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For Poland, shadow of 1939 hangs over today’s events

Soldiers stand guard today at the monument of World War II at Westerplatte, outside of Gdansk, Sept. 1, 2009.
REUTERS/Adam Chelstowski
Soldiers stand at attention today during ceremonies at the World War II monument at Westerplatte, outside of Gdansk, Poland.

Today, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have come to the Polish city of Gdansk to stand at the scene of one of their countries’ greatest crimes.

Seventy years ago, Gdansk was the Free City of Danzig — an autonomous region under the League of Nations, an enclave surrounded by Poland and carved out of the former German East Prussia, and an ethnic mixture of Poles and Germans. On Sept. 1, 1939, at 4:45 a.m., the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on a Polish military garrison in the Westerplatte peninsula of Danzig. The Germans expanded the invasion of Poland with attacks from the north, west and south. Britain declared war on Germany on Sept. 3. France followed Britain’s lead a few days later. World War II had begun.

A week before the German attack, Germany and the Soviet Union had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact pledging each to be neutral in the event the other went to war and inviting each to take its share of Poland. Germany would devour the west, leaving eastern Poland to the Soviet Union. On Sept. 17, the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the east. Overwhelmed, the Polish forces re-grouped in the south to wait for military support from Britain and France that never came.

On Oct. 6, Poland surrendered to the German occupation of its central and western regions that would last for six years, leave more than 6 million Poles dead, reduce its cities to rubble and abandon its Jewish population to death by starvation in the ghettos of its cities or the horrors of Auschwitz and the death camps of eastern Europe.

In eastern Poland, the Soviet occupation had its own record of atrocities — from the 20,000 Polish officers massacred in 1940 at the Katyn Forest to a campaign of arrests. Every second family in Soviet-occupied Poland lost a family member to imprisonment, deportation, or execution.

From Vladimir Putin, we can expect the confession of a few sins but also the commission of a few sins of omission. On Monday, in an interview with a Polish newspaper, he acknowledged that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a ‘crime” and “immoral.” However, he compared Stalin’s action to the cynicism that led Britain and France to sign the Munich Pact and sacrifice Czechoslovakia to Germany. He indiscreetly added that Poland was no different from the rest when it annexed two provinces of Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Munich Pact.

Putin did not make the one comparison the Poles are demanding. His remarks have managed to unite at least for the day Polish opinion from the nationalist right to the liberal left.

Both demand much more from Putin. Above all else, the Poles want a public acknowledgement and apology from Putin that the crimes of Stalin were comparable to the atrocities of Hitler.

They want an admission that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the immediate cause of the war in 1939. They also want apologies from Putin for a long list of crimes that came in 1939-40 — the massacres at Katyn; the Soviet annexation of eastern Poland, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, portions of Ukraine and Romania; and the deportations that came with the Soviet occupation. If you remember the Polish leader who presided over martial law in the 1980s — Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, you may recall one detail in his appearance. He always wore dark glasses. As a child in 1940, he was deported to the Kazakh Soviet Republic (Kazakhstan today) where he did forced labor in the mines and suffered permanent damage to his eyes. Even those Poles — like Jaruzelski, who later collaborated with the Soviet regime — carried scars from the Soviet occupation.

This argument over the past is really an argument about the present. Putin will concede no more about the events of 1939. His regime rests upon the denial of Stalin’s crimes and the re-packaging of old Soviet myths about its past. It justifies his strong hand in the Kremlin, its claims of a “privileged sphere of interest” in the nations carved out of the former Soviet Union and its determination to keep NATO out of Ukraine and Georgia.

