Linguistic imprecision?

June 2005

By Ed Ziętarski


The term “Polish concentration camp” has recently appeared in The Economist (May 21, 2005, page 42) and a similar phrase “Polish death camp” in The Daily Express (March 22, 2005, page 5).

When is “Polish” Polish? There are many examples in the English-language media ascribing the adjective Polish to concentration camps. Should that be Nazi concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, or possibly German concentration camps in German-occupied Poland?

The topic of concentration camps in general is no doubt very painful to those who suffered under the hands of the Nazis. However, any inference that the Poles were in some way involved in this atrocity must be particularly hurtful to some.

Does use of terms such as “Polish concentration camp” paint the entire Polish nation as murderers? English law enables redress for defamation of individuals and the new Racial and Religious Hatred Bill protects against statements made about racial and religious groups. However, English law does not protect against offending comments targeted at groups of people or nations, such as Poles or Poland. The applicable laws are stronger in Australia (Racial Discrimination Act 1975) and have been invoked when such terms have appeared in the local media.

Use of such terms has even prompted intervention at an ambassadorial level. In Canada, comments on CTV Television (November 8, 2003, 23.00 and April 30, 2004, 16.15) resulted in a complaint from the then Polish ambassador in Canada that was investigated by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (Decision 04/05-0380 and –0672, reached on December 15, 2004). In the UK, the Polish ambassador wrote to The Economist pointing out that the concentration camps were built and operated by the Nazis (letter published on June 4, 2005).

There is also support from the American Jewish Committee on this point. It is contained in its Statement on Poland and the Auschwitz Commemoration issued on January 30, 2005, which also adds that it is not merely a semantic matter.

What is the provenance of such abusage of the word Polish? Although such unfortunate terms are not new, have they recently appeared with more frequency via media outlets? Are their appearances proportional to the amount of coverage of the anniversaries related to WWII events?

When printed in black and white, there can be little dispute a publication used such a term. However, if such a term is allegedly used on broadcast media (television and radio), proof can be more difficult to obtain as such broadcasts are rarely independently recorded. Even bodies such as the regulator OFCOM (The Office of Communications) rely on recordings provided by the broadcaster.

One may perhaps be forgiven for describing Maria Skłodowska-Curie as French, as she appeared in 4th place of a French poll to find the most famous French person of all time (March 14, 2005, France 2 Television). However, would the description of the camp in Guantanamo as Cuban be tolerated?

Do recipients of the media understand that perhaps the term Polish was intended in the geographical sense of the word? Even so, being Nazi-occupied land, even the geographical sense of the word may be regarded as incorrect. Would the recipient of the media, who is perhaps ignorant of historical details, assume that the Poles were responsible for deeds carried out at concentration camps?

Is there a lack of education with respect to historical events associated with this aspect of WWII? If so, who should be educated – the English-language media or the English-speaking population at large?

In any case, if something were spouted often enough from media channels, respectable or otherwise, would it eventually be believed even if it were false?  

Is this merely linguistic imprecision or is there something more sinister at play?

How are Poles and Poland portrayed in the non-Polish media generally? Is it in a balanced way, or is the pendulum positioned on the positive or negative side?

Freedom of the press is a frequently espoused slogan and it is plain to see the injustices where such a regime does not apply. However, how far should this freedom be taken and should there be limits to it?