Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Belfast Telegraph's European Excursion by Michal Karski

The Belfast Telegraph's European Excursion 

by Michal Karski 

This piece could have had so many titles: “Don’t Upset the Poles”, for instance, a wordplay with the obvious reference to the above picture of an Olympic skier dodging the marker poles, or, perhaps, borrowing from Jonathan Swift’s condemnation of the War of the Spanish Succession of the early 1700s; “The Conduct of the Allies”, which would involve a discussion of the progressively deteriorating relations between Poland and its Allies during the war and for decades afterwards, culminating in the kind of attack we have just seen at the Belfast Telegraph; or an amalgam, using a reference from both Swift and another Irish writer, James Joyce, ”The Conduct of the Alligators”(in Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, a character asks “who made those allegations?”. “I” replies another. “I’m the alligator”); or just simply “Fear and Loathing at the Belfast Telegraph”. I opted for the one above because it seems the insular editors at the BT have only just discovered Europe and the revelation that it is not just Northern Irish politics which need to be treated with sensitivity seems to have come as a bit of a shock to them. Indeed, a paraphrase from yet another Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, might sum up the situation at the Telegraph editorial offices so far, following the “Poles and Auschwitz” furore. “To delete all comments to a controversial article may be regarded as a knee-jerk reaction, but to deny the right of reply to an ambassador might seem like clear bias in favour of the alligator”, the ‘alligator’ in question being the writer of the original letter, Dr Kevin McCarthy.

Again , with reference to the above photo, I was tempted to use the tabloidesque “It’s Downhill All the Way at the Belfast Telegraph”, but that would be quite unfair. (But quite funny, I thought). The person pictured, by the way, is Olympic skier and mountain rescuer Bronisław Czech. What has he to do with the Belfast Telegraph? Follow me, if you will, down the long and winding slalom.

Many of us have remarked at how the Allies – particularly the Western ones who were once so cordial to Poland – seem to be going further and further down the road of not only rehabilitating Germany (which, in itself, is no cause for offence, since Germany has done a great deal to earn its readmission to civilized society), but what is contentious and unfair about this whole process is that it has come at a price – and it is precisely Poland, one of the Allied nations, which is paying that price. This central European country is increasingly being made into a scapegoat for all the evils of WWII. This is, of course, one of the significant themes in Danusha Goska’s book ‘Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype’ – soon to appear in Polish translation – and I would recommend it as an illuminating read to the editors at the Belfast Telegraph who have taken the entitlements of press freedom into a zone the horrors of which they themselves could hardly have been expecting.

Belfast, for those readers in Poland who may not be entirely au fait with the political situation in the British Isles, is in Northern Ireland, which is a part of the UK and not in Eire, the independent republic. The city was attacked by the Luftwaffe four times in 1941, according to Irish History Live

and although Northern Ireland was exempt from conscription, many volunteered to serve in the British forces. Indeed some of the editors at the Belfast Telegraph may well have had parents or grandparents who fought against the Nazi Germans.

The general issue of freedom of the press, championed by the Belfast Telegraph, is an important one, of course. Anyone who has followed the exchange of views in letters and comments at the BT following Dr McCarthy’s original inflammatory letter, can see that its publication became a bit of a test of press freedom. The British press advisory body, Ipso, ruled in favour of the Telegraph after a reader in Eire brought a complaint.

A Telegraph columnist, Mick Hume, immediately wrote a piece hailing the ruling as a victory for press freedom, but also effectively questioning the need for an independent arbitrator in the first place.

The existence of a regulator is a “complainants’ charter”, complained this BT columnist and a “problem for our hard-pressed Press”. Mr Hume’s column gives the distinct impression that he considers Ipso as an unnecessary brake on press freedom, and he seems to disregard the obvious alternative to an independent regulator which can only be a free-for-all, dog-eat-dog scenario in which those who can afford libel lawyers stand any chance of redress if they dare to take on giant press organizations. People in the US and elsewhere may not be aware of the rather sorry history of UK tabloid excesses, or the infamous hacking scandal which eventually led to the Leveson enquiry, after which the old independent press regulator was deemed not independent enough and was replaced by a different independent press regulator, which, in turn, was criticised as lacking true independence by campaign group ‘Hacked Off’.

 Will we ever get a truly independent body here in the UK, which is essentially what Lord Justice Leveson was proposing? The need is clearly there. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Dr McCarthy’s unbelievable and damaging allegations may fall within the strict definition of free speech inasmuch as he is only expressing a personal opinion, but the same could be said of anyone who wants to defame a group or individual. The Belfast Telegraph may have been legally entitled to print what was clearly marked as a reader’s letter and may not have necessarily reflected the view of the BT editorial board – which is the strict point of the Ipso ruling – but the BT must take its share of responsibility for publishing what they must have known was a highly contentious viewpoint. And who composed the “Auschwitz” headline above the letter? Dr McCarthy or a clever BT editor?

