Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Tuesday accused Russia of trying to “rewrite history,” saying that the Soviet Union had been “a facilitator of Nazi Germany,” in the latest salvo in a war of words over World War II history between the two nations.
In an opinion piece published on the Politico website, Morawiecki said that life behind the Iron Curtain after 1945 was the start of a “new tragedy” for many in Eastern Europe.
“For Western Europe, this tragic period of European history came to an end in 1945, with the defeat of Germany’s Nazi regime. But for many European nations, the declaration of peace did not mean the end of the tragedy, only the beginning of a new one,” Morawiecki wrote.
The Polish prime minister also said that the Soviet Union “stared on idly” during the two Warsaw uprisings, and failed to take the opportunity to liberate Auschwitz in 1944.
“The Soviet Union did not ‘liberate’ Warsaw, as Russian authorities are now claiming. The Red Army stared on idly at the agony of Warsaw. The city’s two uprisings — the first in the Jewish ghetto in 1943, the second in the entire city in 1944 — were evidence of the ruthlessness of German crimes. But while the people of Warsaw waited hopefully for help, Joseph Stalin never ordered the Red Army to intervene,” Morawiecki wrote.
“And while the Red Army did eventually liberate Auschwitz, the camp could have been liberated half a year earlier. In the summer of 1944, the Soviet army stood 200 kilometers from Auschwitz, but the offensive was halted, allowing the Germans time to retreat and organize death marches until January 1945. Rescuing Jews was never a priority for Stalin and the Red Army.”
Israel’s preeminent Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer said that Morawiecki is “partially right” in his assessment.
“The main reason for the Red Army not advancing in the summer of 1944 was that they had advanced too quickly since they began their offensive on June 22, hundreds of kilometers to the East. But yes, they did not want to permit the Nationalist Polish Underground to gain popularity by being part of a Soviet offensive. In any case, the Soviet decision to bring up their supply lines had nothing at all to do with Auschwitz,” Bauer told The Times of Israel.
The exchange of accusations over the roles of Moscow and Warsaw before and during World War II was sparked when Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Poland and Western powers for the war’s outbreak.
Putin accused Poland of having been in cahoots with Adolf Hitler during the war. He also cast Poland as an anti-Semitic country that welcomed the Nazi dictator’s plans to destroy Europe’s Jews.
“Essentially they colluded with Hitler. This is clear from documents, archival documents,” Putin said in an end-of-year speech at the Defense Ministry in Moscow.
In a statement issued a few days later, Morawiecki rejected Putin’s claim as a distortion of history and attacked the Soviet Union for its alliance with Nazi Germany that resulted in the division of Poland.
Russia’s defense ministry on Friday accused the Polish resistance movement that staged the Warsaw uprising of 1944 of “destroying Jews.”
The accusations were posted with a trove of declassified documents called “Warsaw Under Fire” on the 75th anniversary of Soviet forces’ taking the city after more than five years of occupation by Nazi Germany.
Poland’s foreign ministry on Friday launched a “liberation without freedom” campaign on Twitter to mark the anniversary, saying that the coming of the Red Army “didn’t mean liberty for Poland.”
Poland’s president pulled out of an event this week marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation by the Soviet Red Army of the Auschwitz death camp, while Putin is set to visit.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said he declined the invitation to Jerusalem because he would not have an opportunity to respond should Putin use the event to again lob accusations of anti-Semitism against Poland.
The Yad Vashem memorial museum has said the speakers represent the winners of World War II and the country that perpetrated the Holocaust — Germany.
Poland meanwhile has not invited Putin to its own commemoration of the anniversary on January 27.
The Russia-Poland dispute is the latest in series of efforts by countries to change the historical narrative of the war and the Holocaust.
Poland passed a controversial Holocaust law last year that drew sharp international criticism and damaged its relations with Israel, United States and Jewish groups around the world. Many feared the law, which prohibited rhetoric accusing Poland of complicity in Nazi crimes — since the Nazis had occupied Poland, Polish leaders argue — would hamper education and historical research of the genocide.
That dispute was resolved when Poland softened the law and Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart agreed on a joint declaration stressing the involvement of the Polish resistance in helping Jews. It was seen as a diplomatic coup for Poland but Netanyahu faced criticism from historians in Israel, including at Yad Vashem, for agreeing to a statement that they said distorted history.
Leading Israeli historians harshly criticized the joint statement, arguing it inaccurately adopts the Polish narrative of the Holocaust, overstating Polish efforts to rescue Jews and understating anti-Jewish atrocities committed by Poles.
The crisis was reignited last year after Netanyahu was asked by The Times of Israel in Warsaw about the controversial agreement between Israel and Poland. Netanyahu denied suggestions that he was going along with historical revisionism: “Here I am saying Poles cooperated with the Nazis. I know the history and I don’t whitewash it. I bring it up,” he said.
He added that “a not insignificant number” of Poles had collaborated and said, “I don’t know one person who was sued for saying that.”
Morawiecki then canceled Warsaw’s participation in a summit of central European countries in Jerusalem, branding as “racist” a comment by Israel’s foreign minister, who said Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.”
Israel Katz had told Israel Radio that “the Poles took part in the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust. Poland became the biggest cemetery of the Jewish people.”
Duda on Sunday said he will refuse to meet Katz because the foreign minister won’t apologize for the comments.
“There are Jews who were born in Poland before World War II and survived the Holocaust who think the Poles and Poland deserve an apology for the words said by Minister Katz,” Duda said in an interview with Israel’s public broadcaster Kan.
“I have no doubt that these words were very offensive toward us as Poles and toward our country,” he added.
Duda insisted that the main commemoration event for the liberation of Auschwitz this year will be held not at Yad Vashem, but at the site of the former Nazi camp, located in Poland.
“I think, and I have always thought, that these events marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day have to be at Auschwitz, and that is the place where it is most important to honor and commemorate Holocaust victims,” he said.
“That’s why this year, on the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, those international events — which will be attended by the way by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin — will be held inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.”
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.