Last week, FBI Director James Comey made a speech in Washington in which he called the Holocaust “the most significant event in world history.” Parts of the speech, made at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, were published in The Washington Post over the weekend. One particular passage drew much scrutiny — and a sharp response from Poland.
Here’s the excerpt:
“In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.”
Poland was incensed. It summoned Stephen Mull, the U.S. ambassador to Warsaw, to the Foreign Ministry on Sunday to demand an apology.
“To those who don’t know the historical truth, I would like to say today: Poland was not an aggressor but a victim during the Second World War,” Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said. “We would expect officials discussing these matters to know this.”
After his meeting at the foreign ministry, Mull said suggesting any country other than Nazi Germany was responsible for the Holocaust “is harmful and offensive.”
“Director Comey certainly did not mean to suggest that Poland was in any way responsible for those crimes,” he said.
The issue is a sensitive one in Poland, which was similarly angered by President Obama’s remarks in 2012 when he referred to a “Polish death camp.” The White House called that a “misstatement” that it regretted.
The New York Times adds some context about Poland’s history during that time:
“The issue is a particularly sensitive one in Poland, which has chafed under what it feels is a stubborn and widespread misconception that it was somehow complicit in the Holocaust because several of the Nazi death camps were built on what is now Polish soil. … Whenever someone stumbles into this territory, Polish officials stress that Poland was conquered by Germany, which imposed its own rule on the region; there was never a collaborationist government like Vichy France or the Quisling regime in Norway. And while there were certainly incidents in which Poles were responsible for the deaths of Jews, there was no widespread complicity with the Nazi policy of extermination.”
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a foreign policy adviser to the Polish government and a survivor of the Auschwitz camp, told The Times: “This man probably has as much to do with Jewish matters in Eastern Europe as I do with Colombia — except that I don’t discuss Colombian issues in public.”