September 17 is one of these orphan anniversaries that no one wants to claim. It is too shameful to celebrate for some and too uncomfortable to commemorate for others. Many would rather not have to confront this date, yet confront it they must.
Seventy years ago, in the morning hours of September 17, 1939, the Red Army troops crossed the Polish border and over the following weeks, in accordance with the secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, occupied and annexed large swathes of what was then eastern Poland and is now western Ukraine and Belarus and southern Lithuania. The outgunned and outmaneuvered Polish army was already by that stage collapsing under the onslaught of the first German blitzkrieg, so from a military point of view the Soviet invasion did not materially affect the outcome of the struggle. It did, however, provide a dastardly coup de grace for the first chapter of the Second World War.
But don’t expect much news and commentary about September 17; not in the West, and certainly not in Russia.
The anniversary is an uncomfortable reminder that for around one third of the duration of the war, the Soviet Union was one of the aggressors — first against Poland, then against Finland, and finally against the Baltic states and Romania — and that during that time it provided invaluable material aid to further the Nazi aggression against the West, while at the same time committing mass war crimes within the newly occupied territories, of which the so called “Katyn massacre” of some twenty thousand Polish army officers taken prisoner of war is only the most widely known.
Very few others have been investigated, none have been prosecuted (if one excludes the farcical attempt by the Soviets to pin the blame for Katyn on the Germans during the Nuremberg trials), and not one person responsible has ever been held to account. To add insult to injury, the very memory of the Soviet atrocities committed east of the Ribbentrop-Molotov line had been banished and criminalized after the war, right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall. For years, September 1, not the 17th, was the only date to remember, and for many it remains the only date that matters and the only date they know.
The commemorations of the start of the Second World War, held in Gdansk, Poland, on September 1, have been a rather somber and understated affair. Ironically, the most prominent international attendees were Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, representing the two original aggressors. Great Britain and France sent their foreign ministers, Miliband and Kouchner. The United States sent merely the National Security Adviser, Jim Jones, and only after the outrage at the unseriousness of the initial choice, former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry.
Contrast this with the 60th celebration of the end of the Second World War a few years ago, a poignant yet triumphant occasion which mixed inspirational pageantry with the celebration of the triumph over evil (well, one of them, in any case) and the victory of democracy (west of the Iron Curtain). But no one particularly likes to remember the start of wars, least of all this one.
For Poland it is a reminder of another dark age in its history. For Germany it is a reminder of its aggressive past. For Great Britain and France it elicits an uncomfortable realization that despite the security guarantee given to Poland months before the outbreak of war, all the aid by the Western allies consisted of air-dropping leaflets across the German border. Lastly, for Russia, it is a reminder of its own shameful role in the drama, and perhaps more importantly, of the continuing inability to come to terms with its past. No wonder that the Gdansk commemorations have received only perfunctory news coverage and no usual outbreak of the “greatest generation”-type commentary.
I am not a great believer in historical apologies. I hold a rather unfashionable view that only those personally responsible for actions or inactions can truly be and say they are sorry, and that the sins of the fathers should not be visited on their progeny. But this is not to say that moral judgments cannot be made about the past. Far from it. I did not want Vladimir Putin to come to Gdansk and apologize and abase himself for Stalin’s actions seven decades ago, but I would have liked him to clearly admit they were wrong.
Instead, Putin’s open letter on the occasion of the anniversary (addressed to and published by Poland’s most influential daily, Gazeta Wyborcza) was a jumble of equivocations and false moral equivalencies, otherwise drowning out and distracting from the occasional right noises and positive sentiments. Yes, Katyn was a crime, but a lot of Red Army POWs also died in captivity after the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920. Yes, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was immoral, but the West did not exactly cover itself in glory at Munich. Yes, the Red Army perhaps should not have aided Wehrmacht in its carve-up of the Polish Republic, but Poland too had helped itself to a sliver of the disemboweled Czechoslovakia a year before.
Never mind that the Russian POWs had died of disease, like millions of others in the aftermath of World War One, and not from a bullet in the back of the head. Never mind that Munich was a sin of omission rather than commission and the British and French armies did not march in to help themselves to pieces of Czechoslovakia. Never mind that the Polish occupation of the minute Czech Teschen (Cieszyn) enclave, arguably the most shameful episode of the twentieth century Polish history, was not followed by mass repression and genocide of its original population. For those ignorant of the minutiae of mid-century Central European history — which makes most of us — the overall effect of Putin’s letter was to muddy the waters, slyly suggest we’re all sinners and all as bad as one another and that everyone should therefore just move on.
What added to the bad taste left in one’s mouth by Putin’s missive was its build-up in the form of a semi-official campaign of historical revisionism by Kremlin-sanctioned sources. Over the several months prior to the anniversary, assorted official bomb throwers in Russia implied that Poland was to really blame for the Second World War as it should have acceded to “legitimate” German demands (as if that would have stopped Hitler), suggested that Poland intended to invade the Soviet Union alongside Nazi Germany, and accused — in a great Stalinist fashion — the Polish pre-war foreign minister of being a German agent.
And so the commemorations of September 1 went: for every word about reconciliation an equal dose of poison; for every noble sentiment an ungracious slap-down.
There are good arguments against obsessively dwelling on the past. Europe, in particular, seems to be prone to this temptation, which often turns ugly and bloody. However, a better future cannot be built upon the foundations of lies about the past. Even the twelve-step program begins with acknowledging a problem.
That Putin’s Russia seems incapable of such introspection, or worse, feels existentially threatened by the very prospect, does not bode well for its future and its relations with the outside world. It’s not simply that Putin, as a former KGB agent, feels himself to be the legatee of the Soviet past, however unsavory (and judging by his past pronouncements and the new Russian history textbooks, it’s not that unsavory at all), but he — and unfortunately an all too large proportion of the elite as well as the general population — seems to think that for a once and aspiring great power to express a genuine regret would be tantamount to showing weakness and giving succor to critics and enemies, real and imagined.
But does it all matter, and not just to the few who live in the past and/or in Central Europe? I think it does. I look at the picture, a few days old, of Putin bear-hugging Hugo Chavez, and I fear that a country which chooses to be dishonest about its history or, worse still, positively wallows in its past inequities, will merely repeat them in the future. That is essentially the difference between the two original aggressors of the Second World War, Russia and Germany (Japan is a more ambiguous case).
The fact that Germany has faced (and was indeed forced to face) its past and has atoned for it is certainly not the only reason why more than sixty years later it is a normal, decent country. But the fact that Russia refuses a proper reckoning with its bloody past is just as surely one of the reasons why nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War it is so much worse off than Germany was at a comparable stage in its post-defeat history.
The prognosis for the near future: expect more bear hugs.