Warsaw and Moscow, rethinking 1939

On 1st September, Polish, German and Russian leaders will attend a ceremony to remember the German invasion of Poland, which triggered the start of the Second World War. But behind the scenes, Warsaw and Moscow are involved in a war of words about the responsibility of the Soviet Union in the tragic events of 1939.

Published on 31 August 2009 at 16:18
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On the eve of official ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War II in Gdańsk, Russia’s PM Vladimir Putin has condemned the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939. In an open letter published by Gazeta Wyborcza, the Russian leader underlined however, that it wasn’t the only “trigger” which started the war. “A year before, France and England had signed an infamous agreement with Hitler in Munich, thus ruining all hopes for a united front against fascism”, argues Putin. As a consequence, the Soviet Union could not reject Germany’s offer to sign the non-aggression pact. So what are the lessons Putin draws from this fact? That it is “impossible to create an effective security system without the participation of all European countries, including Russia”. The Russian PM claims he understands Polish sensitivities over the murders of Polish officers and inteligentsia at Katyń and Miednoye by the Soviet security forces and calls for these Polish cemeteries as well as tombs of Russian prisoners of war, held captive by Poles after the 1920 Polish-Russian war, to become symbols of “common grief and mutual forgiveness”. “A promising perspective of partnership and a relationship worthy of two great European nations opens up for Russia and Poland”, stressed Putin.

Russian writer Vladimir Bukovsky, quoted by Dziennik, believes that the Russian prime minister and other members of the Kremlin establishment have for some time now been embarked on an aggressive propaganda campaign aimed not only at ‘softening’ the Poles ahead of Mr Putin’s appearance at Westerplatte, Gdańsk, on 1 September, but also at fully rehabilitating Stalin and “building Russian national identity on a sense of pride in a great empire – the Soviet Union.” According to Bukovsky, Poland has become the target of the Kremlin propagandists’ vicious attacks because “every dictatorship needs an external enemy to win the support of the people who would otherwise turn against it.” This won’t be changed by Mr Putin’s conciliatory words condemning, in an article for Gazeta Wyborcza, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and calling for reconciliation between Poles and Russians. As Andrzej Talaga notes in Dziennik, it is wrong to mix up truth and lies. “It is wrong to shun responsibility for starting World War II by trying to shift it on to Poland with more or less inept lies about alleged Polish-German plans for a joint invasion of Russia. It is wrong to “distort the basic facts and whitewash a criminal – Stalin. Our memory and theirs are different. That’s understandable,” writes Talaga. “But until we agree on the facts, words about reconciliation, however beautiful and inspiring, will fall on deaf ears.”

The German press is not sure what to make of the quarrel. Daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is surprised to note that “Poles are convinced that Poland had more influence on the course of WWII than any other nation, and that the Poles suffered more than any other people, even more than the Jews.” FAZ reports that the results of a poll published in Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza show that this interpretation of the war is the most prevalent in Poland. The German newspaper further takes the view that “Polocentrism,” to use a term coined by sociologist Piotr Kwiatkowski, will likely be a feature of the ceremony to remember the outbreak of the war.

“Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was ready to do all that was necessary to make Gdańsk the location of a grand scale international war museum,” notes FAZ. But at the last moment, the leaders of the United States and Western Europe, with the exception of Angela Merkel, opted to send only representatives to the ceremony. “They backed down just like the did 70 years ago,” remarks a Polish diplomat quoted in the Frankfurt daily: “the enemies are there, and the Allies don’t turn up.” “Vladimir Putin’s attendance appears to indicate an easing of tensions in Russian-Polish relations,” which will doubtless prevail until differences of opinion on the issue of “Russia’s enormous responsibility” in the triggering of the war come to the fore again,” observes FAZ.

On this question, age-old “Russian reflexes” are back, notes a headline in Süddeutsche Zeitung. Readers of the daily Rzeczpospolita had requested an official apology for the Russian invasion of Poland on 17 September, 1939. But Putin has dismissed criticism of Russia, which he qualifies as “cynical lies.” For the newspaper, Russians have long been convinced that they are surrounded by ” deniers of historical fact, who weave a cocoon of lies to downplay Russia’s role in the fight against fascism.”

According to Der Spiegel, many liberal Russian historians deplore the “glorification of the Stalinist era, while officially approved histories defend Stalin’s strategy as a masterpiece of tactics.” In view of the wide divergence of opinion on this issue, the weekly takes the view that Putin’s participation at the Gdansk commemoration “will be something of a balancing act, because what ever he says will come under intense scrutiny.”

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