Ms. Frédérique Vidal
Minister of Higher Education,
Research and Innovation
of the French Republic
March 7, 2019
Dear Ms. Minister,
I feel it is my duty to express my opinion on the contents of your letter addressed to your Polish counterpart, Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin – Minister of Science and Higher Education. Your letter addresses the events that occurred at the conference organized on 21-22 February 2019 by EHESS, CNRS, the Strasbourg University, and the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah. I fully support your concern for the freedom of speech and expression, which are particularly important in academic debates. I do believe that the readiness to publish the conclusions of academic work and confront our own conclusions with the current state of research and the expertise of other academics is the basis for the enrichment of our knowledge about the world that surrounds us.
Unfortunately, I must point out that the statements about the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) and its employees, which were included in your letter, differ from the actual events that occurred and, therefore, are extremely harmful to our institution. I believe that this is because you have been misled by an incomplete or biased description of the events that occurred at the conference. The suggestion that the representative of the Institute of National Remembrance was able to freely express any comprehensive opinions does not reflect the reality. I regret to say that the French organizers did not provide the conditions which would grant all participants an equal right of expression during the time allocated for discussion.
As it pertains to the scope of participation of the Institute of National Remembrance at this event, first of all, I would like to kindly inform you that, among the speakers and guests, there were no official representatives of the Institute. The French organizers did not consider it appropriate to invite anyone from IPN to participate in the conference as panelists. It is completely incomprehensible considering that – despite the title of the conference – one of the segments was entirely devoted to the Institute of National Remembrance itself. Of course, the selection of speakers and topics depends exclusively on the organizers of the conference. However, it is worth emphasizing at this point that the use of the ancient principle of audiatur et altera pars always fosters the elaboration of conclusions which are more objective and not biased in advance and can be presented to the readers as well as the conference audience.
Two historians – employees of the Institute who specialize in the history of the Second World War and the post-war period – participated in the conference as members of the audience. They were researchers from the Cracow branch of IPN and one of them was the author of an academic review of the latest, widely distributed publication by a group of authors who represented the community presented at the conference as the “Nouvelle École Polonaise de la Shoah”. Both, due to their research, were interested in participating in the discussions regarding particular topics and trusted the announcement that the conference would be of an open nature.
The author of the academic review wanted to express his readiness to participate in free discussion with the authors of the publication that he reviewed, in line with the standards of academic research. After all, credible researchers, whose findings are the effect of hard work with historical sources, should not be afraid of any open academic discussion. In Poland, reviewing someone’s publication and mutual discussion is a standard practice in academic work – even in the case of divergent opinions or critical remarks made based on source content. We assume that the freedom of academic research and the freedom of participation in discussions during academic conferences, including those organized in France, does not deviate from generally accepted standards of the academic world.
With that said, after the first series of topic presentations, one of the historians employed by the IPN was denied the right to speak during the time allocated for discussion. He tried to kindly correct, before the audience, at least part of the false accusations made in the topic presentations of the organizers and speakers; these accusations also concerned the IPN (and, more broadly, the entire Polish state). However, the microphone was taken away from him, even though his speech referred to the theses presented during the segment of the conference which was the subject of the discussion that had just begun. The organizers also did not allow him to comment on subjects that were important from the perspective of the aspects of the reality during the German occupation of Poland between the years 1939-1945, which had also been addressed.
As the first day of the conference continued, the historians from the Institute were not allowed to speak and were denied equal rights relative to other participants in the discussion. During a break, they asked questions whether, after the lecture on the Institute of National Remembrance which was planned for the next day, any comment by the historian working at the Institute would be admissible, they were promised that their question would be answered on the following day. One cannot help noticing that such practices are uncommon during academic seminars.
On the second day of the conference, the author of the academic review was completely banned from participation in substantive discussions which took place after the topic presentations. His repeated attempts to join the discussion within the scheduled time were ostentatiously ignored by the organizers. He was not allowed to take the floor even once, even though there were not too many people interested in speaking. Such behavior can hardly be considered a sign of respect for the freedom of academic discourse. It should be emphasized that the intention of both historians was to address matters of substance relating to the topic presentations that had just been presented.
Furthermore, on the second day of the conference, the other researcher was informed that, after the lecture on the Institute of National Remembrance, he would be granted five minutes for his remarks. He spent this time correcting certain statements that were made during the lectures preceding his speech. He also tried to paint the real picture of the Institute’s work before the French audience and explain that, despite all previous accusations, the freedom of academic research does not conflict with the duties of the IPN officials, which consists of, among other endeavors, the development and renovation of monuments and cemeteries, including those of Holocaust victims. His speech was free of any confrontational elements – in line with the real intentions of both IPN historians who tried to participate in the discussion. After the short speech, which concluded precisely after five minutes, he thanked the organizers for their small gesture. Unfortunately, he was not informed that his balanced speech would be followed by additional comments from a representative of the organizers, the nature of which was far from the academic debate. The researcher was not allowed to respond to the comments. This was the only time when the IPN historians were allowed to speak during the two days of the conference.
I am describing these details so that you can assess for yourself whether the rules of free speech have been respected at the Conference. Of course, we do not impose our assessment of the facts. If EHESS provides you with the official recordings of the conference, you will be able to form your own opinion. You will also be able to compare the abovementioned speeches and decide which one meets the common standards of the academic community, which encourages discussions without anger and hatred. We are convinced that referencing the audio recordings is the best way to resolve this situation.
Therefore, I requested the President of EHESS, Mr. Christophe Prochasson, to provide the official recordings of the conference. I must mention that the audience was not allowed to record the sound in any way. Such restrictions are generally not common nowadays at academic conferences open to the public. In addition, at academic conferences organized by the Institute, interrupting speakers in any way or hampering their topic presentations is unacceptable. The rules of culture and good behavior should apply to everyone.
In normal circumstances, there is time for presenting alternative viewpoints during the time allocated for discussion, when the audience as well as the presenters may comment on the theses presented. I have no doubt that this conference’s academic standing would have also benefited if the freedom of discussion had been guaranteed and the speakers had been more diversified.
I am convinced that when the officials working for you listen to the entire recording of the conference they will be able to provide you with a more objective picture of the events, which will show the behavior of the organizers as well as the audience. It will allow you to assess whether there were in fact any incidents during the debate that can be regarded as anti-Semitic. It is worth mentioning that the Institute of National Remembrance did not undertake any activities discrediting the conference at any point during its duration through social media.
The Institute strongly condemns all incidents resulting from national, racial or religious prejudices and notes with concern the reports on the increase of their occurrences in the Western European countries. Therefore, we understand your concern and your need to react. Nevertheless, in cases like this, we should always assess the confirmed facts – regardless of the social or national group we are talking about. However, we have not received any reliable confirmation that there were any incidents of this kind during the conference. If there were any negative behaviors which suggest national, racial or religious prejudices – they always deserve unambiguous condemnation.
With regard to the events of the conference, it seems appropriate that, in the future, opinions pertaining to the researchers who were not allowed to freely participate in the conference discussions, as described above, be formulated more carefully.
I am convinced that it is the full transparency of academic actions, the readiness to confront our findings with the research of others and the openness of discussion that will make real academic growth possible. Also, I fully agree with you that “freedom of academic research is the heart of our common European identity”. It is essential that these rules are respected everywhere.
- Jarosław Gowin, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Science and Higher Education;
- Professor Jacek Czaputowicz Dr. Hab., Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland;
- His Excellency Tomasz Młynarski, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Poland in the French Republic and the Principality of Monaco;
- Professor Jerzy Duszyński Dr. Hab., President of the Polish Academy of Sciences