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Shatter the Cube: Challenging Historical Revisionism in Poland and the U.S.



Ozy Africa editor Eromo Egbejule once likened the United States’ reckoning with its history of systemic racism to playing the social media game. “The United States has always been that cool kid that, as the Instagrammers say, knows how to ‘work its angles’ to present itself in the best light,” Egbejule wrote. “It has always shown the sides of the cube that give it the moral standing to police the world, and it has hid those sides…that are less than flattering. 

By only showing the sides it wants to show, the United States avoids a true reckoning with its history of slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of systemic racism and engages in a form of historical revisionism – the practice of creating or sponsoring specific interpretations of history in ways which disrupt the academic status quo, but also provide political expediency. 

The United States is not alone in this respect — the state of Poland also engages in historical revisionism as a tool for strategic mobilization at home, specifically around the topic of the Holocaust and the Soviet occupation. 

Cherry-picking and censoring truths to support a nationalist narrative is part of a grand strategy.

Cherry-picking and censoring truths to support a nationalist narrative is part of a grand strategy that researchers examining Poland have coined the “pedagogy of pride.” This very concept derives itself from a speech made by Law and Justice Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński – “We reject the politics of pedagogy of shame. We are going in the direction of Poland, which will be able to tell that it is an independent and proud country.” By strategically invoking feelings of shame and pride, the Polish government hopes to position itself as a shield, protecting its citizens from the ‘pedagogy of shame’ by replacing it with ‘righteous pride.’

Ultimately, however, the cases of the United States and Poland reveal that this strategy carries fundamental flaws by which it falls short of solving the ‘problems’ it purports to, and creates new ones. As a result of this practice, the U.S. and Poland have consequently stoked ethnic and political divisions, and inhibited communal healing.

Eighty years ago, we saw the revitalization of a multilateral world order helmed by the United States.

Hiding Inside a Broken Cube 

Supposing that the truth is comparable to a cube, as Egbejule mused – and that we can choose which sides of the cube we wish to display – might it indeed lead to a culture of revisionism in foreign policy? History tells us that it does. Eighty years ago, we saw the revitalization of a multilateral world order helmed by the United States. Shaken by the horrors of the Holocaust and the destruction of the Second World War, the world had turned its eye towards the fabrication of more enduring institutions of international law. In 1948, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that many of us thought that lack of standards for human rights the world over was one of the greatest causes of friction among the nations, and that recognition of human rights might become one of the cornerstones on which peace could eventually be based.” In that endeavor, however, the government of the United States would be undermined by its disjointed and hypocritical ambitions to both promote peace and justice abroad and perpetuate segregation and systemic racism at home. 

In 1957, nine students of color at Little Rock High School were prevented from entering the segregated school. The incident soon garnered international notoriety for the United States. US Ambassador to the UN Henry Lodge would say, “more than two-thirds of the world is non-white and the reactions of the representatives of these people is clear to see. I suspect that we lost several votes on the Chinese communist item because of Little Rock.” The United States Information Agency (USIA) was founded four years earlier to mitigate the fallout of such scenarios. Dubbed the “largest full-service public relations organization in the world,” the USIA was tasked with mediating global perception of the United States during the Cold War. Through USIA efforts to socially engineer specific narratives of the United States which reflected national interest, and which could then be disseminated to global publics, Eisenhower hoped to counter the anti-Western propaganda of the Soviet Union. 

America was hiding inside a broken cube…

But these efforts by the United States would only ever be a band-aid to a problem that could not be pretended away. America was hiding inside a broken cube; and despite the government’s best efforts, the cracks were showing.

History is Written by the Elected 

While severe limitations do clearly exist, the arc of the United States’ views on its history shows us just how much influence executive leaders have over this issue. Poland shows little difference. When now-President Andrzesz Duda was on the campaign trail in Poland’s 2015 election, he promised voters that he would liberate them from what he dubbed a left-wing ‘pedagogy of shame’ allegedly dominating Holocaust discourse in the country. After the Law and Justice Party’s victory that year, historical revisionism started to see some real progress. Both rhetoric and policy change were observably reoriented towards that goal. This suggests that domestic power competition is a determinant of historical discourse. In other words, history is written by the elected. 

History is written by the elected. 

As soon as the Law and Justice Party gained the legislative upper hand, political action and rhetoric steered towards a new direction of Holocaust discourse. Between the years of 2015 and 2018, numerous pundits, politicians, journalists and media personalities with ties to the Law and Justice Party participated in this discreditation campaign. One of the most high-profile occasions of this came from the party’s former education minister Anna Zalewska. In 2016, Zalewska sat in an interview where she challenged the legitimacy of conclusions reached by Professor Jan Gross through analysis of survivor testimony regarding whether or not and to what degree Polish citizens were responsible for the Jedwabne pogrom. 

The ‘Holocaust Bill’ proved to be an important teaching moment for Poland’s political leadership.

Law and Justice’s efforts to revise Holocaust history reached a critical zenith in 2018, with the passage of the highly controversial “Holocaust Bill.” The bill made it a punishable crime to accuse the state of Poland of complicity in the crimes of the Holocaust. However, the aftermath of the “Holocaust Bill” proved to be an important teaching moment for Poland’s political leadership. It would appear that, this time, they overreached. The would-be arbiters of history had perhaps underestimated the extent of the backlash their ambitions would elicit from both within and without. This had all come at a time when Poland was seeking energy and security partnerships with the United States as a safeguard against Russia. And the U.S. state department had reportedly warned Poland that the bill would prompt damaging consequences for their relations. Shortly after, the parts of the bill that imposed prison sentences were removed. Though Poland’s powers-that-be would not abandon their hopes for a new version of Holocaust history, future actions, particularly in the classroom, would indicate that they have put down the hammer and taken up the scalpel instead.

