Beyond Good and Evil: Hitler, Stalin and Poland's Jews

Speaking with Haaretz during a recent visit to Israel, British historian Norman Davies argues for a nuanced approach to World War II and envisions a rosy future for relations between Jews and Poles.

When Prof. Norman Davies got up from the couch at the end of the interview, he told me he was married to a Polish woman and now that he’s retired, they split their lives between two homes: Oxford and Krakow. “Women are Poland’s best export,” he adds, smiling.

Davies, born in 1939, three months before World War II broke out, is one of the most prominent scholars of Polish history. His books are best sellers and in Poland he is a household name and a controversial star of sorts.

On Sunday he lectured at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, about Jewish-Polish relations, as a guest of the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv. The hall was packed, and many people sat on the floor or in the aisles.

The future of Israeli-Polish relations, according to Davies, lies in Krakow, an hour’s ride from the Auschwitz concentration camp. ”Lots of Israelis in Krakow, they are moving in. A strong and growing Jewish resident population, not just visitors,” he told Haaretz. Asked about the growing number of Israelis moving to Berlin, he agrees that Germany is still the more attractive location for Israelis, but believes the trend will change: “[There are] lots more Israelis with Polish roots than German. Jews can be perfectly comfortable in Germany, [but] also in modern Poland. The emotional reaction is different, but it will change,” Davies says, adding that he sees the future as very positive.

One can hardly stop Davies when he talks about “young polish people” who aren’t bound to Poland’s difficult past.

“[They] have no idea about the life in pre-war Poland … all these nationalities who lived side by side. As far as they’re concerned there is no longer any reason for confrontation.

“I don’t think there’s any more pro-Israeli country in the world than Poland,” Davies says, explaining that it is probably due to the similarity between the two nation-states that emerged from the rubble of World War II. “They feel sympathy towards Israel.”

During his lecture some listeners move in their seats uncomfortably. Davies’ books and lectures have already caused controversy worldwide. His critics argue that he belittles Jewish suffering during the war, compares Nazi terror and murders to the acts by the Soviet Union, and does not place enough emphasis on Polish persecution of Jews before, during and after the war.

Davies rejects the Western concept that divided World War II belligerents into good – the United States and the Soviets who fought the Nazis and liberated Europe from the German occupation – and bad – the Nazis and their collaborators. “In America, they created, the American style – the good war for democracy, freedom ... If you accept that scenario, you miss the biggest part of World War II, the Soviet Union. It was not a good democratic freedom-loving [country], but a mass-murdering dictatorship tyranny.”

“I don’t like to say which was worse, Hitler or Stalin. It depends who you were. Stalin’s regime lasted longer, while the Nazi regime was very short. The Nazis killed people by pseudo-racial criteria. The Nazi ideology was clear – if you are in the ‘wrong’ category, you will be likely to be killed. But Stalin killed people by numbers, giving orders, ‘kill 50,000 people’ ... ” Davies argues that the Nazis never issued such orders. Another aspect, according to Davies, in which the Stalinist regime was as bad as the Nazis was concealing its crimes. Davies talks about Soviet genocide and millions murdered, adding that even when the truth was revealed in the 1970s and ‘80s there were those who denied everything, called it a fabrication and accused anyone who discussed Stalin’s crimes of being a fascist. “Black and white. You have to exclusively [discuss] Nazi crimes. And please don’t mention anything else.”

Davies argues that reality was much more complex: “Both sides were defending, supporting murderous tyrannies ...  There was no decent principle,” apart from a battle to the death between two regimes.

Discussing the liberation of the concentration camps, Davies sees a “terrible paradox.” The allies were talking about the liberation of Europe, but while Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets, “the communists reopened Majdanek, and filled it with political prisoners, mostly Polish underground members. The liberation, in reality, was horrific. Some categories of victims were released, but more enemies of the people were re-sent to the concentration camps ...”

As an example, Davies tells the story of his father-in-law, a Catholic who survived the Nazi camps, but was arrested after the war – this time by the Soviets. “He was in Mauthausen, the nastiest of the Nazi camps. I asked him, which was worse, and he said – the Soviet camp. I said – ‘how could that be?’ His response: ‘In Mauthausen we knew that the SS would use any excuse to kill people. In Soviet captivity you didn’t know what was happening. There was psychological torture. They were asking – what did you do to survive [in the German camps], why are you alive. Why weren’t you killed?’”

Davies adds, “The people who arrested him were all Jewish. This was unbelievable. He has seen the Nazi concentration camps. And now another group of people – from Russia – were beating him only because he survived the Nazis.”

Davies also departs from the standard explanation for the tense relations between Jews and Poles following the war, which is typically attributed to a blood libel in Kielce a year after the war, which led to a pogrom. “There’s no doubt it was a cruel murder, a pogrom. But it wasn’t the only one in Polish history. The history of the pogroms is not straightforward, but the interesting thing is why, at the end of World War II, where millions of Jews were killed but also millions of Polish Catholics were killed – you get a terrible event like this. It doesn’t fit. You think that both sides just want to start again.”

In contrast to the many who viewed the Kielce pogrom as expressing the deep Polish hatred of Jews, Davies suggests looking a wider context: at the time the economic situation was terrible, many refugees roamed the country and there was deep hostility between Poles and Russians, including Jewish refugees who came to Kielce from the Soviet Union.

“I’m not saying this wasn’t a massacre, but I do argue that one of the reasons was economic.”

Another event that Davies wishes to reexamine is the 1918 Lemberg pogrom. Yad Vashem’s website says that after the city was conquered by Poland, on November 22, 1918, “a hundred of the city’s Jews were murdered in a pogrom carried out by Polish soldiers, and further hundreds were wounded.” Again, Davies has a different take: “About 400 people were killed, the majority were Catholics. I don’t think that there’s any evident that it was an anti-Semitic massacre. The soldiers killed anybody they could. Still in every Jewish encyclopedia it is mentioned as a pogrom. This is an example of a complicated situation that I try to sort out in a manner that isn’t black or white.”

Janusz Rosikon / Rosikon Press