Nathaniel GARSTECKA: Poland remains the subject of numerous false claims

Poland remains the subject of numerous false claims

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Editor of "Wszystko co najważniejsze". A Frenchman born in Paris, with Polish-Jewish roots. He is passionate about the history and culture of Poland, France and the Jewish people. Lives in Warsaw.

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French and Western public opinion knows very little about the reality of the German occupation of Poland during World War II. Poland is regularly accused of participating in the Holocaust or collaborating with fascism – writes Nathaniel GARSTECKA

.Whether in France, Russia, the United States or Israel, knowledge of wartime events in Poland is either very limited or biased. Very often, students are told that Poland was swiftly defeated in September 1939 (usually along with the famous but deceitful anecdote about Polish cavalry charging at German tanks, which was part of Nazi propaganda aimed at portraying Poles as a backward nation that “can be colonised”). Students are also taught that the Holocaust occurred with the active participation of Poles (another questionable and highly biased assertion). To fully comprehend what happened in Poland, we must first understand why it was a particular target for the Germans.

Let us start with Nazi ideology. The ‘originators’ of the regime devised a racial hierarchy where Jews and Gypsies occupied the lowest tier and were to be deported or exterminated. Poland would witness the extermination of 90% of the Jewish population, which amounted to 3 million individuals. A little higher up in the Nazi hierarchy, just behind the Jews and Gypsies, were the Slavs. The Germans intended to wipe them out, too, and take over their land, but only after the Slavs would have been enslaved and made to work for their captors. The Germans had time to experiment with this project in Poland in particular, including the Zamość Region. Furthermore, they successfully eradicated the country’s elites with the help of Stalin’s Soviet Union. A de-glorified nation is easier to erase. After all, the Polish lands have always been the focus of the German Drang nach Osten – a policy of colonisation towards the east  – and they have never reconciled themselves to the loss of the lands after their defeat in 1918. Therefore, even before the war, Poland was Hitler’s priority target. It was the largest population centre of Jews in Europe, a country meant to be colonised and a definite military enemy because of its constant refusal to ally with Nazi Germany.

Let us delve deeper into this last point. Poland knew all along that it was the target of German revanchism and Nazi ideological projects. It therefore pressed the French and British throughout the 1930s for guarantees of military support. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the USSR was also hungrily eyeing Polish territories and preparing for revenge after the 1920 defeat in Warsaw. For them, Poland was also an ideological enemy: “White bourgeois Poland obstructs the export of the revolution to the West.” The two great totalitarianisms of the 20th century were able to put aside their ideological rivalry and come to an agreement on a new partition of Poland. It was clear that we were the prime target of both Germans and Soviets. An agreement with them was out of the question.

Let us now move on to other states. The countries affected by the tragic events of the Second World War can be divided into several categories: countries allied with Nazi Germany, which were able to retain some form of sovereignty and, to varying degrees, participated in German military campaigns (Italy until 1943, the zone libre, Slovakia, Hungary until 1944, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Finland); countries invaded by Germany with local puppet governments or administrations maintained, whether collaborating or not (Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Serbia, Greece, Italy since 1943 and Hungary since 1944); and countries at the junction of Soviet and German occupation, destined to be colonised by the Nazis, whose local elites were exterminated (Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). In this category, Poland stood out as the sole nation that didn’t employ auxiliary troops or SS formations, and where no nationalist group collaborated with the Nazis.

Countries that fell into the first category had little to no presence of German troops. If they did station there, it was in a limited capacity and with a desire to spare the residents, committing few atrocities to maintain their strategic and military alliance. These countries fielded troops to the German army and fought on the eastern front in the USSR. Their own anti-Semitic laws were put into effect, which involved the initial deportation of foreign Jews or those from occupied territories (Hungary in Transylvania, Bulgaria in northern Greece and Romania in Bessarabia and western Ukraine), and then the reluctant expulsion of domestic Jews (Italy, Hungary before 1944 and Bulgaria). However, the authorities in Slovakia (Jozef Tiso regime) and Croatia (Ustasha organisation) perpetrated the massacre or deportation of ‘their own’ Jews.

