International leaders have already started marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Soviet troops captured the camp and freed its prisoners on Jan. 27, 1945. The Nazis had founded Auschwitz on the soil of occupied Poland in May 1940, not long after invading the country. It’s estimated that around 1 million Jews (many of them Polish citizens) were murdered there. Soviet prisoners of war as well as Polish priests and intellectuals died in the camp, too.
You would think that remembering the horrors of the Holocaust would offer an opportunity to bring the world together in a sense of shared mourning and hope. But you’d be wrong.
The first round of ceremonies is taking place Thursday in Jerusalem. Among the guests of honor is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has already given a speech about the war. His Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda, is boycotting the event after being told he would not be allowed to speak.
In reality, of course, the business of Holocaust remembrance has never been entirely free of sordid political calculations. Yet this moment — when the leaders of two of the most important nations involved in Holocaust history cannot appear at the same events — certainly marks a new low.
Sadly, both the Russians and the Poles bear responsibility. It turns out that the two countries’ governments, who have attacked each other harshly over the years, have more in common than they would like to admit. Both are guilty of trying to twist history to serve their own aims.
Putin has been causing a stir by attacking the well-established historical consensus on the outbreak of World War II. His apparent aim: to divert attention from the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, in which Hitler and Stalin secretly divided up Eastern Europe among themselves and established an alliance that lasted for the first two years of the war. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland on Sept. 17, 1939, and its annexation of the territory it seized, became the prelude to the killing of 22,000 Polish officers by Soviet executioners in the forests of Katyn. This is a big part of the story that Putin prefers to gloss over.
For Putin, whitewashing the Soviet legacy is nothing new. As part of his long-standing effort to restore Russian national pride, he has even ordered the rewriting of school textbooks in order to downplay Stalin’s crimes.
Yet his latest comments on the outbreak of the war have taken a revealing direction. Putin has focused on Poland’s alleged perfidy in the years leading up to 1939, when its leaders were desperately trying to stave off Nazi aggression — in some cases by making deals with the Nazis themselves. He spotlighted the anti-Semitism of some prewar Polish officials and effectively blamed Warsaw for starting the war. The speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, called on Poland to “apologize” for facilitating the Holocaust.
But why Poland? And why now?
Since it came to power in 2015, Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party has been pushing its own distinctly nationalist version of history. Two years ago, it passed a law criminalizing any mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust; Parliament later softened the law after an international outcry, but the government has continued to prosecute or sue Holocaust historians. State media have embarked on a campaign to vilify and silence critical voices, the University of Ottawa’s Jan Grabowski told me in an interview: “Nowadays being an independent historian of the Holocaust in Poland is a very risky proposition.”
The current prime minister has even tried to rehabilitate a nationalist group that collaborated with the Nazis during the war. In September, the government pointedly refrained from inviting Putin to ceremonies marking the start of World War II.
All of this has given the Russians — always eager to undermine a country that plays a major role in NATO and the European Union — a welcome opening. Even though Poles were among World War II’s biggest victims, Putin’s disinformation campaign has succeeded in casting them in a dismal light.
Putin has allies in Israel who are only too happy to help. He has forged a close relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been willing to overlook the foibles of authoritarian leaders in order to bolster his own standing at home. The ceremonies in Jerusalem on Thursday have been organized in part by an Israeli businessman of Russian origins who also boasts of close ties to the Kremlin.
Grabowski argues that Putin’s sins are worse, given his willingness to ignore millions of Stalin’s victims. The Polish government, he said, is engaged in “Holocaust distortion” rather than outright denial.
Yet both Moscow and Warsaw deserve to see their international reputations tarnished by their campaigns to rewrite history.
One wonders whether they will pay the price. In today’s world of “alternative facts,” contempt for the truth is becoming a norm — and the past is no more immune than the present.