response of the first generations of postwar Germans to their evil past and the response of many Americans, particularly Southerners, to theirs. Many of her Southern informants echoed Germany’s post-World War II mantra. Nobody was in the slave business. Southerners just bought what Northern ship captains sold them. Slavery was unconnected to the Civil War. The conflict was all about taxes.

Neiman notes that while Germany’s past no longer immunizes it against resurgent nationalism and anti-Semitism, there is in the heart of Berlin a memorial to the six million Jews murdered by Germans. “A nation that erects a monument of shame for the evils of its history in its most prominent space is a nation that is not afraid to confront its own failures.” While a museum dedicated to the African-American experience has opened in the heart of Washington, recent expressions of racism not just from the highest office in this land but also from many politicians, pundits and ordinary people suggest that America’s confrontation with its legacy of slavery and racial hatred is far from complete.

Many Americans, in the South and the North, insist that Confederate monuments are historical artifacts that simply honor the region’s history and its loyal defenders. They ignore the fact that most were built 50 years after the war, when the children of the Confederacy were creating the myth of a noble lost cause. Others were erected during the 1960s in protest of the civil rights movement.


Rather than “innocuous shrines of history” protected, in the words of President Trump, by “nice people,” they are “provocative assertions of white supremacy” built when its defenders felt threatened. They lionize men who fought for the right to buy, sell and bequeath human beings. Those who insist that the Civil War was about states’ rights are dismissed by Neiman with a simple query: “states’ rights to do what?”

Initially skeptical about the viability of reparations, Neiman says her views have evolved. She considers reparations a repayment for a debt, not just for slavery but for the century of “neo-slavery” that followed it in the form of sharecropping, a kind of agricultural servitude that left black families mired in debt to the descendants of those who once enslaved them. Along with sharecropping there were both Jim Crow laws, many of which influenced Nazi anti-Semitic legislation, and redlining by financial institutions. All these continue to leave generations of African-Americans at a decided disadvantage.

Neiman believes that people who live in a society built on injustice, even though they may not have created the injustice, are responsible for correcting it. The moral precedent for American reparations to its black citizens is rooted in Germany’s post-World War II compensation for its past crimes. If one believes German reparations were justified, how can one oppose them in America?

Though Neiman supports reparations, she rejects the notion of cultural appropriation, the attack on “outsiders” — artists, writers and performers — who try to get “inside” the experiences of a persecuted group. “African-American history in all its torment and glory is American history. … You cannot hope to understand another culture until you try to get inside a piece of it and walk around there for a while.” She acknowledges that “you’ll never get it the way someone who was born inside it does,” but you’ll never understand their pain and your part in causing it unless you try. “I know,” she writes, “of nothing more moving than Paul Robeson’s rendering of the ‘Partisan Lied,’ written in Yiddish as response to the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. And the fact that he sang it in 1949 in Moscow, as Stalin’s anti-Semitism began to sweep the Soviet Union, shows he knew exactly how to use it.”

Neiman spent three years interviewing people in both Germany and the United States in preparation for writing this book. Despite her having insisted that her project was not about comparative evil but how evil is remembered, Germans almost uniformly rejected any suggestion of a comparison. They considered what they did far worse than slavery. Americans also uniformly rejected the comparison, but for different reasons. Convinced that slavery was not nearly as serious a blot on their country’s history as the Holocaust was on Germany’s, Americans use that fact as a means of blinding themselves to its horrors. In that contrast there is, Neiman suggests, a lesson about confronting the past.

Optimally, a reviewer’s evaluation should not be influenced by where she read a book. But this book accompanied me while I was in Poland, meeting with Polish academics, museum personnel and dedicated individuals who, at immense personal risk, are fighting their government’s attempt to make illegal any mention of the Poles’ participation in the Holocaust. There were many Polish rescuers who risked their own and their families’ lives. There were also Poles — probably more than rescuers — who persecuted Jews before, during and after the war. The government is intent on removing from museums and cultural institutions references to this aspect of Polish behavior. This is what may be called soft-core Holocaust denial, a reconfiguring of the facts to hide certain truths.

Though Neiman’s book does not concern Polish revisionism, it speaks directly to it. One of the South’s heralded sons, William Faulkner, observed about the society in whose midst he lived: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It is part of us. It determines how we approach the present.

The history wars shape far more than how we remember the past. They shape the societies we bequeath to future generations. Susan Neiman’s book is an important and welcome weapon in that battle.


World War I effectively halted Cubism as an organized movement, with a number of artists, including Braque, Lhote, de la Fresnaye and Léger, getting called up for duty. De la Fresnaye was discharged in 1917 due to tuberculosis. He never fully recovered, attempting to continue art-making but dying in 1925.

