Picture credit: Artur Widak/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The meaning of World War Two history

Our responsibility to remember

World War II started on September 1, 1939. The Third Reich, unprovoked and without any notice, began its invasion of Poland. One of the first acts of war involved gunfire aimed at the Polish ammunition warehouse at Westerplatte. The “Schleswig-Holstein” battleship, which had arrived in Gdańsk on an allegedly peaceful visit, opened fire on the Polish soldiers.

I recall these basic facts on the 83rd anniversary of the outbreak of World War II because time has made European societies increasingly less aware of the origin of the events that shaped modern Europe. As we lose witnesses to these events, memories of wartime, and responsibility to care about the truth, falls to us. The scale of that responsibility is greater now than ever in post-war history.

Pre-war Europe fell into the trap of World War II because for years it was unable to understand and appropriately evaluate the threats of two totalitarian ideologies. Soviet communism and German Nazism were incomprehensible phenomena to European elites. Nazism especially, and popular fascination with Hitler among the Germans, were unimaginable to Europeans.

From the very beginning, Hitler made no attempt to conceal his imperial ambitions. And he pursued such ambitions step by step. First, by Anschluss in Austria, next by occupying Czechoslovakia. Europe remained passive with respect to these steps, deluding itself that war could be avoided if German appetites were satisfied. The price of peace involved enslavement of nations and countries considered by Germany as their zone of influence — its own Lebensraum.

Poland was exceptional in this context. Hitler often tempted the Poles with offers of cooperation in return for the status of a subjected country, but none of those proposals were accepted. Therefore, he decided that he had no choice but to invade. At the same time, Hitler had two worries. One was the potential reaction of the West to an attack on its Polish ally. The other was the reaction of the Soviet Union which was officially hostile to the Third Reich.

Despite many differences, the two totalitarian countries shared a desire to destroy the Polish state. On August 23, 1939, the Third Reich and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact, while in an additional secret protocol they agreed on dividing the territories of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Romania. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact sealed the fate of Central and Eastern Europe.

Poland became the first blood-drenched victim of the war

On September 1, Germany attacked Poland, while the Red Army attacked it from the other side on September 17. Poland became the first blood-drenched victim of the war, while Hitler and Stalin had the sense of a double victory. Not only had they used their overwhelming military advantage for a swift triumph but they had faced no substantive reaction from the West.

Present-day Europe is built on the memory of triumph over Nazism, yet also on the shameful repression of truth over passivity in the first phase of the war. When Poland shed its blood as the first to face the barbaric Hitlerian regime, many people in Paris and even London believed Hitler would stop in Warsaw. They were soon to find out how wrong they were.

What happened to Poland, and what occurred on its territories during the German occupation, is a history of complete degeneration. It is on the territory of Poland that the Germans committed their most vile crimes. It was on Polish lands that they built the majority of the infrastructure that enabled the most atrocious crime in history: the Holocaust. In many Western countries, occupation was a painful experience yet possible to live through. In Poland, however, millions of Poles and Polish Jews struggled for survival on an everyday basis, being treated as essentially subhuman. From the very beginning, the Jewish people was sentenced by the nation of the “masters” to elimination. The Poles were defined as a nation of slaves, a major part of which was also to be exterminated.

Awareness that Germany was turning Poland into Hell on Earth reached the West very slowly. The case of Jan Karski, who was one of the first to bring a report of the Holocaust to the United States, is representative. Even then, despite the war going on for many months, the West was unready to accept the whole truth.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (Picture credit: INM)

Ability to face the facts about World War II is our duty not only with respect to the past but also with respect to the future. The fact that post-war Germany was incorporated into the international community so soon, without the need for thorough prosecution of war criminals, opened the gate for the relativization of evil. Politics offers little space for moralizing, but when it comes to assessing totalitarian regimes we cannot have any doubts: this was absolute evil, and the perpetrators excluded themselves from human community once and for good.

Nevertheless, there are increasingly frequent claims that victims were to blame as well. From there, we have just one step to an entire reversal of history — placing it on its head. With respect to Poland, this step was made by no other than Vladimir Putin. Russian propaganda has been trying for years to tell the world that Poland is responsible for the outbreak of World War II. This is a lie both devious and absurd, which is one of the characteristics of totalitarian propaganda.

Historical comparisons are treacherous but cannot be avoided today. If we were to rewrite the origin of World War II in the present day, the climax would involve Russian invasion of Ukraine. The fact that this happened means that many countries did not do their homework or forgot the lessons of the 20th century. We are facing a revived empire with totalitarian ambitions. 83 years ago, Poland was the first to refuse submission. It chose being faithful to freedom and faithful to the founding values of the Western civilization. It was betrayed by its allies. If we recall this history, it is not just to remember it but to avoid making the same mistakes again.

The text is simultaneously published in the Polish monthly “Wszystko Co Najważniejsze” as part of a project carried out with the Institute of National Remembrance and the Polish National Foundation.

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