Vladimir Putin has triggered a diplomatic spat with Poland by saying that it was responsible for causing the Second World War and that the Soviet occupation helped to save lives. The Polish government responded by accusing him of reviving “Stalinist propaganda”.
Speaking at a gathering of former Soviet states in Saint Petersburg on Friday, Putin condemned a recent European Parliament resolution that blamed the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact – a non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – for the outbreak of the war.
The European Parliament has voted for an International Day of Heroes of the Fight against Totalitarianism on 25 May, the date Witold Pilecki, the Polish underground officer who resisted both German occupation and the postwar communist regime, was executed https://t.co/nyVo7QdMGD
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) September 19, 2019
Putin pointed out that other countries, such as Britain, France and Poland, had previously signed agreements with Germany in an attempt to appease Hitler.
“The Soviet Union was the last [country] to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler,” said Putin, quoted by Associated Press. But now some are trying to “shift the blame for unleashing World War II from the Nazis to Communists”.
The Russian president argued that it was actually the Munich Agreement of 1938 that “opened Hitler’s path to the east and became the reason for the start of World War Two”, reports Polish broadcaster Radio Zet. He also pointed to Polish negotiations with the Third Reich, saying that the leaders who conducted these talks “exposed the Polish nation to the German war machine”.
Putin then argued that when the Soviet Union occupied the eastern half of Poland two weeks after the German invasion in September 1939, this “saved the lives of a large number of local people, especially Jews, because later the population would be exterminated by the Nazis”. He also claimed that the occupation was necessary because the “Polish government had lost control of the country”.
Poland, Romania and the Baltic states have jointly marked the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with a call to honour 'the victims of totalitarianism' and 'combat manipulation of historical facts trying to cleanse those ideologies of guilt' https://t.co/bc5KmGpAOd
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 23, 2019
Putin’s remarks triggered an angry response from the Polish authorities on Saturday. The foreign ministry expressed its “concern and disbelief” at the “false picture of events” he had presented, which echo “propaganda from the time of Stalinist totalitarianism” and undermine efforts to “seek truth and reconciliation in Polish-Russian relations”.
The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a state body responsible for researching Nazi and communist crimes against the Polish nation, also issued a lengthy statement disputing Putin’s attempts to “undermine fundamental facts about the role of the Soviet Union in unleashing the slaughter of World War Two”.
The IPN noted that Hitler and Stalin had constantly sought to overthrow the European order created by the Versailles Treaty, and that the Second World War itself began with the aggression of Germany and the Soviet Union against Poland in September 1939, under a secret protocol of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.
The Soviet authorities in occupied Poland carried out mass “arrests, deportations and killings”, noted the IPN, with the victims being not only Poles but also other groups, including Jews. The Katyn massacre of 1940, in which 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia were summarily executed, was one example, said the IPN.
The IPN’s statement agreed that the decision of France and the United Kingdom to appease Hitler at Munich had been a mistake. “However, comparing this to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, where both totalitarian signatories divided the entire territories of many free states between themselves, does not withstand contact with the facts.”
On Sunday, the spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, responded by saying that it was in fact Poland that had been “undermining” relations with Russia for years, reports AFP. Poland has displayed “aggressive rhetoric”, pushed for sanctions against Russia, and was demolishing monuments to those who “fought against fascism”.
Her latter comments were a reference to the current Polish government’s policy of removing Soviet-era monuments to the Red Army, which were erected when Poland was under communist rule. This has elicited protests from the Russian authorities.
'As long as Poland denies that it was liberated by the Red Army in WW2, the resumption of dialogue on historical issues is not possible,' says Russia's ambassador to Warsaw, who also criticises the Polish authorities for removing Soviet monuments https://t.co/LhIKS1qje5
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 21, 2019
The latest row follows tension earlier this year over Poland’s decision not to invite Russia to attend the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. Whereas world leaders including Donald Trump and Angela Merkel were invited, Vladimir Putin was not.
Russia’s foreign ministry criticised the decision, saying that it was the Soviet Union which “liberated Poland from the Nazi aggressors”. Polish president Andrzej Duda responded by saying that Poland wanted to commemorate the event only with countries that work towards “peace in a world based on the principles of observing international law”.
Two leading left-wing politicians, both former members of the pre-1989 communist party, have sparked a row by saying that the Soviet Union "liberated Poland" at the end of WWII https://t.co/p4bRdB3VXO
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 2, 2019
Russia under Putin has pushed strongly to deny that the Soviet Union was an aggressor responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War alongside Nazi Germany.
In 2015, Russia’s ambassador to Poland, Sergey Andreev, claimed that “Poland was partly responsible for” being invaded by Nazi Germany, because it had “repeatedly blocked the formation of a coalition against Hitler”. The Soviet Union’s occupation of eastern Poland was simply an act of self-defence, he said.
The following year, Russia’s Supreme Court upheld a sentence against a blogger who had reposted a text saying that the Soviets and Nazis “closely collaborated” in the “joint invasion of Poland”. He was responsible for “circulating false information”, found the court, and therefore guilty of “rehabilitating Nazism”.
In 2018, Associated Press acceded to Russian pressure to delete a reference to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as “former allies” who had “carved up Poland” together. AP accepted Russia’s argument that the “pact was never formally recognised as an alliance”.
Associated Press has accepted a Russian demand to change an article that referred to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as 'former allies' who had 'carved up Poland' together. Russia argued there was never a formal alliance between them and AP accepted this https://t.co/JpCx9CTTzO
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) September 13, 2018
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.