Polish Reactions to SPIEGEL Cover Story: A Wave of Outrage

By Jan Puhl

Polish media and politicians have sharply criticized this week's SPIEGEL cover story about Hitler's European helpers outside of Germany. They believe the article is part of an attempt by Germans to foist guilt for its own Nazi crimes off on others.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland's former prime minister, has seemed lackluster of late. He has only seldom thrown himself into the ongoing campaign ahead of European Parliament elections in two weeks. Instead of delivering his accustomed tirades against the European Union, he has meekly called on his fellow citizens to go to the polls on June 6. It seemed that he was short on issues.

DER SPIEGEL's current cover: "The Accomplices: Hitler's European Helpers in the Murder of Jews"
Walter Frentz Collection Berlin, BPK, USHMM

DER SPIEGEL's current cover: "The Accomplices: Hitler's European Helpers in the Murder of Jews"

This week, though, Kaczynski has found his old form again -- with the unexpected help of SPIEGEL. "The Germans are attempting to shake off the guilt for a giant crime," he said, commenting on the latest SPIEGEL cover story, " The Dark Continent: Hitler's European Holocaust Helpers."

The feature describes how foreigners aided the Germans during World War II in the killing of 6 million Jews. Some of the accomplices -- who represented a small minority in each of their countries -- were forced into their roles, others denounced Jews in exchange for money. And some shared the Nazi's anti-Semitic beliefs and joined in out of conviction.

The reference to this particular aspect of the Holocaust is seen in Poland as an attempt by "the Germans" to shift the burden for at least part of the responsibility for the mass murder onto others. If Poland allows "such practices" to happen in Germany, Kaczynski added, then his country shouldn't be surprised one day if Berlin demands reparations for the German soldiers who died during the bloody crushing of the Warsaw Uprising.

"They Are Searching for Holocaust Accomplices"

But Kaczynski's outburst is just the crest of a wave of criticism SPIEGEL's cover has unleashed in the Warsaw media. "They are searching for Holocaust accomplices," asserts the headline in the conservative Rzeczpospolita.

"DER SPIEGEL is accusing Poland and other nations of having assisted in the Holocaust," claims the daily Polska. In the future, the polemic continues, SPIEGEL could come to the conclusion that the Jews, too, assisted -- after all, there were Jewish police in the ghettos who were forced by the Nazis to round up men, women and children for the transports to the concentration camps.

It is particularly hurtful to Poles that SPIEGEL also reported about the so-called "Szmalcownicy," Poles who revealed their Jewish neighbors to the Nazis or extorted money from Jewish families in hiding in exchange for silence. Sometimes they even did both.

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, an Auschwitz survivor and currently the government official in charge of Polish-German relations, dryly referred to the fact that 7,000 Poles are listed at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial for their efforts to save Jews, compared to only 100 Germans.

"The article confirms the worst fears about the transformation taking shape in German thinking about World War II," writes the conservative journalist Piotr Semka. For years, many Poles have seen a gradual change in the way Germany sees its history -- a transformation, they say, to a victim mentality.

Erika Steinbach as Public Enemy No. 1

As evidence, they site the increasing number of films and books produced in German that address issues like the Allied bombing of German cities and the post-war expulsions of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe. Recently, for example, a film was released about the Wilhelm Gustloff, a passenger ship overflowing with German refugees that left the port of then-Danzig (Gdansk in today's Poland) and was torpedoed by a Russian submarine. More than 9,000 passengers, mostly women and children, died.

In Poland, Erika Steinbach, the head of Germany's Federation of Expellees, has been long been seen as Public Enemy No. 1. Her project to establish a Center against Expulsion in Berlin -- not far from the Holocaust Memorial --particularly enraged Warsaw. In a few years, the fear seems to be, the majority of Germans might believe that Jews and Germans were the victims of World War II.

"The Germans," the Polish media imputes, are being driven by a collective need to rid themselves of the heavy burden of their history -- or at least to share out their guilt. SPIEGEL cover stories like "The Dark Continent" do not go unnoticed.

The Germans -- so people in Warsaw seem to believe -- are turning to SPIEGEL these days with a sigh of relief. But the magazine is hardly the place to look should the want to be let off the hook. For decades, SPIEGEL has focused sharply on Germany's Nazi crimes. During the last year-and-a-half alone, the magazine has published numerous articles dealing with the subject. The November 2008 feature about Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's "Executioner," is just one example. In March 2008, a story ran with the headlin "The Perpetrators: Why so Many Germans Became Murderers."

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