Opinion |

Stop Blaming Poland for Starting the Second World War

Enough of the Brezhnev-era Soviet propaganda. Enough of the perverse, deceitful, intellectually dishonest attempts to blame Poland for WW2, and the Polish resistance for not halting the Holocaust

Sławomir Dębski
Sławomir Dębski
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Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the German–Soviet Treaty of Friendship in Moscow, September 28, 1939; behind him among others are Joachim von Ribbentrop and Joseph Stalin
Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the German–Soviet Treaty of Friendship in Moscow, September 28, 1939; behind him among others are Joachim von Ribbentrop and Joseph StalinCredit: Wikimedia
Sławomir Dębski
Sławomir Dębski

Shlomo Avineri's recent article on Poland's "responsibility" for the outbreak of WW2 (Germany Is Guilty – but Russia and Poland Both Bear Responsibility, Too) has indeed shocked me. Being a historian, one who has dedicated much of his life to investigating German-Soviet relations between 1939-1941, I will not stand by. One cannot claim "intellectual honesty," which Avineri does, and behave in an openly deceitful way.

At first glance, Avineri’s article seems to be balanced: Yes, Germany and the Soviets indeed attacked Poland. Yes, the Hitler-Stalin pact is an undeniable fact, and had a hand in partitioning Poland. Yes, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, murdered Polish officers. However, Poles are…guilty, too.

Avineri declares Poles are guilty because they fought, instead of inviting the Soviets to occupy their country without firing one single bullet. This logic, offered by the former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, is at least ill-intended, if not perverse.

Writing about the outbreak of the WW2 he claims something no serious historian has ever done: Had Poland allowed Red Army to "help" them against the Nazis in 1939, the Holocaust and WW2 "would not have happened the way they did." As if we had reasons to believe that all Stalin wanted in 1939 was to prevent Hitler from tearing the Versailles system into pieces.

When, after perestroika and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet-era archives were open for a brief moment, and historians had a chance to look inside. I was privileged to be among them.  When those historians, including many Russian historians, conducted their independent research, what they verified the opposite: that the idea that Soviet foreign policy on the eve of WW2 had peaceful aspirations was a myth.

Warsaw Uprising in Poland, 1944. Polish Home Army soldiers defending a barricade
Warsaw Uprising in Poland, 1944. Polish Home Army soldiers defending a barricadeCredit: Wikimedia

I am shocked that after all the research done on Soviet foreign policy, hundreds of books and thousands of articles and archival documents published over the last 30 years, Prof Avineri still sticks with the Brezhnev-era Soviet propaganda universe populated by falsehoods.

One example. In early October 1938, Stalin made a speech commenting on the Sudetenland crisis. He clearly said that the Bolsheviks were not, and had never been, pacifists pining for peace. There are his words: "Bolsheviks themselves will attack if the war is just…. The fact that today we are shouting about peace is just a veil." But 82 years later, Prof Avineri mistakes this veil for the truth!

In fact, Stalin was not interested at all in defending peace, but was looking to acquire territory at the expense of the Baltic states, Poland, Finland and Romania. Therefore, the Soviet security guarantees in 1939 for Poland and other Central European countries were as credible as Iranian guarantees for Israel would be today. I assume Prof Avineri would not consider establishing military bases of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on Israel's territory to protect Israel from its Sunni Muslim neighbors, even – in his own words  – "under certain conditions."

No “intellectually honest" individual should be surprised, then, that countries of Central Europe didn’t trust Stalin in 1939. No, their peoples did not want to share the fate of the millions of victims of deliberate famine, the 1932-33 Holodomor in Ukraine, nor did they want to fall victim to the Great Terror, Stalin's still on-going mass purge. At that point in time, the Soviet Union was the first country responsible for genocides on such a massive scale.

A 1944 photo showing soldiers from the Polish Home Army carry their wounded comrade, during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis
A 1944 photo showing soldiers from the Polish Home Army carry their wounded comrade, during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the NazisCredit: AP

Avineri is so keen to put the blame on Poland for striving to protect its freedom, and criticizing Poland rejecting any chance of allowing the Soviets to "liberate" Poles from the burden of their independence. He writes: "[I]f the Poles had let the Red Army enter their country – under certain conditions – to repel a Nazi invasion, history would have turned out differently. Certainly World War II and the Holocaust would not have happened the way they did."

