WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s ruling conservatives on Wednesday watered down Holocaust legislation that had angered the United States and Israel, removing the threat of jail terms for people who suggest the nation was complicit in Nazi crimes against the Jews.
In an unexpected u-turn, parliament voted on an amendment in an emergency session shortly after Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki asked it to change the four-month-old law. President Andrzej Duda signed it into law hours later.
The move came as the nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) seeks to bolster security ties with Washington and is facing heightened scrutiny from the European Union.
It also came the morning after Poland’s state-run company PGNiG said it had signed long-term agreements on liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies from the United States, as Poland seeks to reduce its dependency on Russian energy.
The law as it went into effect in March imposed jail sentences of up to three years for anyone who used the phrase “Polish death camps” or suggested “publicly and against the facts” that the Polish nation or state was complicit in Nazi Germany’s crimes.
About 3 million Jews who lived in pre-war Poland were murdered by the Nazis, accounting for about half of all Jews killed in the Holocaust.
The PiS government said in March that the law was needed to protect Poland’s reputation, but Israel and its ally the United States said it amounted to a historical whitewash.
Morawiecki did not say what precisely had prompted his morning announcement. But he told parliament the terms of the existing law had already done their job by raising awareness of Poland’s role in World War Two. The government says Poles were the victims of Nazi aggression, not fellow perpetrators.
The law had been meant as “a kind of shock” and courts would still be able impose fines, he added.
“The purpose of this law was and still is one fundamental message: fight for the truth, fight for the truth of World War Two and post-war times,” Morawiecki said.
“A publisher in the United States or in Germany will think twice before publishing today an article using the expression ‘Polish SS”, ‘Polish Gestapo’ or ‘Polish concentration camps’ if he risks a lawsuit and a fine of 100 million euro or dollars.”
In a joint statement, Morawiecki and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the two nations were “friends and partners”.
“We reject the actions aimed at blaming Poland or the Polish nation as a whole for the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators of different nations,” the statement read.
Netanyahu said separately he was pleased Poland had “fully rescinded the clauses that ... caused a storm and consternation in Israel and among the international community”.
The issue of the Poles’ behaviour during World War Two has become a central theme for the PiS government, which argues that previous, liberal governments sought to teach young Poles to be ashamed, not proud, of their history.
Thousands of Poles risked their lives to protect Jewish neighbours during World War Two. But research published since the fall of communism in 1989 showed that thousands also killed Jews or denounced those who hid them to the Nazi occupiers, challenging the national narrative that Poland was solely a victim.
Jews from across the continent were sent to be killed at death camps built and operated by Germans in Nazi-occupied Poland — home to Europe’s biggest Jewish community at the time — including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.
Commenting on the sudden turnaround, one PiS lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, would only say the changes had been agreed as “a result of our analysis of the situation”.
“The international discussion, and especially in the United States had an impact. This is all connected,” the lawmaker said.
Warsaw has been seeking security and energy assurances from Washington as a deterrence policy against Russia — and last month broke from the European Union’s outright rejection of Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
EU ministers began an unprecedented discussion on Tuesday of threats to the rule of law in Poland, urging Warsaw to step back from contested judicial reforms they say put its courts under more political control.
The Anti-Defamation League, a U.S.-based advocacy group, said on Wednesday that the Holocaust legislation had contributed to a dramatic increase in anti-semitic speech in Poland.
“This step is a long overdue effort by the Polish prime minister and parliament to step back from the precipice of implementing this reckless law on speech about the Holocaust,” the group’s chief Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko, Anna Koper, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Pawel Florkiewicz and Marcin Goclowski in Warsaw, and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Catherine Evans