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The Dispute Over World War II That Is Causing a Major Rift Between Poland and Russia

Haaretz explains the controversy over who holds responsibility for collaboration with Nazi Germany, and the contradictory position of Israel and Yad Vashem

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
נשיא רוסיה פוטין (משמאל) בסנט פטרבורג ונשיא פולין דודה בווילנה, בנובמבר
Vladimir Putin and Andrzej Duda.Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Ahead of the International Holocaust Forum convention Thursday at Yad Vashem, a diplomatic spat has developed between Russia and Poland about the role each played in World War II.

People around the world will be watching the speeches by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the memorial ceremony in Jerusalem, to see if Putin perseveres in the anti-Polish campaign he’s been pursuing in recent months, and whether Netanyahu will support him and further exacerbate tensions between Israel and Poland.

Hijacking the Holocaust for Putin, politics and power

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What is the conflict about?

As Russia marks the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation by the Red Army, positioning itself as the one that heroically vanquished Nazi Germany, Poland has been sticking spokes into Putin’s wheels. Warsaw is accusing Moscow of being responsible for the outbreak of WWII and of committing war crimes against the Polish people during the war and afterwards. In turn, Putin claims that it was Poland that had played a role in the war’s outbreak, and has displayed forgotten archival documents to show it.

What does Russia want from Poland?

Russia is reminding Poland of unflattering chapters in its history that, according to Putin, indicate ideological and actual collaboration with Nazi Germany on the eve of WWII, and that the Polish government did not hesitate to cooperate with the Nazi regime when it served its purposes.

Russia argues that Poland played a role in the war’s outbreak because of its share in the aftermath of the Munich Agreement. Following the agreement in 1938, in which the West capitulated to Hitler and enabled him to divide Czechoslovakia, Poland gave the vanquished Czechoslovakia an ultimatum, demanding that it hand over part of Silesia. Prague gave in, and in coordination with Nazi Germany, the Polish army moved in and the region was annexed to Poland.

Russia also notes that before WWII, Poland, like many other European countries, signed a mutual non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. Indeed, the two countries did sign such an agreement in 1934, for a 10-year term. Putin claims that the agreement shows that even before the Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact of 1939 – which paved the way for World War II – other nations had entered into agreements with the Nazis.

Putin also reminds Poland of anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi statements made by Polish politicians and diplomats who supported the persecution of Jews before the war broke out. For example, the Polish ambassador to Germany, Józef Lipski, who according to Putin said he fully agreed with Hitler's anti-semitic ideology. According to a book by Yaacov Shavit and Jehuda Reinharz, “The Road to September 1939”: “When Józef Lipski, the Polish ambassador to Berlin, heard from Hitler that it was necessary to organize the emigration of Jews to some overseas colonies, he responded that if Hitler succeeded in finding such a solution, they would erect a grand monument in his honor in Warsaw.”

What is Poland saying about Russia?

Poland accuses Russia of full co-responsibility for the outbreak of WWII because it signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement on August 23, 1939. The pact included non-aggression and dividend of areas of influence in Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the USSR. Subsequently, after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, so did the USSR, and occupied Poland was split between them. The pact was supposed to be in force for a decade, but it didn’t last even two years, as the Germans violated it by invading the Soviet Union in June of 1941.

Poland also charges Russia with war crimes against the Polish people during WWII, reminding them, for instance, that in 1940 the USSR murdered tens of thousands of Polish people in the Katyn Forest, near the Russian city of Smolensk. For decades after the war Russia denied culpability in the slaughter and blamed it on Nazi Germany. Only after the USSR’s fall did the Russians admit that the massacre had been personally ordered by Stalin.

To this day, many in Poland – mainly from the right – accuse Russia of responsibility for the death of former Polish president Lech Kaczyski, claiming he was assassinated. The plane carrying him and a host of Polish dignitaries crashed when flying through Russian airspace in 2010. They were en route to attend a formal ceremony marking 70 years since the Katyn massacre.

Warsaw also opposes crowning the Soviets as the liberators of occupied Poland in 1945. Poland claims Russia didn’t free it but had re-occupied it until the fall of the communist regime in 1990, an occupation that claimed millions of lives.

