Political Animal


May 30, 2012 1:10 PM The Gaffe Heard Round Poland

By Ed Kilgore

There are gaffes that expose prejudices, gaffes that reflect ignorance, and then just plain gaffes that represent a misplaced word or two in an otherwise unobjectionable statement. There’s not much question the president’s reference to “Polish Death Camps” in the midst of a ceremony honoring heroic Polish resistance to the Holocaust falls into the last category.

In Obama-hating circles, of course, there will be multiple efforts to claim otherwise: that Obama should have known that Poles are unusually sensitive to this particular term, and has embarassed America deeply. I wonder how many of them knew of this sensitivity themselves, or knew much of anything about the geographical location of Nazi death camps, or would have mocked the whole reaction as “political correctness” if it hadn’t served their immediate political purposes. And moreover, how many commenters who want Obama to apologize have in the past raged at him for apologizing too much?

Yes, it was a gaffe heard round Poland, and that’s unfortunate. But it doesn’t need to be heard again and again in the United States.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Newton Whale on May 30, 2012 1:30 PM:

    Author outlines Polish complicity in Holocaust

    The book, based on painstaking interviews with eyewitnesses, exposed the fact that the 1,600 Jews killed when Nazi forces reached the town of Jedwabne in 1941 were murdered by the townspeople — not the Germans, as Poles had always claimed.

    Gross said he first began to register the prejudice endemic in Polish society when he read a book written just after the war by a woman who battled to retrieve children sheltered by Poles to return them to their parents or other Jewish caregivers. She said that many of those courageous sheltering families were afraid to let it be known what they had done, lest they suffer the wrath of their neighbors.

    To his horror, he discovered that attitude was widespread. “It didn’t make sense to me,” Gross told the Kean audience. “It was bizarre.”

    He began to discover how much ordinary people had colluded in German efforts to identify and isolate their Jewish neighbors, and later — in full view of others — to brutalize and kill them. Gross said that a third to a half of the Polish Jews died that way long before they reached any camps.


  • oldswede on May 30, 2012 1:39 PM:

    This article describes an event in Poland after the Nazis were defeated:
    The Kielce Pogrom

  • foggy follansbye on May 30, 2012 1:40 PM:

    Bataan deathmarch
    Joplin tornado
    Hue massacre
    Dresden firebombing
    Kansas City massacre
    Oklahoma City bombing
    Wola massacre

    This was not even a gaffe. This is how English works. Polish death camps are death camps in Poland.

  • internet tough guy on May 30, 2012 1:44 PM:

    It's a sensitive subject in Poland because the Poles don't like admitting how enthusiastic they were for the Final Solution.

  • AMS on May 30, 2012 1:44 PM:

    Why is it that Democrats have to apologize endlessly for every real and perceived slight (see Rosen, Hilary), but Republicans and their surrogates can get away with the most bare-faced and inflammatory lies without any accountability whatsoever?

  • Mit Romney on May 30, 2012 1:56 PM:

    And let's remember, my friends, that the Soviet Union is are worst enemy.

  • ckelly on May 30, 2012 2:04 PM:

    But it doesn’t need to be heard again and again in the United States.

    Yes Ed I'm sure the lunatic Obama-screechers will let it go. Where have you been the past 4 years? This will be heard 24/7 till election day and beyond. And the media will be complicit. Of course, it's once again phony, faux outrage used to throw stones at Obama. "Polish death camps", hmmm, death camps residing in Poland. In reality, not even a gaffe, Sheesh.

  • merl on May 30, 2012 2:15 PM:

    Sounds like the truth to me. Poland was all for the death camps.

  • Russell Sadler on May 30, 2012 2:16 PM:

    This "gaffe" is an object lesson in why Presidents use teleprompters -- especially when speaking about foreign affairs. Yes, yes, I know. Another case of faux "outrage" on the right. But seriously, Obama simply can't afford to give them a chance. Off the cuff remarks just raise the odds of "misspeaking."

  • T2 on May 30, 2012 2:22 PM:

    "doesn't NEED to be heard again and again" But it damn sure will. Somewhere a Romney commercial is being filmed right now exploiting Obama's innocent remark.
    Of course he immediately apologized to Poles....now somewhere a Romney commercial is being filmed calling Obama an "American Apologist". It ain't gonna stop.

  • Peter C on May 30, 2012 2:26 PM:

    There is an asymmetry @AMS. I think Democrats apologize because they genuinely don't mean to give offense whereas Republicans genuinely do.

  • liam foote on May 30, 2012 2:52 PM:

    Just a note to Newton Whale (a moniker surely derived from Newton Minow?) regarding his comment about the painstakingly researched "Neighbors" by Jan Tomasz Gross. I have interviewed residents of Jedwabne over the years and can confirm the allegation that hundreds of Jewish men, women and children were herded into a barn and burned alive by local Polish residents, not by Nazi troops.

    This is merely one of many pogroms carried out by Polish citizens without Nazi participation. In the case of Jedwabne the plaque which accorded blame to the Nazis was removed and another explaining the truth installed during a ceremony in which the Polish President at the time offered a sincere apology.

    All of this was met with howls of outrage from right wing nationalist elements, some of whom are now in power and again howling in outrage, this time about a perceived slight from the US President. Let's hope they calm down before others renew research into the Polish pograms, much of it showing tht the difference between a death camp and a pogrom such as Jedwabne is one of degree.

  • Ralf on May 30, 2012 5:18 PM:

    When I noticed the medals were being announced, I wondered to myself how the right wing would manage to take a non-controversial, President as representative of the US as a whole, congratulate some deserving people moment and muck it up horribly and turn into the latest installment of Obama derangement.

    They really will stoop as far as needed to demean the office of the President over any and all pretexts, won't they?

    At long last, we can see that they have left no shred of decency.

  • Eisbaer on May 30, 2012 9:07 PM:

    I am an American of Polish ancestry. President Obama's "Polish death camp" gaffe will have zero effect on whether or not I vote for him again -- that decision will come down to how well I think he's doing as President, what I think he will do if re-elected, and how crazy Romney and the Republicans will be if elected. The latter are far more important to me than whether Obama called Auschwitz a "Polish death camp," and I bet that this is so for many other Polish-Americans.

    As to why the term "Polish death camps" is so offensive to Polish people (I'm surprised that the President would use that phrase, since he came from the city with the largest Polish community outside of Warsaw, but whatever the damage is done). It's offensive because the death camps were built by the occupying Nazi Germans, not by any legitimate government of the Poles themselves. (I could get pedantic and point out that there wasn't a Poland per se when the camps were built b/c the country was under German occupation, but that would be a sophistic defense.) Additionally, at least a million Polish Gentiles died in those camps as well as Jews. It isn't because Polish people automatically have a Jew-killer or two somewhere in the family tree (my grandfather's side of my family were Americans during WWII, and my grandmother spent one-half of WWII in the Soviet gulag and the other half in a British POW camp so she couldn't kill Polish Jews even if she wanted to [and as far as I know she didn't]). And Poles across the board -- not just Teabaggers of Polish ancestry over here and their ideological brethren in Poland -- get angry when Auschwitz et. al. get called "Polish death camps."

    None of this is to deny Polish anti-Semitism or atrocities against Jewish people committed by Poles during WWII. I merely state this to point out that the story is more complicated than some posters here are making it out to be and that there are legitimate reasons why even non-Teabag Polish-Americans take offense to the term "Polish death camps."