Norman Davies: We must not forget the real causes of World War II

Roundup: Talking About History

[Norman Davies is a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge. His Europe at War: No Simple Victory is published by Pan-Macmillan (UK) and by Penguin Books (US).]

One might have thought that 70 years was time enough to work out what really happened in 1939. It isn't the case. Misunderstandings and misinformation abound.

The British media is all geared up to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the declaration of war on Thursday 3 September. Once again, we shall hear Neville Chamberlain's prim radio announcement, since Germany had not withdrawn its troops from Poland, that "this country finds itself in a state of war with Germany". He inimitably accentuated the "Po-" of Poland. And his words clearly indicated that fighting had already begun.

But British people recall it differently. They are convinced that the declaration of 3 September was followed by months of a "phoney war", in which nothing really happened. Every nation remembers the past in its own way. Russians, who still revere their "Great Patriotic War", grow indignant if reminded of their involvement before 1941. They tell you how many men they lost "liberating you from fascism". Americans, too, have been drilled to think of 1941, not 1939, as the date to remember. And they, too, think that their "Band of Brothers" brought freedom to Europe.

Next week, the most extensive ceremonies to mark the outbreak of war will be held on Tuesday 1 September, at the Fort of Westerplatte in the harbour of Gdansk (the former Danzig). The host will be Donald Tusk, Poland's Prime Minister, a native of Gdansk and a good historian. The chief guests will include Angela Merkel, Bernard Kouchner, David Milliband and, barring surprises, Vladimir Putin. Gordon Brown and President Barack Obama have declined.

The guests will be told in the clearest possible terms how Adolf Hitler gave orders on 31 July 1939 to attack Poland at dawn, by land, sea and air, and how the cruiser Schleswig Holstein, moored in the harbour on a self-styled friendship visit, suddenly fired broadside against Westerplatte at exactly 4.45am. They will also hear how the heroic defenders of Westerplatte held out for days against the point-blank salvoes, and how Hitler had given special instructions to his generals to subject the Poles to "ruthless cruelty". Hitler's notorious rhetorical question, "Who remembers the Armenians now?", had been uttered a few days earlier as he pondered the coming slaughter in Poland with relish.

If anyone cares to pay attention, the Polish government will go on to use the occasion to tell its own version of the war, emphasising the unprecedented losses which flowed from the decision to fight and resist. Premier Tusk's pre-war predecessors were impressed by the pathetic fate of neighbouring Czechoslovakia, whose leaders had been persuaded not to fight. And they had felt reasonably confident. Believing that Hitler's fascism and Stalin's militant communism were equally dangerous, they had signed pacts of non-aggression both with the Third Reich and with the USSR. What is more, they had received a formal guarantee of their country's independence from Great Britain, reputedly the world's leading power, and they enjoyed close military ties with France, whose army was still thought to be Europe's finest. They had been told by General Gamelin, in the event of a German attack, that their role would be to hold up the enemy's forces for 15 days until France threw le gros de nos forces (the bulk of our forces) against Germany in the West.

In the event, the Poles did their duty. Indeed, the performance of the Polish army was rather better than that of the British and the French in the following year, when blitzkrieg was turned on them. Yet all was to no avail. By 1945, more than six million Polish citizens had been killed (18 per cent), almost half of them Jewish. Nearly half of Poland's territory had been forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union. The country's capital, Warsaw, was a desert of ruins, more completely destroyed than any European city. And Poland's precious independence, so rashly guaranteed by Britain, had sunk without trace, not to resurface until 1989. It would be surprising if the guests at Westerplatte on Tuesday can avoid hearing the word "betrayal".

The Polish government will also use the occasion to unveil the foundation stone of a Museum of the Second World War. The initiative is long overdue. But it may not pass off smoothly. The text of the museum's founding act will state, quite accurately, that Poland was the victim of "two totalitarian aggressors". Russian sources have let it be known, however, that if anyone dares to hint at Soviet complicity in the outbreak of war, Mr Putin may not show up. By Monday evening, the suspense could become unbearable.

Winners of wars get a standing start in the post-war stakes of remembrance. And Poland, as the only Allied nation to be treated as a loser, is still losing out. The Western powers, for instance, enjoy the rare luxury of possessing war cemeteries scattered throughout Europe, where almost all their fallen receive an honoured grave, where the rose gardens continue to be tended, and where the blood price of their noble cause continues to be advertised. What is more, by adopting the Holocaust as the supreme symbol of the evil against which they fought, they have inadvertently cast several other mass tragedies into the shadows. The Russians, too, who were the principal victors of the land war in Europe, were able to promote an effective post-war narrative. By publicising the slogan of "20 million Russian war dead", they gained enormous international sympathy, while successfully expunging Soviet crimes from the record, and masking the fate of the millions killed by Stalin. Information has circulated more freely since 1989. But even today, few people realise that the losses in Belarus, the Baltic states and Ukraine, which bore the brunt of the Nazi onslaught, were greater than those in Russia.

In Poland as well, a curious hierarchy of disputed war memories persists. One of several disaffected groups comes from the small town of Wielun, which before the war lay close to the German frontier. On 1 September 1939, the Luftwaffe targeted Wielun for its very first bombing raid. The bombs started falling by some accounts at 4.30am and by others at 4.40am; at all events several clear minutes before the opening salvo at Westerplatte. About 1,290 townspeople were killed in their beds. Three-quarters of the town was pulverised. The casualty rate was more than twice as high as Guernica or Coventry. But hardly anyone outside Wielun recalls it. The 50,000 people killed by German bombs in Warsaw in September 1939, and the 200,000 killed in similar circumstances during the Warsaw uprising of 1944, serve as Poland's major memories of bombing. For whatever reason, Wielun – to use the technical phrase – is not a lieu de mémoire.

In this war of war memories, few things compare in scale and determination to the massive propaganda offensive which Moscow has unleashed this week in anticipation of Mr Putin's journey. The Polish Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski – a graduate of Pembroke College, Oxford – has made a significant diplomatic gesture by praising Mr Putin's courage. In spite of everything, Mr Putin has agreed to attend an anniversary that all Russian leaders have previously ignored. It will indeed be news in Moscow if the Russian media have to report that war did not break out in 1941 after all.

Nonetheless, no effort is being spared to reinforce the old Soviet assertion that Stalin acted wisely in 1939 (as he always did), and that the Soviet authorities can in no way be held co-responsible for the political manoeuvres leading to war. No embarrassment is shown for treating the "near abroad" as a zone where Russia can rightfully behave with impunity.

Nowadays, it is no longer possible to maintain that the Nazi-Soviet pact of 23 August 1939 was a fiction invented by bourgeois-imperialist enemies. Everyone has seen the film clips of Herr Ribbentrop landing in Moscow, and of Stalin smiling broadly as Ribbentrop and Molotov signed up side by side. But it is perfectly possible to resurrect the arguments which Soviet propagandists once kept in reserve for foreign audiences and which present the German-Soviet rapprochement as the work of a peace-loving, time-winning, defensively minded statesman. What is more, there is nothing to stop Kremlin-inspired publicists from casting the blame for the war on unspecified villains, usually Poles, who were allegedly raring to do Hitler's bidding...

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