What Was, and What Might Have Been

Public memorial ceremonies and displays of solidarity are not the best way to discuss historical events. And that is also true of the ceremony in Gdansk that marked the 70th anniversary of the German attack on Poland, which began World War II. Nevertheless, it is possible to learn something about modern political culture and modern diplomatic discourse from what was said there - and from what was not said.

The speech that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin delivered in Gdansk on September 1, despite its relative moderation, attests that Russia is still imprisoned in its imperialistic policy of force, and is incapable of dealing with the need to own up to embarrassing errors and decisions. Putin did hint that all of the agreements made in the 1930s were "immoral," but did not acknowledge the terrible mistake that Stalin made when he made common cause with Hitler on August 23, 1939.

Today, as in 1939, the Poles find themselves in difficulties. On one hand, it is clear that Poland was the victim: It was brutally attacked, and the state was dismantled and divvied up. On the other hand, Putin's remarks, along with various articles published in Moscow, made the claim that Poland was ready to collaborate with the Nazis against the Soviet Union.

That is simply not true. Nevertheless, the Poles are also not yet willing to deal with certain aspects of their policy. That deserves to be remembered, despite our sympathy for a state that was brutally attacked.

The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, for all its suddenness, was not born in a vacuum. After Britain and France announced that they would come to Poland's aid if it were attacked by Germany, a British-French military delegation, headed by British admiral Sir Reginald Drax and French general Joseph Doumenc, was sent to Moscow in the summer of 1939 to explore the possibility of an alliance between the USSR, Britain and France in order to stop Germany if it did attack Poland. Clearly, negotiations between the Soviets and Europe's two leading capitalist powers were not easy for either side, as each viewed the other with suspicion.

But the fact is that such talks did take place in Moscow between August 11 and August 21, with the Soviet delegation headed by the defense minister and the chiefs of staff of the army, navy and air force. That raises the question of why they failed: Was it Stalin who did not take the discussions seriously, or was it actually the West?

About one thing, there is no dispute: The parties got as far as operative discussions, and the Soviets wanted to know whether, in the event of a German attack, Poland would allow the Red Army to enter its territory in order to halt the German army. After all, how else could the Soviets come to Poland's aid?

This question was passed on to the Poles again and again, and one can certainly understand their dilemma: Should they allow the Communists to enter Poland? Initially, they avoided giving an answer. But finally, on August 21, the Polish foreign minister, Col. Jozef Beck, responded negatively: Poland would not allow the Soviet army to enter its territory, even to defend it against a Nazi invasion.

The next day, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop flew to Moscow - and the rest is history.

It is wrong to ask, "What would have happened if." Yet the Polish refusal, understandable as it was in light of Polish history, was not an unavoidable necessity. Poland could have decided otherwise - though a Polish historian told me recently that no Polish leader could have survived if he had agreed to allow the Reds into Poland.

Perhaps. But perhaps instead, it would have prevented the war as it actually transpired. That is a conclusion that cannot be proven, and it is hard to bear. Yet it is impossible not to think about.