I’ve been quite disturbed the past few months following a new turn in the “memory wars” in Eastern Europe. The most recent uproar concerns Masha Gessen’s March 26 New Yorker article, “The Historians under Attack for Exploring Poland’s Role in the Holocaust.” An early subheading for the article, which has since been amended, claimed the Polish state was trying to “exonerate the nation of the murders of three million Jews,” putatively implying that Poles were solely responsible for those murders. It has since been qualified to claim that the trials are an “effort to exonerate the nation of any role in the murders of three million Jews during the Nazi occupation.” Already in an event in February sponsored by Bard College and YIVO (YouTube recording available here), Gessen spoke with the Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski, who together with Barbara Engelking, was recently put on trial in Warsaw and found guilty of defaming a long-deceased Polish village official by suggesting his complicity in turning over Jewish residents of his village to the Nazis for muder. When the authors’ Polish-language book Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland was published in 2018, it was hailed by scholars as a landmark work of historiography on the Holocaust in Poland.
So why would it be of serious legal concern? As Gessen’s piece shows, the trials are politically motivated defenses of national memory and glory, backed by weak evidence pulled from the book’s 3,500 footnotes by organizations with names like the Institute of National Remembrance and Polish League Against Defamation, both of which are closely allied with the ruling Law and Justice Party, which for its part has in recent years packed and eroded the legitimacy of Poland’s courts. The case builds upon a long series of memory wars in Poland, dating back at least to the publication of the now-retired Princeton historian Jan Gross’s 2000 book Neighbors, which recovered the history of the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, in which many of that town’s Poles murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors (Gross’s estimate of 1,600 has been disputed) by locking them in a barn and setting it on fire. The town’s leaders had previously met with the Gestapo, who were not present during the pogrom. In 2018, the Polish government passed what became known as the “Gross law,” which makes it a criminal offense, in Gessen’s words, “to ascribe blame for Nazi atrocities to Poles or Poland.” These laws and trials upholding them are rooted in a cult of sacred memory, which portrays Poland as a perpetual victim of German and Russian aggression.
The preponderance of historical evidence tells a much more complex story: Poland was not only home to the most rescuers of Jews recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations,” but also to the most collaborators and complicit bystanders. As one can find illustrated, for example, in Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film Shoah, countless Poles turned in their Jewish neighbors in hiding, whether out of antisemitism or simply for personal advantage, seeking their property. Grabowski and Engelking have already observed a chilling effect of the memory laws on historical investigation into the Holocaust in Poland, the territory on which all of the Nazi death camps were located and where the vast majority of Europe’s Jews were murdered.
Gessen responded to the backlash to their article with a powerful statement that concludes: “As a final note, I would like to state that I am no stranger to this topic, as a person and as a writer. Before the war, my family lived in Bialystok and Warsaw. Of a sprawling family—my great-grandparents had 25 siblings between them—only four people survived: my grandmother and great-grandmother, who ended up in the Soviet Union, and my great aunt and her young daughter, who were saved by ethnic Poles. To be more specific, they were saved by strangers after their Polish friends, fearing repercussions, turned them away. I grew up with this complicated history, and one of my first books, written twenty years ago, delved deeply into it. I am all too aware that complicated, contradictory stories cannot be told in a climate of outrage and denunciation, when a writer knows that any word or phrase of theirs is likely to be taken out of context, twisted, and used against them. What I have seen in the last couple of days, since the publication of my short piece thousands of miles away from Poland, is the very opposite of a climate in which intellectual inquiry and nuanced storytelling are possible.”
It seems ironic that the politics of self-styled progressives is often a work of recovery. The European welfare state at its strongest in the three decades following the Second World War and the American “New Deal Order” first constructed in the 1930s are both models to be emulated, and their decline, for these thinkers, is a historical problem to be solved. Two recent essays explore and critique how intellectuals and critics between the center-left and the socialist left narrate that history and how they place “ideas” and ideology within it.
Thomas Picketty has occupied a unique position as a break-out star economist of the progressive left since Capital in the Twenty-First Century of 2013 traced in granular detail the diverging fortunes of the owners of capital and most everyone else. Writing for New Left Review, Alexander Zevin closely reads Picketty’s recent tome, Capital and Ideology, to reconstruct the logic of its historical explanation. The book’s synthetic scope aspires to trace how “ideology” — by which he largely means ideas about law and distribution — have shaped economic relations, especially since the rise of “proprietarian” legal systems of the modern period. Zevin shows the inconsistencies in Picketty’s analysis, which eschews a theory of ideology and its relation to social conditions and so falls into ahistorical narrative. This hand-waving, Zevin argues, leads Picketty to account for the international rise of social democracy in the mid-twentieth century as a natural, almost obvious reaction against rising inequality, without reference to particular ideological formations or specific economic structures.
If that inconsistent approach can lead to naturalistic explanations, it can also fall back into elite-drive assumptions. Erik Baker, writing in n+1, illustrates that dynamic in a book that is ostensibly anti-elitist, Thomas Frank’s The People, No. The book traces the history of “anti-populism” in American politics through a primarily elite intellectual history. Through this lens, even sweeping economic and legal interventions of the New Deal appear primarily as an “attitude.” The work of dismantling the programs and the political coalitions of the New Deal, then, falls to liberal intellectuals, according to Frank. This account assumes that the people who craft the ideas about popular governance closely, even if indirectly, determine policy. The reification of an “elite” into a recognizable and stable category practically assure that they would be the prime movers in a history that takes ideas to be central without a consistent theory of their relation to policy.
The standards, expectations, and performance of professionalism has always intrigued me—especially as a graduate student who is situated in this in-between stage, not an undergraduate, not a professor, yet performing duties akin to both. Searching standards of professionalism online retrieves images of business suits, glossy hair, perfect teeth, and confidence oozing from every pore and fiber of the person. For a halfling (like me) I often wonder how to dress “above” an undergraduate, yet not mimic the model of professionalism “just yet”. Wearing a business suit to a workshop or lecturing as a teaching assistant seems like performing on stage whilst wearing my father’s best funeral suit.
According to grassroots organizer-scholars Tema Okun and Keith Jones, these standards are heavily defined by white supremacy culture, in other words, centering whiteness. In workspaces, whiteness equates to particular ways to dress, talk, walk, and this foil enables incompetences, systematic discrimination, and institutional othering. How would Marx and Engels write about this? Free-market, technology, the status of education, global movement of labor, Bitcoin, disenfranchised workers, Facebook, the list goes on and on. However, how would they conceptualize the expectation to perform and its emotional toll? Micheal Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit. What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020) frames his argument about meritocracy with the election of Donald Trump and Brexit being the products of a populist backlash among those who lost the game of globalization. Sandel claims that populist resentment originated in and is justified by the failure of democratic elites, as they promoted an ethos that lead the successful to believe that they deserve their success.Whilst acknowledging that racism, nativism and misogyny are deeply entangled with populism, Sandel situates the plight of white working class in developed democracies as the hotbed of populist dissatisfaction. Whiteness created meritocracy; meritocracy created white populist dissatisfaction. A tidy tautological equation that left me unsatisfied and more curious all the while wondering which ill-fitting suit I could wear to the next graduate workshop.
Featured Image: Marcelo Pogolotti, El intelectual, 1937. Courtesy of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba.