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The Warsaw Voice » The Basics » November 3, 2014
Politics & Society
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“Polish Death Camps” : Part Two
November 3, 2014   
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When the Soviet bloc collapsed some 25 years ago and Poland became a fully sovereign country, its diplomats embarked on a difficult campaign aiming to ensure that Poles were not unfairly or inadvertently blamed for some of the darkest episodes of World War II. This struggle continues to this day because Western journalists as well as politicians on both sides of the pond have been repeatedly using the phrase “Polish death camps”—instead of “Nazi death camps”—to refer to the concentration camps that Germany established in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1939-1945. U.S. President Barack Obama himself made such a blunder some time ago. Every time the phrase crops up, it sends a wave of outrage through Poland and Polish embassies step in to demand an immediate correction. They usually succeed, but without a guarantee that such a “slip of the tongue” will not happen again.

Recently, the phrase “Polish death camps” has turned up in Russia, where it has been used by politicians and the media. The context this time is not World War II, but events that took place two decades earlier during the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920. The “death camps” in question were established as prison camps for Russian troops after Poland defeated the Red Army in the Battle of Warsaw in August 1920. The battle, which went down in the annals of Polish history as “The Miracle on the Vistula River,” was fought near the town of Radzymin outside Warsaw just two years after Poland regained independence after 123 years of foreign rule. Polish troops managed to crush the Red Army and stop its advance further into Europe.

Years later, many Western historians recognized the Battle of Warsaw as one of the most crucial in European history. Had the Soviets’ plans come to fruition, Western Europe could have faced a communist revolution.

As a result of the Polish-Bolshevik war, tens of thousands of Russian captives were sent to Polish prison camps, a historical fact that nobody questions. But this is where agreement between Polish and Russian historians ends. According to Poland, between 18,000 and 22,000 Russians died in these camps and most of them lost their lives to a typhoid epidemic. The Russians, in turn, claim that the prisoners were beaten, tortured and murdered, which led to a total of 60,000 deaths. The dispute has been going on for at least 20 years, but now that Poland has become involved in the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow is using history as a propaganda weapon again. Russian politicians and journalists are outdoing one another in coming up with vivid descriptions of the inhuman treatment their compatriots were allegedly subjected to in 1920, with accounts of defenseless prisoners being shot at, beaten, starved and deliberately infected with diseases. No such incidents were confirmed by a joint Polish-Russian commission set up several years ago, but that does not seem to matter to anybody in Russia. The Russian culture minister has announced a fundraising campaign to build a memorial to the victims of “Polish death camps,” with the main cemetery in the southern Polish city of Cracow named as the memorial’s future location. The Polish authorities have categorically ruled out permitting such a memorial. Tomasz Nałęcz, a history professor and an adviser to the Polish president, said, “You don’t erect memorials to invaders anywhere in the world.” Some commentators have compared Moscow’s initiative to the hypothetical situation of the German authorities demanding that memorials to Wehrmacht soldiers or SS officers be built in Poland.

The Kremlin has for years proceeded from the assumption that whoever controls the past has control over the present. This policy was recently enshrined in Russian law and you can now go to jail for negating the Russian version of history. Alas, the Kremlin seems to have cast Poland as a villain in its propaganda exercise, so no corrections or apologies should now be expected from Russia, not even in the case of the most absurd assertions and accusations.
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