07 October 2009

Fry's Poles, or, How Context is Everything

It's unfortunate how certain things get picked up on and misrepresented in the media. A friend linked on Twitter earlier to this Telegraph article by Gerald Warner, which quotes a Channel 4 interview with Stephen Fry, citing Fry as saying:
'There’s been a history, let’s face it, in Poland of a right-wing Catholicism which has been deeply disturbing for those of us who know a little history and remember which side of the border Auschwitz was on.'
Warner goes on to argue that Fry was trying to imply that Auschwitz was a Polish institution, and attacks Fry for attacking Poles and Catholics, pointing out that both groups suffered enormously at the hands of the Nazis.

Before leaping to any conclusions, it's worth watching the interview right through to the end, as the 'offensive' comments start five minutes into a six-minute interview about the Tories having recently allied themselves in the European parliament with the Polish Law and Justice Party. Context is everything, after all, but even so, let's take a look at what he actually says at that point:
Jon Snow: Stephen Fry - innuendo or facts?
Stephen Fry: Well, I've read the manifesto statements that they've made about gay people. I know they suppressed in about 2004-5, I believe, a gay pride march, this party, quite specifically, and they used the most inflammatory language about it, and I'm glad Charles mentioned also the anti-semitic element of the party, and, I think, there’s been a history, let’s face it, in Poland of a right-wing Catholicism which has been deeply disturbing for those of us who know a little history and remember which side of the border Auschwitz was on, and know the stories, and know much of the anti-semitic and homophobic and nationalistic elements in countries like Poland. This is a problem that is not going to get smaller, because as we start to pay for the financial disaster of the last year, as the bill comes in, a kind of great pimpled acne of nationalism and homophobia and racism is going to erupt around Europe because there's going to be trouble with unemployment, there're going to be all the problems. Do you remember the 30s? The problem with the 30s was not that period, it was the end of the 30s, it's when you start to pay the price, and that's why it matters now to make a stand, because yes, you may say "we can influence them, it will all be good," but we have to understand things will get worse.
Okay, so he was kind of burbling, but his general point is clear, I think: every society has its dark side, and these dark elements gestate in dark times, so we ought to be alert to them now, and to be heading them off, rather than giving them credibility by allying ourselves with them. Societies that have been ground down tend to look for people to blame their problems on, with the most obvious candidates for scapegoat status being those 'others' who live among us, notably foreigners, gays, and gypsies.

What's this got to do with Poland, Auschwitz, and Catholicism, and indeed, what has it got to do with the Tories? In essence what Stephen Fry was saying was that all countries have their demons, and parties such as Poland's Law and Justice Party seek to gain power through summoning those demons; the problem is that these demons are very hard to control, and once at large can take on a life of their own.

Well, let's start with this: anti-semitism was rife in Poland in the first half of the twentieth century, and this anti-semitism became increasingly pronounced in the second half of the 1930s. There were anti-Jewish riots and assaults, and Jews were segregated in Polish universities, blocked from jobs in the civil service, and barred from joining the main trade unions for professionals such as doctors and lawyers. Unemployed Jews were denied welfare benefits, such as they were, and Jewish businesses were routinely boycotted, with shops being looted.

This wasn't a uniquely Polish phenomenon, of course. Anti-semitism was common through Europe at the time, and indeed the numbers of Jews in Poland rose during the interwar period, as Russian and Ukrainian Jews fled to Poland to escape pogroms in the Soviet Union; German anti-semitism, of course, goes without saying.* Sadly, Polish anti-semitism was closely intertwined with Polish Catholicism, not least because Catholicism was seen as the hallmark of the true Pole, just as in Ireland it was for so long seen as the hallmark of the true Irishman. The result of all this was that when Poland was carved up by Germany and Russia in 1939, the fate of the Jews wasn't a matter of huge concern to many Poles; as far as they were concerned, the Jews simply weren't Polish anyway.

That's not to say that all, or even most Poles were indifferent to the holocaust that was happening on their doorstep, just that some were, and in a country as big as Poland, 'some' translates to 'quite a lot'. The Nazis were almost as dedicated to the elimination of the Poles as they were to the elimination of the Jews, and so while many Poles responded to this by putting aside their differences with their Jewish neighbours, there was no shortage of Poles who felt that Polish lives mattered more than Jewish ones. After the war, Jews returning their homes in Poland were often met with hostility, and hundreds of Jews were murdered, 37 at the Kielce Pogrom alone. More than 100,000 Jews left Poland in the years immediately following World War Two.

It appears that anti-semitism may be on the rise in Poland at the moment, and sadly, this rise appears fuelled at least in part by certain strands of Polish Catholicism, with anti-semitic rants being a staple of the Catholic radio station Radio Maryja. This might seem particularly odd, and indeed it seems as though some Polish Catholics have almost chosen to forget the lessons of Auschwitz. I think this is what Stephen Fry was getting towards: the Nazis' worst crimes were committed on Polish soil, there were a fair few Poles that just didn't care, and it would be a tragedy if today's Poles were to forget this.

In this regard, it's worth remembering St Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who was killed in another's place in Auschwitz and who was canonised in 1982. Father Kolbe had clearly been at least mildly anti-semitic in the years prior to the German occupation, personally accepting without question such absurdities as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and with anti-semitic literature being published by the publishing press he ran. On the other hand, following more than two months of imprisonment after the Nazi conquest he sheltered and cared for perhaps as many as 2,000 Jews at his friary near Warsaw, tending to them as carefully and as lovingly as though they were Polish Catholics like himself. He's a useful lesson, and one well worth keeping in mind.

