It’s 2019, so over the next few years we will commemorate a number of 80th anniversaries connected with the Second World War. British people will be reminded of their darkest and their greatest hours as they again contemplate Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. America has over two years before it remembers Pearl Harbour eight decades on. Russians, on the other hand, have to wait only until the mid-2021 for the eightieth anniversary of the start of the Great Patriotic War, which is what the Soviet Union called their second world war and considered as its beginning, with the German attack code-named Operation Barbarossa. Fewer and fewer veterans are left every year; during the war, virtually entire birth year cohorts of young men were wiped out on the battlefields between Moscow and Berlin. Needless to say, those who served later in the war had better chances of survival.
In Poland, however, another day of commemorations today is taking place, more mooted than the 1st of September anniversary and with far less attention from the rest of the world. On 17 September 1939, half a million Red Army troops crossed the eastern borders of Poland, over the next few days occupying what is now western Ukraine and western Belarus. Unaware of the secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact signed less than a month earlier between the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which provided for the partition and joint occupation of Poland, many Poles initially though that the Soviets were coming to help against the German invasion, the fiction actively propagated by the invaders in order to minimise resistance. There was little actual fighting even once people realised their mistake, since most of the Polish Army was at that time being hammered by Wehrmacht further west and what units there were in eastern Poland were simply not strong or prepared enough to face another onslaught from abroad.
On 22 September, Wehrmacht and the Red Army conducted a joint victory parade in Brest-Litovsk, the town on what for the next two years was to be the new border between the Reich and the Soviet Union. Military buffs might note that the presiding German officer was none other than German Heinz Guderian, a panzer pioneer who went on to become one of the best German commanders of the war. The Red Army was represented by a Brigade commander Semyon Kriwoszein. The Soviet Union’s and Germany’s precursors Russia and Prussia have divided Poland between themselves (with the help of the Hapsburg empire) three times previously, in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Now history repeated itself in black and white motion.
Some 20,000 Polish Army officers, most of them reservists with professional careers outside of the military, who were taken prisoner of war by the Soviets in 1939, were in the early 1940 murdered by the communist security services and buried in mass graves in several locations across the region, the most infamous being the Katyn Forest. They were the pre-war educated, patriotic elite so had to be disposed of in the interest of a successful Sovietisation of the newly acquired territories. Not all the captured officers perished; those who somehow manage to survive, like my great-grandfather, later formed the nucleus of the 2nd Polish Army Corp, released from the Soviet captivity in 1942 under pressure from the new Western allies. Its anabasis from Central Asia to Italy is one of the great stories of the war.
During the nearly two years of the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, up to one and a half million ethnic Poles were deported to Siberia and Central Asia. Tens of thousands were executed as “the enemies of the people” and hundreds of thousands died in their exile from illness, malnutrition and overwork.
Until the era of Gorbachev’s “glasnost”, all these events were the great unspoken of history, “biale plamy” as they were called in Poland, loosely translated as blank spots. It would have been unbecoming – not to mention dangerous – to dwell on the fact that our Soviet friends were once Nazi allies and co-aggressors at the start of the Second World War. The Katyn massacre (and related atrocities) were officially blamed on the Nazis. All Poles of course knew what really happened; if not part of family histories it was certainly part of a collective national memory. But it couldn’t be in any way openly spoken about or officially acknowledged or remembered.
Russia, today motivated more by the centuries old hostility to the Catholic Poland rather than last century’s communist ideology, continues to refuse to come to terms with its history. The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the invasion of Poland, the oppression and the crimes committed against the Polish population during its occupation are ignored or excused as historical necessity. This is arguably the main reason why Vladimir Putin was not invited to Poland for the 1st of September commemorations, while the President of Germany, which since the war has bent over backwards to atone for the past, was present together with other world leaders. The invader of Ukraine, needless to say, has thrown a tantrum at the snub (” yet another symptom of the warped mentality of the present Polish administration, which, for its own ends, is falsifying the history of WWII and the post-war period,” according to the Russian foreign ministry).
In Central Europe, history, sadly, lives on.
P.S. I can’t even begin to unravel the Gordian knot of lies and dissembling that is this tweet: