World War II started on September 1, 1939. The Third Reich, unprovoked and without any notice, started its invasion of Poland. One of the first acts of war involved gunfire oriented at a Polish ammunition warehouse at Westerplatte. There the battleship Schleswig-Holstein that had arrived in Gdansk for an allegedly peaceful visit opened fire at the Polish soldiers.
I recall these basic facts on the 83rd anniversary of the outbreak of World War II because this distance in time makes European societies increasingly less aware of the origin of the events that proved decisive to the present shape of Europe. The fewer the witnesses of those events among us, the more fragile our memory about wartime, and the greater responsibility we have to care about the truth. Yet the stakes of that responsibility are nowadays greater than ever in postwar history.
Prewar Europe fell into the trap of World War II because, for years, it was unable to understand and appropriately evaluate the threats of two totalitarian ideologies. Soviet communism and German Nazism were completely incomprehensible to contemporary elites. Nazism in particular, and the mass fascination with Hitler among the Germans, was unimaginable to the Europeans. For years, Germany remained a model of highly developed culture unsusceptible to mass madness.
From the moment he gained power in Germany, Hitler did not conceal his imperial ambitions. And he pursued those ambitions step by step, first by the Anschluss of Austria, next by occupying Czechoslovakia. Europe remained passive with respect to both these steps, deluding itself that war could be avoided if German appetites were satisfied. The price for peace was to involve enslavement of nations and countries considered by Germany as its zone of influence, its own “Lebensraum.”
Poland was the exception. Hitler often tempted the Poles with an offer of cooperation in return for a status of a subjected country, but none of those proposals were accepted. Therefore, there could only be one decision for Germany to make: an invasion. At the same time, Hitler had two worries. One was the reaction of the West to an attack on its Polish ally. The other was the reaction of the Soviet Union, which was officially hostile to the Third Reich.
Despite their many differences, the two totalitarian countries shared a wish to destroy the Polish state. On August 23, 1939, the Third Reich and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact, while in an additional secret protocol they agreed on dividing the territories of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Romania. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact sealed the fate of Central and Eastern Europe. On September 1, Germany attacked Poland, while the Red Army attacked from the other side on September 17. Poland became the first blood-soaked victim of the war, while Hitler and Stalin felt they had won a double victory. Not only did they use their overwhelming military advantage for an instant triumph, but they also did not face any immediate reaction from the West.
Present-day Europe is built on the memory of victory over Nazism, and at the same time on a shameful repression of truth about passivity in the first phase of a war. When Poland shed blood as the first to face the atrocious regime, many people in Paris and even London believed Hitler would stop in Warsaw. They soon found out how wrong they were.
What happened to Poland and what occurred on its territory during the German occupation is a history of complete degeneration. It is on the territory of Poland that the Nazis committed their most vile crimes. It was on the territory of Poland that they built a majority of the infrastructure used to commit the worst atrocity in history: the Holocaust. In many Western countries, occupation was a painful experience but possible to live through. In Poland, however, millions of Poles and Jews struggled for survival every day, being treated as subhuman. From the very beginning, the Jewish nation was sentenced by the nation of the “masters” to elimination. The Polish nation was considered a nation of slaves, a major part of which was also to be murdered.
The awareness that Germany turned Poland into hell on Earth reached the West very slowly. The case of Jan Karski, who was one of the first to bring a report of German crimes in the Holocaust to the United States, is revealing. Even after receiving Karski’s reports, and despite the war going on for many months, the West was not ready to accept the whole truth.
Facing the truth about World War II is our duty not only with respect to the past, but also with respect to the future. The fact that postwar Germany was incorporated into the international community so soon, without thorough prosecution of war criminals, opened the gate for the relativization of evil. Politics offers little space for moralizing, but when it comes to assessing totalitarianism, we cannot have any doubts: this was absolute evil, and the perpetrators excluded themselves from human community for good. Nevertheless, there are voices increasingly willing to blame victims, too. From there, it is just one step to flipping history entirely on its head. With respect to Poland, this step was made by none other than Vladimir Putin. Russian propaganda has been trying for years to tell the world that Poland is responsible for the outbreak of World War II. This is an absurd lie, characteristic of totalitarian propaganda.
Historical comparisons are treacherous but cannot be avoided today. If we were to apply the origin of World War II to present conditions, the climax would involve Russian invasion in Ukraine. The fact that it happened means many countries did not do their homework or forgot the lessons of the 20th century. We are facing a reviving empire with totalitarian ambitions. Eighty-three years ago, Poland was the first to refuse submission. It chose to be faithful to freedom, faithful to the founding values of Western civilization. And it was betrayed by its allies. If we recall this history it is not just to remember it but to avoid the same mistakes again.
This article is simultaneously published in the Polish monthly Wszystko Co Najważniejsze as part of a project carried out with the Institute of National Remembrance and the Polish National Foundation.
Mateusz Morawiecki is prime minister of Poland.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.