WARSAW (AFP) — More than 70 years on, the scars of World War II remain ever-present in Poland, a country devastated by the conflict in which six million Poles died and where many believe scores still need to be settled.
It was this sentiment that was seized upon by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which successfully transformed it into campaign fodder during the 2015 election that swept it to power.
Since then, the governing party has spared no time in spreading its version of history and multiplying initiatives glorifying Polish heroism on the battlefield.
And in its reach has been extensive: from rewriting teaching materials and exhibition displays to building new museums and monuments to heroes they believe have been erased from Poland’s national history.
It is also pumping considerable funds into initiatives perceived as patriotic, such as films and events glorifying Polish heroism and martyrdom.
One such tale is that of Witold Pilecki, a Polish partisan who infiltrated the Nazi-German death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau to set up a resistance network there, before escaping and reporting its horrors to the world.
Arrested by the communists after the war, he was tortured and eventually executed in 1948.
Last year, Poland revived the topic of World War II damages, demanding hundreds of billions of euros in compensation from Germany.
It has also been demolishing monuments dedicated to the Red Army, which chased the Nazis out of Poland in 1945 — only to replace them with a communist regime.
Earlier this year, Warsaw introduced a controversial Holocaust law targeting anyone — both at home and abroad — who accuses the Polish state of complicity in crimes by the German Nazi regime.
The legislation sparked tensions with Israel, Ukraine, and the United States, with many Jewish communities expressing concern it could discourage Holocaust survivors from recalling crimes committed by Poles against their loved ones.
‘Ignorance of our history’
“We have a lot of work ahead of us to remind the world of Polish history,” said Karol Nawrocki, the new director of the World War II museum in the northern city of Gdansk.
“The stance held by Israel and other countries comes out of ignorance of our history,” he told AFP.
During the war, many Jewish people died after being betrayed by fellow Poles, but there were other Poles who heroically risked their lives to save Jews — a fact that appears less well-known abroad.
Thousands of Poles have, however, been honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial for risking their own lives to save Jews.
The Gdansk museum opened last year to present an overview of the war with an emphasis on the fate of civilians.
But conservatives have criticized it for devoting too little space to Polish heroism, with Nawrocki tasked with addressing the perceived imbalance.
‘The trauma remains’
Poland was once a powerful kingdom, but was wiped off the European political map in 1795.
It only regained independence in 1918.
Then followed a period of democracy that at times drifted towards authoritarian rule before Germany and the Soviet Union invaded in 1939.
That was the start of a “disastrous” half century, explains Nawrocki, saying that such a fact needed to be emphasized in conversation with Western Europe.
Six million Poles, half of them Jewish, were killed during World War II.
“Instead of being a year of liberation, 1945 was one of renewed submission because we became a colony of the totalitarian Soviet state for the next 45 years,” he said.
“The trauma remains.”
Before communism fell in 1989, whole chapters of Poland’s history remained incomplete, with entire episodes — Stalinist crimes, the Holocaust, the non-communist resistance — minimized, rewritten, or erased.
But there is much work to be done.
Even if the anti-communist and non-communist resistance movements are honored today, the role of Polish troops who fought alongside the Soviets has in turn been marginalized.
Poland as ‘Christ of Nations’?
According to social psychologist Janusz Czapinski, the two centuries which followed Poland’s defeat at the end of the 18th century took a toll on its collective identity.
Hence the penchant for history — or a mythical version of it centered on “the grandeur of yesteryear and betrayal by others, including Western Allies, in 1939 and following the war,” Czapinski said.
As for Poles who bought into communism — they are viewed as traitors by the nationalists.
Historian Andrzej Paczkowski believes a considerable number of Poles have a complex about their history — one particular to countries who have lost a once-powerful status.
He quotes the term “Poland, the Christ of Nations” — a messianic doctrine which became popular in previous centuries suggesting that after a period of suffering, the country would return to glory.
Today, “the PiS has harnessed history to mobilize people, play on their emotions, saying, ‘we’re working to make Poland great again,” Paczkowski said.
“They believe it too! And they’re surprised that their country, which they see as the most valiant of all and which saved so many Jews, is now the target of accusations.”
But this approach minimizes the fact that although the Polish government in exile and the resistance never approved of anti-Semitism and fought against it, many Jews died as a result of betrayal by their Catholic countrymen.
Poles see this history “through rose-coloured glasses, and that has almost nothing in common with the actual past,” said Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski.