WARSAW — Seventy years after the first German shells fired from the battleship Schleswig-Holstein landed on the Polish garrison near the city of Gdansk, 20 world leaders gathered on the Baltic coast to mark the anniversary of the start of World War II.
But the echoes of the war that killed almost 60 million people are still affecting relations between Poland and its neighbors.
The leaders of two of Poland’s former enemies — Germany and Russia — were both present at the Sept. 1 ceremonies, and Poles were watching carefully to judge their view of the past.
From Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, they heard the standard formula accepting blame for unleashing the war.
“There are no words that can even approximately describe the suffering of this war and the Holocaust,” Merkel told the 20 world leaders gathered for the ceremonies. “I bow to their memories.” But the message from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was much more careful, as he sought to minimize the Soviet Union’s decision to invade eastern Poland on Sept. 17, 1939, in concert with the Germans, while also not offending his Polish hosts.
For Poles, and for most historians, the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact signed on Aug. 23, 1939, which included a secret protocol dividing Poland between the two totalitarian dictatorships, was the trigger to war.
Although Putin called the pact “immoral,” he stressed that other countries had also signed agreements with the Germans in the 1930s, and tried to put the German-Soviet pact in the context of the appeasement policies of the western democracies that left Czechoslovakia to be dismembered in 1938.
“One has to recognize mistakes and our country has done that. We have acknowledged the immorality of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact,” he said, before going on to stress the enormity of the Soviet people's losses after their erstwhile German allies double-crossed them and attacked the USSR in 1941.
Russia has trouble admitting to past atrocities because Putin’s attempt to create a new national identity dwells in large part on Russia’s historical triumphs, especially its 1945 victory over Nazi Germany.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was quick to note that “the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact led to the attack on Poland.” In his speech to the assembled dignitaries, Tusk added: “We have to remember who was the victim and who was the aggressor in order to remember the attacks by Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia.”
Tusk, who favors building a cooperative relationship with Russia, was much more moderate than Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who compared the murder of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviets to the Holocaust.
“Jews died because they were Jews, Polish officers because they were Poles,” he said, and then said that aggression against other countries was still a problem, “as we saw last year,” alluding to last August’s war between Russia and Georgia.
Kaczynski’s jabs against the Russians shows that the war is still very much a live issue in Poland, where people still smart at having been abandoned by U.S. and British allies to spend 45 years under Soviet rule after the war.
The troubled relationship with Russia stands in stark contrast with Poland’s much better ties with Germany, despite Germany’s much greater atrocities against Poland. After years of suspicion, the two are both members of the European Union and NATO, millions of Poles live in Germany, and borders are open. Crucially, as Merkel stressed yet again in Gdansk, Germany is open about its guilt in starting the war. That does not mean there are no historical frictions between Poland and Germany. Poles look askance at German attempts to remember the millions of Germans expelled from central Europe after the war, worrying that Germans are trying to see themselves as victims, not perpetrators. But those tensions have not been enough to derail relations.
“The difference is fundamental,” said Adam Daniel Rotfeld, a former Polish foreign minister. “Germans have built a democratic system, and undertook a process of reconciliation — there was nothing like that in Polish-Russian relations.”
Russia’s inability to acknowledge its war guilt to Poland’s satisfaction overshadows other aspects of their relationship. Poland is still not persuaded of Russia’s acceptance of its independence. Poland sees its membership in NATO as crucial to its security, but it is something Russia regards with suspicion. Poland also agreed to host elements of the U.S. missile defense shield during last year’s Russian-Georgian war.
Even the need to import oil and gas from Russia causes heartburn in Warsaw. Some Polish officials have compared Russian plans to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea directly to Germany to the 1939 pact because it could leave Poland vulnerable to a cut-off of natural gas shipments from the east.
Putin’s comments in Gdansk were milder than recent Russian media and intelligence agency reports, which accused Poland of collaborating with Germany before the war, and said a pre-war Polish foreign minister was a German spy. There are even Russians trying to shift the blame for the massacre of the Polish officers to the Germans, something long disproved.
But even his more conciliatory stance was not enough to please the Poles.
“Two generations have passed, but the Second World War continues to demand reflection,” said Kaczynski.
Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the reference to last year's Russian-Georgian war.