By 1917, Picasso returned his practice of injecting more realism into his paintings, though his refusal to be pinned down meant Cubism reappeared in some works over the years, such as The Three Musicians (1921) and The Weeping Woman (1937), a response to the Spanish Civil War.

Braque continued his experimentation. His further work featured elements of Cubism, though noted for less rigidity in the abstractions of the subjects and using colors that don’t reflect the reality of the still life.

Confronting chilling truths about Poland’s wartime history

Visitors walk down a staircase at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in February. (Rachel Rogers/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Laurence Weinbaum is director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, which operates under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, and a historian specializing in modern Polish Jewish history.

The transmission of history requires knowledge but also nuance. Nowhere is this more evident than when examining the torturous relations between Jews and the local people among whom they lived in Poland and elsewhere in German-occupied Europe. Sadly, the carelessly drafted, though presumably well-intentioned, words of FBI Director James Comey displayed neither.

Comey’s reference to “the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland,” in a speech that was given at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and adapted for an op-ed in The Post last week, suggested that in terms of responsibility for the Holocaust, Poles are somehow to be compared with the Germans (never mind the Austrians, whom Comey failed to even mention). Poland was the first nation in Europe to resist the German onslaught — and it did so, ferociously, both at home and in exile, from the first day of the war in 1939 when it was invaded until the last. Hopelessly outmanned and outgunned, Poles suffered staggering losses in blood and property. The Germans on the other hand were the architects and executors of the Final Solution — a state policy carried out with murderous efficiency — and nothing can alter that reality.

However, the furious reactions to Comey’s remarks by at least some of Poland’s spirited defenders would also suggest a lack of knowledge and nuance, or something more disturbing — a disinclination to confront certain chilling truths about their country’s wartime history, as recently revealed by Polish scholars of the post-Communist generation.

The Roman scholar Tacitus implored practitioners of the historian’s craft to approach their research sine ira et studio (without anger and fondness). He insisted that equanimity was essential to credible scholarship. Of course, this call for dispassion is especially challenging where a perceived stain on the national escutcheon is concerned.

Nevertheless, Polish scholars have displayed not only equanimity, but also admirable determination and inspiring courage in ferreting out the vilest skeletons in Poland’s collective closet. They believe that in the long run, Polish society — which was jolted by their findings — will be better off for their efforts. It is a credit to the success of the new Poland in shattering the shackles of Communism that not only can such scholarship flourish, it can even precipitate intense national debate. This bodes well for the vitality of its democracy and civil society — and the striking new museum of Polish Jewry in Warsaw is a symbol of the present ambiance in Poland. No other country in post-Communist Europe has undergone any similar process of historical introspection. Certainly not Hungary, which was mentioned by Comey and which was an ally of Nazi Germany.

Thanks to the efforts of Polish researchers, we now know that more Poles participated in the destruction and despoliation of their Jewish neighbors than was previously believed. Many Poles saw the removal of the Jews from Poland as the one beneficial byproduct of an otherwise grievous occupation. For the least scrupulous local people, the Holocaust was also an El Dorado-like opportunity for self-enrichment and gratification. For some, this temptation was irresistible, and they did not recoil from committing acts of murder, rape and larceny — not always orchestrated by the Germans.

Those who see themselves as defenders of Poland’s good name are often quick to point out that in Poland there was no Quisling regime comparable to that which existed in other countries occupied by Germany — and that the Polish underground fought the Germans tooth and nail. However, this phenomenon requires further elucidation.

In 1985, in a Polish émigré journal, Aleksander Smolar observed that in wartime Polish society, whether on the Polish street or in the underground, there was no stigma of collaboration attached to acting against the Jews. The late Father Stanislaw Musial, a Polish Jesuit scholar, noted in the wake of the revelations about the mass slaughter of the Jews of Jedwabne that during the German occupation, many Poles believed that Poland had two enemies: an external one — the Germans — and an internal one — the Jews. He also believed that it was only due to Hitler’s unremitting contempt for the Poles that the Germans did not consciously seek collaboration on a national level. In other words, there was no inherent contradiction between Polish patriotism and participation in the plan to bring about a Poland free of Jews. Comey claims that “good people helped murder millions.” People who murder, rape and steal certainly cannot ever be called “good,” not even figuratively.

In the winter of 1940, the Polish underground state’s daring emissary, Jan Karski — who went on to become a legendary professor at Georgetown (where I was privileged to be one of his students and teaching assistants) and is now seen as a Polish national hero — delivered his first report to the government in exile. He described the Polish attitude toward Jews as “ruthless, often without pity. A large part avails itself of the prerogatives that they have in the new situation . . . to some extent this brings the Poles closer to the Germans.” Anti-Semitism, he wrote, “is something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a . . . large part of Polish society are finding agreement.” The truth is that local authorities were often left intact in occupied Poland, and many officials exploited their power in ways that proved fatal to their Jewish constituents.

