To the whole world, Westerplatte is a symbol of the beginning of World War II. To us Poles, like Thermopylae, it symbolises the heroic fight for a scrap of homeland territory. That is why every year on 1 September at 4.45 am we gather at the outskirts of Gda?sk to commemorate the patriotism, honour, courage, and perseverance of Polish soldiers and the Polish nation. 14 years ago, however, these celebrations looked different. European leaders gathered in Westerplatte on the 70th anniversary of WWII. On the initiative of the government of then Prime Minister Donald Tusk, among the invited guests was Vladimir Putin, then Prime Minister of Russia.
President Lech Kaczy?ski knew that Putin did not come to Gda?sk to commemorate the past but to sow historical distortions and obvious lies as a tool to impose a new geopolitical construction. The Russian Federation officially claimed that the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War began not with signing the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact or invading Poland four weeks later, but on June 22 1941, when the Wehrmacht attacked the USSR. A smear campaign falsely blaming Poland for the outbreak of WWII, in particular attacking J?zef Beck, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the 1930s, was already triggered by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Lech Kaczy?ski was aware that, in light of Russia’s invasion of Georgia a year before, Putin’s presence was a serious mistake and risked severe consequences.
The President’s doubts turned out to be justified. What we heard from Putin was a vision of a new geopolitical order, a vision that had been outlined a few months prior at the Munich Security Conference. Putin’s scandalous offer to separate Poland from the region and to join the Moscow-Berlin energy alliance was met with a firm voice of conscience from President Lech Kaczy?ski. In light of later events–Smole?sk and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine–the President’s response has gained particular importance. Lech Kaczy?ski decided to begin his speech with the famous quote of J?zef Beck, who in May 1939 voiced his refusal of German demands with the following words:
Peace, like almost all things in this world, has its price — a high but a measurable one. We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the lives of men, nations, and countries that is without price. That thing is honour.
Another of Putin’s strategies was comparing facts that are totally incomparable. As a direct follower of the KGB, he was afraid of historical truth. That is why he pursued the policy of a relativisation of communist crimes, saying that the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was equal to any other signed with the German Reich. He revived the Soviet-era lie about thousands of Red Army soldiers who invaded Poland in 1919 and were said to have died from disease at Polish internment camps, equalising it to the mass execution of approximately 22,000 Polish soldiers in Katy?. President Kaczy?ski was firm. Though the scale was different, similarly to the Holocaust, Soviets had genocidal intent to murder the Poles. “Polish officers perished because they were Polish officers”, Kaczy?ski said.
Lech Kaczy?ski also responded to Putin’s article published in Gazeta Wyborcza, in which he rejected the criticism of Moscow’s role in the outbreak of the war and blamed Poland. President Kaczynski, referring to Putin’s accusation published a couple of hours earlier, said:
“A policy of concession eventually led to the Anschluss and then to the Munich Agreement. Winston Churchill was right in saying that a choice was made in Munich between honour and shame; shame was chosen but there was war anyway. A question of the role of our country arises here. We were not present in Munich, but the Agreement resulted in violating the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia. A violation of territorial integrity, which is always evil. Taking part in the partition of Czechoslovakia, in reducing its territory, was not only a mistake, it was a sin. We Poles can admit that and we seek no excuses to justify it. Seek no excuses even if there were any.”
“This is not a problem stemming only from totalitarianism. The problem lies in all imperialistic and neo-imperialistic tendencies. We have learnt that last year”, he added, referring to the Russian aggression of Georgia in August 2008.
“We have to draw conclusions from the Munich Agreement and apply them to the present, we must not yield to imperialism, nor even neo-imperial tendencies. Such behaviour does not always bring such quick and tragic results, as in the case of Munich. But it always brings similar results. This is a great lesson for the whole of modern Europe, for the whole world”, Kaczynski warned.
“The Nazi regime was defeated, but Poland did not regain full sovereignty. Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, not the one our country was behind, a period of a fruitful reflection started”, reminded Lech Kaczynski, giving examples of the creation of NATO and the EU. “Yet, we must remember that the alliance obliges. Today, both Poland and Germany are parts of the alliance and both of the countries are obliged to respect their elementary interests.”
The President said that as a part of this community, the principle of balance of power has been substituted, at least to some extent, by a principle of cooperation. The Polish leader recalled that post-war Europe was successfully built on a community of values such as freedom, democracy and pluralism, but also resignation from imperial dreams and zones of influence. According to Lech Kaczy?ski, in this new system there is no place for dreaming of the past. He also emphasised the significance of the principle of equality: “A cooperating Europe does not require scaffolding based on two countries, but it requires broad, multilateral cooperation. And it needs democracy not only at the level of country – citizens, but also in the relations between particular countries. If this is what happens in the future, we can say that we have fully succeeded in drawing conclusions from the unimaginable tragedy, the unimaginable crime of the years 1939-45”.
However, the President added that, there was still a long way to go to achieve it: “Yet, today, I would like to express my hopes that we will manage to achieve our goal on the basis of the world of values, on the basis of truth. A truth, which is often painful, must be revealed both by the winners and by the defeated. We cannot agree that those who were defeated must talk about issues most painful for them and those who won do not have to. There is only one truth. According to us, Christians, even the worst truth releases from captivity, liberates and doesn’t humiliate, provided that it relates to all of us.” Lech Kaczy?ski claimed.
“We, Poles, have the right to know the truth, to know the truth about tragic issues for our nation, and we cannot ever resign from it.”, said the President, adding that we should know the truth even when it is very tough. “Because we can admit our mistakes, as I have already said. We should also be able to confess our sins and never put the decision of murdering 30 thousand people on par with a typhoid epidemic or another disease. This is not the right track to reconciliation. Reconciliation which is necessary not only for my country, but also for the whole of Europe”, he concluded.
We know from recently revealed diplomatic documents that Putin felt humiliated by Lech Kaczy?ski’s words of truth. The policy of reset was already well-designed. Putin was finalising a new pact of powers, which had to cross out the past and blur historical facts. Also, some Western capitals sought after this new architecture, so visible at that time with the imposition of the Nord Stream pipeline. In particular, Germany, under Angela Merkel has been very willing to share the responsibility for the country’s dreadful history of the past century. Therefore, I was not surprised by the titles in the German media, such as Der Spiegel, saying that: “Putin Found the Right Words in Gda?sk’. Angela Merkel used this opportunity to raise the issue of Germans expelled from Poland by the decision of the Potsdam Conference. Some will say that the commemoration of the outbreak of the war was an inappropriate occasion to raise this issue, but I maintain that it was not an accident. The reason was not only to secure some votes from “nostalgic” German voters in the election campaign in Germany, it was in line with Putin’s narrative, which put victims on par with the aggressor, blurring the boundary between right and wrong, confusing the result with the cause. As we see in his speech, President Lech Kaczy?ski also talked about such dangerous trends.
Further beneath is another layer of moral and judicial responsibility. It is obvious to everyone that Russia should compensate Ukraine for the economic damage caused by its war of aggression. Unfortunately, we still witness a lack of justice in the case of the German and Russian responsibility for the aggression of 1939. This lack of accountability for aggression is also a factor that allowed Russia to pursue its barbaric war on Ukraine. President Lech Kaczy?ski was right in every word of his speech. We must not yield to imperialism. Honour, when it comes not only to individuals, but also to nations and states, matters.