"Polish death camp" and "Polish concentration camp" are terms that have been used in international media, and by public figures, in reference to concentration camps built and run by Nazi Germany in the General Government and other parts of occupied Poland during World War II. The use of these terms has been described as insulting by the Polish foreign minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld (himself a Jewish Holocaust survivor) in 2005, who also alleged that – intentionally or unintentionally – it shifted the responsibility for the design, planning, construction or operation of the camps from the German to the Polish people. The use of these terms, explicitly mentioning "Poland" or "Polish", has been discouraged by the Polish and Israeli governments, Polish diaspora organizations around the world, and Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee.
After the German invasion of Poland, unlike in most European countries occupied by Nazi Germany, where the Germans sought and found true collaborators among the locals, in occupied Poland there was no official collaboration either at the political or at the economic level. Poland never officially surrendered to the Germans and instead, maintained a government-in-exile along with its own military force abroad fighting against them. Historians generally agree that there was little collaboration with the Nazis by individual Poles in comparison with other German-occupied countries.
Much of the prewar Polish government and administration were able to evacuate to France and United Kingdom in 1939 to continue the struggle against the Nazis from the West, with a quickly-rebuilt formal Polish Army. The Polish government - based in Paris until 1940 and in London thereafter - was represented in the occupied territories by a vast structure of the Polish Underground State, and its military arm, the Armia Krajowa, known in English as the Home Army. The AK formed the major part of the Polish resistance movement, which was the largest resistance movement engaged in fighting the occupiers in occupied Europe.
A large part of the former territory of the Second Polish Republic was annexed by the Third Reich, while the remainder comprised the region known as the General Government, all of which was administered by Germany. The General Government had no international recognition of any kind. The territories administered by the Nazis were never in whole or in part intended as a Polish state within a German-dominated Europe either. Ethnic Poles were not allowed to become Reich citizens. The Nazi claim that the Polish state ceased to exist was blatantly false, because Poland's legislative or executive agencies, along with Poland's constitution, kept functioning in form and fact throughout occupation until the end of the war.
Polish citizens have the world's highest count of individuals who have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem as non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination during the Holocaust. Poles (non-Jews) are the first nation under occupation who singlehandedly liberated a Nazi German concentration camp in the history of the Second World War (Majdanek was liberated one month earlier with the help of Red Army). It was camp Gęsiówka in Warsaw and it was liberated on 5 August 1944 by the Polish Home Army following fierce fighting leading to the freeing of 348 Jews.
Operations to whitewash German responsibility for World War II
After the fall of Nazism, the wartime alliances ended and the Cold War began. Numerous war criminals, protected by chancellor Konrad Adenauer, joined domestic counter-intelligence in order to spy on the Soviet agents within the American-occupied zone. The United States Army turned to Reinhard Gehlen previously in the Wehrmacht for assistance. The West German intelligence formed Agency 114 (German: Dienststelle 114) within the Gehlen Organization; headed by Alfred Benzinger (a Nazi Abwehrpolizei), who in 1956 launched a coordinated action to move the blame away from the war criminals under various investigations. Benzinger adopted the deliberately ambiguous, loaded phrase "Polish death camps" in the mid 1960s in order to suggest, contrarily to the facts, that Poles, not Germans, were responsible for the mass genocide during World War II.
At the height of the Cold War, the clandestine Agency 114 had been merged into the BND, the successor of the Gehlen Org. It was located in Karlsruhe and the Zimmerle & Co. which served as the front, ostensibly specializing in roller blinds. Aside from Soviet counter-intelligence activities, the agency also began monitoring domestic leftists and pacifists. Alfred Benzinger, a well-experienced former officer of the secret Nazi military police Geheime Feldpolizei remained in charge. Among the former Nazis who also worked in the agency were: Konrad Fiebig, and Walter Kurreck. It was Benzinger who coordinated the action to propagate a deceitful term "Polish Concentration Camps" in popular media.
Use and reactions
Before the end of World War II, an early appearance in print of the term "Polish death camp" as a geographic reference was in the 1944 article published in Collier's and written by the Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, titled "Polish Death Camp." Similar early postwar uses of this term can be found in the 1945 archives of several magazines including Contemporary Jewish Record, The Jewish Veteran, and the The Palestine Yearbook and Israeli Annual, as well as in the 1947 work Beyond the Last Path by Hungarian-born Jew and Belgian resistance fighter Eugene Weinstock who referred to Auschwitz as "the Polish death camp".
Over time, many non-Polish media and notable figures have been known to make references to the German-run extermination program in Nazi-occupied Poland by the use of phrases such as the "Polish death/concentration/extermination camp", "Polish ghetto", "Polish Holocaust", "Nazi Poland", and so on, instead of Nazi Germany's World War II ghetto, German Holocaust of the Jews, Nazi Germany, etc.
A common explanation for the use of the phrase "Polish death camp" is that the infamous Nazi death camps (i.e. the extermination camps of the Schutzstaffel) including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Chełmno, Belzec and Sobibor were built in Poland occupied at that particular time. However, two of the mentioned death camps (Auschwitz and Chełmno) were situated in lands annexed by Germany (Germany proper by Germany's own account) and also, most Nazi concentration camps were located in the territory of Nazi Germany anyway. A complete list, drawn up in 1967 by the German Ministry of Justice, names about 1,200 camps and subcamps in numerous countries occupied by Nazi Germany.
Opponents of the use of these terms argue that they are inaccurate, as they may imply that the camps—located in Nazi-occupied Poland—might have been a responsibility of the Poles (i.e., Polish), when in fact they were designed, constructed and run by Nazi Germany and used to exterminate Poles alongside Polish Jews, as well as Jews transported by the Nazis from across Europe.
The use of terms of this kind, explicitly mentioning "Poland" or "Polish", has been discouraged by the Polish government and the Polish diaspora organizations around the world since 1989. Specifically the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs monitors and catalogs the use of the term and is involved in the actions asking for correction and apology. In 2005, the Polish Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld suggested that there are instances of "bad will, saying that under the pretext that "it's only a geographic reference", attempts are made to distort history and conceal the truth." Adding adjective "Polish" when referring to concentration camps or ghettos located in occupied Poland, or to the world Holocaust in general, can suggest, often unintentionally and always counter factually, that the atrocities in question were perpetrated by the Poles, or that the Poles were active participants in the Nazi rule of Poland during World War II.
In 2008, due to the continued usage of the term Polish in regards to atrocities committed and camps built and operated by the German state under Nazi leadership, the chairman of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) issued a letter to local administrations with a call to add German before Nazi in all monuments and tables that commemorate the victims of Nazi Germany. As stated by the IPN official, while in Poland 'Nazi' is definitely connected to 'German' this is not the case everywhere in the world, and the change will help avoid any misinterpretation that the responsibility for the crimes against humanity committed in war-torn Poland wasn't specifically German. At the time several places of martyrology underwent renovations, and the new plaques were to clearly indicate the nationality of the people responsible for atrocities. Additionally, IPN requested to better document and commemorate the crimes perpertated by the Soviet Union as well.
The American Jewish Committee has also rejected the usage, stating that:
Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other death camps, including Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka, were conceived, built and operated by Nazi Germany and its allies. The camps were located in German-occupied Poland, the European country with by far the largest Jewish population, but they were most emphatically not "Polish camps". This is not a mere semantic matter. Historical integrity and accuracy hang in the balance.
The government of Israel has also deprecated the usage of this phrase.
Concerns about the use of the term Polish death camp led the Polish government to request that UNESCO change the official name of Auschwitz from "Auschwitz Concentration Camp" to "former Nazi German concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau" in order to make clearer that the concentration camp was built and operated by Nazi Germany. On 28 June 2007 at its meeting in Christchurch, New Zealand, the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO changed the name of the camp to "Auschwitz Birkenau. German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940–1945)." Previously, some media, including Der Spiegel in Germany, had called the camp "Polish". The New York Times regularly refers to Auschwitz as Polish rather than German.
An example of the controversy occurred when an April 30, 2004 CTV News report made reference to "the Polish camp in Treblinka". The Polish embassy in Canada lodged a complaint with CTV. Robert Hurst of CTV, however, argued that the term "Polish" was used throughout North America in a geographical sense, and declined to issue a correction. The Polish Ambassador to Ottawa then complained to the National Specialty Services Panel of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. The Council did not accept Hurst's argument and ruled that the word "'Polish'—similarly to such adjectives as 'English', 'French' and 'German'—had connotations that clearly extended beyond geographic context. Its use with reference to Nazi extermination camps was misleading and improper".
Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita has criticized international media outlets, including Haaretz from Israel, as "holocaust deniers" over usage of the term. However, all foreign media articles so criticized by Rzeczpospolita (as of November 2008) make clear that the perpetrators were German, and none claim Poles built the camps.
The incorrect phrase Polish concentration camps is used in some school textbooks outside Poland to refer to the Nazi German concentration camps on occupied Polish territory.
On December 23, 2009, writing in The Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash said:
Watching a German television news report on the trial of John Demjanjuk a few weeks ago, I was amazed to hear the announcer describe him as a guard in "the Polish extermination camp Sobibor". What times are these, when one of the main German TV channels thinks it can describe Nazi camps as "Polish"? In my experience, the automatic equation of Poland with Catholicism, nationalism and antisemitism – and thence a slide to guilt by association with the Holocaust – is still widespread. This collective stereotyping does no justice to the historical record.
In 2009 Zbigniew Osewski, grandson of a Stutthof prisoner, announced he was suing Axel Springer AG for calling Majdanek a 'former Polish concentration camp' in article from November 2008 published in the German newspaper Die Welt. The case started in 2012. In 2010, The Polish-American Kosciuszko Foundation launched a petition demanding that four major U.S. news organizations endorse the use of the term "German concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland".
The Globe and Mail reported on 23 September 2011 about "Polish concentration camps". Canadian MP Ted Opitz and Minister of Citizenship Jason Kenney supported Polish protests.
In May 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama referred to "a Polish death camp" while posthumously awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski. After complaints from Poles, including Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski and Alex Storozynski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, a representative of the Obama administration said the President misspoke and "was referring to Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland."
In 2013, Karol Tendera, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau and is the secretary of the association of former prisoners of German concentration camps, sued the German television network ZDF, demanding formal apology and 50,000 PLN to be donated for charitable causes for the use of the expression "Polish concentration camps". As a result of the suit, ZDF was ordered to apologize publicly. Some Poles felt the apology was inadequate. They protested with a truck with a banner that read "Death camps were Nazi German - ZDF apologize!" and planned to bring their protest against the expression "Polish concentration camps" 1,600 km across Europe, from Wrocław to Cambridge, through Belgium and Germany, including a stop in front of ZDF headquarters in Mainz.
Outlawing use of phrase
In August 2016, the cabinet of Poland, led by Prime Minister Beata Szydło and her Law and Justice party, approved legislation that would outlaw the use of the phrase "Polish death camps". It was expected to pass by wide margins in the Parliament, also dominated by Law and Justice. Under the law, a person who uses a phrase such as "Polish death camp" may be sentenced to up to three years in prison. In Rzeczpospolita, Polish journalist Jerzy Haszczyński wrote that when the phrase appears in foreign media, it "insidiously suggests that our state and our people were responsible for German crimes", but he is unsure who the law targets. "Almost every use of the phrase that I can recall ended with a profuse apology."