Home > Polish history > 70 years from the outbreak of WWII – but not everything has been settled (?)

70 years from the outbreak of WWII – but not everything has been settled (?)

Here’s an interesting article by Anne Applebaum from The Washington Post (appeared on their site yesterday).

Two quotes to give you the gist of what she’s saying:

1. No German chancellor wants any of Germany’s neighbors to doubt that Germany is still very sorry about 1939 (even if some are rather indifferent). And none wants Germany’s neighbors to fear German aggression today.

2. Last weekend, Russian state television ran a long documentary essentially arguing that Stalin was justified in ordering the 1939 invasion of Poland and the Baltic states — and in making a secret deal with Hitler — on the grounds that Poland itself was in a “secret alliance” with the Nazis.  […]

But from the perspective of the Russian ruling elite, such interpretations make sense: By praising Stalin’s aggression toward the Soviet Union’s neighbors 70 years ago, they help justify Russia’s aggression toward its neighbors today, at least in the eyes of the Russian public. Certainly they serve to make Russia’s Central European neighbors anxious

Anyway: lots of sensitive issues, and certainly a thought-provoking read, whether one agrees with Applebaum’s stance or not. To many Western readers some of her interpretations may seem almost paranoid. After all, the Russian gestures she mentions are only slightly menacing. Isn’t she reading too much into them? I don’t know. I’d like to believe she is but, frankly, I don’t feel confident about it…

The Russian documentary Applebaum mentions (it has met with outrage over here but I’m not sure if it has been noticed anywhere else in the world) is just one example of an extremely worrying trend (and not a new one by any means). Another is this interview in Komsomolskaya Pravda (in Russian, from last week) with professor Natalia Narochnitskaya – a historian. The interview is an unsettling example of the sort of historical thinking that seems to be rather popular in modern-day Russia. It is filled to the brim with extremely disturbing statements.

Here’s one illustration: Narochnitskaya attempts to justify (not just explain) the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, saying, among other things, that the territories it guaranteed to Russia were rightfully hers because, for example, the parts of Ukraine and Belarus which were within Polish borders before the outbreak of WWII were in fact “territories of the Russian empire”. This little piece of muddled thinking (consider how small it is indeed!) is pernicious in many ways. I’ll name two. First of all, there’s the rather terrifying suggestion that Ukraine and Belarus (modern-day Ukraine and modern-day Belarus!) ought to be Russian territories. It may be what one might call “a fleeting suggestion” but it’s there. Then there’s the attempt to pit Ukraine, Belarus and Poland against each other. Divide et impera. Poland is an ardent supporter of the independence and political transformation towards democracy in both of those countries – what better way to weaken them than by alienating them from their supporter? There’s more one could say about Narochnitskaya’s statement (why would any country respect post-WWI borders?) but let’s stop here.

There are other strange and disturbing assertions in that interview. For example, the thought that Poland owes Russia an apology for… the Polish–Muscovite War! That’s the one that took place in the years 16051618 (in case you were wondering)…

And, yes, the slandering suggestion of a Polish “secret alliance” with the Nazis is here as well. Well, not really that. But Narochnitskaya claims that in 1939 the Polish government was trying to unite with Hitler against Ukraine. Note two things: Firstly, pure stipulation about an alliance that never came into being (if indeed there ever were any such attempts – after all, this may be fabrication or an intentional misreading of facts) is used to counterweight an alliance that not only existed but was acted upon (the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact). What is more, she is pitting Ukraine and Poland against each other again!

But the highlight of the interview is the mention of alleged Polish war atrocities during the Polish-Soviet War of 1920. These were first brought up rather late, in 1990, when Gorbachev admitted that the Katyn massacre was a Soviet crime. It’s quite easy to understand why it took so long for these alleged Polish atrocities to be “revealed”, as well as the reason it happened at that specific opportune moment. The “controversy” was settled in 2004 by a team of historians from Poland and Russia who established that the high death toll in Polish POW camps – actually, many times smaller than what the accusers claimed, 5 times less than the number Narochnitskaya gives – was due to poor sanitary conditions and not to the deliberate starving of prisoners (or even less so: mass executions). What is really amazing (in a rather morbid sense) is how Narochnitskaya brings up those accusations (in an eerie re-enactment of what has already happened) in the context of the Katyn massacre (incidentally, she seems to be thinking that Russia has already done everything it ought to about Katyn – how about rehabilitating the victims, eh?). Could it be that Katyn denial is morphing, before our very eyes, into… how shall I call it?… Katyn justification? Shudder.

Perhaps this sort of thing should be disregarded as warmed-up Soviet propaganda. Maybe one should treat it as odd rather than menacing. Komsomolskaya Pravda (‘The Komsomol Truth’) is, after all, considered a tabloid. Personally, I would not dare to classify it all as anything less than disturbing.

  1. 1 September 2009 at 19:06

    Funny. Only today someone in the street asked me what day it was. 1st September, I said, adding: Start of the Second World War 70 years ago. ‘Really?’ the man said, and smiled appreciatively…

    Interesting post, Maciek. It’s rather disturbing, as you say, to see these nationalist mouthings coming from Russia. Russia reminds me a bit of post World War 1 Germany. I hope no strange but telegenic individual will come forward to want to satisfy Russia’s renewed sense of importance.

    • maciek
      1 September 2009 at 22:22

      I don’t know. Russia’s current attitude towards Ukraine doesn’t seem very friendly. And there’s Georgia. And this 1984-like ignorance of true history (the survey Applebaum mentions).

  2. maciek
    1 September 2009 at 22:48

    Re today’s Westerplatte celebrations.

    Found through wordpress (I’m sure there’s better stuff out there, I’m just too lazy):

    1) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/poland/6118282/Russia-and-Poland-trade-insults-on-70th-anniversary-of-World-War-Two.html

    2) and more links in this blog entry: http://mairyone.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/putin-won-the-date-donald-tusk-brushed-off-wars-anniversary-in-poland/

  3. maciek
    18 September 2009 at 14:31

    Interesting article (Михаил Зыгарь, Елена Черненко – Уроки истерии) in the Russian edition of Newsweek from several weeks ago (31st August). About how Katyn has always been “used” to serve Russian(/Soviet) politics and how Russian denial has all to do with money – it’s really an attempt to avoid paying reparations. The entire anti-Polish smear campaign might be connected with that (not sure about Ukraine… but what about the Holodomor?).

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