WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish lawmakers passed changes to a disputed Holocaust speech law on Wednesday, scrapping the threat of prison for attributing Nazi crimes to the Polish nation.
The passage of the amendments means that Polish authorities have largely backtracked on a law supposedly aimed at defending the country’s “good name,” but mostly had the opposite effect. There were widespread suspicions that the true intent was to suppress free inquiry into a complex past, and the law was compared by some to history laws in Turkey and Russia.
The amendments, presented to lawmakers by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, were passed Wednesday in the lower house of parliament by 388-25 with five abstentions following an emotional but short debate.
The original version of the law, passed early this year, called for prison terms of up to three years for falsely and intentionally accusing the Polish nation of Holocaust crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany. The ruling Law and Justice party said it needed a tool to fight back against foreign media and politicians who sometimes used the expression “Polish death camps” to refer to German-run camps in occupied Poland. Even former U.S. President Barack Obama once used such terminology, sparking outrage in Poland.
Polish authorities insisted that nobody would be punished for any statement backed up by facts and that there would be no criminal punishment for discussing individual cases of Polish wrongdoing.
But the law nonetheless sparked a major diplomatic crisis with Israel, where Holocaust survivors and politicians feared it was an attempt to whitewash episodes of Polish violence against Jews during World War II. The United States warned it threatened academic freedom and that it would harm Poland’s “strategic position.”
Ukraine was also opposed because the law made it a crime to deny atrocities committed by Ukrainian nationalists against Poles during WWII.
The strained ties with those three allies came as Poland’s ties with the European Union and individual Western European nations are also threatened by a judicial overhaul seen as an erosion of democratic checks and balances.
Many critics argued that the Holocaust speech law would be useless against people outside of Poland and feared it was mostly meant to suppress a growing body of scholarly research about Polish violence against Jews during the war.
The focus on that side of Polish history is deeply unsettling to many Poles, who fear it is will come to overshadow the heroic aspects of Poland’s resistance to Nazi Germany and the massive suffering inflicting on the country. During the war, nearly 6 million Polish citizens were killed — 3 million Jews but almost as many Christian Poles.
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said he was pleased that the Polish government “is now taking the appropriate steps to amend one of the most problematic and dangerous clauses and remove the criminal penalties imposed by the law.”
Lawmakers held an emotional debate, with members of the opposition lashing out at the Law and Justice party for ever passing the law in the first place.
Stefan Niesiolowski of Civic Platform called the original law “idiocy” while Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, of the Modern party, asked why it took the ruling party half a year to reverse course on a move that had harmed Poland’s most important international relationships.
“Why so late? Why did so much have to be broken?” she said.
With the move, the ruling party risked losing some domestic support from its conservative base.
One nationalist lawmaker, Robert Winnicki, described it as caving in to Jewish interests. He even tried to block the podium but the vote went ahead anyway.
Morawiecki tried to put a positive spin on the whole affair, arguing that the legislation had still been a success because it had made Poland’s wartime history a topic of international discussion.
“Our basic goal was to fight for the truth, for Poland’s good name, to present what reality looked like, the realities of World War II, and we achieve this goal,” Morawiecki said.
The dispute with Israel had sparked a wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric in Poland, even by members of the government and commentators in public media, as well as hate speech directed against Poles abroad.
The law was also sent to the Constitutional Tribunal for review by the president, who said he had some doubts about it. It was never enforced in practice.
Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.