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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Poland on Trial: Postwar Courts, Sovietization, and the Holocaust, 1944-1956

  • Author(s): Kornbluth, Andrew
  • Advisor(s): Connelly, John
  • et al.

This dissertation addresses the quandary of how the law can serve many different purposes and yet not the one we most closely associate it with – justice. Specifically, it examines how Poland, renowned as Europe’s only occupied country “without a Quisling,” confronted the paradox of otherwise upstanding citizens who betrayed, robbed, and murdered tens of thousands of their Jewish neighbors in hiding during the Nazi occupation. Far from being a footnote, the machinations over the fate of the defendants – in Poland and throughout Europe – were central to the negotiation of a new social contract in the wake of the war’s ethnic cleansing and property transfer.

As a rare venue not corrupted by the Stalinization overtaking Poland, the judicial system held the trials in accordance with high European standards. But with the public awaiting absolution, the hated Soviet-backed government hoping to win a degree of legitimacy, and the few surviving Jewish voices marginalized by resurgent anti-Semitism, debates over the law gradually became vehicles for the expression of colonial anxieties and the establishment of a hierarchy of victimhood. Within the judiciary, the Right exploited the law’s weaknesses as a means of resistance, while the Left, fearful of undermining the rule of law, worked to restrict its ambit. In this atmosphere of cross-purposes, legality gradually gave way to the performance of legality, eclipsing the issue of justice for victims and survivors.

Although held under a dictatorial communist regime, the Polish trials ultimately experienced many of the same problems as their democratic analogues across Europe; the widespread inability to come to grips with native Holocaust perpetrators amounted to a tacit acknowledgment of the desirability of societies rendered ethnically homogeneous by war and genocide. Their example serves as a dystopian prefiguring of European unity and a lesson in the limitations of transitional justice at a time when, alongside the constant invocation of human rights, more and more people are looking to the supposed universality of justice, both international and domestic, to compensate for the failures of the political order in a world that seems frighteningly anarchic and de-centered.

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