Textbook Politics 

Textbook politics are all about censoring, filtering, and otherwise controlling the flow of information.

The textbook is a political tool, and in the hands of the master – a powerful propaganda dispensary. Textbook politics are all about censoring, filtering, and otherwise controlling the flow of information in the classroom in order to better service the national interest. These efforts elicit broad resistance. But they persist nonetheless. In today’s world, the story is much the same in both Poland and the United States: accusations of leftist efforts to control what children are taught are at the center of pushes by right-wing opposition parties to do just that. 

In 2021, Poland’s Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek spoke fervently, and ironically, about safeguarding free academic debate,” in response to what he saw as issues stemming from postmodernism and neo-Marxism, which are based on the same Marxist ideology that led to Communism, Nazism and today’s ideologies.” He would go on to implement and enforce numerous reforms that would allow him to impose his socially conservative and Catholic worldview on the education system, according to the investigative reporting network Balkan Insight. In Fall 2022, the addition of a new textbook by Wojciech Roszkowski created controversy for, among other things, its noted tendency to present bias as fact on many occasions, and its decision to present feminism as a harmful ideology then place it in the same grouping as Nazism. This was in line with state ambitions to cultivate a ‘conservative revolution’ within the Polish education system. 

As exemplified by Roszkowski’s work, the textbook is the staging ground for intense ideological and political warfare. This becomes inevitable when textbooks are filtered and curated by the governing bodies that oversee our schools. Political interference in the U.S. in this sense extends from the lowest grade school to the highest public university, in order to counter the idea that students—white students in particular—might draw unfavorable conclusions about America” if they are allowed to study aspects of American history that are considered less than flattering. The right-wing counter-movements that spring up in both countries as a result purport to change school curricula to be ‘more patriotic.’ Data from PEN America as of June 2022 shows about 1,648 banned books in the U.S. This list is disproportionately composed of books that deal with issues of race and racism.

Polish youth did not fall for Soviet propaganda then, and they are unlikely to respond much differently to state propaganda now.

Such strategies are by no measure effective. They will not produce a new generation of patriots. Historian Tom Junes predicts that Poland’s Law and Justice Party will more likely inadvertently fuel a spirit of resentment and rebellion among part of Poland’s younger generation.” Junes points to the obvious allegory to illustrate this point: Poland’s Soviet occupation. Polish youth did not fall for Soviet propaganda then, Junes reminds us, so they are unlikely to respond much differently to state propaganda now. While the clear difference is that only one scenario involved a foreign occupying force, it is not enough to erase the similarity from the minds of Polish dissidents. Former education minister Katarzyna Hall said to Balkan Insight that the Law and Justice Party’s current education stance “reminds me more of school in communist times, which I remember from my youth.” 

State efforts to police what is taught in classrooms will never contribute to the creation of a just society. Ultimately, they will also be futile, because textbooks will never be the only source of information in the world, and states cannot stop students from drawing their own conclusions by exploring the world and the internet. 

So what does that leave us with? 

Shattering the Cube 

Historical revisionism is very much a game of suppression.

The conflict between right-wing authorities and citizens in both countries represents a fierce information war. Despite government and corporate attempts to maintain a shaky hold on the flow of information, however, the cube is cracking ever deeper – a fatal flaw for right-wing ambitions. Historical revisionism is very much a game of suppression in which the victory condition is achieved by pushing those unwanted historical narratives out of the mainstream public eye, which in this day and age can only be described as a Sisyphean task. Indeed, the most immediately noticeable effect of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ recent decision to ban an African-American History course from the classroom, was that more and more people started talking about it – from the Office of the President of the United States, to grassroots organizations like PEN America. This is also consistent with years of Pew Research findings – that spikes in social media traffic related to race directly correspond with related current events. 

In Poland, 2020 youth engagement in left-wing politics almost doubled from the year before.

The second fatal flaw is a changing political landscape that is increasingly inhospitable towards these strategies. More research published by the Pew Center shows that 11% of respondents in the United States have changed their views on race relations because of something they saw on social media. In Poland, 2020 youth engagement in left-wing politics almost doubled from the year before, marking the first year that left-wing sympathies exceeded right-wing sympathies among this demographic in about 20 years. Furthermore, government efforts to elevate immigration and threats to traditional Catholic culture as hot-button issues are generating less public concern than issues such as government corruption and rising authoritarianism, according to Poland’s Institute of Public Affairs. 

We cannot hide inside this cracking cube…

We cannot hide inside this cracking cube, and we cannot use it to contribute towards the creation of a just society. Creating or sponsoring specific interpretations of history in order to disrupt the academic status quo and provide expediency also subverts the big questions – why is society this way? What can be done? Atlantic columnist Adam Serwer notably argued that “to accept that a problem exists is to accept the obligation to find a solution.” Those who want to get around these issues, Serwer continued, are attempting to suppress any reading of history that would frame said issues as the product of intentional decisions. 

Justice as fairness, according to John Rawls, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, entails the creation of a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights and cooperating within an egalitarian economic system. Meaningful progress towards such a society is stagnated by our stubbornness to accept history in its entirety. To overcome it; shatter the cube.