Timothy Garton Ash: This tortured Polish-Russian story is something we can all learn from

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist. His personal website is www.timothygartonash.com.]

Adam Daniel Rotfeld, a former Polish foreign minister, has on his visiting card one of the world's more extraordinary titles. It reads: Plenipotentiary for Difficult Matters. What a wonderful idea. Every country, every company, every family should have one.

The difficult matters Rotfeld is tasked to address are in the field of Polish-Russian relations. This is definitely a strong contender in the "world's most difficult matters" stakes, although the global competition is fierce: China-Japan, Britain-Ireland, Hutu-Tutsi, Sunni-Shia. Together with his Russian counterpart, Rotfeld chairs a Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters, which recently produced a remarkable book.

The size and weight of a granite slab, this analyses most of the big issues between the countries, from the Polish-Soviet war following the Bolshevik revolution, through the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in September 1939 ("the 4th partition of Poland", says the chapter subtitle), the mass murder of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet security forces at Katyn in 1940 ("the Katyn crime"), all the way to relations between Putin's Russia and today's Poland, a leading member of Nato and the EU.

What is so remarkable about this is that for decades the truth about these events was systematically concealed. All across Europe, the corpses of murdered men, women and children were wrapped in a shroud of lies. To the original crime was added the insult of totalitarian and nationalist mendacity...

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