The year wouldn’t go past without Vladimir Putin managing to again eschew any role in starting the Second World War and instead blaming Poland for getting invaded:
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.
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”.
It’s true that it took a lot of actions (and inactions) by a lot of actors to help Hitler on a path to a total war and it’s also true that many countries other than the Soviet Union had signed non-aggression pacts with the Nazi Germany. But, as I and many others have pointed out ad nauseam in the past, the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was the only of the lot where the two signatories not only committed to not attack each other but also agreed to participate in an invasion and dismemberment of a sovereign state they both deeply despised (as Molotov reported to the Supreme Soviet by the end of September 1939, “A short blow by the German army, and subsequently by the Red Army, was enough for nothing to be left of this bastard of the Treaty of Versailles”.) In fact, the secret protocols of the Pact, the existence of which the Soviet Union kept denying until almost its very end, allowed Stalin not only to annex the eastern Poland but also the three other independent states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as parts of Romania and Finland.
Poland indeed signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1934 – but she also signed one with the Soviet Union in 1932. The Polish state has been cursed with perhaps the worst location in Europe, being stuck between Prussia/Germany, with their thousand-year history of trying to colonies the Slavic east, and Russia, with its five hundred-year history of trying to expand west into central Europe. Both great powers have indeed partitioned Poland between them three times in 1772, 1793 and 1795 out of existence until the end of the First World War. This geopolitical nightmare has arguably reached its nadir in the 1930s, with both neighbours now animated not simply by imperialist impulses but by genocidal totalitarian ideologies. The First Polish Republic tried to steer the middle course to the extent it was possible, knowing that both Germany and the Soviet Union desired its renewed extinction and either was potentially capable of achieving it alone, much less in combination. Thus the two non-aggression pacts, but no alliances with either because even “friendship” with a totalitarian great power would mean a gradual loss of independence and an eventual absorption into the respective evil empire. Thus, Poland would neither befriend Germany and potentially allow its troops passage to the Soviet border nor the Soviet Union and potentially allow the Red Army to enter its territory on the way to the German border. As Putin alludes to, such talks with both – not just Germany – continued almost right until the outbreak of war, but nothing had ever come of it since it was clear to Poland’s military rulers in the 1930s that both guests once invited, even if for transit, would linger and stay. And so Poland found itself in an unenviable and in the end unsustainable position of trying to balance Germany and Russia while hoping that some great outside events would solve either or both of the problems. In the end the German problem was indeed solved by 1945 and the Soviet by 1989 but not before six million dead, utter devastation, shift in borders and ethnic composition and the effective loss of independence for decades throughout the Cold War.
To argue that through all this Poland has somehow invited the aggression of her neighbours is completely unbecoming of a serious political figure in the 21st century. That Putin, embodying the Russian state and dictating its corporate memory, continues to refuse to face the past and instead recycles all the imperial and communist eras tropes and excuses is shameful and dangerous.