FBI Director James Comey has prompted the U.S. Ambassador to Poland to issue an apology to that nation for remarks in which he implied that Poland was partially to blame for the Holocaust, and not exclusively a victim of Nazi Germany during its occupation.
In a speech delivered at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2015 National Tribute Dinner, later reprinted in The Washington Post, Comey wrote that a major lesson from visits to the Holocaust Museum–which he requires for FBI agents–is that “people who loved their families, took soup to a sick neighbor, went to church and gave to charity” were just as participatory in the Holocaust as the “sick and evil people” running Germany’s Nazi party. He added:
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.
The Polish government has taken great umbrage to those remarks, with the President, Prime Minister, and a number of other high-ranking officials publicly condemning the remark. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski called for Poles to do “painstaking work on dismantling bad, inaccurate, harmful stereotypes about Poles” when such topics arise, calling the remarks an “insult to thousands of Poles who helped Jews.”
The Prime Minister of Poland also responded, saying in a statement, “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. I would expect full historical knowledge from officials who speak on the matter.”
U.S. Ambassador to Warsaw Stephen Mull has responded to being summoned by the Polish government and publicly apologized on behalf of Comey. The implication that “Poland, or any other countries other than Nazi Germany, bear responsibility for the Holocaust, is a mistake, harmful and insulting,” he said. Mull added, “I now have a lot of work before me to make things right in this situation.”
The BBC notes that six million Polish citizens, half of Jewish descent, were killed during the Holocaust. Agence France-Presse (AFP) adds that “historical records show instances of Poles turning against their Jewish neighbours, either killing them or giving them up to the Nazis. Poles also risked their lives and families to save Jews.”
The Washington Post has responded to the controversy by publishing an article by columnist Anna Applebaum, whose husband is the speaker of the Polish Parliament and has also lodged an official complaint against the United States. Applebaum writes that fear triggered any acts in solidarity with Nazi Germany due to the collapse of the Polish state, not an internal justification that helping the Nazis was the “right thing to do”:
In the course of the war, most of Poland’s infrastructure, industry and architecture were destroyed. In that atmosphere, many people were frightened by or indifferent to the fate of the Jews, and some murdered in order to avoid being murdered. But that doesn’t mean that “in their minds” they “didn’t do something evil.”
This incident recalls a similar gaffe by President Barack Obama himself in 2012, when the Polish government condemned remarks in which he described a Nazi death camp as a “Polish” death camp, implying that the then-nonexistent Polish state established and ran the camp. President Obama subsequently apologized.