As the world marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the biggest Nazi death camp, Poland and Russia bicker over World War II culpability.
Seventy-five years after Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, more than 100 Holocaust survivors were set to gather in Poland on Monday to mark what may be the last big anniversary of the event for many.
Twenty-seven heads of state were also expected to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day in the shadow of the largest Nazi extermination camp.
Yet as survivors congregate at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial in the southern Polish town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz, in German), their stories risk being overshadowed by a historical blame game between Poland and Russia.
Historians say the illiberal regimes of both countries have constructed clashing versions of World War II events for political gain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be at Auschwitz on Monday. Instead, he was a key guest at the World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Rememberance Centre, in Jerusalem on January 23. In addition to commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, the forum focused on fighting rising anti-Semitism worldwide.
Polish President Andrzej Duda declined to attend the Jerusalem event, saying the organisers refused to let him give a speech on the same day as Putin, despite being “the leader of the country whose citizens were the majority of Holocaust victims”.
Some historians noted the irony of Poland taking ownership of a Jewish population that was often discriminated against by Poles and sometimes the target of violence in the run-up to the war.
The Yad Vashem forum was organised by the World Holocaust Foundation. According to a profile in Israeli daily Haaretz, the foundation’s head, Moshe Kantor, is a businessman who amassed a fortune in Russia during the mass privatisation of state assets in the 1990s. He is, says the paper, “careful not to cross Putin”.
By all accounts, Putin’s speaking slot was reserved well in advance.
Russia Targets Poland
In December, Putin made a series of public statements accusing Poland of sharing responsibility for starting World War II.
“And what kind of people are those who hold such conversations with Hitler?” Putin said in a speech during an informal meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States in St Petersburg.
He cited an alleged conversation between Adolf Hitler and wartime Polish Foreign Minister Jozef Beck.
“It was them who, while pursuing their mercenary and exorbitantly overgrown ambitions, laid their people, the Polish people, open to attack from Germany’s military machine, and, moreover, generally contributed to the beginning of the Second World War,” he said. “What else can one think after reading these documents?”
In his speech, Putin argued that Hitler could have been contained if Warsaw had let the Soviet Red Army pass through Poland to defend Czechoslovakia, but instead Poland participated in the annexation of that country in 1938.
Putin’s remarks were in part a rebuke to a European Parliament resolution in September that stressed that World War II was caused by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of August 23, 1939 and its secret German-Soviet protocol aimed at dividing Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence.
The resolution, promoted by MEPs from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), also draws equivalence between the Nazi and communist regimes of Hitler and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, respectively, in that they “carried out mass murders, genocide and deportations and caused an unprecedented loss of life and freedom”.
Even so, many Russian observers say Putin’s remarks are part of a bigger — “imperial” — strategy, which is served by depicting the Soviet Union as a liberator of Europe from the Nazis and a safe haven for Jews, while brushing aside the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.
“Creating an alternative to the dominant Western narrative about that war is key to Putin’s way of securing Russia’s place in the world,” Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote in a recent article.
“If the Soviet Union is primarily seen as Hitler’s ally at the outset of the war — which of course it was — rather than a Hitler conqueror at its conclusion, if Russia has never really been on the right side of history, it has no claim to moral authority and to a role as a global arbiter. To Putin, that role is, in a way, as important as Russia’s nuclear shield,” Bershidsky concludes.
Creating an alternative to the dominant Western narrative about that war is key to Putin’s way of securing Russia’s place in the world.
– Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky
Polish researcher and former Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld took up the theme in an interview with weekly Polityka in January.
“Putin is aiming to turn Russia into a global power and is opening a new stage in the Russian strategy,” Rotfeld said. “He has imperial ambitions, but he cannot use ethnical nationalism as a unifying tool. His imperium is made up of several nations.
“The unifying glue now is a founding myth represented by the victory over the Western evil represented by the Third Reich.”
Rotfeld added that from a Russian perspective, Poland has been seen as an important element of the “Western threat” since the beginning of the 17thCentury, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth invaded Orthodox Russia.
To some of his Russian audience, Putin’s demonising of Poland over the start of World War II has echoes of a relationship that is as tense as it is centuries-old.
Nevertheless, Putin’s decision to target Poland with his remarks is mostly rooted in contemporary politics, analysts say.
Poles As ‘Greatest Victims’
PiS has consolidated its power from the start by claiming to defend the “regular Pole” — one weary of the alleged abuses of the arrogant liberal elites who had governed the country until the party started its first term in office in 2015.
PiS also brought a reading of history that presented Poles as both victimised and heroic, and it was this kind of historical perspective that amplified the party’s main political message: you have been victimised by the liberal elites in the same way that Poles have been victimised across history — and we (PiS) will give you justice.
“The PiS historical narrative stressed the victimhood and innocence of Poles, in a manner typical for collective narcissists, idealising one’s own national community, understood in an ethnic way,” Michal Bilewicz, a social psychologist at Warsaw University, told BIRN.
“Therefore, they opposed any narratives that put blame on ethnic Poles.”
PiS is fond of describing Poles as history’s biggest victims, bringing up the country’s past partitions and its double oppression in the 20th Century, first under Nazism and then under communism.
In doing so, it systematically equates the two regimes. It also refuses to admit any responsibility for Polish crimes against Jews committed during World War Two, despite gestures by previous Polish leaders to acknowledge the country’s more ambiguous past.
Instead, PiS stresses instances of individual Poles saving Jews or efforts of the Polish government in exile to notify the world about the Holocaust.
