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World War II: Russia and Poland Both Bear Responsibility, Too

The harsh exchange between Vladimir Putin and Polish President Andrzej Duda marking the 75th anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz reflects the wide rifts that World War II left behind in the politics and history of Europe – even more than seven decades later.

There is no doubt about the Soviet Union’s decisive role in eradicating the Nazi regime, but it’s also clear that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was signed on August 23, 1939, enabled Germany to invade Poland nine days later. Russia is now trying to remove this stain, which is what brought Putin to make every effort to accuse Poland of sharing in the responsibility for the outbreak of the war.

But as far as Poland is concerned, it fell victim to a double aggression: the German invasion on September 1, 1939, and the Soviet invasion on September 17. Both led to the elimination of the Polish state, which reminded the Poles of the partitions of their country in the second half of the 18th century. The Poles have also brought up the murder of around 20,000 Polish  prisoners of war at Stalin’s command in the Katyn massacre of 1940, and the Red Army’s failure to intervene during the Warsaw Uprising against the German occupiers in 1944.

The two sides relate only to events that are convenient for them in the historical argument, and it’s clear we can’t rely only on politicians’ positions in such charged disputes. It’s not easy to step back and try, with intellectual honesty, to reconstruct these tangled events. The shadow of the Holocaust hovering over everything makes the discussion even more difficult – but it’s impossible to ignore.

On September 22, 1939, when the two invading armies met at Brest-Litovsk in eastern Poland, the soldiers of the Wehrmacht and Red Army held a joint victory parade. Incredible pictures show the new friendships between soldiers of the two armies, while on the reviewing stand are – in brutal and unimaginable irony today – Germany’s famed “panzer leader,” Gen. Heinz Guderian, and the Soviet Jewish General Semyon Moiseevich Krivoshein. Can we imagine what they really thought of each other?

The Third Reich and the Soviet Union also conducted prisoner exchanges at Brest-Litovsk in which Moscow handed over to the Gestapo dozens of German communists, including many Jews who had found a refuge in the “socialist homeland” after the Nazis rose to power. It’s hard to describe a more shameful and disgusting deal than this.

But the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact has a much broader context, and it can’t be viewed separately from Poland’s policies before the war. One shameful act by Poland is linked to its response to the Munich Agreement, which was the apogee of British and French appeasement of Hitler. In that pact of September 1938, the two Western democratic powers agreed to the annexation of the Sudetenland by Germany and in practice put an end to Czechoslovakia’s independence. Poland’s response was marginal in terms of the enormous terrors of World War II, but it is an ugly stain on Poland’s policies.

Poland and Czechoslovakia achieved independence in the autumn of 1918 after the defeat of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I. But the two countries entered a border dispute over the region known as Cieszyn in Polish and Tesin in Czech in southeastern Silesia, which had a mixed population. After fighting in 1919 and international mediation, it was decided in 1920 to divide the region between Poland and Czechoslovakia – and Cieszyn/Tesin was also split between the two countries. After the Munich Agreement, Poland invaded the Czech part of the region and annexed it – in coordination with the German army, which seized other areas of Czechoslovakia. 

No Slavic solidarity

The city of my birth, Bielsko, Poland, is on the main road between Krakow and Cieszyn. As a 5-year-old boy, I saw tanks for the first time in my life – not German or Soviet tanks, but Polish tanks driving through our street on their way to “liberate” Tesin. Poland even issued a special celebratory stamp to mark the return of the region to the bosom of the Polish homeland – no Slavic solidarity, and no identification with its neighbor despite the Nazi aggression. Instead, Poland participated in the division of the spoils – not exactly an ally of Hitler, but a partner in his aggression.

But the most fateful Polish move occurred during the winter of 1938-39 when Britain and France realized that their policy of appeasement toward Hitler was a strategic and moral mistake. It became clear that Germany had aggressive intentions toward Poland: demands to annex the free city of Danzig (Gdansk) and abolish the Polish Corridor that separated the main part of Germany from East Prussia. 

Britain prepared for the possibility of war: The draft was reinstated, the production of tanks and planes was increased, and the newly invented radar was adopted – which later led to the Royal Air Force’s air superiority over the Luftwaffe. And in the spring of 1939, France and Britain gave Poland guarantees against the danger of a German invasion. 

These steps are what led to an exceptional Soviet initiative: asking the two capitalist Western powers to hold talks on possible military cooperation against any German aggression against Poland. In the summer of 1939, a high-level British-French military delegation traveled to Moscow for these talks – the first cooperation of its kind between the Soviet Union and the West.

The delegation spent a few weeks in Moscow, and even though the two sides held detailed discussions on possible joint military options, the talks hit a dead end. The Soviet defense minister, Kliment Voroshilov, repeatedly asked his colleagues the obvious question: To stop the German invasion, the Red Army would have to enter Poland – would the Polish government agree to this?

The Poles didn’t provide an answer; it’s possible to understand their fears in light of the history of Russian-Polish relations, the Polish-Soviet War after the Russian Revolution and the fear of communism. In the end, the French pressured the Poles to provide an answer, which was no.  Reportedly, during one session, Polish Foreign Minister Jozef Beck (who Putin occasionally mentions as someone leaning toward supporting Germany) said: “If the Red Army enters Poland, who knows when it will leave?” It’s possible to understand this fear, but behind it hid a Polish view that was more afraid of Soviet Russia than Nazi Germany.

When the Polish answer was passed on to Moscow, the talks with Britain and France collapsed, and within two days the German foreign minister arrived in Moscow and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed.

Historians know it’s forbidden to ask “what would have happened if?” Still, we’re allowed to assume that if 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. 

Poland never accepted responsibility for this fateful decision that helped pave the way to the war. Not that the victim is guilty – Germany is the guilty party, and to a not very small extent Russia, too. But the Poles lack of a willingness to take responsibility for flawed decisions is also part of the historical record. I always raise this issue in conversations with Polish scholars and leaders, and I have yet to receive an answer.

Questions for the Poles

The German occupation brought about one of the most terrible catastrophes in Poland’s history. The Nazis murdered 3 million Jewish citizens of Poland and 3 million non-Jewish Poles, most of the latter among the elites in an attempt to turn the Polish people into menial servants for the German master race.

Still, it’s possible to query the Poles about a few issues during the war. First, the Polish underground Home Army, which operated under the command of the Polish government-in-exile in London, didn’t carry out significant resistance operations during the German occupation. And during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943, the Home Army didn’t rise up and provide significant help for the Jews of the ghetto to prevent the extermination of the remaining Jews, all of them Polish citizens.

The underground decided to revolt only when the Red Army neared the gates of Warsaw. The goal of the uprising, which broke out on August 1, 1944, wasn’t just to revolt against the Germans; after all, the Red Army was about to drive them out. The Poles wanted to prevent the Soviets from liberating Warsaw; in this way, the Poles wanted to show that they could liberate themselves. 

It’s possible to understand this position, but it also means that the murder of 3 million Polish Jews wasn’t seen by the Polish underground as a good-enough reason to rebel against the Germans. But preventing the Soviet army from entering Warsaw to liberate them from the German occupation – this was considered a justifiable goal. 

The Germans quashed the Polish uprising using their typical brutality: Warsaw was almost completely destroyed and up to around 200,000 Poles were killed in the doomed revolt. The Soviets understood the goal of the uprising quite well, and with the cynicism that so typified Stalin, they didn’t press forward and defend the Poles. They realized – and this was the brutal dialectic of the war – that the revolt was directed against them no less than against the Nazis.

Nothing justifies the passivity of the Red Army during the repression of the Warsaw Uprising, but the Polish underground – which only provided minimal symbolic aid to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – can’t wash its hands of its actions during the German occupation. The French resistance, to say nothing of Tito and the communist partisans in Yugoslavia, acted differently.

World War II was a multifaceted event, but the historical and moral blame belongs to Germany; its president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said this best in his moving address at the World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem last month. But no one is free of responsibility in this matter – not the Western powers that enabled German aggression in the Munich Agreement, and not Poland in its ugly land grab of Cieszyn and most significantly its refusal to allow the establishment of a British-French-Soviet alliance that presumably would have changed the events that led to the outbreak of World War II. And certainly not the Soviet Union in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

It’s not a matter of finding someone to blame – the guilt belongs to Nazi Germany. It’s a matter of understanding that actions in history have implications, even if the players aren’t always aware of them. This is certainly the case when long-term implications are ignored in favor of apparent immediate achievements. These lessons are much harder to digest than merely pointing out the guilty parties – whose guilt is clear to everyone.

Shlomo Avineri