History and memory concerning 1 September 1939

Andrzej Chwalba

Almost three generations separate us from the outbreak of World War II. It seems that it was a very long time ago, the more that the number of those who remember the war is decreasing. However, this war as no war before is a constant ingredient of the present times and this does not only apply to Poland. Although World War I is one generation further it does not evoke arguments and emotions because it belongs almost completely to its time. It is mainly historians and few readers that are interested in it. It would be enough to compare the shelves with books concerning both wars.

The effects of not settling accounts with the past

World War II belongs to the most satisfying themes on the readers’ market. It has been an element of current politics of many countries, firing emotions, evoking protest or approval. Consequently, there is still a strong link between World War II and the present, some kind of union. In the Far East fervent disputes are conducted by Japan, China, Korea and the Philippines. Not settling accounts with the war and not acknowledging guilt cause that the war is still a conflict-evoking sphere, influencing the current politics and relationships between nations. The best understanding of the war is in Europe. Therefore, after 1945 the countries that today belong to the European Union issued a critical evaluation of the numerous aspects of their national history and began processes of reconciliation. That attitude became the foundation of normality and collaboration. Poles have no doubts about 1 September as the outbreak of the war. However, for the Chinese the war broke out in 1931 when the Japanese attacked them, for the Americans the war broke on 7 December 1941, for the Russians and the nations of the former Soviet Central Asia – on 22 June 1941 and for the Czechs – in Munich in 1938. That can cause, and actually causes, misunderstanding and controversies. Let me remind you of the most important facts.

Preparations for the war

Hitler gained power in 1933. Let us remember that it was in the democratic elections. He promised the Germans to avenge the dishonour, which was the Treaty of Versailles, and to expand their living space, which was to ensure the Third Reich rules over the world for many generations. To reach those aims the Third Reich militarised its economy and imposed strict control over the society. The army was quickly developed and modernised.
The Polish government became increasingly aware of the danger. Therefore, firstly, they accepted a six-year plan of complete modernisation of the army in 1936 and in February 1937 they began building new munitions industry in the Central Industrial Region. Thus the Polish army would have been fully modern in 1942 but in 1939 it was only partly modernised. Then it possessed good armour-piercing and anti-aircraft cannons, some high quality engineering and communication equipments; it had almost 1,000 armoured vehicles; most of them were the lightly armoured tankettes. There were two armoured-motor divisions. One was commanded by Colonel Stanislaw Maczek and the other one was under the command of Colonel Stefan Rowecki, who then was the commander of the Home Army. But the air forces lacked modern equipments. And as it occurred it was not the tanks but the German airplanes that made a key contribution to the Polish defeat in 1939.
Secondly, the Polish authorities revived the alliance with France, which was almost dead, and entered into an alliance with Great Britain in August 1939. However, the western democracies were neither materially nor mentally prepared for war, which was confirmed in the first weeks of the war.

Beginning of World War II

Yet, we should state that on 3 September Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, which caused the local war to be a European war. During the next days of September Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada declared war on Germany. The war became at least formally a global war.
The Polish government rejected the German territorial demands aiming at making the Second Polish Republic a vassal. Independence, freedom and Homeland are not goods for trade negotiations. The Warsaw politics was fully supported by the Polish society. In this sense Poles were far better prepared to defend their sovereignty and freedom than France or Great Britain. They confirmed that during both occupations: the German one and the Russian one, creating the Polish Underground State, including the Home Army.
On 1 September the Third Reich attacked Poland without declaring war and violating the non-aggression pact of 1934. The Germans outnumbered Polish forces twice and their material advantage was even bigger. Having such assets they counted that they would finish the war within 10-14 days. In fact, the war lasted five weeks. Similarly, the Third Reich conquered France, which was supported by the British army, within five weeks and earlier it had defeated Holland (within four days) and Belgium. The Germans conquered Yugoslavia within 10 days.