In countries belonging to the second category, Germany used the help of collaborating organisations and local administrations to deport Jews (Netherlands, France, Norway, etc.) or massacre them on the spot (Serbia). Denmark retained sufficient autonomy to organise the rescue of its small Jewish community. The occupation of Denmark and Norway was not as brutal as in the other countries, because the Nazis considered the Nordic peoples their ‘Aryan cousins’. In these countries, it was common to create SS units and volunteer battalions (like the French LVF). In the third group of countries, the Germans took over all levels of administration. Additionally, in Ukraine and the Baltic States, they engaged nationalist groups to hunt down resistance fighters and Jews. Some Baltic and Ukrainian volunteers were allowed to join SS battalions. However, these countries first had to endure the Soviet occupation in 1939 and 1940. This occupation was particularly brutal, as the Soviets deported hundreds of thousands of Polish and Baltic citizens (Ukraine had been part of the USSR before the war and the target of mass atrocities, such as Holodomor, in the 1930s), exterminating elites and ‘class enemies’ (bourgeoisie, intellectuals, Zionists, etc.). Thus, when the Germans forced the Soviets out of these territories in the summer of 1941, they were often greeted as liberators by the local population, who organised campaigns of white terror against the Jews (accusing them of collaboration with the Soviet occupiers, the myth of ‘Jewish Bolshevism’). Spontaneous pogroms occurred in Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and eastern Poland, often inspired or instigated by the new, German occupiers. Later, the Nazis conducted the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ with the support of Baltic and Ukrainian collaborationist organisations. In Poland, the German administration established ghettos with puppet Jewish councils, subsequently deporting Jews to extermination camps without the involvement of Polish political or nationalist organisations.

The fate of the non-Jewish population varied across all these countries. Latvians and Estonians remained somewhat unharmed for a time, despite the suppression of communists and resistance fighters. The Lithuanians and Ukrainians were significantly more affected, while the Poles were promptly subjected (since 1939) to mass crimes committed against them by the Germans. Whereas the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane and the Czech village of Lidice are symbols of German occupation violence in those countries, Poland saw hundreds of similar cases. It is estimated that the Germans obliterated 800 Polish villages, along with their inhabitants – and not just because Poland was the only country in German-occupied areas with a death sentence for helping Jews. It was in Poland that the Nazis applied the bloodiest occupation policy. In the absence of local organisations willing to collaborate, every Pole was automatically suspect and dangerous in the eyes of the Germans who could obtain information and denunciations only from individuals.

Now, it is time to address certain untruths and inaccuracies concerning the situation of Poland during World War II. Some of these untruths are deliberately propagated by ill-intentioned individuals or institutions to gain favour from global public opinion and cause harm to Poland.

“Poland supported fascism.” The reality is, Poland fought Nazi Germany from the very beginning to the very end, refusing to collaborate. The legal émigré government in London continued to fight alongside the Allies, and Polish armies participated in major battles against Germany on all fronts. Poland is one of the few European countries occupied by or allied with Hitler that did not supply soldiers or volunteers to the German army or SS.

“Poland is not grateful to the USSR for liberation”. The USSR is partly responsible for the destruction of Poland in September 1939 and the German occupation. Hitler and Stalin signed a pact and agreed between themselves to divide Eastern Europe. The Soviet occupation of eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941 was brutal. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported and crimes were committed against Polish prisoners of war, intellectuals and ‘class enemies’, including many Jews. For two years, the USSR supplied Germany with the raw materials it needed to unleash war across Europe. In 1944, the Soviets expelled the Nazis from Poland but began their own occupation. They continued to perpetrate atrocities and established a puppet government subservient to Moscow that kept the country under totalitarian rule until 1989.

“Poles aided Nazis in the Holocaust.” The Polish state nor any Polish political organisation or institution helped in the genocide against the Jews, unlike in most European countries. Polish legitimate government in exile opposed the persecution of the Jews. Yes, some individuals committed anti-Semitic crimes. Events that could be likened to massacres occurred, especially in the summer of 1941, in territories where the Soviet occupation was brutal towards Poles. However, they primarily transpired under German control and amid an exceptionally savage occupation of the land. This happened in most occupied countries.

