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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » September 16, 2009
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Tragic History Still Disputed
September 16, 2009 By W.Ż.    
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The 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II was a difficult test for Polish politicians after a spate of remarks by Russian historians and politicians, who had tried to distort the truth about the developments of 1939 and even assign part of the blame on Poland for the outbreak of the war.

The largest group of top-level European politicians to come to Poland in recent years gathered September 1 on the Westerplatte peninsula in the coastal city of Gdańsk where some of the first shots in World War II were fired 70 years ago. Speeches by Polish President Lech Kaczyński, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were the high point of the ceremonies, which lasted for almost two hours. European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek and prime ministers Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine, Francois Fillon of France and Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden, which now holds the EU presidency, also addressed those gathered for the somber ceremony.

"We are on Westerplatte, a symbol of heroic resistance put up against a stronger enemy," Kaczyński said. "Two generations have already passed, but the war still calls for reflection. There are still many questions and unclear issues." He referred to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as "two totalitarian regimes."

Kaczyński spoke about political developments that preceded the outbreak of the largest war in history-the annexation of Austria, the Munich Agreement sealing the partition of Czechoslovakia and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

"Munich is a pact that requires reflection. As Winston Churchill said after the war, shame was chosen instead of honor, a shame that did not prevent the war," Kaczyński said.

'Sin' against Czechs
Kaczyński used the occasion to issue the first explicit apology from Poland for the annexation in 1938 of Zaolzie, a small disputed part of the Cieszyn Silesia region. "The partition of Czechoslovakia was a sin," he said. "In Poland, we are able to admit this sin without looking for excuses."

Two days later, Czech ambassador in Warsaw, Jan Sechter, expressed his gratitude for Kaczyński's words. "No one has ever made such a gesture towards the Czech Republic in the presence of so many foreign guests," Sechter said, adding that it was a surprise for Prague.

The Polish president described the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as "not merely a non-aggression treaty. It was a pact that divided a large part of Europe into spheres of influence."

Kaczyński said Europe's success should be built today on truth, which is often painful but which has to be revealed by both the winners-a direct reference to Russia-and the losers.

"One should be able to admit one's sins and should not put the decision to kill 30,000 people on a par with victims of typhus or other diseases," he said, referring to comparisons made between the Katyn massacre and the fate of Soviet prisoners during and after the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920. "This is not the road to the reconciliation which my country and Europe as a whole needs."

Such comparisons have been appearing with frequency in Russian publications. And in his recent letter to Poles published in the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, Putin wrote that "both the cemeteries in Katyn and Mednoye and the tragic fate of the Russian soldiers who were taken prisoner during the war of 1920 should become a symbol of common grief and mutual forgiveness."

Prime Minister Tusk took up a related theme. "The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was preceded by the words by Adolf Hitler, who said: 'The victor will never be asked if he told the truth,'" Tusk said at Westerplatte, stressing that such ways of practicing politics should be rejected. He described what the new order in Europe should be like: "All of us, without exception, should be searching for truth. We have to reject the temptation of the strong to dominate the weak.

"We should all say today that we share the values which will protect us against tragedy-that freedom is always better than bondage, democracy better than dictatorship, truth better than lies, love better than hatred, respect better than contempt, trust better than distrust and finally solidarity better than egoism," he added.

'Greatest tragedy'
Tusk said it was in Gdańsk that the "greatest tragedy in human history" started on Sept. 1, 1939, and the after-effects are still apparent. He spoke about the former Stutthof concentration camp in the region of Pomerania near Gdańsk, where "Poles, Russians, Jews and Germans were dying in contempt and senselessly."

"Hundreds of thousands of Poles were driven out of their homes in villages and cities of Pomerania in the first weeks of the war. But if we take a look around, we will see a cemetery of Soviet soldiers, a short distance from here, close to my family home. Tens of thousands of young people lost their lives here in the early spring of 1945… they gave their lives for liberation, though they did not bring us freedom. But we pay tribute to them as well and we take care of their graves," Tusk said.

"We are here to build trust among each other, despite the difficult history and despite temptations, and to repeat the words which have been inscribed on Westerplatte for decades: 'No more war,'" he concluded.

Observers were particularly keen to hear Putin's comments. "We want to commemorate the millions of soldiers of the anti-Nazi coalition, partisans and civilians who died at the hands of their killers," Putin said. "Out of the 50 million war victims, half were citizens of the Soviet Union. Think about it. It is a moral obligation of all nations."

He noted that the liberation of Gdańsk alone claimed the lives of over 53,000 Red Army soldiers and officers and that 600,000 of his compatriots rest in Polish soil.

Putin admits mistake
"We have to think of what made this war so terrible-these were intrigues and plots. The war had its roots in the shortcomings of the Treaty of Versailles," Putin said. "Our parliament has condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. We have the right to expect that other countries will condemn pacts with the Third Reich." He then added: "My country admits its mistake and is taking part in building a new world."

Putin, whose visit on Westerplatte had been preceded by talks with Tusk, expressed hope that Polish-Russian relations would be gradually freed from problems of the past and that it would be possible to build new bilateral cooperation.

Merkel reiterated the long-held German position of taking responsibility for the war.

"I commemorate the victims of World War II. Our duty is to accept responsibility for what happened," Merkel said. "Here on Westerplatte I wish to remember the fate of Poles who suffered under the murderous German occupation. I wish to remember the annihilation of European Jews, all those who died a horrible death in German extermination camps, and the millions who were killed fighting against the German occupying forces.

"The destruction, humiliation and negation of human rights continued for years," she continued. "No country throughout its history has ever suffered under German occupation as long as Poland did. The country was systematically destroyed, its cities and villages were burned and after the defeat of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, virtually no building was standing in the city." Merkel said she was aware that almost every Polish family suffered losses as a result of the war.

In Merkel's view, the fact that Europe has turned from a continent of violence and terror into a continent of security and peace "borders on the miraculous." Merkel stressed it was Germany's partners in the west and east that had paved the way for cooperation and reconciliation, something that German people would never forget.

"You have reached out to us and it is indeed a miracle that we are remembering today not only the dark past of 70 years ago but also have an opportunity to remember the joyful days 20 years ago which brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany and Europe, because Europe's aspiration to freedom could only be fulfilled after the fall of the Iron Curtain," Merkel said.

Speaking about the Germans who had lost their homes as a result of the war and displacement, Merkel said that Germany, while recognizing the tragedy of its people, did not intend to backtrack on its admission of responsibility for World War II.

Buzek said remembering the past is the key to building the future. "As president of the European Parliament, I want to stress firmly that we will not forget and will not let others forget," he said. "Historical memory must not be put into a drawer in a dusty museum because this memory is important and tragic-it is a memory of 50 million war victims. This memory provides the foundation on which we are building our future."

He said that although World War II ended in May 1945, it was not the end of mass persecutions of European nations. "Only half of the continent could breathe freely again. We needed the courage of the residents of Berlin in 1953, the heroism of the residents of Budapest and Poznań in 1956, the great uprising in Prague and Bratislava in 1968 and finally the rise of the Solidarity movement in 1989, which could not be suppressed, for our continent to be able to take a deep breath again," Buzek said.

Russian propaganda
Predictably, the course of the anniversary ceremonies on Westerplatte and Putin's visit to Poland triggered a conflict between the government and the opposition. The leader of the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, the former prime minister and the current president's twin brother, sharply criticized Tusk for his conduct during the ceremonies and the very fact that Putin had been invited to participate in them. In Kaczyński's view, the Russian president represents a state that has not yet apologized to Poland for the invasion of Sept. 17, 1939, the Katyn massacre or other crimes committed during the war and the imposition of "the communist dictate" on Poland after 1945.

Additionally, Kaczyński said, in recent weeks Russian propaganda had intensively falsified the events surrounding 1939, which in his view has not been met with a proper response from the Polish authorities.

"The commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II is not only a great victory for Poland, but also a personal success of the prime minister," Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski replied. "Donald Tusk has become a real statesman, one of the most important politicians in Europe." He added that Poland managed to present the Polish view of history during the ceremonies. Sikorski said the prime minister and president had "complemented each other on Westerplatte" which was interpreted by the public as indicating that the government had been aware of how sharp Kaczyński's remarks would be, and that Tusk softened his remarks as a result.
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