The first account of the August Trials, in which postwar Poland confronted the betrayal of Jewish citizens under Nazi rule but ended up fashioning an alibi for the past.
When six years of ferocious resistance to Nazi occupation came to an end in 1945, a devastated Poland could agree with its new Soviet rulers on little else beyond the need to punish German war criminals and their collaborators. Determined to root out the “many Cains among us,” as a Poznań newspaper editorial put it, Poland’s judicial reckoning spawned 32,000 trials and spanned more than a decade before being largely forgotten.
Andrew Kornbluth reconstructs the story of the August Trials, long dismissed as a Stalinist travesty, and discovers that they were in fact a scrupulous search for the truth. But as the process of retribution began to unearth evidence of enthusiastic local participation in the Holocaust, the hated government, traumatized populace, and fiercely independent judiciary all struggled to salvage a purely heroic vision of the past that could unify a nation recovering from massive upheaval. The trials became the crucible in which the Communist state and an unyielding society forged a foundational myth of modern Poland but left a lasting open wound in Polish-Jewish relations.
The August Trials draws striking parallels with incomplete postwar reckonings on both sides of the Iron Curtain, suggesting the extent to which ethnic cleansing and its abortive judicial accounting are part of a common European heritage. From Paris and The Hague to Warsaw and Kyiv, the law was made to serve many different purposes, even as it failed to secure the goal with which it is most closely associated: justice.
Kornbluth’s forensic examination of August trials documents, only recently made available for scrutiny, confirms that the Jedwabne pogrom was not an isolated event…As a result of actions taken by Germans and Poles during this period, 90 per cent of Poland’s 3.5 million Jewish population was exterminated. Kornbluth’s detailing of cases makes difficult reading.
Pioneering…Kornbluth examines the decree, its consequences and iterations, and its functioning in the complex realities of postwar Poland—both then and, by implication, today. Then, as now, the government largely sought to underscore crimes against Poles and to minimize crimes against Jews…Kornbluth shows brilliantly how, when those actually found guilty and sentenced for crimes against Jews challenged the verdicts, the description of facts would be totally changed between the original trial and the appeals trial, exonerating the perpetrators and strengthening the legend of Polish innocence.
This is an excellent study and an important contribution to the ongoing discussion about collaboration, retribution, and justice in postwar Poland…A must read for anyone interested in the long-term consequences of crimes committed on the ‘margins of the Holocaust.’
Excellent…Complicating the dominant Polish myth of heroic resistance, The August Trials provides a rich, sobering account of how Poles perpetrated and then evaded responsibility for many heinous Holocaust crimes.
The narratives Kornbluth has pieced together from interrogation and trial transcripts are extraordinary, telling stories that prompt anger, outrage, and reflection. This impressive work is unprecedented in providing an understanding of Poland’s legal reckoning with World War II. The results bear comparison with and lessons for ongoing attempts to master violent pasts around the world.
A brilliant and courageous book. The story Kornbluth exposes is deeply tragic, for it shows that in World War II Poland heroic resistance to the Nazis was accompanied by the treacherous collaboration of those who betrayed Jewish fellow citizens. After the war, despite thousands of trials of collaborators, Polish Communists asserted the wartime innocence of all Poles, cobbling together a usable past that exonerated their compatriots. History is a heavy burden in this tale, but facing it boldly is the most important first step in lifting that burden.
A pathbreaking, vital, and engaging work. Kornbluth’s engrossing account of the possibilities and impossibilities of justice in postwar Poland allows us to see into the dynamics of Holocaust violence and memory in revealing new ways.
How did Poland’s Communists gain traction in the most anti-Communist society in Europe? In this landmark study, Kornbluth gives an unsettling answer: it was by fostering the corrosive myth that Poland was the one society in occupied Europe to avoid complicity with the Nazis. He revises not only our view of Communist Poland, but of the history of the Holocaust in Poland.
Kornbluth’s superbly readable book takes as its focus a largely neglected aspect of the legal response to the Holocaust: the postwar Polish trials of Poles who committed crimes against their Jewish compatriots. This sensitive, groundbreaking study offers an important and sophisticated meditation on the limits of justice and the lure of myth-making when it comes to a nation’s reckoning with a history of collective crimes.
- 2022, Joint winner of the Reginald Zelnik Book Prize in History
- 2020, Joint winner of the The Wiener Library Ernst Fraenkel Prize
- 2021, Winner of the Salo Wittmayer Baron Book Prize
- 352 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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