We stand resolutely behind our colleague Professor Jan Grabowski, who, with his co-editor Barbara Engelking, director of the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research in Warsaw, has been found guilty of libel by a Polish court. (For useful summaries of the case, see this, this, and this.) The case concerns a single paragraph in their two-volume, 1600-page study published in 2018 in Poland, “Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland.” The court ruled that the paragraph maligned the honor of a Polish mayor by suggesting that, during the Nazi occupation of Poland, he had betrayed the whereabouts of Jews who were hiding in a nearby forest, resulting in their execution. The case has disturbing implications for those committed to historical research that exposes racism, discrimination, and injustice. Most immediately, it calls into question historians’ right to freely express their interpretation of historical evidence.
Professor Grabowski noted in a recent interview that there have been growing attempts to “dilute” the oral testimony of Holocaust survivors, “to somehow negate it.” The court verdict effectively took such a step. Grabowski explained that the judge’s ruling “went into evaluation of the value of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust testimony. … And if we have the decisions of the courts telling … historians what value should be assigned to what kind of historical evidence, then, believe me, that does change the way in which people will report, will write, and will work.”
This case is troubling also by the fact that, not only does it reach across borders, forcing a University of Ottawa professor to stand trial in Poland, but it is part of a growing trend toward State efforts to shape the direction and content of teaching and scholarship. Most recently, “The 1776 Report” of the “The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission” advocates principles, such as the need to establish a single, “correct” understanding of American history that fosters national unity, which in many ways echo principles expressed by the Polish government (See the American Historical Association’s condemnation of this report, which was supported also by the Association of University Presses, the American Library Association, and dozens of other historical associations.)
State efforts to define what should count as legitimate commentary and legitimate history are also visible in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has condemned American journalists—through a New York Times interview that he requested—for being obsessed with racism and for “legitimizing the violence” of terrorist attacks in France. His Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, attacked “ideological positions in French Academia” subjecting academic freedom to “the values of the Republic” (See also this, this, this, and this,) a threat denounced by the association of university presidents.
These conflicts all raise anew the questions of who should be believed, whose history should be told, and which narratives should enter the realm of official collective memory. The history profession, its methodologies, and system of peer review have stood the test of time, producing vast and reliable knowledge about the past. Central to this effort is the freedom to use and interpret historical sources without state interference, intimidation, or censorship. This is why we stand with our colleagues Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking and call on governments everywhere to uphold academic freedom and to recognize that social cohesion can never be achieved by suppressing evidence and discussion of individual or collective injustice.