It’s inhumane of Poland to obscure the memory of the ocean of blood the Soviet Army shed to defeat Hitler
John Laughland, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford and who has taught at universities in Paris and Rome, is a historian and specialist in international affairs.
Commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Warsaw by the Soviet army from Nazi occupation in WWII were supposed to bring people together. Instead, they are driving Poland and Russia apart in a new war of words.
On 29 December, the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, issued a blistering attack on President Putin, accusing him of “lying” about the history of the Second World War and about Poland’s role in it. Morawiecki claimed that the USSR “started” the Second World War by signing the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany on 23 August 1939, and that Putin, by defending the Pact, was trying to rehabilitate Stalinism.
This spat originated in a resolution approved, on a Polish initiative, in the European Parliament in September. It alleged that the Second World War started “as an immediate result of the notorious Nazi-Soviet Treaty on Non-Aggression signed on 23 August 1939 … whereby two totalitarian regimes that shared the goal of world conquest divided Europe into two zones of influence.”
Putin had replied to this allegation, saying that Poland shared some of the responsibility for the outbreak of the war because its government had firmly rejected all attempts by Britain, France and the Soviet Union to agree on a collective security pact to stop Hitler. The Soviets had demanded that their troops be allowed to pass into Polish territory to meet any German advance and the Poles refused. It was to this claim by Putin that Morawiecki was reacting so fiercely.
Unfortunately, it is Putin who is right and Morawiecki and the Poles who are wrong. The events leading up to the outbreak of the war in Europe cannot be reduced to the signature of the Nazi-Soviet Pact alone. To argue, as the Poles do, that the war would not have broken out without it (that the Pact “started” the war or that it was “the immediate result” of it) is an absurd distortion of the truth which none of the actors of the time would have recognized.
The truth is that Hitler was bent on his goal of dominating Europe, a goal Joseph Stalin (unlike Lenin) did not share. Ever since he published Mein Kampf in 1925, Hitler never made any secret of his desire to overturn the Versailles treaty, to subjugate Eastern Europe to create Lebensraum ('living space') for Germans, to destroy Soviet Bolshevism and to make Germany into a world power. On 11 August 1939, Hitler told Carl Jacob Burckhardt, “Everything I undertake is directed against Russia. If the West is too stupid and too blind to comprehend that, I will be forced to come to an understanding with the Russians, to smash the West and then after its defeat, to turn against the Soviet Union.”
Germany’s determination to expand her territory and to overthrow the Versailles settlement was demonstrated in a series of steps: the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the annexation of Austria in 1938, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. By the time of this last event, Britain and France abandoned any hope of containing Hitler by the appeasement they had practiced at Munich. They issued the guarantee to Poland on 31 March 1939, precisely because they knew that Poland was his next target.
They knew this because Hitler made it totally clear. On April 28, 1939, Germany denounced its 1934 non-aggression pact with Poland, paving the way for the invasion. And on May 23, 1939, Hitler told his generals that he had decided to attack Poland “at the first possible opportunity”. To do this, it was essential to “isolate” the country first, but it would not be possible to repeat what had happened with Czechoslovakia, namely to take the country without a fight. So it is quite absurd for the Poles today to say that the war was started by the Nazi-Soviet Pact signed in August 1939 because Hitler had already taken the decision to attack Poland several months previously.
It is fair to attack the signature of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as a cynical move. But what choice did the Soviet Union have in the circumstances? At Munich in September 1938, Britain and France had allowed Hitler to seize the Western part of Czechoslovakia. Poland seized Teschen and Hungary seized parts of Slovakia. The Western powers were evidently happy to tolerate Hitlerite aggression, providing that it was directed Eastwards. The Baltic states Latvia and Estonia also signed non-aggression pacts with Nazi Germany in June 1939, filling in the last pieces of the puzzle to prepare a German attack on the USSR.
The Soviets signed the Pact because they were convinced that the Western powers were, at best, unable to provide any real guarantee to Poland because of Polish intransigence about the presence of Soviet troops on Polish territory or, at worst, playing a double game trying to encourage the Nazi and Bolshevik beasts to slaughter one another. It has to be said, and with absolute certainty, that they were right on the first count: when Germany did invade Poland, neither Britain or France made the slightest move to attack Germany from the west, as they undoubtedly could have done and as the Germans feared. This was the so-called “phoney war” which lasted from September 1939 to May 10, 1940, when Hitler invaded France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Having signed the Pact, the USSR then moved into territories it had lost to Poland and the Baltic states 18 years previously. These territories in western Ukraine and Belarus had themselves been seized by Poland when it attacked Soviet Russia in 1920, while the Baltic states had been seized from Russia by Imperial Germany in 1918. If at Munich the Western powers had allowed Germany, Poland and Hungary to seize parts of Czechoslovakia, created in 1918, why should the Soviet Union not do the same?
In any case, however cynical and self-serving the Pact may have been, the Soviet side was acting in self-defense. Faced with the immovable fact of Hitlerite aggression, Moscow felt abandoned by the West, as it had been and as it would be during the German-Soviet war. Throughout the war, when the full might of the Nazi German army was thrown against the USSR, the whole of continental Europe’s industry supported the German war effort. It was only at the price of unimaginable sacrifice – well over 20 million Soviets died in the war, as against about 500,000 Americans – that the Nazis were defeated by the advance of the Red Army. It is inhumane of Prime Minister Morawiecki to obscure the memory of this ocean of blood shed to defeat Hitler.
Morawiecki is quite right to say that Stalin was a monster at the head of a monstrous regime. Everyone, especially Russians today, accept that. But his (Morawiecki's) almost genetic hatred of Russia and Russians blinds him to the fact the Soviets fought the war for their fatherland, not for Communist ideology. That is why Russians remember the war today with pride. Indeed, the Soviets could not have won the war if there had not been a surge of patriotic feeling, as there was also in Britain. In fact, Winston Churchill was perhaps the first to make the distinction between Bolshehvik ideology and the natural patriotism of the ordinary Russian soldier. On the day of the Nazi invasion, 22 June 1941, he made a broadcast on the BBC in which he said:
“No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the last 25 years. I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it; but all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolded. The past, with its crimes, its follies and its tragedies, flashes away. I see the Russian soldiers standing on the threshold of their native land, guarding the fields which their fathers have tilled from time immemorial.”
What a shame that Prime Minister Morawiecki cannot have the basic human decency to allow other nations, in this case Russia, to take the same pride in their country and its past - however many tragic elements that past may contain - as he demands for Poland.Source
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