How do we remember the dead? How do we remember the war dead? How do we remember the controversial war dead? In Europe, history is never quite in the past because it is all around you and inside your head:
The Poles have been removing memorials thanking the Soviet Union for liberating Poland from the Nazis, which were erected around the country after World War II. There are still 200 of these memorials in Poland and the government wants them all gone.
It is a natural and normal thing for communist symbols to disappear from public spaces in Poland. So says, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo. At this time, though, no one seems to know just how many monuments need to come down. There are around 200 monuments that are very visible and Luka Kaminski, director of the Polish Institute for National Remembrance (INR) in Warsaw, thinks that they have to go. “Memorials in city centers and villages can send the wrong historical signal,” he said.
As TDC readers know, I’m as anti-communist as they come, yet I remain somewhat ambivalent – certainly more ambivalent than the Polish Prime Minister or the Institute for National Remembrance – about cleansing Poland of monuments to Red Army soldiers who have fallen on the Polish soil fighting Nazis in 1944-45. And monuments they are; thankfully, no one is removing or destroying the war cemeteries, where the dead soldiers actually rest.
Was Poland liberated by the Red Army? Clearly not in a sense of giving Poland back its pre-war independence and sovereignty, and control over its own affairs and future (I don’t mention democracy, since the 1930s Poland was hardly a model, though of course nothing like the Stalinist Soviet Union). The Russians, as they are colloquially collectively though inaccurately referred to, defeated the German occupiers only to introduce their own form of dictatorship subservient to the Soviet communist imperialism. It has to be remembered that the Soviet Union was one of the co-aggressors of the Second World War, when in accordance with the secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, it attacked Poland from the east on 17 September 1939, just over two weeks after the initial Nazi invasion. And marching back into Poland in the last two years of war it fought not just the Germans but also eliminated, often violently, the Polish underground, which spent the previous five years fighting the Nazi occupiers. Somewhere between 500,000 and one million Poles died as a result of the Soviet actions in 1939-41 and then 1944 onwards, including more than 15,000 Polish officers notoriously murdered at Katyn and other massacre sites. Poland itself was geographically shifted, losing its historic eastern Kresy (the Borderlands – now western Ukraine, western Belarus and southern Lithuania) and being compensated with historically German lands east of Oder, including East Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia. As part of the process, millions of eastern Poles, including my extended family, were uprooted from their centuries’ old homes in the east and resettled en masse, mostly to the newly acquired western lands, recently forcibly emptied of millions of Germans in a similar plight. To many if not most Poles, at least amongst those who think about it in any depth, these are the memories that the 200 memorials continue to stir, even so many decades after the end of the war.
So no, it wasn’t a liberation by any stretch of imagination, but while the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and subsequent domination over the reborn Polish republic damaged Poland in innumerable ways, including economically and socially, it also arguably saved the Poles from extinction. For we should remember that the Nazis envisaged a variant of a final solution to the Slavic problem after finishing with the Jewish one. Hitler’s master plan for his new lebensraum in the east included an effort, extended over several decades, to first exterminate Polish intellectual, commercial, military and spiritual elites, probably 10 to 20 per cent of the population, and then turn the remainder into a perpetual helot class of slave labour for the German settlers. The masses were to be completely decultured, and kept ignorant (with some primary education to teach German language and basic literacy) and subservient. The overall population levels were to be reduced over time too, through starvation, overwork and lack of medical attention, to make sure the Poles (as well as as other conquered Slavs further to the east) never constituted a numerical threat to their new masters. If, in a dystopian “Fatherland”-style alternative future, the Nazi Germany emerged victorious over the Soviet Union in 1941-2, in a generation or two Poland as a nation would have been a memory, and within another two or three also as a culture and an ethnicity. This, then, is arguably a future that the Red Army’s successful re-invasion of Poland in 1944 has saved the country from in the long term. Nazism and communism might have been equally evil and deadly variants of totalitarianism but they were not in practice equally evil and deadly for the Polish nation and the Polish people.
Is that enough to maintain the monuments to the Soviet “liberators”? I don’t know. Perhaps not if we prefer, as humans generally do, to deal with the real past as opposed to historical what-ifs. But even putting that aside, I’m not a big fan of destroying the past as an act of symbolic cleansing or exorcism – or, worse, an act of rewriting and reshaping. The past – both the good and the bad – is the past, and you can’t change it; it’s what made you who you are today. More than that – you should always remember it, because the good as well as the bad have their own useful lessons to teach. Erasing the past strikes me as a totalitarian tactic in itself, something that people like Hitler and Stalin (and many others, of course, before and after) liked to do to make history fit their preferred narratives. You can celebrate or condemn, you can forgive or not, but either way you shouldn’t forget.
Lastly, a human, as opposed to a historical, point. The Red Army soldiers who died fighting in Poland, over half a million of them, were a cross-section of humanity; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Only a small minority would have been conscious communists busting to extend the dictatorship of the proletariat to the previously bourgeois Poland or have had much idea at all of the geopolitical chess their masters were playing with the future of Europe. For large part they were simple, barely educated peasants and workers who, like most mass armies in history, fought because they had to, and died in prodigious numbers because their superiors were particularly promiscuous with human life. It’s always pretty risky to try to speak for the dead, but I’m pretty sure none of them wanted to die, and particularly to die in or for Poland, even if most of them indeed wanted to avenge the unthinkable death and destruction inflicted on their motherland by the German invader, to chase him back all the way to his liar, and destroy him once and for all.
Let the dead sleep.
P.S. I’ve chosen not to pepper the text above with links to Wikipedia or other sources. If you are interested in that history, there are a number of great recent books out there which fully explore the horror of mid-century Central Europe, including Anne Applebaum’s “The Iron Curtain”, Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands” and Halik Kochanski’s “The Eagle Unbowed”.