As an aside, it is not for me to suggest that Dr McCarthy may want to apologise to the other Dr McCarthy of UCC for placing him, however unwittingly, in the position of a target for unwelcome and unwarranted attention – for all I know, this may already have happened.

In view of everything that has been written since the ‘Auschwitz’ letter appeared, the editors at the BT may wonder if it was wise to publish at all. Telegraph columnist Paul Connolly points out

that it may have been unwise of the Polish embassy to ask for the offending letter to be removed. (Let it stand, by all means, as evidence of Dr McCarthy’s position – unless he modifies it, of course), but, in my opinion, the ambassador should certainly not have been rebuffed and should have been given the right of reply. There seems to have been some shock at the BT at the torrent of reactions which came in from Poles and Polonians. Some comments, of course, have been less polite than others, but did the BT really expect courtesy from representatives of a nation who had been collectively accused of playing a role in the siting of German death camps in which their own family members may well have died? The overwhelming majority of Auschwitz victims were, of course, Jews from all over Europe, but the first group to be killed, as many pointed out, were Polish Christians. And how can commentators really have a right to reply if all their comments are due to disappear tonight because of “essential upgrade work on the contents management system”? Patryk Malinski’s solitary letter here and not the ambassador’s reply, will be the only one allowed to stand, in that case.

To bring in the murderous events at Kielce as evidence of Polish anti-Semitism does not support the original contention that the Poles therefore were ready to “accept” the camps. Apart from the fact that the circumstances behind the post-war Kielce massacre are still being fiercely debated, the situation in 1939 was that the defeated Poles were in no position to accept or reject anything. Of course there was anti-Semitism in Poland before the war, just as there was everywhere else in Europe in the thirties. But the point of contention is that the Hitlerites of the German Third Reich constructed their camps on Polish soil, not because of any “ingrained-Polish anti-Semitism”, but for the simple reason, as the above letter and several other correspondents pointed out, that, at 3.3 million, the Jewish population of Poland was the largest in Europe.

As I mentioned earlier, the Belfast Telegraph defends its right to print controversial material and hails the Ipso ruling as a victory for free speech, but by deleting comments and denying an ambassador the right to reply, it is also muzzling the freedom to express what is for them an inconvenient viewpoint. They are clearly uncomfortable in the unfamiliar zone of European politics. They may be extremely sensitive when it comes to the rather complex politics of Northern Ireland, but they have apparently only just discovered that Europeans have sensitivities too.

I haven’t forgotten Olympic skier Bronisław Czech. Three times ski jump winner at St Moritz, first Polish skier in the International Class, he joined the Polish Underground at the outbreak of war, was a courier to Hungary, and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1940. If the cross on his gravestone is anything to go by, he was one of millions of Christian Poles who fell victim to Hitler’s murderous Third Reich. Belfast Telegraph, please note: it was not only Jews who perished in the death camps. Bronisław Czech died in Auschwitz in June 1944.


  1. The slanderous lie against Poland, in the BELFAST TELEGRAPH, should remind us of this simple fact:

    World-class Holocaust scholars had long repudiated ANY connection between the death camps and prewar Polish attitudes towards Jews.

    See my Amazon reviews of:

    MY BROTHERS KEEPER, edited by Antony Polonsky [The quoted Holocaust scholar is Yisrael Gutman].

    HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST, by Yehuda Bauer.

    To see the latter directly, please click on my name in this specific posting.

  2. Here's an update on the Belfast Telegraph situation.

    Despite the warning given on the paper's website that all comments would be removed by Saturday, Oct 3, this hasn't happened and the various arguments are still there for all to read. However, a commentator calling himself "knack", whose tone was remarkably similar to the one adopted by Dr McCarthy, writer of the original inflammatory letter, has had his comments deleted. Is the Belfast Telegraph attempting to appear much more neutral in this entire debate?

    Dr McCarthy's letter still stands, a testament to the Belfast Telegraph's insistence on the right of freedom of speech. Whether the paper is exposing itself to the risk of potential litigation is not for me to determine. It seems to me that if the editors insist on keeping Dr McCarthy's letter visible on the BT website, then they might balance it by an explanation of the reasoning behind their refusal to print the refutation penned by the Polish embassy. An apology for what is, effectively, a highly undiplomatic snub of the ambassador himself would also be very welcome.

