Festival of Seventy-Year Suffering at Westerplatte

I don’t cover the Polish press here that often; nevertheless, the overriding imperative of this weblog remains finding and discussing the most interesting goings-on within the wide ambit of my language-coverage, and these days that certainly has to lead us to the Polish front.

I use “Polish front” here deliberately, because yesterday’s headline event in Europe was without a doubt the convocation of several national heads-of-state at Gdansk, Poland for ceremonies marking the seventieth anniversary of the opening of that Polish front by Nazi Germany with the ground-attack that started the Second World War. This is understandably a sensitive historical matter for the host nation, and controversy was assured from the very beginning just by the list of attendees. That featured a few names who you would think simply did not belong at such a ceremony, for various reasons. Like James Jones, US National Security Advisor: why were the Americans sending such a relatively low-ranking official and not someone at least at the level of, say, Vice President Biden? There was also Russian premier Vladimir Putin, whose presence was sure to be controversial for more profound reasons, both contemporary (Putin has for years been engaged in an effort to glorify Russia’s past, particularly its involvement in the Second World War under Josef Stalin) and historical (that involvement notably involved the Red Army’s “stab-in-the-back” invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939, arranged according to the terms of the secret protocol to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact negotiated only the month before).

“We can’t forget for a moment that what we have here is a great battle over memory,” preached Archbishop Henryk Muszyński of Gniezno at a Mass he held yesterday. “Preserving that memory and the entire truth about the Second World War is our obligation.” That is probably the wisest, most-reasoned remark made in connection with those ceremonies at Westerplatte, the specific spot on the coast at Gdansk where hostilities begain early in the morning of 1 September 1939, from among those cited in Rzeczpospolita’s main article covering the event, by Piotr Kubiak (After the war – the battle over memory).

Rather less diplomatic were the observations Polish president Lech Kacziński made in his speech: “Westerplatte is a symbol of heroic resistance by the weak against the strong, a symbol of patriotism and steadfastness,” and “It’s not Poland that has cause to correct a lesson of humiliation but rather those who abandoned Poland and assisted in that humiliation.” Whom might President Kacziński have meant here in particular? He left no doubt that that was the Soviets, going on to bring up “17 September” and “the blow to the back delivered [then] by Bolshevik Russia.” He also in his remarks compared the murder of tens of thousands of Polish officer and intellectuals by the Soviets in the Katyn Forest in 1940 to the Holocaust: “The Jews perished because they were Jews, Polish officers perished because they were Polish officers.” To which Stephan Kramer, General Secretary of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, immediately objected: “Even within a complete understanding for Poland’s national pain and the bad memories of the fate of the officers murdered at Katyn, especially in these days such a comparison is unsuitable and out of place.” Katyn; the Holocaust; the Soviet Union’s 17 September 1939 “stab-in-the-back”; the original German surprise attack (heralded precisely at Westerplatte by a sudden salvo of live ammunition from a German cruiser, the Schleswig-Holstein, which was at that Polish port on a “courtesy visit”): there are a lot of wrongs festering here, to the point that I strongly imagine that this September 1 commemoration was by nature a pained and awkward affair for all concerned.

But Don’t Forget The Slovaks!

In that light, I think it would be vastly more entertaining to divert discussion here to a secondary piece issued by Rzeczpospolita, by Piotr Semka: Janosik stuck the knife in the back of the Second Polish Republic. Yes, we’re still fixated here on the “knife-in-the-back” theme – you realize that we’re not going to be able to escape that for as long as the subject is the Westerplatte ceremonies – but at least here it takes an unconventional angle. Namely from the South: not only did the Germans stab Poland in the back in 1939 with their initial “courtesy visit” and invasion, not only did the Soviets do the same from the East more than two weeks later, but the Slovaks to the South were also guilty, as the “Janosik” and two other Slovak army divisions participated in that German attack. (No doubt Poland was spared being “stabbed in the back” from the North only due to the good fortune that nothing is in that direction but the Baltic Sea!)

Of course, the Slovaks could not really help it: they had to go along with the attack, as by September, 1939, they were full-fledged Nazi puppets, having seen their Czech brothers invaded the previous March and fully incorporated into the German Reich. You’d also have to expect that those Slovak units were not likely up to the same quality as most of their fellow Wehrmacht divisions – from a less martial culture, established as their own state only months before, etc. – but they definitely saw their share of action: 18 killed, 71 wounded, 1,350 Polish prisoners taken. The highlight of their participation in the invasion seems to have been when they took Zakopane – today a famous and popular Polish ski resort in the Tatra Mountains – and held a victory-parade through the town.

Semka’s article does fully describe how the Slovaks really had no choice but to join their Nazi overlords in that 1 September 1939 invasion of their northern neighbors. It even goes so far to mention how Polish forces had previously rather cravenly taken advantage of the aftermath of the October 1938 Munich agreement – in which Britain and France abandoned Czechoslovakia and forced her to agree to occupation by Germany of the so-called Sudetenland – to grab a pair of villages and the surrounding territory from Slovakia in a “border correction.” (Those parcels of land were of course immediately returned to Slovak control after the Poles were vanquished, as a reward.) And indeed, Vladimir Putin was glad to cite this 1938 “border correction” misbehavior as evidence that the Poles had been happy to work together with the Nazis prior to the war’s outbreak – why, there was also a formal non-aggression treaty that the two countries signed back in 1934, obviously with an eye towards eventually conducting a joint attack on Russia!

But again, while that “border correction” and non-aggression pact did happen, the combined effect of all this dredging-up of historical wrongs probably amounted at Westerplatte to little more than making all those involved long to get away at the earliest point possible to go take a shower. OK, so the Slovaks were guilty of aggression, too – are you sure that you have completely exhausted the list of all those who let you down in September of 1939, Poland, or are there still others you’d like to accuse? Anyway, it has been 70 years, for Heaven’s sake! Perhaps one more such excruciating commemoration of the war’s beginning can be sanctioned for 2039, the one hundredth anniversary, but otherwise this sort of ceremony should be permitted simply to fade away into history.

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