Polish historian rebukes Putin’s claims regarding WWII

“It is an a priori defence of the Soviet foreign policy assumptions held by the Soviets shortly before WWII” says Polish historian, Professor Mariusz Wołos, researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) and lecturer at the Pedagogical University of Kraków, about the article by Wladimir Putin, which was recently published in “The National Interest”, an American magazine focused on foreign policy.

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In the article Wladmir Putin accuses European, and in particular Polish politicians, of “sweeping under the rug” the resolutions of the 1938 Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland, a region of western Czechoslovakia, in the hope of preventing war with Hitler’s Germany.

In an interview with the Polish Press Agency (PAP), Professor Wołos explained that most likely the article was written by specialists from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), in a consultation with several historians from the Russian Academy of Sciences, who took a rather selective approach to providing the documents cited in the article.

Professor Wołos said that the facts presented by President Putin were conveniently chosen to support his claims, however such claims were nothing new and had been known to be a part of the Kremlin’s ongoing policy.

A story out of historical context

“The whole article is taken out of historical context,” said Prof. Wołos. “President Putin claims that Poland was responsible for the Munich Agreement and annexation of Czechoslovakia, however he fails to mention the invasion of Czechoslovakian forces onto Polish territory in 1919 and the treatment of Polish POW’s. One cannot understand Poland’s policy of 1938 without the events of 1919.”

Another key factor is the nature of 1917-1941 German-Soviet relations. During the 1990s, Russian historians wrote that “the Nazi sword was forged in the Soviet Union”. Nowadays, they are forbidden to publish such claims, but it is an obvious truth to all historians. A series of pacts, starting with the 1922 Rapallo agreement, allowed Germans to access Soviet military training ranges and enabled weapon production in the territory of the USSR.

The highlight of these relations was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939, which assumed mutual non-aggression and the division of Poland between Soviet Russia and Germany.

According to Professor Wołos, President Putin’s article also fails to mention the Soviet intentions to annex Finland and Romania, expressed by Molotow to Hitler during a visit to Berlin in November of 1940. Germany did not agree to this plan.

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Professor Wołos also provided historical background related to Soviet attitudes towards Poland prior to WWII.

The Soviets did not recognise the eastern borders of Poland agreed upon in the 1921 Peace Treaty of Riga. They continued to undermine the Polish state by calling the eastern Polish territories as ‘West Belarus' and ‘West Ukraine’. They also established Ukrainian communist units focused on recruiting Belarusians and Ukrainians in those territories.

This was part of the continuous Soviet policy towards Poland, which culminated in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939 and invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939.

Access to historical archives

In the article Wladimir Putin claims that the west denies access to historical archives and falsifies the history of WWII.

“Reading the article in ‘The National Interest’ I laughed that someone is hiding the archives pertaining to WWII and the preceding period. It’s known that the party hiding these documents is Russia. Its archives were most accessible in the 1990s, before Putin came to power. However, even then, historians did not have access to the Foreign Policy Archives of the Russian Federation, or some categories of documents (e.g. intelligence or military attachés’ documents), and archival inventory lists, which were available only to Russian archivists. During the following twenty years, access to Russian archives has been consequently restricted even further,” says Professor Wołos.

International Law

The article in “The National Interest” calls on the role of international institutions, such as the UN, and compares its efficiency to the League of Nations, however it fails to mention the USSR's attitude towards international law before WWII.

“There are hundreds of international treaties that were broken by the USSR between 1939 and 1941, when the country was a member of the League of Nations. I would like to remind everyone that in December 1939, Soviet Russia was expelled from the League of Nations for invading Finland. It should have been relegated earlier, after the invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939”, explained Professor Wołos.

“If the Soviet Union conducted a purely peaceful policy, why did the Kremlin exclude diplomats of the country that was most interested in maintaining the Versailles system, i.e. Poland. Polish diplomats were not invited to participate in the talks with French and British diplomats that took place in Moscow in the spring and summer of 1939. One should pose a question whether the key country of the then prevailing international order was considered unworthy of talks with the Soviet diplomats? This approach exemplifies the Soviet attitude towards Poland not only in 1939, but also in the preceding and later periods”, concluded Professor Wołos.