EU, Russia row over WWII, with Poles and Czechs on front lines

Invasion of Poland, photo: Public Domain

European Commission vice president Věra Jourová, whose portfolio includes promoting EU values, transparency and the rule-of-law, called out Russia last week for “distorting” the history of World War II. Specifically, the former Czech minister objected to attempts “to paint victims, like Poland, as perpetrators”. We look into the ongoing war of words between Moscow and former Soviet satellites, not least the Czech Republic, over historical facts.

Signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact,  photo: Free Domain
This past September, the European Parliament passed a resolution in Strasbourg entitled “The importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe”, which outraged the Kremlin.

Among other things, MEPs blamed the communist Soviet Union – not just Nazi Germany – for starting World War II by signing a non-aggression treaty known as the “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact”, and its secret protocols, on 23 August 1939.

That treaty, the Resolution states, aimed at “dividing Europe and the territories of independent states between the two totalitarian regimes and grouping them into spheres of interest, which paved the way for the outbreak of the Second World War”.

Furthermore, MEPs said, as a direct consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, followed by the Nazi-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty:

“the Polish Republic was invaded first by Hitler and two weeks later by Stalin – which stripped the country of its independence and was an unprecedented tragedy for the Polish people”

The Soviet Union also started a war against Finland in November 1939, and in June 1940 annexed parts of Romania – “territories that were never returned” – plus independent Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

In the Resolution, MEPs expressed deep concern “about the efforts of the current Russian leadership to distort [these] historical facts and whitewash crimes committed by the Soviet totalitarian regime”.

And – of particular offense to the memory of Red Army soldiers as liberators – the Resolution said that monuments and memorials are still in place in some EU Member States “glorifying totalitarian regimes, which paves the way for the distortion of historical facts about the consequences of the Second World War and for the propagation of the totalitarian political system.”

World War II, the ‘Great Patriotic War’, and historical memory

Stalin,  photo: U. S. Signal Corps,  Wikimedia Commons Free Domain
As in days of the Soviet Union, Russians today celebrate a glorious victory over fascism not in “World War II” (which began on 1 September 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland) but in the “Great Patriotic War” (which began on 22 June 1941, with his invasion of the Soviet Union).

That timeline discourages reflection on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet’s own invasion of Poland two weeks after Hitler’s, and the USSR’s wars with Finland and Japan – events that many Russians today are unaware occurred.

In the European Union, 23 August, the date the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was signed is marked as “Black Ribbon Day” – and official European Day of Remembrance, for the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

The Resolution further called on 25 May (the anniversary of the execution of the Auschwitz hero Rotamaster Witold Pilecki) to be established as the International Day of Heroes of the Fight against Totalitarianism.

‘absolutely unacceptable and wrong’

Vladimir Putin | Photo: Archive of World Economic Forum,  CC BY-SA 2.0
Russian president Vladimir Putin, asked about the Resolution at his annual news conference on 19 December, condemned totalitarianism as such.

But he bristled at “equating” the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and insisted that the West – and to a large extent Poland – were to blame for fanning the flames of a war that left 27 million Soviet citizens dead.

“There is nothing good about totalitarianism – it must be condemned, without any doubt. But the European Parliament’s resolution is absolutely unacceptable and wrong.

“You can condemn Stalinism and totalitarianism as a whole, and there are justified reproaches. The Russian nation was perhaps the biggest victim of totalitarianism. And we condemned it.

“But to put the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany on the same level, the same scale... Well, it means people are ignorant of the history.”

Putin also sought to put the blame for the outbreak of World War II squarely on the Allies for trying to appease Hitler, by giving him the green light to annex border areas of Czechoslovakia with a majority German-speaking population (the Sudetenland).

“Take 1938, when the so-called Munich Agreement was signed, when the heads of the world’s leading countries – France, Great Britain [and Italy] – signed an agreement with Hitler on the partition of Czechoslovakia. Let them read the documents of that time!

“What was the response by Poland? As one of its diplomats wrote back then, it did everything to take part in the dividing of Czechoslovakia.

“What was the response by the Soviet Union? It called for a united, anti-Fascist front. By not accepting it, the Western countries tried to incite Hitler to attack the East.”

The Hitler-Stalin pact …or Munich?

Invasion of Poland,  photo: Public Domain
The next day, at an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on 20 December, Putin all but outright blamed Poland for the outbreak of the war.

Leafing through and citing archival documents piled before him, the Russian leader asserted the pre-war Polish ambassador to Berlin had praised Hitler’s plans to rid Europe of Jews.

Putin also insisted that had the French honoured their commitment to defend Czechoslovakia against a German invasion, the Soviet Union (which also had a treaty with Prague) would have come to the Czechoslovaks’ aid – but Poland was unwilling to let Soviet troops through.

In fact, while now playing the innocent victim, Poland actually took advantage of the Munich betrayal to claim rights to Czechoslovakia’s Cieszyn Silesia, thereby de facto becoming Hitler’s accomplice in dividing that state.

A Russian-Polish war of words

Věra Jourová | Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio
Putin’s assertions triggered angry rebuttals by Poland and compelled the European Parliament to call a special debate last week on the “Distortion of European history and remembrance of the Second World War”.

It was there that EU vice president Věra Jourová came to Poland’s defence.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. The Commission’s role here is to talk about the facts.”

“The European Commission fully rejects any false claims that attempt to distort the history of the Second World War or paint the victims, like Poland, as perpetrators.

“The Commission will not tolerate these attacks on Poland and stands in full solidarity with Poland and the Polish people.”

Why Miloš Zeman nearly did not go to Moscow

Jourová did not venture into a battle over historical memory and public monuments that is also raging between her own country and Russia.

Vladimir Putin, in a New Year’s greeting to his Czech counterpart Miloš Zeman, signalled he hoped to see him in Moscow in May for celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the end of hostilities.

But Zeman – among the staunchest supporters of Russia within the EU – nearly gave it a miss, due to Moscow slamming his signing into law a bill declaring 21 August – the date of the Soviet-led, Warsaw Pact troop invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 – a state holiday in memory of its victims.

Miloš Zeman | Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio
Back in 2006, Putin made headlines during his sole visit to the Czech capital as head of state by acknowledging that Moscow bore “moral responsibility” for that invasion, called by the Kremlin to crush the Prague Spring reform movement.

But that was then. Russia and the Czech Republic are now at odds over a Prague district assembly vote to remove a statue of wartime Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev, whose forces liberated much of Czechoslovak territory in World War II but, some historians say, also helped plan the 1968 invasion.

The countries are also at loggerheads over a Prague district’s plan to erect a monument to the so-called Vlasov Army, whose leader was hanged by the Soviets for collaborating with the Germans during World War II. Vlasov switched sides and helped the Czechs liberate Prague from Nazi occupation in May 1945.

European Commission vice president Věra Jourová, is among those advocating letting the historical chips fall where they may:

“Hannah Arendt famously noted, ‘The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exists.’

“I want to fulfil my mission to build up the resilience of our democratic systems by strongly focussing on education, plurality of media, and in particular by keeping close to the facts and evidence.

“Only by a clear and loud action can we keep the distinction between true and false. Allow me to express hope that with the approaching 75th anniversary of the end of the worst war in the history of humanity, we will not see multiplication of efforts to distort history of the events, and to mask victims as perpetrators.”