Thursday, 17 September 2009

Invaders or liberators?

America has its December 7th. Pearl Harbor. "A day that will go down in infamy". The Soviet Union had its June 22nd, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. France, Belgium and Holland, have their May 10th, when Hitler invaded them.

Poland has its September 1st, when Hitler attacked it from the west, and its September 17th, when Stalin attacked it from the east.

Crafty Stalin, so much more intelligent than Hitler, so much better at camouflaging evil intent, got his man to sign a treaty with Hitler's man to carve up Europe (so it would never be remembered as the Stalin-Hitler Pact), then gave Hitler 17 days to ensure Poland was well and truly down before stabbing it in the back. The Soviet Union ended up with 51% of the territory of pre-war Poland. But today no one outside of Poland remembers the USSR as the aggressor.

So September 17th is important to Poland and to the world. We need this day to make the equation clear - Nazis bad, Soviets bad. End of story. None of this flabby, fatuous rhetoric about 'anti-fascist coalitions'. Where's the difference between Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag? Where's the difference between extermination of human beings in the name of race hatred and class hatred?

There are several memorials to the Soviet war dead in Warsaw. On September 1st, Putin mentioned the 600,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the (questionable word) 'liberation' of Poland in 1944-45. Yes, they did repulse the murderous, barbaric Nazi occupant (who killed six million Polish citizens during WWII). But the memory of 17 September 1939 (and of August 1920) puts a different slant on affairs. Twice in the space of the preceding 25 years did the Soviets invade Poland with an eye not to liberating it from foreign occupants, but to extending westwards the borders of the Soviet Empire. (Above and below: statues at the Soviet war memorial on ul Żwirki i Wigury)

Many years ago, shortly after arriving in Warsaw, I was cycling to work when I passed this monument. So incensed was I at seeing this monstrousness, I picked up a stone and threw at at one of the statues. It resounded with a hollow 'brdink!' Standing there alone that autumn morning with these four giant figures, I felt silly and ashamed at doing so. For suddenly I saw not Soviet 'heroes', but victims of Soviet oppression; for why were these Russians, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis and Uzbeks herded ever westwards, into the face of Nazi machine guns and cannon, over landmines and barbed wire, NKVD rifles pointed at their backs? Not to free Poles from Hitler's oppression - but to gain territory for Stalin.

Hitler murdered six million Polish citizens (three million of whom were Jewish). Stalin murdered half a million. But then the Nazis occupied Poland for much more of WWII than the Soviets did. And Soviet murders must be put into the broader perspective of Stalin's persecutions of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Karelians, Moldovans, as well as of Soviet citizens within the pre-1939 borders - victims of the Gulag, or forced resettlement during and after the war.

Poland must never let the world forget September 17th 1939. But Poland should keep its own suffering at the hands of Stalin and his henchmen in the perspective of the suffering endured by scores of other nations from the Elbe to the Pacific. Including, of course, Russia.

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