It is not easy to accept this painful truth. In an interview with the daily Haaretz during an official visit to Israel in 2011, Poland’s then-foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski declared: “The Holocaust that took place on our soil was conducted against our will by someone else.”

The meticulous scholarship of Barbara Engelking, Jan Grabowski, Alina Skibinska and a number of other researchers has compelled us to look more closely at the phenomenon of abettors of the Holocaust, alongside the perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers and victims. Even as we bow our heads before the extraordinary heroism and sacrifice of the thousands of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews — and in so doing, wrote a glorious page in their nation’s history — we have to recognize that without the participation (not mere indifference or apathy) of local people, more Jews would have survived. Certainly, the repetition of sweeping characterizations based on widespread misunderstanding and even appalling ignorance of the past can only inflame passions and lead to a lamentable distortion of history. Sadly, the pronouncements of Comey and some of his more sanctimonious detractors have done just that.

Found: A Nazi ‘Enigma’ Machine at the Bottom of a Bay

When the marine biologist Michael ßwat descended to the seabed of the Bay of Gelting on the western edge of the Baltic Sea, he noticed a contraption tangled up in the fishing line the crew had headed down to collect. The device, which at first seemed like an old typewriter sitting under at least 30 feet of water, was a Nazi Enigma machine, likely one of hundreds abandoned and thrown overboard in the dying days of the German war effort.

The project that found ßwat at the bottom of the bay in November 2020 was a collaboration between the diving company Submaris and the World Wildlife Fund, mainly involving scanning the seabed for thin-filament sea nets. Also known as “ghost nets,” these have troubling short-term effects (ensnaring marine life) and long-term consequences (decomposing into buggersome microplastics, which pollute waterways the whole world ‘round). It was only after securing permissions from German authorities that Florian Huber, the team’s archaeologist, recovered the device.

The Enigma machine was a clever bit of engineering invented at the end of the First World War by Arthur Scherbius, among others, and repurposed by the Nazis for wartime use. When the Nazis needed to send confidential messages, they entered the dispatches into the machine, which substituted every letter using a system of three or four rotors and a reflector, encrypting the message for a recipient Enigma machine to decode. The Enigma vexed Allied forces until Alan Turing’s cryptanalyst team at Bletchley Park developed the Bombe codebreaking machine. Based on the previous work of Polish cryptographers, the Bombe greatly expedited the rate of Enigma decryptions, easing the war effort for the Allies.

A CT image helped the team get a peek inside the machine. © Radiologie/Prüner Gang Kiel / A. Schumm

When the Bay of Gelting Enigma machine was brought back above the surface, life had taken up residence on its shell. Mussels had secured positions on the machine’s flanks, and a small fish found refuge under the keyboard. (Huber tossed the fish back in the water.) This retrieved Enigma, which has not been above the ocean surface since it was in daily use, will be refurbished at the archaeological museum in Schleswig. It currently sits in a tank of demineralized water, where it will stay for nearly a year to flush out the salt that has corroded the machine.

A working group at the museum will be formed in early 2021 to assess how to proceed with the restoration, including deciding whether to disassemble the machine or keep it intact. Unlike many other archaeological finds, Enigma machines carry serial numbers. The restoration team hopes this one’s is still legible, because it may offer a lead about what ship or Nazi unit it came from. “This is certainly where most of the potential lies,” writes Ulf Ickerodt, head of the archaeology office in Schleswig-Holstein, in an email, “insofar as the device can be clearly identified through archival records that still exist today and its use/application can be traced.”

Nope, it’s not a coral reef—that’s an Enigma machine. It’s now sitting in demineralized water to flush out the salt. © Christian Howe

Now highly sought pieces of war memorabilia, three-rotor Enigmas sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. The later four-rotor model, more often used on German U-boats, sells for a bit more, maybe because fewer of the four-rotor Enigmas escaped watery tombs. Germany sunk its ships rather than letting them fall into enemy hands. One such mass sinking occurred in the Bay of Gelting, though Huber believes the device his team encountered was thrown from a ship other than a U-boat—it has three rotors.

Now that the device is retrieved, soon to be refurbished, Huber is relieved one of the complex contraptions of war will be preserved for the public, rather than in the hands of private collectors. “In a museum…this is where it belongs,” he says. “So everybody can get in touch with the history.”

Why did the Holocaust happen?

What happened in May

On 10 May 1933, university students supported by the Nazi Party instigated book burnings of blacklisted authors across Germany.

On 1 May 1935, the German government issued a ban on all organisations of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Image courtesy of USHMM.

On 10 May 1940, German forces invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Luxembourg.

On 29 May 1942, the German authorities in France passed a law requiring Jews to wear the Star of David.

On 16 May 1944, inmates of the Gypsy camp in Auschwitz resisted the SS guards attempting to liquidate the camp.


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