Catholicism, of course, ought never to be dragooned into the service of nationalism or called upon to justify anti-semitism or racism of any sort. Pius XI declared in 1938 that
'... in the Catholic Mass, Abraham is our Patriarch and forefather. Anti-Semitism is incompatible with the lofty thought which that fact expresses. It is a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do. No, no, I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually, we are all Semites.'
A year earlier he had issued the German-language encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, drafted by the future Pope Pius XII, which condemned as idoloatrous and un-Christian the exaltation of race, nation, state, and political ideology:
'Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community—however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things—whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.'
Anti-semitism, therefore, is certainly never Catholic; sadly, however, this does not mean that Catholics are never anti-semites. The world would be a far better place if it were.

Stephen Fry's point seems clear, and it was most certainly not that the concentration camps at occupied Oświęcim were Polish institutions. We are living, he was saying, in a time of economic turmoil, and in such times it is all too often the tendency of the office boy to kick the dog. The Polish Law and Justice Party, he fears, have the look of a party that is seeking a dog to kick, and it troubles him that any British party should be standing beside them smiling benevolently while they do so.

In the afterward to the paperback edition of his autobiography, John Major summed up what he believed the European project was about and why it was worth fighting for: it was, he said, about keeping borders down, democracy in, and nationalism out. It seems a shame that his Conservative successors should have chosen to ally themselves with politicians who play on paranoia, who believe in bringing borders back up, and who rejoice in nurturing nationalism in its nastiest and most narrow-minded of forms.
* Though we shouldn't subscribe to Daniel Goldhagen's sweepingly anti-German screeds, and again, there were of course some inspiring exceptions.


joanna said...

I am Polish myself, have watched the Stephen Fry interview right through the end and have read your post on his comments on Poles with the utmost interest. I appreciate very much the balanced tone of your remarks and your impressive knowledge of the complex history of Polish-Jewish relations. Nevertheless, I have some serious doubts as to your interpretation of Fry's comments. It is true that S. Fry did not claim that Auschwitz was a Polish institution, but in my opinion he undeniably suggested that there was some connection between the Polish tradition of right-wing Catholicism and the location of Auchwitz. I doubt if S. Fry knows Polish history as well as you and I wonder if you are aware that Auschwitz is sometimes referred to as a "Polish concentration camp" by Western media. The use of this expression seems to indicate either a blatant carelessness on the side of some Western journalists or a belief that Auschwitz was run by Poles. I doubt if Stephen Fry know Polish history as well as you, so it is possible that he is convinced that Auschwitz was indeed a Polish institution, or at least that Poles have agreed to its location on their land. There is also another possibility: he may think that the Nazis chose to locate their largest concentration and extermination camp in Poland because of the Polish tradition of anti-Semitism. Maybe S. Fry will later explain what he meant (that would make me glad), but I just do not find your interpretation ("I think this is what Stephen Fry was getting towards: the Nazis worst crimes were committed on Polish soil, there were a fair few Poles that just didn't care, and it would be a tragedy if today's Poles were to forget this") convincing because you seem to assume that S. Fry's knowledge of Polish Second-World-War history is not lesser than yours. If, like you think, he only wanted to emphasize that some Poles were indifferent to the plight of Jews, that would make his remarks rather bizarre because many European nations may be accused of much more than indifference of some to the Holocaust (let me name only the Lithuanians, the Ukrainians, the Croats and the French). I have the strong impression that he implied more than indifference. Anyway, it has been a genuine pleasure reading your post; rarely does one come across such an intelligent, well-informed and pertinent piece of writing in the blogosphere (and not only there !).


problemchildbride said...

Excellent post, Thirsty. And enlightening.

Going to go and find out about this Maximillian Kolbe cove.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Thanks, both. Most flattered. I really need to ease myself back into this blogging lark again. I miss doing this regularly, but other matters press nowadays.

I'd never heard of Auschwitz being called a Polish camp, though that's deeply odd; it is, of course, in a purely geographic sense, but I'm pretty sure everyone knows it was a German institution. How peculiar.

I'm fairly sure Stephen Fry is rather better informed on Polish history - or at least that aspect of it that is tainted by anti-semitism - than I am. His mother's family were Slovak Jews, after all, and some of them were killed at Auschwitz. I've a feeling he's pretty clued on on this aspect of Central European history.

As far as I can tell, the only reason he seems to have singled the Poles out is that he's troubled by the British Conservative Party - the government in waiting - having given a platform and thus legitimacy to a Polish party that taps into some of Poland's darkest characteristics. Every country has it' dark sides, and lots of countries have parties that tap into that darkness, but the Tories aren't standing side-by-side with, say, the French National Front or the Alliance for the Future of Austria.

I think Fry was trying to get at the fact that given their own history of anti-semitism, and what the Nazis did to the Jews on Polish soil, you'd think today's Poles would be very alert to any party with a tendency to pick on outsiders of one sort or another. If this seems particularly pressing at the moment, it's just because by allying with them and having them at their conference, the Conservatives are giving a certain respectability to Polish politicians with just that tendency. Lavian ones too, of course.

But yes, I agree. He could have been clearer. Unfortunately, while Mr Fry has many virtues, neither clarity nor concision are among them. He had a tendency to burble.