Sunday marks the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. On September 1, 1939, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and, sixteen days later, by the Soviet Union. France and Britain declared war on Germany, but gave no real aid to their Polish ally. While some Poles collaborated with the Nazis—collaboration occurred in every occupied territory—Poland’s wartime legacy is overwhelmingly one of heroic resistance and bloody martyrdom. A key objective of Poland’s current conservative government, in power since 2015, has been to inform the world of this legacy. Although this has led to some wrongheaded historical policies in recent years, the objective itself is crucial: Other nations must learn of the Poles’ role in resisting Nazism.
According to Hitler, Poland was to be Lebensraum, or living room, for the Teutonic “master race.” The country’s Jews were to be eliminated completely, while its Slavic majority was to be killed or enslaved. Between September 1939 and May 1945, Poland lost one-sixth of its population, more than any other nation. Three million of these Polish victims were Jews, but another two to three million were not. Hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Poles were deported to concentration camps like Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, and Dachau; 1.5 million became slave laborers in Germany; and random street shootings were routine. Over the course of four days in August 1944, the SS killed 50,000 inhabitants of the Warsaw neighborhood of Wola in one of the biggest massacres of World War II.
The Germans killed the Polish elites or deported them to camps to make resistance more difficult, yet they arguably faced more backlash in Poland than in any other occupied territory. The Polish underground published clandestine anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet writings, engaged in sabotage, and even assassinated high-ranking occupying officials—such as Franz Kutschera, the head of the SS and police in Warsaw. For sixty-three days in 1944, the Polish underground tried to liberate Warsaw (encouraged by the Red Army, which gave no assistance). In retribution for the Warsaw Uprising, Hitler ordered the “Paris of the east” destroyed, and the Germans killed 200,000 Varsovians. After the heroic yet ill-fated September 1939 campaign (contrary to popular myth, Polish lancers did not charge at German tanks), the Polish armed forces fled to France, where they formed the fourth-largest Allied army.
Despite their heroism, after the war the Poles were betrayed by a naïve FDR and a reluctant Churchill. They handed eastern Poland to Stalin and entrusted him with overseeing “free and unfettered” elections in the country. To avoid offending the Soviets, the British banned the Polish airmen who helped save England in 1940 from marching in the 1946 victory parade in London.
While every Pole knows these facts, Westerners are less familiar with them. For nearly half a century, Poland’s Soviet puppets controlled the narrative and painted the Poles as fascist collaborators. They suppressed celebrations of Poland’s wartime resistance. Witold Pilecki, a Pole who had voluntarily gone to Auschwitz during the war to collect intel and organize resistance, was sentenced to death by a Stalinist judge. As a result of Soviet suppression of facts, the West is still largely ignorant of Poland’s role in resisting Hitler. For instance, Poles were upset in 2012 when President Obama referred to a “Polish concentration camp” that Poles had no role in establishing or running; ironically, he used this historically inaccurate phrase while bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter who informed the West of the Holocaust (yet was ignored). Since 2015, Poland’s conservative government has implemented several policies designed to make Polish heroism during World War II better known.
Some of these historical policies have been wrongheaded. Last year, Poland’s parliament passed a law that would penalize accusing the “Polish state or nation” of complicity in the crimes of the Third Reich. But sometimes mistakes result from ignorance, not malice—as in President Obama’s case. Should the innocent erring be subject to jail terms? The law caused a major diplomatic crisis with Israel and the United States and was later scrapped of its criminal provisions.
There is no doubt that the Polish state had no role in Nazi atrocities. On the contrary, the Polish government-in-exile in London informed Britain and America of what the SS was doing in death factories like Auschwitz and Treblinka and appealed for military retributions against the Germans, a fact documented in Jewish historian Walter Laqueur’s The Terrible Secret. In his study of Poland under German occupation, Holocaust educator Martin Winstone writes:
It may therefore be reasonably said that only a minority [of non-Jewish Poles] actively helped Jews, just as a minority actively persecuted them. As in every other country, the response of the largest part of society was indifference with varying degrees of sympathy, ambivalence, or enmity. It is undoubtedly true that a major inhibition to greater help was fear. [Hans] Frank’s shooting order of October 1941 had left rescuers potentially liable to the death penalty.
Intellectual honesty requires that we remember both Żegota, the branch of the Polish underground that helped thousands of Jews survive the occupation, and sinister events like the Jedwabne pogrom—in which local Poles, egged on by Germans, killed hundreds of Jews. But how many Poles have to be complicit in such violence for the nation to be complicit? Such a debate should be resolved in classrooms, not courtrooms.
While this law was deeply flawed, the hostile reactions of numerous Israeli politicians further show that Poland’s wartime history must be better known internationally. Earlier this year, Israel’s then-foreign minister Israel Katz declared that “every Pole suckled anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.” He refused to apologize for the slur, an undiplomatic move for someone in charge of his country’s diplomacy. Such bullying from Israeli politicians should be fought not through criminal provisions, but through education and cultural diplomacy.
Equally well-intentioned but misguided is the Polish government’s push for war reparations from Germany. Such reparations would have made sense in the 1950s, when war-ravaged Poland was extremely poor and Warsaw was a pile of rubble. They make less sense today, when Poland’s living standards are quickly catching up to Western Europe’s and most Poles affected by wartime atrocities are dead. In recent decades, South Korea and Ireland achieved the same level of prosperity as their respective historical oppressors, Japan and Britain, without any handouts. Poland is poised to do the same without German reparations in the near future.
Instead, Warsaw should fight against historical revisionism in Germany. In 2013, seven million German viewers watched the rubbish television miniseries Generation War. It depicted Germans in occupied Poland saving Jews from the Polish underground, which was inaccurately portrayed as wholly anti-Semitic. This program’s success shows that, like Israel, Germany needs more education on Poland’s wartime fate. However, there are encouraging signs of change. Recently, Bundestag deputies from all parties except Alternative for Germany signed an appeal to build a monument and education center in the heart of Berlin commemorating Polish victims of Nazism. Poland’s government should support such honorable initiatives like the Bundestag proposal.
Although the Polish government’s legislation regarding its wartime past is often misguided, the goal of informing the world of Poland’s wartime legacy is noble.
Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist whose work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Crisis Magazine, European Conservative, and Tygodnik Powszechny.