Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's False Reference to "Polish" Death Camps

President Obama blundered during the White House ceremony for the Medal of Freedom awards. Perhaps the worthiest recipient was Jan Karski, who was posthumuously awarded the medal. Obama said, "Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.”

Actually, what he should have said was Belzec concentration camp, which was created and run by the Nazis. Karski was indeed a resistance fighter who alerted the West to the death camps. That Obama would have committed this blunder in referring to Karski himself is quite extraordinary. It fits in with the initial incomprehension of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration about the massacre of Jews in Poland. When Karski visited Washington, DC, during World War II, many people did not—or could not—believe what was taking place. It was too monstrous. Some members of the Roosevelt administration such as assistant secretary of war John McCloy were also indisposed to trying to stop the murder of the Jews. They saw it as a distraction from the war effort, a diversion of valuable resources. So nothing was done.

Obama's statement provides a useful reminder to reflect upon the importance of not mangling significant historical events. Millions of Poles who were not Jewish were also murdered by the Nazis. The Polish nation, bludgeoned for centuries by the Russians, Prussians and Austrians, suffered most grievously during World War II, a fact that Obama elided with his statement. He made it sound as though the Poles were the perpetrators of the Holocaust rather than the victims of the Nazis. That is bound to stir up strong emotions in Poland as well as in America. It is especially ironic that a Chicago politician such as Obama, who knows that many Polish Americans live in Illinois, would issue such a peculiar statement.

But it is true that Poland was not a hospitable place for Jews. Massacres of Jews also took place in the postwar era. The communist party in Poland, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, was not averse to targeting Jews, many of whom were, in fact, members of the party. Stalin himself was preparing a purge of Jews in the Soviet Union shortly before his death. In Czechoslovakia, the anti-Semitic Slansky trial took place. In East Germany, as the historian Jeffrey Herf has documented, the ruling Socialist Unity Party targeted a high-ranking Jewish communist official named Paul Merker.

But Poland's history of anti-Semitism does not mean that the concentration camps were "Polish," as Obama mistakenly put it. Rather, they formed the basis of Nazi totalitarian rule. Obama's remark indicates a deficient understanding not just of Polish but also German history. No sooner did Hitler achieve power on January 30, 1933, than he began constructing a web of camps throughout Germany itself. The constituent element of the regime was terror. The camps were a way of cowing the population into subordination. The most open displays of violence came on the Night of the Long Knives in July 1934 and the Reichskristallnacht in November 1938. But the camps were considered to be a more desirable and efficient tool by leading Nazis.

Obama's gaffe has now prompted an aggrieved Polish government to protest. Obama has issued a mea culpa. But the imbroglio does suggest that perhaps Obama is not quite as well-versed in history as some of his admirers may believe. Jennifer Rubin, writing in the Washington Post, observes:

The governing assumption for most of the chattering class is that the president is supremely intelligent and highly educated. He went to Harvard Law School, don’t you know? So usually when he makes jaw-dropping errors of fact on economics or history, excuses are made and allowances are given.

Image: Muu-karhu

Now, Rubin's tone may seem a little snippy. But it is surely a mistake that the White House will seek to avoid in the future.