The Poles see the shadow of 1939 in 2009. They see shades of the Munich Pact in the West’s accommodation to last year’s invasion of Georgia by the Russians and their de facto annexation of Georgian territory. They resist Germany’s suggestions that NATO’s eastward expansion be postponed. They are suspicious about what President Obama meant in July when he called for a “re-start” of U.S.-Russian relations or why his administration chose last week to announce it was re-considering the deployment of missile interceptors — the Missile Shield — in Poland and the Czech Republic. The decision of the Obama administration to send a relatively low-level delegation led by National Security Adviser James Jones to represent the United States in Gdansk today is a signal to Warsaw that, unlike the previous administration, Obama does not want to be part of Warsaw’s feud with Moscow.

There’s a danger to this use of the past. As the novelist William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Poland exaggerates the Russian threat of 2009, wrongly comparing it to Stalin’s Russia of 1939. Russia over-reacts to NATO and the Missile Defense Shield viewing the West of 2009 through the lens of Germany in another year of WWII — 1941.

In the West and especially in the United States, we no longer argue about the causes of WWII in Europe and view the events from the perspective of a rather simple and agreed-upon narrative. The problem with this narrative is that it is just credible enough to be dangerously wrong. We use the word “appeasement,” taken from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain‘s justification of the Munich Pact, as a rhetorical bludgeon against those who advocate a diplomatic, rather than a military, solution to international crises. We see in every hostile, petty dictator a totalitarian on the scale of a Hitler. We see in every conflict an apocalyptic battle for the survival of civilization and expect our leaders to play the role of a latter-day Churchill.

It is not just a problem for the East Europeans. It is true for us as well. World War II is not even past.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/01/2009 - 02:25 pm.

    As someone (who?) said, the missile defense system the U.S. wants in Poland and the Czech Republic is a system that doesn’t work meant to counter a threat that does not exist.
    If the Obama administration is smart enough to cancel this paranoid Bush-Cheney project, I say Hallelujah.

    Note: Russia did not invade Georgia.

    South Ossetia and its neighbor would prefer to be part of Russia, not of Georgia. Georgia invaded South Ossetia’s capital in the middle of the night, causing great damage to the city’s infrastructure and killing somewhere between 400 and 1,200 sleeping, unarmed citizens. Russia came to its defense. It did not “invade Georgia” without cause, as has been charged.

    This invasion came after the US helped Saakashvili become president and after the US spent a few billions to beef up the Georgian military and the US and Israel trained its soldiers. President S. was visited several times before the invasion by Condolleeza Rice and by John McCain (head of the International Republican Institute, which helps the world develop “democracy”) and Joe Lieberman.

    Within a few days of Georgia’s invasion, the US media spoke only of Russia’s “invasion of Georgia” while the BBC published an article called something like, “US attempts to rewrite history” and Mr. Gorbachev published a long article describing the truth, which apparently was not read by many American journalists.

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/01/2009 - 03:02 pm.

    I have a polish neighbor so I like to know. Also enjoyed our brief lived polish film fests. Why does Poland bear the brunt so often? They have bright industrious people, natural resources etc. Simply is it an accident of geography and leadership?

  3. Submitted by John Sobieski on 09/01/2009 - 03:06 pm.

    Note: Russia invaded Georgia.

    I’m a progressive democrat while I am not at all pleased with the Obama Administration’s attitude toward Poland and it’s defense shame on anyone willing to be an apologist for Russian aggression. I’ve seen the dark forest of Katyn. Anyone wishing to “repair” or smooth out Putin’s feathers is at best naïve and at worst complicit to the horrors still waiting to emerge from the east.

  4. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 09/01/2009 - 03:55 pm.

    Bernice, John, I think you’re both oversimplifying a bit. South Ossetia and Abkhazia became part of Georgia during the Soviet era and remained part after independence. The South Ossetians and Abkazia have been trying to break away from Georgia, and received Russian support. Georgia made a stupid decision to settle South Ossetia by force. I can only guess they were led to think this could work by US neocons, given how they seemed to expect US help. I think that’s the untold story: who in the US told the Georgians what before the war.

    The fact is the Georgians started it, but it’s also true the Russians encouraged the Ossetians, and went beyond repelling the invasion and into Georgia itself. There is no good guy here.

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