HolokaustProfessor John Merriman: The use of term „Polish death camps” is a sign of stupidity

Professor John Merriman: The use of term „Polish death camps” is a sign of stupidity

prof. John Merriman in Cracow
prof. John Merriman in Cracow / Źródło: : Michał Przybylski
I no longer remember which idiot said it, but it was a clear sign of stupidity on the part of the author of these words. If you would like to have an example of the shortages in the knowledge of Americans, the politicians in particular, that would be a prime one. That was utter craziness, it is obvious that someone should react. – says professor John Merriman from Yale University in his interview for www.supehistoria.pl, when question on the use of term „Polish death camps”.

MB: Polish politicians and journalists often accuse the authors of the books and articles published in the West of intended falsification of Polish history. Is that a large problem or are we overreacting?

JM: The Americans know very little about anything that is beyond America. I do not think that the President of the USA (Donald Trump regrettably) could find Poland on a map. That is a part of this problem – the Americans have always been interested in American history and know little about the world. 70% of Americans cannot place France on the map of the world. There are sometimes funny situations when they place it in Africa, near Zimbabwe. It seems that the current president of the USA belongs to the same category. That is why I do not understand why you are hosting him in your country. I am hoping that the people are going to protest.

MB: Your judgment of the American society’s knowlege is very harsh.

JM: It is, but that is the case. For years the interest of the society in history has dwindled. The generation of millenials is more interested in sourcing of the new mobile phone than in history, even in history of its own country. The Americans show considerable interest in American Civil War, American War of Independence and Second World War. That is why an average American learns about Poland through the tragedy of Holocaust, death fields and Auschwitz, etc. They have no idea about the three partitions and Józef Piłsudski. These subjects seem very remote to the Americans.

MB: The same problem seems to occur in the publications from other countries, like Germany.

JM: I spend half of my time in France, as my children live there. As it is Europe, the knowledge about Poland is greater than in the USA. However, we are facing enough problems in Europe – increase in populism, extreme right parties and terrorism. I do not know Germany, the interest in Poland shall be greater there. They are your neighbour and a lot of Poles live there, they are lucky to have great Lewandowski play for them.

MB: In what way should Poland react to the intended misinterpretation of historical facts? How should we react in order for that to be effective?

JM: What kind of misinterpretation do you have in mind?

MB: Most often it is a case writting about „Polish death camps”.

JM: Of course, you have to react to that. I no longer remember which idiot has said it, but it was a clear sign of stupidity on the part of the author of these words. If you would like to have an example of the shortages in the knowledge of Americans, the politicians in particular, that would be a prime one. That was utter craziness, it is obvious that someone should react. But when I read about Polish Prime Minister who is very suggestive in Auschwitz and when talking about the protection of Poles she links this place with current politics, I think that people should react to that, too.

MB: These words were understood differently by the supporters and the opponents of the current government.

JM: Yet, the referral to the current migrants and refugees was clear. That was obvious. Donald Tusk said as much.

MB: These are just two points of view. Part of Polish society perceives it differently. Let us return to history. In what ways should Poland intervene in the cases of false statements about „Polish camps”, so that the reaction would not seem overly harsh, yet effective? The journalists in Germany, Norway or Great Britain often abbreviate this complicated term to two simple words.

JM: This is an obvious mistake, that should be responded to. This is stupidity and misunderstanding of what had happened to Jews in Poland but also in Hungary, Bulgaria, France and many other places. We have to clearly state that it depicts the entirely false interpretation of what had happened.

MB: Your specialisation is history of 19th century France. How come did you get interested in history of Poland?

JM: All books that I have written are about France in 19th and 20th century. All except for one: „A history of Modern Europe: From Renaissance to the Present” (several hundred thousand copies have been sold worldwide). In 2006 I was invited to Poland to discuss this book. That is why in the new edition I wrote far more about Poland. I came to Poland first as a child. I was in Warsaw in 1969 and I remember that when I looked down from the terrace of the Palace of Culture, I saw the streets and still some ruins. I have not been back until 2006. This is my 14th trip to Krakow now. I’ve had the chance to spend quite some time here and I have learned more about Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus. Poland is my second favourite country after France. I have friends here. Thanks to them I learn far more about Poland than I used to before. I am very upset with what has been happening in Poland recently, but it is entirely different matter.

MB: There still has to be something that enchanted you here.

JM: One can always draw comparisons. Here are the most obvious ones: in France almost no one goes to Mass. 5% of people who describe themselves as Catholics participate in weekly Mass. The average age of priests is 70 and a quarter of all priests is above 80. Poland is entirely different. If you enter Mariacki Church in Krakow, with 10 daily Masses, you can see entirely different scenes: there are young priests, young nuns. This is Catholic faith that does not exist in France any more. There are interesting reasons for it. That was just one comparison, and you can give numerous ones: history of Poland during the partitions and its equivalent in Western Europe at the time.

MB: Do your students share your interest in Poland?

JM: Yes, the events in Ukraine caused the rise of interest in Central Europe. I lecture at Yale Unversity, so I have really good students. It is Timothy Snyder who teaches history of Poland here, but during my lectures on history of France, I often refer to history of Poland.

MB: Is there a single fact in Polish history that your students find the most intersting?

JM: I do not lecture on history of Poland, but on history of Europe between 1648 and 1945 – this is one of my lectures. I talk about Poland from 1920s and 1930s and obviously the tragedy of the Second World War. That is what interests my students.

MB: The conference, in which you took part, focused on the mistakes in the descriptions of Polish history, mistakes in the handbooks written in English. How often do you encounter those?

JM: I do not read such books. My book is rather sophisticated high end one and reaches very good students from very good universities as well very talented high school pupils. Decidedly they are not a very good example of the whole Western civilization. In the first ediction of my book there was nothing on Warsaw Uprising and very little about ghettos in Poland. These were not mistakes, but rather the underestimation of complexity of Polish tragic history. Since then I have visited the Museum of Warsaw Uprisng many times, it is fabulous. As I have learned more about the history of Poland, I could have written more about it in my book.

MB: Do conferences, such as this one, contribute significantly to the elimination of such shortcomings?

JM: Professor Marek Kaminski invited a lot of experts, not only from Poland, who analyzed the mistakes and suggested the corrections. I think it works really well and helps in the creation of better books. I think it was very successful and important event. It realises the aim – the spreading of knowledge about Central and Eastern Europe in the USA and in Great Britain. If the Americans choose Donald Trump, who knows nothing about anything, we have to educate the new generation. This generation would have the knowleddge about the world beyond the ocean, about the challenges, tragedies and successes that Polish history is full of and which have created the contemporary Poland. That is what we are trying to do.

Professor John Merriman is an American historian with specialisation in the history of 19th century France. His handbook”A history of Modern Europe: From Renaissance to the Present” i san international bestseller. Professor Merriman lectures at Yale Unversity. He lives in the USA and France. During his visit in Poland, he took part in the conference – a part of the project – „Revitalisation of the forgotten history. Concepts about Central and Eastern Europe in academic handbooks written in English – 2006-2017. Evaluation of the world knowledge about Polish history”.


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