Finally, Poland accuses the USSR of not standing behind in its resistance to the Nazi occupation even when it ostensibly could have. In this context, the Polish leaders point to the two rebellions in Warsaw: the Jewish ghetto rebellion of 1943 and the Polish rebellion of 1944. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote this week in Politico: “While the people of Warsaw waited hopefully for help, Joseph Stalin never ordered the Red Army to intervene.” He added that in 1944, “the Soviet army stood 200 kilometers from Auschwitz, but the offensive was halted, allowing the Germans time to retreat and organize death marches until January 1945. He concluded that “Rescuing Jews was never a priority for Stalin and the Red Army” even though it was the Red Army that would liberate Auschwitz, at the end of the day.  

Why did the Russia-Poland spat erupt now?

This diplomatic row, featuring harsh accusations of lies and historic cover-ups, is not new. It resurges from time to time, depending on current events or memorial days. It erupted anew on September 1, when Poland marked the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of WWII in a number of official events and ceremonies – to which Russia was not invited.

Also in September, the European Parliament passed a resolution about the the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe. Among other things the resolution says: “The communist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a Treaty of Non-Aggression, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact… dividing Europe and the territories of independent states between the two totalitarian regimes and grouping them into spheres of interest, which paved the way for the outbreak of the Second World War.” The furious Putin claimed that the pact had been signed as a last resort and that Russia had no choice because it was alone in trying to build an alliance against Nazi Germany.

This month, the Polish parliament published a similar resolution even more stringent in its criticism of Russia, accusing it of “manipulation and falsifying history”.

But Poland is also accused of historical revisionism. What’s going on?

In recent years, under the “Law and Justice” nationalist government, Warsaw has taken various actions to amend the policy of Holocaust remembrance, claiming that Poland has been unjustly accused of collaboration with the Nazis, when in fact it was the first victim and paid the heaviest price for their crimes. In 2018, Poland approved the controversial Holocaust Law, which sought to criminalize linking Poland to Nazi war crimes in the Holocaust. 

From Poland’s perspective, the law aims to defend the truth about WWII and the good name of the country and its people against any accusation of complicity in the Holocaust and responsibility for its atrocities.The amended law doesn't impose criminal responsibility and a prison sentence on violators.   

The law was harshly criticized by Diaspora Jews and in Israel on grounds that it would contribute to Holocaust denial by banning the mention of proven cases of Polish involvement in Nazi crimes during the war, such as the pogrom carried out by Poles against their Jewish neighbors in Jedwabne in 1941.

Following the criticism, leaders of Poland and Israel signed in June 2018 a joint statement that Poles who collaborated with the Nazis did so “regardless of their origin, religion or worldview,” praising the “heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people,” and rejected “actions aimed at blaming Poland or the Polish nation as a whole.”

In July 2019, senior historians at Yad Vashem released a statement of their own, saying that the joint Netanyahu-Morawiecki statement contains “historical assertions, presented as unchallenged facts” that “contain grave errors and deceptions,” and supports “a narrative that research has long disproved.” 

The historians’ main claim was that in contrast to the politicians’ statement, “Poles’ assistance to Jews during the Holocaust was relatively rare, and attacks against and murders of Jews were widespread.”

What is the connection to the international Holocaust Forum?

Leaders from both Russia and Poland were supposed to honor the event with their presence, but Polish president Andrzej Duda is boycotting it after his request to deliver a speech was denied. Putin, however, will be giving an address, as will leaders from Germany, France, the U.S. and others. The Polish were furious and hurt that they aren’t allowed to speak and suggested that Putin would exploit the dais at Yad Vashem to pursue his anti-Polish campaign even further.

A visitor looking at an exhibition in front of a picture of the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, January 20, 2020.
A visitor looking at an exhibition in front of a picture of the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, January 20, 2020.Credit: AFP

Behind the scenes, Poland also has claims against the ceremony organizers, headed by the president of the Jewish European Congress Moshe Kantor, a crony of Putin. The claim is that Israel is giving a platform to Putin while gagging his Polish counterpart for political, economic and diplomatic reasons that have nothing to do with remembering the Holocaust. On Tuesday, Haaretz reported that Netanyahu might even support the Russian narrative in exchange for the release of Naama Issachar, an Israeli woman jailed on drug charges in Russia. 

So who’s right, Russia or Poland?

There is no categorical answer to that question, as history, like life itself, is more nuanced than black and white, or good and bad. It’s only natural that each country is trying to minimize the less than stellar chapters in its history and glorify the better parts. In the middle, we find obfuscation, falsification and distortion of chapters of history for which nobody wants to take responsibility. The bottom line is that both parties – the USSR and Poland, in different forms and under different circumstances, collaborated in this or that with Nazi Germany – against Jews, and against other peoples, before, during and after World War II. And both parties also fought heroically against Nazi Germany and were also its victims.

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