Accessibility links

Breaking News

'Memory Wars': Polish, Russian Fight Over World War II Shifts To Auschwitz

A museum now operates on the territory of the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
A museum now operates on the territory of the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

Auschwitz -- the Nazi death camp in Poland where more than 1 million Jews, Poles, and other people died -- was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.

This much, Poland and Russia can agree on.

But not much else when it comes to World War II. Or a growing number of prewar, and postwar, Cold War events, for that matter.

And they certainly can’t agree on the proper way to mark the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation, or which countries’ presidents should have a place of honor, and where, and how.

For years, Russia and its former Soviet satellite have locked horns over how to properly interpret the war years and their aftermath, a reflection in part of President Vladimir Putin's efforts to champion Soviet war victories, and, more broadly, Soviet accomplishments. Poland’s nationalist ruling party has made confronting Russia, and defending aspects of Polish history, a prominent plank of its guiding philosophy.

But Polish-Russian skirmishing has risen to a new crescendo in recent weeks, in the run-up to the 75th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation.

Invited to official Polish ceremonies to be held at Auschwitz on January 27, Putin declined, according to organizers. Instead, Putin was scheduled to travel to Jerusalem four days earlier, to attend an alternative commemoration -- hosted by a Kremlin-connected tycoon. Poland’s president was invited to Jerusalem but backed out because he would not be allowed to speak.

“I am extremely upset and worried about the new situation in relations between our countries,” said Natalia Lebedeva, a prominent Russian historian and expert on Soviet-Polish relations.

“I am afraid that this is not just a war of words, but something more serious,” she told RFE/RL in an e-mail.

Cold History

Warsaw’s animosity toward its eastern neighbor is rooted in centuries of rival empires and invading armies who have seen what is now modern Poland as an invasion route, or simply an appendage to more powerful empires.

For centuries, the territory of modern-day Poland had been carved up between Russia, Prussia, and the Austro-Hungarian empire. After World War I, an independent state -- the Second Polish Republic -- was established, but lasted only until 1939, when Moscow and Berlin signed a nonaggression pact that also included a secret protocol providing for Poland to be carved up again.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with a World War II veteran on board the presidential plane to a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2005.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with a World War II veteran on board the presidential plane to a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2005.

That agreement, part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, took effect when World War II started, and Nazi and Soviet armies invaded Poland.

Though the agreement was published in the West after the war, its existence was denied by the Soviet Union for decades, until 1989; the declassified Soviet document was published in Russia in 1992.

Last year, the pact, and the secret protocol, drew new scrutiny on the 80th anniversary of its signing, on August 23, 1939.

Poles, and most Western historians, labeled the pact treacherous. Russian officials, however, sought to rationalize it, publicizing archive documents that they claimed showed that it was Hitler, not Stalin, who pushed for the pact and that the Soviet Union had no choice but to sign it in order to buy time and ensure its security.

The comments jarred with more conciliatory comments Putin himself made 10 years earlier, in an article he penned for a Polish newspaper, in which he called the pact “pointless, harmful, and dangerous.”

'A Triumph Of Soviet Diplomacy'

During his first two terms as president in the 2000s, Putin made clear that he felt Soviet history had been unfairly distorted. In 2005, he called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

But the trend accelerated after he returned to the presidency in 2012, following a four-year hiatus as prime minister. And it grew further after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014, which is considered hallowed ground for the Kremlin.

Last September, the European Parliament passed a resolution that blamed the 1939 nonaggression pact for the outbreak of World War II. Russia responded with weeks of angry criticism of the resolution. Russia’s culture minister called the 1939 pact “a triumph of Soviet diplomacy.”

On December 19, during his annual marathon news conference in Moscow, Putin said it was "totally unacceptable and inaccurate" to blame both Hitler and Stalin for sparking the war.

He also revisited the Kremlin argument that Stalin was forced to sign the pact, only because Britain and France had betrayed Moscow by signing the 1938 Munich Agreement with Hitler.

Molotov-Ribbentrop: The Pact That Changed Europe's Borders
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:03:57 0:00

WATCH: Molotov-Ribbentrop: The Pact That Changed Europe's Borders

One day after the news conference, at a meeting with heads of former Soviet states, Putin gave an hour-long history lecture about the war.

On December 25, he targeted Poland’s prewar envoy to Nazi Germany, telling Russian defense officials that, according to Soviet records, the envoy asked Hitler to expel the country’s Jews to Africa, and promised to build a monument to the Nazi leader in Warsaw if he did.

“That bastard! That anti-Semitic pig,” Putin said.

