Putin Says Poland's Leaders Were to Blame for Their People's Suffering Under the Nazis

Russian president says Warsaw’s leaders betrayed their people by fleeing as the German army advanced, while the West helped Germany and bowed to Hitler

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a video call at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, June 19, 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a video call at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, June 19, 2020. Credit: Alexei Nikolsky,AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped up his conflict with Poland and the West over who shared responsibility for the outbreak of World War II, saying Polish leaders were to blame for their people’s suffering during the war.

In an article Thursday in the U.S. journal The National Interest, marking the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, Putin said he had at his disposal documents brought out of the Russian archives at his request.

His most serious charge is expected to play a role ahead of the Polish presidential election at the end of the month. Putin said Polish leaders fled the country as the German army advanced in September 1939.

“Despite the fierce, heroic resistance of the Polish army, on September 8, 1939 – only a week after the war broke out – the German troops were on the approaches to Warsaw,” Putin wrote. “By September 17, the military and political leaders of Poland had fled to Romania, betraying its people, who continued to fight against the invaders.”

He added that “the blame for the tragedy that Poland then suffered lies entirely with the Polish leadership, which had impeded the formation of a military alliance between Britain, France and the Soviet Union and relied on the help from its Western partners, throwing its own people under the steamroller of Hitler’s machine of destruction.”

He did not mention that the Nazis killed Polish leaders and members of the intelligentsia. He also ignored the 1941 Katyn massacre in which the Soviets killed some 22,000 Polish prisoners of war, police and members of the intelligentsia.

Putin also failed to note that, unlike other countries occupied by the Nazis, no puppet government was ever established in Poland.

He said that after Germany’s surrender and humiliation as reflected in the Treaty of Versailles following World War I, Western countries helped Germany rebuild.

“The Nazis skillfully played on people’s emotions and built their propaganda promising to deliver Germany from the ‘legacy of Versailles’ and restore the country to its former power while essentially pushing German people into war,” Putin wrote.

“Paradoxically, the Western states, particularly the United Kingdom and the United States, directly or indirectly contributed to this. Their financial and industrial enterprises actively invested in German factories and plants manufacturing military products. Besides, many people in the aristocracy and political establishment supported radical, far-right and nationalist movements that were on the rise both in Germany and in Europe.”

Putin accused the West of trying to appease Hitler. “Unlike many other European leaders of that time, Stalin did not disgrace himself by meeting with Hitler who was known among the Western nations as quite a reputable politician and was a welcome guest in the European capitals,” Putin wrote.

He added: “The League of Nations and the European continent in general turned a deaf ear to the repeated calls of the Soviet Union to establish an equitable collective security system, and sign an Eastern European pact and a Pacific pact to prevent aggression. These proposals were disregarded.”

Putin described the cooperation between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as something Stalin had to do after the West and Poland refused to ally with them against Nazi Germany.

“Even under pressure from their Western allies, the Polish leadership rejected the idea of joint action with the Red Army to fight against the Wehrmacht,” and did so only conditionally at a later point, Putin wrote.

“In these circumstances, the Soviet Union signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany. It was practically the last among the European countries to do so. Besides, it was done in the face of a real threat of war on two fronts – with Germany in the west and with Japan in the east, where intense fighting on the Khalkhin Gol River was already underway.”

The historical clash erupted anew in January when Polish President Andrzej Duda did not attend a ceremony in Jerusalem in the run-up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Duda was angered because he was not allotted a slot to speak at the event, where Putin was the keynote speaker. Yad Vashem later published an extraordinary apology for “inaccuracies” and the “partial presentation of facts” at the ceremony.

Putin, alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cuts the ribbon on a new monument at the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020.Credit: Amit Shabi

Poland accuses Russia of full involvement in the outbreak of the war, citing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939, which included a nonaggression treaty and a division of spheres of influence in Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

As a result, after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, the Soviets invaded on September 17; the two powers divided up the country. The Germans annulled the pact less than two years later by invading the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

To minimize this chapter of Soviet history, Putin again raised unpleasant episodes in Poland’s past. He mentioned Poland’s seizing of land from a helpless Czechoslovakia after the 1938 Munich Agreement between Germany, Italy, Britain and France.

He mentioned a remark by Poland’s ambassador to Germany, Jozef Lipski, who was quoted in a 1938 conversation with Hitler as saying: “For solving the Jewish problem, we [the Poles] will build in his honor … a splendid monument in Warsaw” if he deports all the Jews across the sea.

Putin also lambasted the European Parliament’s decision last year blaming the Soviet Union and Germany for the outbreak of the war without mentioning the role played by other countries.

Putin protested the fact that, across Europe, especially in Poland, monuments in memory of Red Army troops have been destroyed. He complained about instances when Russian officials were not invited to ceremonies marking the anniversary of the end of the war.

Putin accused other post-communist states such as Ukraine and Lithuania for honoring local Nazi war criminals who are depicted today as war heroes who fought the Soviets.

He called on other nations to establish their historical narrative by reviewing their archives, which he said should be opened to the public “the way Russia has been doing it in recent years.”

“In this context, we are ready for broad cooperation and joint research projects engaging historians” about the war, Putin wrote.

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