But Avineri finds no space in his article to state the obvious: had the Soviets not invaded Poland and helped the Nazis break Polish defense lines "certainly World War II and the Holocaust would not have happened the way they did." Much simpler and much closer to the truth.

The next area of untruths concern the Polish resistance. Avineri writes that the Polish Home Army, operating under the command of the Polish government-in-exile in London, didn’t carry out significant resistance operations against the German occupation.

This is a complete historical nonsense. It’s obvious that the Polish Home Army was no match for the Wehrmacht, the SS and other Nazi occupation forces. In 1943, the Home Army was only building its capacity, producing hand-made weapons and begging for supplies from the Allied forces; its major task was to lead a nation-wide uprising, had any of the Allied armies approached.

At the same time regular and significant Polish forces fought alongside the Allies: in the Battles of France and Britain, in Norway, Italy, Africa, and later on in liberating France, Belgium and Holland. The Polish Home Army was active in passing information about the Nazis' V1 flying bombs and V2 ballistic rockets, decoding many German plans, and disrupting German supply lines to the eastern Front.

A street in Warsaw destroyed during the failed 1944 uprising against the Nazi German occupiers
A street in Warsaw destroyed during the failed 1944 uprising against the Nazi German occupiersCredit: REUTERS

But Avineri’s suggestion that the Poles could have staged the Warsaw Uprising in 1943 to help the city's Jewish Ghetto fighters in their uprising, is just utter nonsense. The Nazis crushed the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 leading to the loss of about 200,000 Polish civilian lives and those of 20,000 fighters. The city was razed to the ground. And all this happened when the Germans were in full retreat. The Soviets were close by, but stopped on the other side of the Vistula river, watching the Germans annihilating the Polish freedom fighters.

There have been fierce discussions in Poland about whether the 1944 Uprising was a strategic mistake by the Polish Home Army high command. But to suggest that the Poles should have done this in 1943, when they were even weaker, and the Germans far stronger, is thorough ahistorical madness.

No, there was no chance to help the insurgents within the ghetto. The only thing that the Polish resistance could do (and did) was to help evacuate the remaining fighters and shelter thousands of Jews who had escaped to the Polish side. Shlomo Avneri believes the French resistance was more active than the Home Army. That sounds more like a terrible under-education rather than a deliberate distortion. I do not know of any respected French historian who would subscribe to this strange point of view.

A 1941 photograph of children rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto by Irena Sendler (1910-2008), a Polish nurse and social worker who served in the Polish Underground during WW2
A 1941 photograph of children rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto by Irena Sendler (1910-2008), a Polish nurse and social worker who served in the Polish Underground during WW2Credit: Universal History Archive / Get

Avineri claims Tito’s partisans were more active, which is true, but forgets to look at a map: Yugoslavia and particularly Bosnia, where most of units operated, is a chain of mountains, hard to access and offering shelter to guerilla units who could control larger territories.

Poland is flat like a table. It’s like criticizing Israel for not resolving the lack of water in the Middle East. "Look, the Swiss have done it." Of course, mentioning that neither the "heroic" French resistance nor Tito’s partisans launched a nationwide uprising when Jews were deported from Drancy or Zagreb is a step too far for an "intellectually honest" writer.

"Intellectual honesty," Professor Avineri claims, leads him to accuse the Polish Home Army of standing by and watching when three million Polish Jews were slaughtered, but avoids the fact that it also "stood by and watched" when three million Polish non-Jews were slaughtered. There is not even the slightest supposition that a Polish Home Army, in which some fighters were barely armed with pistols, had no real possibility of halting neither the Holocaust nor the massive genocide on Poles.

Finally, Pro Avineri refers to a "harsh exchange between Vladimir Putin and Polish President Andrzej Duda" during the events marking 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. There was no such exchange, because the Polish president decided not to give credibility to Vladimir Putin’s claims by responding to them. He was even criticized for his silence.

Again, the words "intellectual honesty" sound in my ears. Naturally, opinions differ and perspectives change, but facts matter. That is something which cannot change.

Dr Sławomir Debski is the director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs and author of "Between Berlin and Moscow: German-Soviet Relations, 1939-1941" (Moscow, 2018). Twitter: @SlawomirDebski

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