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Anne Applebaum: What FBI Director James Comey Got Wrong about His Speech on the Holocaust

By Anne Applebaum
Washington Post

The Polish ambassador to Washington has protested, the Polish president has protested, the speaker of the Polish parliament (to whom I am married) has protested — and the U.S. ambassador to Warsaw has apologized profusely. Why? Because James Comey, the director of the FBI, in a speech that was reprinted in The Post arguing for more Holocaust education, demonstrated just how badly he needs it himself.

In two poorly worded sentences, he sounded to Polish readers as if he were repeating the World War II myth that most drives them crazy: Namely, that somehow, those who lived in occupied Eastern Europe shared full responsibility for a German policy. Comey put it like this:

“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.”

There are a number of problems with that pair of weak sentences, starting with the vast difference between Germany and the rest. During the war, Germany had a state policy of exterminating the Jews. This policy involved not “accomplices” but hundreds of bureaucrats, tens of thousands of soldiers, train schedules and plans. Germany also encouraged the creation of collaborationist governments in other countries – Vichy France, for example – some of which used their own police officers to send their Jewish citizens into the German death camps.

Germany also occupied Poland, but there was no Polish “Vichy.” During the war, there was no Polish state at all. Indeed, it was the absence of the Polish state that enabled the Germans to create a lawless, violent world, one in which anyone could be arbitrarily murdered, any Jew could be deported — and any Pole who helped a Jew could be shot instantly, along with his entire family. Many were. Millions of others died too – Polish intellectuals, priests and politicians were all Nazi targets.

In the course of the war, most of Poland’s infrastructure, industry and architecture were destroyed. In that atmosphere, many people were frightened by or indifferent to the fate of the Jews, and some murdered in order to avoid being murdered. But that doesn’t mean that “in their minds” they “didn’t do something evil.”

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