    By an odd quirk of circumstances, I wrote about an academic called Macarthy a few years ago at the Krakow Post before I had even heard of Dr Kevin McCarthy of Cork. (Note the difference in spelling of the surname). Professor Macarthy, the Krakow-based cultural historian, has first-hand knowledge of Poland and its people, whereas it would seem that the Irish academic's knowledge has been gleaned mainly from books, ensconced as he is in his ivory tower somewhere in Cork and apparently unwilling to participate in the debate which his letter instigated.

    Ivory towers, incidentally, as any environmentalist will tell you, are so uncool these days.

    PS - since I've posted links to everyone else's articles, here's a link to my own Krakow Post piece about Poland-based Professor Macarthy:

  3. Update to my previous update:

    I've just seen that the ambassador has had a letter printed and - wait for it - so have I! (including Joyce's irresistible 'alligator' joke)

  4. here's the link:

    1. Thanks for the link, Mr. Karski,

      I had heard this anectode somewhere.

      Once some professor of anthropology gave a lecture at a famous western university. Lecture was about some primitive tribe. When he had finished talking, he was approached by a female student. She asked him for an autograph. After he gave her his autograph, she exclaimed while making a sheep's eyes at him:
      -Oh, Professor! You must have met many savages in your life!
      Professor was visibly stunned. When he recovered from the shock, he roared:
      -Me?! Meeting a savage?! God forbid! NEVER!!

      And that was a XIX century...

    2. It would be interesting to find out whether Dr McCarthy has ever set foot in Poland. I suspect not, but you never know, perhaps I'm quite wrong.

      At least with someone like Claude Lanzmann, he did make the effort to speak to the "savages" on their home ground even if he seemed to have a pre-conceived idea about what they would say and often put his own spin on their responses, even misunderstanding them once or twice.

      I don't know anything about Dr McCarthy other than that he seems to be a keen letter-writer to various Irish papers.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Nothing inflammatory...I only managed to repeat the link somehow...

  6. My mistake. "knack" is still there.

  7. The man who never met a savage was Sir James Frazer.

  8. There is clearly going to be no apology from Dr Kevin McCarthy to Poles and Polonians and it looks like the editors at the Belfast Telegraph would prefer to put the whole episode behind them.

    Whether the Irish academic’s crass allegations about Poland were borne out of ignorance, or malice, or whatever other motivation, the fact is that his central claim of Poland being prepared to “accept” the Nazi concentration camps because of the nation’s alleged hatred of Jews is untrue, for the reasons I gave above. And since his claim paints the entire nation with the damning brush of anti-Semitism, he can be fairly accused of outright mendacity.

    However, few reasonable people would dispute that pre-war Poland had a problem with its extremist right-wing groupings and that the post-Piłsudski Sanacja regime could have been much more robust in resisting the influence of the xenophobes and anti-Semites. To acknowledge this is by no means to say that the government of Beck, Smigły-Rydz and co were on a par with the Third Reich, which is what some Russian commentators seem to have been saying recently, and which is more or less implied in what Dr McCarthy writes. Yes, there were anti-Semites. Yes, there were murderous individuals before, during and after the war and some shameful episodes occurred which do not reflect well on Polish history. But to extrapolate from this an overall “ingrained” anti-Semitism on the part of the whole of Polish society is quite wrong and unworthy of someone who is supposed to be a scholar and historian.

    The problem with the reaction to McCarthy’s letter and to similar attacks elsewhere is that some Poles and Polonians damage their own case by not only being quite rude in the comments they write, but some extreme individuals actually display evidence of genuine anti-Semitism, which, of course, completely defeats any arguments they may want to make about Poland being traditionally hospitable to Jews fleeing from persecution elsewhere in Europe. The odd Polish commentator, wanting to defend the good name of Poland, writes things which can be essentially summarised as: “How dare you call us an intolerant country, you Irish b*****d? (Or English or Jewish or American or other foreign b*****d - take your pick).

    Poland and Polonia need to start thinking about global public relations and in my opinion this is something which the seemingly inward-looking Polish government needs to address rather urgently. Otherwise we will be lurching from one crisis to another, no sooner putting out one fire here than having to deal with another conflagration elsewhere.

    1. Well, ya know, I did address this universal stereotype of Poles as the world's worst anti-Semites. I wrote an award-winning book on the topic. And Polonians steadfastly refused to buy or read the book.

      And Polonians shoot themselves in the foot quite expertly. Again and again, these incidences erupt, and Polonians get all upset, and they shoot off letters to the editor, which accomplish absolutely zero, and nothing changes.

      I'm not talking about the readers of this blog, obviously, who care and are engaged and want to change things.

      As long as the mass of Polonians are committed to doing nothing, nothing will change.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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