Attack of the USSR army

The German-Polish war would have lasted longer if not for the attack of the USSR army from the east on the night of 17/18 September, without them declaring war and violating the pact of non-aggression signed in 1932. Therefore, Poland was the first to oppose Nazism and Communism. And here we come to the decisive moment, which was undoubtedly the alliance between Germany and Russia signed on 23 August 1939, called as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. It was not accidental that both totalitarian states reached understanding very easily since both praised aggression and war. The pact embraced a division of Europe between two occupational zones: the German one and the Russian one, firstly along the Vistula River and finally along the Bug River. Both countries supported their policies of further conquests. The French and Belgian communists appealed to fight against Belgium and France and the Third Reich supported militarily and diplomatically the aggressions of the Soviet Union. In 1939, after having annexed the half of Poland, Moscow attacked Finland, moving the border to the west and in 1940, Russia annexed Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and invaded Bukovina and Bessarabia, which belonged to Romania.

Denying the truth – historical politics of Russia

In present times the Russian Federation, which considers itself to be the heir of the state and tradition of the USSR, regards Stalin as a talented manager and statesman and not as one of the greatest criminals in the history of mankind. Consequently, his work of 23 August must be acknowledged as a wise and matured work. Therefore, the historical politics of Russia included the attitude of denying the truth. But as we know, good relationships between neighbours cannot be built on lies. As a matter of fact, the Russian historians wrote about the criminal character of the pact of 23 August in the period of perestroika and they have not changed their minds. Nevertheless, one can read the opinions of ‘Kremlin historians’ who suggest as if the Poles wanted to conquer Moscow, as if the annexation of the territory of the Second Polish Republic was just; they suggest that the Katin massacre did not take place, etc. These irritating statements do not serve anything good and certainly, they do not serve the image of Russia in the world. They testify that the Soviet Union as an aggressor, as the country responsible for genocides against its own nation and against other nations, has not been acknowledged in the Kremlin interpretation of history. After all that does not contradict the big efforts and enormous number of victims that the nations of the USSR had during the fights against their earlier ally; does not contradict the greatness of Russia during the patriotic war. The world appreciated it but the world also wants Russia to say officially what all people know about the years 1939-45.

23 August – European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism

Following the initiative of the European Parliament the day of 23 August has been celebrated as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism since 2009. Moscow protested against it. And so did Russia in 2009 when the OSCE passed the resolution, with 213 votes for and 8 votes against. The resolution condemned both totalitarian regimes, the German one and the Soviet one. Moscow called this resolution a mockery of history. Its hysterical reaction is a sign of isolation.

Celebrations of the anniversary

In Gdansk, on 1 September 2009, there will be celebrations to commemorate the outbreak of World War II. Then we will begin to build an interactive modern Museum of World War II with a branch at Westerplatte. The programme of the project is worked out by the international scientific council. Will the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is most likely to come to Gdansk on 1 September, treat his visit as an occasion to accept the facts, the realities and history?

Historian and essayist, professor at the Jagiellonian University, expert in the history of Krakow

During his professional career he was the vice-director of the Institute of History (1991-92), dean of the Faculty of History (1996-99) and vice-rector for students’ affairs of the Jagiellonian University (1999-2005). Currently, he directs the Department of Social-Religious History of the 19th and 20th Century Europe in the JU Institute of History. He also works in the Institute of History at the East European Higher School in Przemysl. He has supervised 15 doctoral dissertations. His rich scientific output includes works concerning Poland’s history of the 19th century (especially the textbook ‘Historia Polski 1795-1918), works about Russia and the Polish-Russian relationships (‘Imperium korupcji’ [The Empire of Corruption], ‘Polacy w służbie Moskali [Poles at the Service of the Imperial Russians]), as well as the history of Krakow. In the series ‘Dzieje Krakowa’ [The History of Krakow] Prof. Chwalba is the author of the last two volumes dedicated to the history of Krakow in the period of the German occupation and the post-war times. The works concerning the recent history of Poland are a separate part of the output of the Krakow historian who was born in Czestochowa.

"Niedziela" 35/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl