Patriotism or negligence? Why modern Poland rewrites its past

Units of the Red Army and the First Polish Army entered Warsaw on January 17, 1945, ending more than five years of German occupation. Seventy-five years after the fact, however, Warsaw is choosing not to honor its liberators.

Quite the opposite, in fact: modern Polish authorities insist that their country was a purely innocent victim of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, asserting their moral equivalence.

This kind of historical revisionism is clearly politically motivated. While the Polish People’s Republic (1947-1989) was a client of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Third Polish Republic hastened to become a vassal of the US upon its conclusion, joining NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.

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In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bluntly pointed to support from “New Europe” countries like Poland as a way to dismiss objections from France or Germany. While Warsaw may bask in this adulation from Washington, its relations with both the EU and Russia have been more strained as a result.

Revising WWII history is of particular concern to Moscow. Modern Russia has dismantled much of the Soviet Union’s legacy, but refuses – with good reason – to dishonor the nearly 27 million dead in the war to defeat Hitler.

Imagine if France chose to dig up the graves of US troops that landed in Normandy on D-Day because of a modern-day political spat with Washington, and you’ll understand why Russians are fuming at Poland’s revisionism and removal of monuments to Soviet liberators.

Just last month, Moscow and Warsaw exchanged diplomatic demarches after Russian President Vladimir Putin described interwar Polish diplomat Jozef Lipski as an anti-Semite and a Hitler sympathizer. Yet, there is no denying that Lipski was both; or that Poland was the first country to sign a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1934; or that Warsaw was an eager participant in the 1938 partition of Czechoslovakia at Munich.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” as Shakespeare would put it.

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Keep in mind that Russia and Poland have a history of mutual rivalry going back centuries. Russia celebrates the 1612 victory over Polish invaders as a national holiday, while Polish armed forces feast on the anniversary of their 1920 victory over Soviet cavalry under Warsaw.

Yet there is more to this than mere historical grievances. Even though Prussia and the Austrian Empire also took part in partitioning Poland and wiping it off the map by 1795, modern Polish nationalism is almost exclusively Russophobic. While there is romantic talk in Poland about the “Kresy” (borderlands) lost to the Soviets after WWII, no one in Warsaw would suggest giving East Prussia, Pomerania, East Brandenburg or Silesia back to NATO ally Germany, or reclaiming Wilno (Vilnius) from another NATO ally, Lithuania — much less lay claim to present-day Western Ukraine.

Worse yet, Poles who protest this kind of revisionism, or dare say a kind word about anything involving the Soviet liberators or the People’s Republic, seem to get threatened into silence by the establishment determined to impose its own version of history.

Warsaw went so far as to invite German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the September commemoration of the 1939 Nazi invasion, but refused to invite Putin to the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops. Honoring Germany this way seems absurd, considering that Nazi plans for a “thousand-year Reich” in the east involved exterminating the Poles in much the same way as the Jews.

Russian critics have painted Polish efforts as attempts to rehabilitate “fascism.” While there is no denying that many NATO and EU countries openly cultivate nationalistic tendencies these days – Croatia and the Baltic States come to mind – and that Germany itself has “laundered” much of its own WWII legacy through NATO operations in the Balkans and elsewhere, at the end of the day I respectfully disagree. To this historian, the behavior of Polish authorities looks more like shameful sycophancy towards their newest overlords.

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Consider the fact that the Polish government has campaigned to have the US set up a permanent base on its territory, even proposing to call it “Fort Trump” in an attempt to flatter the sitting US president’s ego.

Meanwhile, by tearing down monuments to Soviet “occupiers,” they also spit on the memory of tens of thousands of Poles who fought and died alongside the Red Army to free their homeland from Nazi Germany.

There is nationalism, and then there’s patriotism, but this is clearly neither.

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