An extraordinary row between Russia and Poland over the second world war is refusing to die down and threatens to overshadow commemorations for the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has suggested Poland is partly to blame for the war’s outbreak. Poland’s president Andrzej Duda has hit back, accusing Putin of an ‘historical lie’. ‘The words of Vladimir Putin are a complete distortion of historical truth,’ he added.
This war of words has hit a nerve in two countries shaped by what happened in the second world war. For Russians and Poles, the war is of immense cultural significance. Russians are proud that they defeated the Nazi invasion; Poles are proud that they never stopped resisting in the face of Nazi and Soviet aggression.
The problem is that these interpretations are almost incompatible. How can the Russians and the Poles remember the second world war together when Russians believe it represented a glorious victory over the barbarous Reich and Poles believe it began with the Soviets carving up their country with that very same regime and ended with their installation of a brutal communist government?
For decades, under the Polish communist government, this contradiction was veiled under obscurantism and censorship. The Katyn massacre, where the NKVD slaughtered 22,000 Polish officers and members of the intelligentsia, was long claimed by the USSR to have been a German atrocity. In 1981, when the Polish Solidarity trade union erected a memorial that simply read “Katyn, 1940”, the communists hastily replaced it with a memorial that read: “To the Polish soldiers—victims of Hitlerite fascism—reposing in the soil of Katyn.”
After communism eventually fell, there were some attempts to seek conciliation over the massacre. In 2010, Vladimir Putin became the first Russian leader to join Polish commemorations of Katyn. Putin also officially acknowledged for the first time that the Soviet Union’s ‘totalitarian regime’ was responsible for what happened.
Putin avoided apologising for the massacre – or indeed acknowledging it had been a massacre – but made the justified argument that Russians as well as Poles had been victims of Stalin. It was an unprecedented moment of goodwill, even if it was marred somewhat by Putin’s suggestion hours later that Stalin had been seeking vengeance for the deaths of tens of thousands of Russian prisoners of war in 1920 as a result of disease and hunger. But still, progress was being made.
Tragically, just two days afterwards, Polish president Lech Kaczynski and dozens of Polish officials were killed in the Smolensk air disaster as they travelled to an event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the massacre. Resulting disputes about responsibility for the disaster and alleged mistreatment of the wreckage soured relations between Russia and Poland once again.
In the years since, things have continued to deteriorate. Violence in Crimea has heightened tensions between Russia and Poland. But it is history – as with the latest flashpoint – that has continued to inspire diplomatic conflict.
Russians were outraged in 2015 when locals in Pieniezno removed a monument to Ivan Chernyakhovsky, a Red Army general who played a key role in rounding up Polish resistance fighters.
After Russian ministers were not invited to attend last year’s commemorations of the beginning of the second world war, several Russian politicians and media outlets invented preposterous lies about the war. Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky even claimed ‘all textbooks need to specify once and for all: Poland is the main culprit of the start of World War II’.
But it took a European Parliament resolution months later – “On the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe” – to really inspire Putin to step up his efforts to revise Poland’s role in the war.
Granted, the resolution was at times ill-worded, claiming, falsely, that Hitler and Stalin “shared the goal of world conquest”. But the tidal wave of historical revisionism that Putin released at a Commonwealth of Independent States meeting was unprecedented.
The Poles, Putin suggested, had been conspiring with Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, he claimed, the Russians had merely occupied parts of Polish territories after the government had collapsed to prevent them from falling into Nazi hands.
Putin was partly right when he claimed that Polish diplomacy was reckless and hubristic. It was inasmuch as Poles were confident that war could be avoided. But the historian Sergey Radchenko has explained how Putin overstated Polish overtures towards the Germans while understating Soviet cynicism and brutality.
Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki hit back with a furious letter. It observed that while Putin portrayed the Soviets in the most humanitarian terms, they had spent the years before the conflict executing members of their Polish minority and spent the months after their invasion of Poland plotting the Katyn Massacre. It is hard to get around those facts.
The Russians then escalated the finger pointing by releasing documents suggesting “Home Army” units had executed Jews and Ukrainians in Warsaw. Morawiecki dismissed the allegation, accusing Russia of peddling ‘nonsense’.
For many Poles, today’s row with Russia is only the latest continuation of Putin’s nonsense and fake news. This week, Putin will address an event in Jerusalem marking the liberation of Auschwitz. Poland’s president Andrzej Duda – who, controversially, was not invited to speak – will not attend.
Will Putin strike a note of compromise? It seems unlikely. But with all the common problems that we face in the present it is tragic that we have to squabble about the past.