x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Poland marks 70th anniversary of war

Poland remains scarred by the horrors of the Nazi invasion and occupation and its later forced subservience to Soviet 'liberators'.

The monument honouring the defenders of Westerplatte, near Gdansk, where a Polish garrison held out for seven days despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the attacking Germans.
The monument honouring the defenders of Westerplatte, near Gdansk, where a Polish garrison held out for seven days despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the attacking Germans.

GDANSK // Europe's main ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, which triggered the Second World War, is being overshadowed by a quarrel about the origins of the conflict that cost 60 million lives. Many Poles have been incensed by recent claims from some Russian historians and media that Poland provoked Hitler into attacking it by refusing his "modest" territorial demands and that the infamous non-aggression pact between Moscow and Berlin that secretly agreed to carve up Poland was a clever tactical ploy by Stalin to gain time to prepare for war. For Poles, such statements are an insult, given the memory of the Soviet Union's annexation of eastern Poland 17 days after the German invasion, the massacre by the Soviets of thousands of Polish officers in Katyn Forest and the deportation of Polish civilians to Soviet gulags. Six million Poles, half of them Jews, died in the Second World War. That was 17.2 per cent of the population - a greater proportion than any other country. The memory of their suffering remains a potent influence on Poland's politics and society. The Polish government has avoided getting involved in the debate. It is hoping that the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who is always keen to glorify Soviet history and who is scheduled to attend the main Polish ceremony today, will refrain from stoking a controversy that is threatening to damage already difficult relations between the two countries. "People are not sure what Putin is going to say and there is quite a lot of anxiety that he might follow the Soviet propaganda regarding the Soviet role in the attack on Poland," Adam Jasser, the programme director at DemosEuropa, a Polish think tank, said in an interview. "But other than that, I think the Poles appreciate that Putin is coming." Mr Putin will join the Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, the German chancellor Angela Merkel and other dignitaries at a memorial on Westerplatte, a small peninsula on the Baltic Coast at the port of Gdansk, where the first shots of the war were fired at 4.45am on September 1 1939. Troops from the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, which had docked in Gdansk in late August under the pretence of a courtesy visit, started the invasion by attacking a Polish military outpost on Westerplatte. The site became a national symbol of Polish resistance; the defenders held out for seven days even though they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. A 25-metre monument featuring the sculptured heads of a Polish soldier and a sailor testifies to Poland's pride in their courage. It is officially recognised as the place where the war started, even though the first German attack on September 1 took place a few minutes earlier - an aerial bombardment of the small Polish town of Wielun. The country remains deeply scarred by the trauma of the war and many Poles, especially the older generations, still harbour a deep mistrust of Germans. Polish tempers regularly flare whenever German expellees - ethnic Germans evicted from Poland after the war - talk about their suffering. A planned museum in Berlin to document the expulsions has led to several diplomatic rifts between the two countries. Poles see it as belittling the crimes committed by Germany during the war. In Germany, the anniversary has been accompanied by intense media coverage and a plethora of television documentaries and new books. There is not a shred of revisionism - politicians, witnesses, media commentators have been reaffirming Germany's guilt for the war and the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered. A group of 140 German intellectuals published a declaration last week stating that "Germany inflicted immeasurable suffering on its neighbours across the whole of Europe" and acknowledging its responsibility for the subsequent partition until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. The country's leading news magazine, Der Spiegel, devoted its front cover to the anniversary with the title: "How One People Attacked the World". The article retraces how Hitler bluffed his way to war and it defends Britain's appeasers, saying their concessions in 1938 left no doubt that Germany alone was responsible for the outbreak of war one year later. Hitler was in such a hurry to start his war that the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, signed eight days before the Polish invasion, was never even properly typed up: it is peppered with spelling mistakes. Poland became the first victim of a new, terrifying form of warfare that involved indiscriminate aggression. New research published this year shows that from day one the German forces waged vernichtungskrieg - war of extermination in which no distinction is made between combatants and civilians. It was different from the First World War, when soldiers had for the most part slaughtered each other rather than innocent bystanders. "The principal characteristics of the war of destruction that Germany waged from 1941 in its assault on the Soviet Union were already recognisable in September 1939, albeit on a smaller scale," Jochen Böhler, the author of a new book on the invasion of Poland, said. "The war crimes committed in 1939 went beyond what could be expected in a normal military engagement. Special police units were formed to persecute and murder the Polish elites and the Jews," said Mr Böhler, a historian at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. "The Luftwaffe bombarded Polish cities to terrorise the population and break its morale. Polish historians have calculated that some 150 locations were damaged or destroyed by Luftwaffe attacks in the first days and that dozens or more of those locations had no army units and no military significance. "This was total war, modern war, with no distinction between combatants and the civilian population." The Polish campaign marked the start of blitzkrieg, a strategy of rapid and co-ordinated mechanised and aerial assaults that brought Hitler's troops to Paris nine months later and within sight of Moscow in December 1941. The first of September also spawned the myth of Polish cavalry attacking German tanks that came to symbolise Poland's hopeless, desperately courageous struggle. The 18th Pommeranian Regiment of Ulans were attacking a mechanised German infantry regiment in Tuchola Forest to help cover the retreat of Polish units when German tanks suddenly appeared and opened fire. The riders were not able to turn in time and suffered heavy casualties. But they did manage to halt the German advance for a while, writes Mr Böhler in his book, The Invasion. Britain and France, which had military alliances with Poland, declared war on Germany on September 3 but did not come to Poland's aid. Warsaw fell on September 28, ushering in yet another partition of Poland and more than five gruesome years of repression. Millions of Poles were murdered in Nazi concentration camps or became forced labourers. Decades of communist rule followed after the "liberation" by Soviet forces in late 1944 and 1945. Seven decades on, Polish attitudes towards Germany are changing, with recent opinion polls showing that more than half of Poles have a neutral attitudes towards their western neighbour and EU partner. Younger and more educated Poles especially regard Germany as a friendly, allied country and, in some respects, a role model. "My personal opinion, and there is some evidence of that in opinion polls, is that mistrust of Russia is far greater than that of Germany at the moment and the reason is that people do realise that Germany has come clean on its wartime history," said Mr Jasser of DemosEuropa. Polls indicate that some three-quarters of Poles still feel threatened by Russia. Poland welcomed US plans for a missile shield on its territory partly because it represented a symbolic defence against Russia. The latest Russian interpretation of the causes of the Second World War is unlikely to help relations. "Some Russian historians are now claiming the Soviet Union had to sign an agreement with Hitler to prevent him from forming a coalition with Poland to attack the Soviet Union. This really is an interpretation without foundation," Mr Böhler said. "To rewrite history and portray Stalin as the big fighter for peace is going too far. Belittling the crimes of the Stalin regime in Russia and the countries occupied by the Soviet Union is an interpretation that no country outside the former Soviet Union can sign up to. If Russia persists with this I see no chance that we'll ever reach a basic consensus in Europe about the origins of the Second World War." Despite the historical debates, Poland is starting to put the war behind it. "Poles are finally beginning to feel safe and are realising that the role of the Second World War as a defining principle of the Polish view of the world needs to diminish gradually and that they need to start focusing on the future," Mr Jasser said. "Twenty years from now, Poland will finally be self-confident enough to look at the events of World War Two only from a historical perspective." foreign.desk@thenational.ae