That appeared to be the last straw for Warsaw. On December 29, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki issued a blistering, 1,300-word statement criticizing Moscow.

“Today, when certain individuals wish to trample the memory of these events in the name of their own political goals, Poland must stand up for the truth -- not for its own interests, but for the sake of what defines Europe,” Morawiecki said.

And then there’s Auschwitz: the network of Nazi facilities, officially known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, that is now synonymous with the genocidal ideology of the Nazis. In all, more than 3 million Polish Jews were killed during the war, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Red Army moved into the southern Polish town and liberated the camp on January 27, 1945 -- the event is now marked as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

As with past years, Poland will host a ceremony at Auschwitz on January 27; this year, more than 100 survivors of the camps will also attend, as will heads of states and dignitaries from nearly four dozen countries.

Putin, who did not attend the 70th anniversary events, was invited to this year’s ceremonies, but declined; the Russian ambassador to Poland is on the list of invited guests.

"Each country makes a decision about their own delegation to the commemoration event," Pawel Sawicki, a spokesman for the ceremony organizers, told RFE/RL. "That means the decision about the Russian delegation is taken independently by Russia which chose to be represented by its ambassador to Poland."

Instead, Putin will attend an event held on January 23 at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial, organized by the World Holocaust Forum, an organization founded by a Russian Jewish businessman, Vyacheslav Kantor.

Known more widely as Moshe, Kantor heads the European Jewish Congress. He is also, as of 2018, on the U.S. Treasury Department’s so-called “oligarchs list” -- a tally of nearly 200 businesspeople and political figures alleged to have close ties to the Kremlin.

Bodies of Polish soldiers shot at Katyn in 1940.
Bodies of Polish soldiers shot at Katyn in 1940.

Polish President Andrzej Duda had been invited to attend, but backed out, after organizers refused his request to speak during the ceremonies “before or after Vladimir Putin.”

"It is a prerequisite that, as a representative of the country which had the most citizens murdered at Auschwitz, I can speak about historical truth,” Duda said.

Memory Wars

For decades, one of the most painful aspect of Russia-Polish history was the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish military officers and civilians at Katyn Forest. In 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that it was the Soviet secret police who carried out the execution.

In recent years, Russian and Polish historians had collaborated, in a semiofficial capacity, in an organization called the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Issues. The academics published joint articles examining different parts of the two countries’ overlapping history.

But, said Slawomir Debski, a Polish historian and head of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, after the 2014 Crimea annexation, there was a shift in how Russia sought to reinterpret 20th century history.

“The Russian side lost interest in any historical dialogue whatsoever,” Debski told RFE/RL.

In 2015, in an interview in the Russian government newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta, Andrei Artyzov, the head of the Russian State Archives, deflected blame away from Russia or the Soviet Union.

“The historical memory war is not our choice,” Artyzov told the newspaper. “It was not us who started the war.”

Polish politics have also taken a more nationalistic turn, under the Law and Justice party, which won an outright parliamentary majority in 2015. In 2018, Duda signed into law a measure that made it illegal to say that Poland was complicit during the Holocaust.

After an outcry from the United States and the European Union, lawmakers removed the criminal penalties, instead calling for fines.

More recently, the Polish parliament on January 9 passed a resolution against what it called the "manipulation of facts and a distortion of history by Russian politicians aimed at discrediting Poland and worsening Polish-Russian relations."

Top Russian lawmakers responded days later, asserting that it was Poland who was rewriting history.

On the anniversary of the Red Army's liberation of Warsaw, on January 17, Russian officials held a fireworks display over Moscow. Poland's Foreign Ministry responded, criticizing what it said were Moscow's attempts at rewriting history and calling on Russia to “accept its difficult past.”

“We respect soldiers’ blood sacrifice in the fight vs Nazism, but in 1945 Stalin's regime brought [Poland] terror, atrocities, and economic exploitation,” Poland's Embassy in Moscow said in a post on Twitter. "The Red Army liberated Warsaw from the Nazis, but did not bring freedom to the Poles!"

Lebedeva, who is renowned for her research on the Katyn killings, said she was shocked that Russian lawmakers in their speeches were making no mention of the Katyn massacre, and others that occurred in 1940, rhetorical attacks, she said, “which are not only directed against Poland, but also, to a certain extent, are aimed at restoring the cult of Stalin.”

“Shouldn’t our country repent for these killings?” she told RFE/RL. Lebedeva said her opinions were her own and not that of her employer, the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World History.

“I think that this would be important not only for the restoration of historical truth, but so that in our country something like the repressions against our own and other peoples that [took place] during Stalinist rule don’t reoccur,” she said.

  • 16x9 Image

    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.