Russia and Poland are battling for supremacy in their quest to rewrite the history of World War II.
“Never forget” is a phrase commonly associated with the Holocaust. Presumably, world leaders sparring over their respective versions of history is not what thinkers and educators had in mind when they urged the postwar world to “remember” Nazi genocide.
Yet that is exactly what the war of words between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Polish leaders over the outbreak of World War II has evolved into.
The spat began with an oft-repeated canard advanced by those loyal to Putin’s regime that paints the West’s prewar policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany as part of a diabolical scheme to force the Soviet Union into war against Hitler. Most scholars regard the moves of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and others who followed his approach to have been some combination of naive, short-sighted or cowardly. But Russia’s reading of the events is largely dismissed outside of Russia as Kremlin propaganda.
On this occasion, an EU resolution, passed in September, that condemned the 1939 nonaggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany and the horrors of Stalinism seemed to have left President Putin especially ruffled. The result was a series of statements by the Russian president that deflected blame for the war’s outbreak to Poland (the nation overrun and brutally occupied by both the Nazis and the Soviets in September 1939) and pointing to the country’s deep anti-Semitism, claiming that Poles warmly welcomed Nazi occupation to rid them of their Jewish population.
“Essentially, [Poland] colluded with Hitler. This is clear from documents, archival documents,” President Putin said in a speech at Russia’s defense ministry at the end of December, where he dismissed the EU resolution as “complete nonsense.”
Within hours of the speech, Russian Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin demanded that Poland apologize for its role in the war’s outbreak.
Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, fought back with a long statement regaling readers with the facts and effects of the 1939 pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
“President Putin has lied about Poland on numerous occasions, and he has always done it deliberately. This usually happens when Russian authorities feel international pressure related to their activities — and the pressure is exerted not on the historical but [rather on the] contemporary geopolitical scene,” Morawiecki said.
True to the script of the prime minister’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), amid his rejection of President Putin’s assertions are many proud references to “Polish heroism.” PiS has faced its share of international criticism over its sole emphasis on Polish efforts to fight Nazi occupation while largely ignoring Polish collaboration. Laws and policy moves that punish those failing to toe this line have elicited strong condemnation.
In the midst of the Polish-Russian row, a dizzying blend of contemporary politics and World War II history, are commemorative events for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. As in past years, an international event is scheduled to be held on January 27 at the site of the camp in southern Poland, which will be addressed by world leaders, among them Polish President Andrzej Duda.
This year, another commemorative event will be held at Yad Vashem on January 22-23. One of its key speakers will be President Putin. The move is appropriate in light of the Red Army having been Auschwitz’s liberators, yet the fact that this event is sponsored by the European Jewish Congress and its president, Putin ally Dr. Moshe Kantor, adds a level of intrigue. Jewish communal politics is at play as well, as the event in Poland is led largely by World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who leads the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation.
Amid the uproar over what really happened in September 1939, last week, President Duda declined an invitation to the ceremony at Yad Vashem after he was not asked to be one of the event’s speakers — presumably because it limited his ability to rebut an anticipated Russified history lesson from President Putin.
Following a meeting with representatives of Poland’s Jewish community, President Duda offered his own explanation.
“To me, it is precisely here, in Poland, on our soil today, occupied back then by Nazi Germany, where those ashes are scattered. This is the place of immense symbolism. … Deep within my soul, I believe this is the appropriate place, the best one. I believe that one must not deprive this place of its remembrance by transferring it somewhere else.”
Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who was at the meeting, told Hamodia that he did not necessarily agree with the move, but that he understood President Duda’s choice.
“For Putin to blame Poles for starting World War II is an outrageous distortion of history, and for Duda to have to listen to such statements quietly would not be regarded well by a lot of people here in Poland, many in the Jewish community among them,” he said.
Rampant anti-Semitism in Poland and abundant instances of Nazi collaboration during occupation are widely acknowledged by historians. Yet non-Jewish Poles too were enslaved and murdered en masse by both Nazis and Soviet occupiers. As such, for those educated outside of Putin’s orbit, the assertion that the Polish nation is responsible for the Second World War sounds patently absurd. Still, its repeated utterance by one of the world’s most powerful leaders caused many to take the time to address his claims.
A Pact Between 2 Devils
The “treaty of non-aggression” signed in August 1939 between the Soviet Union’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, and his German counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was accompanied by several secret protocols that detailed what amounted to an agreement between Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler to divide much of Eastern Europe. A week after it was signed, Nazi forces invaded Poland from the west; two weeks after that, the Soviet Union did the same from the east. Over the next year, as country after country fell to the Nazis, the Red Army took control of the Baltic States and parts of Romania, and invaded Finland. From that time until June 1941, when Nazi forces broke the pact and invaded the USSR, the Soviets supplied Germany with coal, machinery and other materials vital to Hitler’s forces.
Why, in the face of such widely acknowledged facts, would President Putin push his case of Polish aggression and Soviet victimization?
“World War II is central to Russia’s national narrative and anything that casts a shadow on it is bad news for Putin. That makes Molotov-von Ribbentrop a very sensitive topic,” said Professor Peter Rutland, who teaches Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Wesleyan University.
He referenced the September EU resolution and posited that Russian pushback around the positioning of NATO troops in Poland near the Russian-controlled Kalingrad province as probable immediate causes, but said President Putin’s focus on the issue goes beyond politics.
“It’s very personal to him,” said Professor Rutland, mentioning the death of Putin’s brother during the siege of Leningrad. “This is not just a tactical devising thing. Putin gets very angry when anybody casts aspersions on Russia’s heroic role in the war.”
Despite an overall deflection of President Putin’s version of the outbreak of the Second World War, Professor Rutland said that his approach was not totally without merits.
“There’s some stuff in there that’s true,” he said. “There was anti-Semitism in Poland before, during, and after the war, some Poles have confronted that, but the current government does not want to go down that road, so Putin’s got a point there.”
Russia’s contemporary narrative of Molotov-von Ribbentrop centers largely on claims that Stalin’s offer to the Western powers to confront Nazism as a united front were rejected, leaving them with no choice but to accept the treaty as an opportunity to prepare for inevitable war. Most Western historians reject this view, pointing to the USSR’s land grab in 1939.
“It’s true that the Western allies did very little to confront Hitler before World War II. Britain and France sat out the Spanish Civil War and chickened out at Munich. It’s possible that Stalin would have been willing to go to war in 1938 if the West had joined him. But that is something that we will never know. What we do know is that Stalin signed a pact with Hitler that not only guaranteed peace for Germany, allowing them to invade Poland and start World War II, it also divided Poland and let Stalin take the Baltics and Moldova,” said Professor Rutland.
He also referenced Nazi-Soviet economic agreements and statements by Stalin, prior to Nazi invasion of his own country, hopeful that the war would continue to drag on and bleed both Germany and the Allies dry.
Monuments Past and Present
Exhibit A in President Putin’s assertion of Polish collusion with Hitler is a relatively minor historical figure: Jozef Lipski, who served as Poland’s ambassador to Germany in the prewar years.
After a 1938 meeting with Hitler, the ambassador penned a long memo to Polish Foreign Minister Jozef Beck detailing their exchange. Most of the document focuses on discussion of Poland’s position on the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia and other territorial matters.
Among Lipski’s points is the following statement, which was referenced by President Putin in his recent speech:
“[Hitler] is guided by the idea of settling the Jewish issue by emigration to a colony, in consultation with Poland, Hungary and possibly Romania (on this point I told him that if he found a solution, we would install for him a beautiful monument in Warsaw).”
President Putin referred to Lipski as an “anti-Semitic swine,” among other more colorful epithets, and held the statement up as proof of his theories about both past and present.
“He expressed full solidarity with Hitler in his anti-Semitic views,” said President Putin. “It is people like those who negotiated with Hitler — it is people like that who today are tearing down monuments to the liberating warriors, the Red Army soldiers who freed Europe and the European people from the Nazis. … Little has changed and we should take this into account when we build our armed forces, among other things.”
While many historians have pointed to Lipski’s comment as an example of Polish prewar anti-Semitism, some have argued that the quote has been taken out of context and that his intentions were actually to express hope that Hitler’s intense focus on “Jewish question” could be addressed through emigration and that he did not fathom the genocide that indeed followed.
In a joint statement rejecting President Putin’s accusations, the chairwoman of Poland’s Jewish communities, Klara Kołodziejska-Połtyn, and Rabbi Schudrich called attention to the fact that Lipski was personally involved in aiding thousands of Polish Jews expelled from Germany in 1938 and that government support for Jewish prewar emigration was done in tandem with Zionist organizations of the time.
In conversation, Rabbi Schudrich acknowledged the damning nature of Lipski’s statement, but stressed that President Putin’s adaptation was still a gross misrepresentation.
“There is a very clear distinction between the despicable approach of expelling Jews and the concept of genocide. You should not justify what he said, but you can’t [conflate] it with mass murder and use it as evidence that Poland is responsible for genocide.”
Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum said that Lipski’s words did speak loudly toward Polish anti-Semitism and pointed to the fact that they are mentioned in what is known as the Ringelblum Archive, or Oneg Shabbos, a large collection of writings intended to document life in occupied Poland and especially the Warsaw Ghetto.
“It reflects the perception of a Jew in Poland during the time immediately preceding the Holocaust,” he said.
Shades of Gray and Black
Had Russia’s talking points stopped at Polish anti-Semitism and Nazi-collaboration, there would have been ample evidence to support both claims. Yet Dr. Berenbaum said that such a record still does not live up to Putin’s accusations.
“There were plenty of Poles who were responsible for helping to kill Jews and who took their property, and there were also plenty of Poles who, before the war, would have been quite happy to get rid of them, but the idea of mass murder was something that was unimaginable to them and it is not something that they ever could have organized,” he said.
Dr. Berenbaum also pointed to the actions of the Polish government in exile, based in London for much of the war, as running contrary to Russian claims of national collaboration.
“The state of Poland was not involved in the Holocaust because it had been dissolved by the Nazis,” he said. “The reality is that the government in exile had to pay more attention to the Jews than it even wanted to because dealing in the West, they felt that the best way to be accepted was not to be openly anti-Semitic. It was something that was in their political self-interest.”
Beyond analyzing the details of President Putin’s claims, Professor Rutland lamented the politicization of history.
“These are things that historians can debate, but why is the leader of a government taking such an interest in it? History is something that is used as a weapon by many states, not only the Russians and Poles. It’s a way to undermine your political opponents that doesn’t cost anything,” he said. “The result is bad history, because real history is all about ambiguity and shades of gray. A politician trying to spin things will always make it black and white, good guys and bad guys.”
Rabbi Schudrich expressed disappointment that the Polish-Russian fight is overshadowing the commemoration of Auschwitz’s liberation.
“It’s very sad that 75 years later, even Auschwitz is now a political game for leaders to use as a platform,” he said. “This is supposed to be about more than 1.1 million people who were killed there, not your political agenda.”