During the 2015 presidential campaign, Duda infamously reproached his rival, ex-President Bronislaw Komorowski, for comments he made about the Jedwabne pogrom, a wartime massacre of Jews by Poles. Komorowski had said “a nation of victims must admit the difficult truth that it was also a perpetrator”.
Duda retorted: “What does your policy to defend the good name of Poland look like in this case?”
In 2001, historian Jan Gross from Princeton University published a book titled Neighbours in which he explores the 1941 massacre of Jews committed by their non-Jewish neighbours in the eastern town of Jedwabne. The book caused a huge controversy in Poland and led then President Aleksander Kwasniewski to encourage Poles to “seek forgiveness for what our compatriots have done”.
Duda’s question to Komorowski, then, was meant to signal to voters that, unlike his predecessors, he would not tolerate any chipping away at Poland’s historical reputation. That is a policy that PiS has pursued ever since — regardless of the historical truth.
Soon after coming to power, the PiS government took over the World War II museum in Gdansk, overhauling the original exhibition of an institution praised internationally for its nuanced analysis of the war. To PiS, the original curation did not present “the Polish point of view” dominantly enough.
PiS has also been critical of some exhibitions in POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, another institution well regarded internationally.
Since last year, the government has held up the reappointment of Dariusz Stola, the former director, despite a selection committee’s decision to keep him on for another five years after his first term ended. Culture Minister Piotr Glinski had accused Stola of being “anti-Polish”.
In 2018, PiS passed a law that called for prison sentences of up to three years for those who “falsely” attribute to Poland crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
While one of the aims of the law was to get rid of the common short hand “Polish death camps” (a reference to Nazi death camps in occupied Poland), critics noted that its broad formulation meant that anyone looking into anti-Semitic acts committed by Poles during the war (such as Jedwabne) were liable for prosecution.
Following criticism by the United States and Israel, PiS amended the law to eliminate the criminal character of the alleged misdeed.
PiS has also been adamant about not paying compensation for Jewish property looted by the Nazi during World War II. Much of that property was then nationalised by the postwar communist regime.
Poland has never established an effective mechanism for restoring property — whether for Jews or non-Jews affected by nationalisation. That means anyone seeking to reclaim property has to rely on the courts, a complicated process that is rarely successful.
“In all these cases, the main attempt was to silence critical voices — by changing the content of exhibitions, imposing potential censoring policies and public attacks on those who do not obey to their narrative,” said Bilewicz, the social psychologist.
“This makes it more difficult to express the Jewish voice about history. The Jewish narrative would stress that Nazi crimes could not be equalised to Soviet ones, that pre-war Poland was an openly anti-Semitic and discriminatory country, and much of the Polish underground was hostile to Jews during the Holocaust.”
Bilewicz, who works at the Centre for Research on Prejudice at Warsaw University, said research conducted by his team found that the overall level of anti-Semitism has not increased in Poland over recent years.
However, expressions of anti-Semitic sentiment have become much more public, especially online, he noted.
“This suggests that people who were holding anti-Semitic beliefs were self-censoring before, due to political correctness norms in Polish society before 2015,” he said.
“Today, these people are more willing to express their views and feel that these opinions are legitimate. This is obviously caused by the governmental rhetoric.”
‘Preserve The Truth’
In a public response to Putin’s remarks, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki appealed for international solidarity in safeguarding historical truth.
“Together we must preserve the truth — in the name of the memory about the victims and for the good of our common future,” he said in a statement on December 29.
Many commentators scoffed at the credibility of Morawiecki’s appeal to jointly defend historical truth, given that his government is itself responsible for distorting it — and has even, on occasion, defied Polish historians who have tried to bring nuance to the historical narrative and acknowledge responsibility where warranted.
“Morawiecki’s response is an example, I believe, of how current PiS statements make things worse, not better,” Tarik Cyril Amar, a historian specialising in Eastern Europe at Koc University in Istanbul, told BIRN. “It does not feature any direct falsehoods but it has a polemical and, I think, insincere slant.”
Amar added: “For instance, Morawiecki is right that the Hitler-Stalin pact was not simply a defensive alliance and that, temporarily, the Stalinist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany cooperated proactively.
“But he also states that it was the Hitler-Stalin pact that started the war, thereby implying that the two powers’ agreeing on the pact were equally guilty of starting the war.
“That is deeply mistaken and misleading: the Soviet participation in the pact, with its secret protocols, was not innocent. However, the power that wanted to wage war at all cost and whose core policies of aggrandisement and imperialism were responsible for the war was Nazi Germany, not the Soviet Union.
“That is, I think, the key problem with much Polish discourse here: not merely, and often correctly, pointing to specific Soviet crimes but generally equating — in the rhetorically popular but historically inadequate ‘totalitarian’ or ‘double genocide’ framing — the Soviets and the Germans, which is both historically wrong and also plausibly not acceptable to Russia.
In a recent article in oko.press, Polish journalist Piotr Pacewicz said: “Sliding so easily into a war of words with the Russian president, Morawiecki only makes Putin’s job easier.”
Pacewicz pointed to a more measured response to Putin issued by the Polish foreign ministry in December that argued for a revival of a mixed commission — the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters — allowing historians and researchers from both countries to collaborate on finding a common understanding of controversial historical events.
Leonid Bershidsky wrote in his article for Bloomberg: “It’s precisely these complexities, though, that make any kind of government involvement in shaping the memory of World War II so abhorrent. Even if narrative wars are a reality, refusing to fight them is the strongest possible position.”