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Memory Laws and Nationalist Lies

Memory laws emerged in Western Europe’s old democracies as a means to promote reconciliation after World War II. Now, such laws have become one of the preferred instruments of populists attempting to consolidate their own power – and to incite the very xenophobic nationalism that provided fertile soil for the Holocaust.

ATLANTA – A controversial law recently enacted by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has attracted a tremendous amount of attention around the world for its criminalization of expressions like “Polish death camps.” But the law is intended to be much more than a means to get people to mind their language.

The law states that one could face a fine or up to three years imprisonment for “publicly and contrary to the facts” ascribing to the Polish people or government “responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes” or “other offenses” that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.

True, “Nazi crimes” were committed by the Nazis, and Poles should not be blamed for them. Likewise, while Nazi extermination camps were located in Poland, they were by no means Polish. But it is the mention of “other offenses” that should concern us.

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