Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) with Polish President Andrzej Duda (left), Davos, January 2018. Photo: president.gov.ua.
Article by: Vitaly Portnikov
After the Polish Senate passed the scandalous amendments to the draft law on the Institute of National Remembrance, there were many appeals in Ukrainian media to come up with an “suitable response.” With a response that would make the Polish side consider the consequences of its decisions. (The law criminalizes allegations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust and denials of the alleged “crimes of Ukrainian nationalists” — Ed.)
Incidentally, reciprocal measures are also being considered by the Knesset in Israel. In Israel the Polish law has also caused great indignation — much more than in Ukraine. The Israelis traditionally try to respond to attempts to rewrite the sinister history of the Holocaust, and in the new Polish law there appear to be elements of such revision.
So what should be the Ukrainian response to the Polish law? In my view, the best reaction is to remain a democratic state. A state that does not try to put history on the procrustean bed of legislative prohibitions.
History is an exact science. It cannot be invented and rewritten. Human memory in a democratic society cannot be prohibited. That is its destiny in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. It is through such subjugation of memory that these regimes seek success and longevity.
However, it is necessary to understand a very simple thing. The past cannot be judged in terms of current logic. And it is impossible to believe in a black and white depiction of the world, in the monochronism of historical figures. The same person may simultaneously carry out heroic and criminal deeds. This also applies to an army, to a paramilitary formation, and a state. At the same time, for the countrymen of such a person, the exploit may be more important in his biography than the crime. The countrymen of his victims or his political opponents will always pay more attention to the crime than to the exploit. And no one will ever be able to erase either one or the other from history. As no one will ever be able to explain the actions of people from 1654, to use an example, or even 1939 with the knowledge and logic of 2018. Furthermore, such logic, as a rule, extends only to the past but never works in the present.
We condemned the 1938 policy of appeasement a long time ago. However, the contemporaries of Chamberlain and Daladier, its architects, considered them the real apostles of peace who were trying to prevent the repetition of a terrible world war. Within a few years these tactics began to be seen as a tragic error. However, already in 2014, the same people and countries that had condemned the appeasement of Hitler in 1938 were doing the same thing regarding Putin. Moreover, it turned out that these politicians included not only leaders of Western countries but the president of the Czech Republic — the same Czech Republic that became a victim of Munich. A paradox? But the history of mankind consists of paradoxes. Anyone who wants to abolish this law of paradoxes and to replace history — his own or someone else’s — with his own proclaimed achievements while condemning the actions of others will inevitably lose.
The Polish amendments are primarily an attempt at such substitution. The Ukrainian reaction should be tied primarily to an understanding of history — its own and someone else’s.