But the Poles were not a part of the industrial machinery of extermination created by the Nazis. Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Balts, Croats and Slovaks were far more involved in the Holocaust. Even the Soviets deported tens of thousands of Jews between 1939 and 1941. One should not forget that in Poland, Jewish aid networks thrived, the Polish resistance executed informers, many villages were set ablaze, and many Poles were killed for sheltering Jews. It should also be noted that ethnic tensions were not limited to Jews. Bloody conflicts erupted between Poles and Lithuanians and between Poles and Ukrainians.

“Poles refuse to acknowledge their dark moments and want to control historical memory.” The occupation of Poland was especially devastating. Poles were one of the most brutalised nations by Nazi barbarism and Communist totalitarianism. Then there was the Holocaust, which took place in Polish territory since historically it was home to a very large proportion of Europe’s Jews.

For centuries, the Polish people had been one of the most tolerant and Jewish-friendly nations. Even when Germans introduced a system preventing Poles from helping Jews, tens or even hundreds of thousands of citizens supported, helped, hid and rescued Jews. In the conditions in which Poles lived during the occupation and under the constant threat of Hitler, the very fact of not informing on neighbours hiding Jews was an act of defiance. This does not excuse those who committed crimes, who killed or betrayed Jews. Anti-Semitic sentiments were prevalent among a portion of the population both before and during the war. In the three years leading up to its outbreak, Poland implemented some Anti-Semitic laws, although they were not as severe as those enacted in other Central and Eastern European countries or in Germany. In 2001, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski issued an official apology and asked for forgiveness for the crimes committed by Poles. The Polish government has been working for years to promote Jewish history and culture. In 2007, President Lech Kaczynski initiated the construction of a large ‘Polin’ museum dedicated to the history of Polish Jews.

Younger generations are taught about the Holocaust, and Poles who saved Jews are presented as role models. Informers and collaborators are unanimously condemned. Despite this, numerous lies about Poland persistently circulate. “Polish death camps” continues to be a commonly used term, while Poles are often accused of harbouring anti-Semitic sentiments. These lies are used by Poland’s political enemies or anti-government activists to undermine the country’s position on the international stage. At the same time, it is forgotten that Poland, unlike many other countries, did not participate as a state in the Nazi genocidal campaign. Yet these other countries are not as heavily attacked by the media and politicians, while also not making as many remembrance efforts as Poland.

.Concerning the ‘manipulation of memory’, it is commonly accepted that governments may employ legal means to counter historical lies and distortions. Multiple memory laws in the West outlaw denialism or revisionism. The term ‘Polish death camps’ and the accusation of the Polish state and nation of mass collaboration with Nazi Germany obviously fall into that category.
Western public opinion is commonly unaware of the hardships faced by the Polish people during the German and Soviet occupation. Millions of Poles were killed or deported during World War II. Poland was targeted and then hit by the full force of the totalitarian and genocidal apparatus of Nazi Germany and the USSR. Poverty was rampant, and the entire Polish economy was requisitioned by the Germans. The occupation of Poland cannot be compared with that of most other European countries. The absence of this knowledge is the root cause of failing to understand the Polish attitude towards Jews at that time. While some countries occupied by or allied with Hitler kept at least minimal autonomy which allowed them to slow down deportations or not to show the zeal expected by the Germans in hunting Jews, others, such as Poland, were subjected to total military and police occupation from the first days of the conflict until 1989. Among the non-Jewish peoples, Nazi terror was directed primarily against the Poles, who resisted Adolf Hitler’s troops alone, with strength and determination, throughout the six years of the war. Given these circumstances, the risk involved in hiding or rescuing Jews was far greater than in other countries and demanded much more sacrifice. The Germans did not hesitate to raze entire villages and massacre families who hid Jews. To blame the Poles for failing to ‘pass the solidarity test’ despite all the help provided by the resistance movement and the legitimate government in exile, all those who alerted the less than committed Western leaders and those who gave their lives to save the Jews, is both unfair and unhealthy.

Nathaniel Garstecka

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 12/06/2023