Poland and the second world war
From The Economist print edition
Whose version of history should prevail at Auschwitz?
COMPARED with the other horrors of Auschwitz, questions of nationality might seem secondary. But they rankle. Russia wants to describe as “Soviet citizens” the hundreds of thousands of people killed there who came from such places as eastern Poland and Lithuania. During the camp's existence, these were part of the Soviet Union. Poles find the wording infuriating: the Hitler-Stalin carve-up of eastern Europe was a crime, not a mere historical backdrop.
Russia closed its exhibition at Auschwitz in 2003, to update it. But the Polish authorities will not let it reopen unless it changes its terminology. Russia is furious. A Russian politician, Konstantin Kosachev, accused Poland of wanting to “rewrite history”. A Russian Jewish leader called the move “blasphemous”. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Auschwitz inmate who was also twice Poland's foreign minister, and who chairs the museum's international council, accuses Russia of “sheer arrogance”.
Attempts to exploit Auschwitz are hardly new. Under communism, the museum there oozed Soviet propaganda, obscuring the fact that most of the million-plus murdered in the camp were Jews. Poles are twitchy when outsiders call it a “Polish death camp” and neglect to mention that it was built and run by the country's Nazi occupiers.
A somewhat similar row is brewing in Estonia, where the government wants to move a Soviet-era war memorial from the centre of Tallinn to a war cemetery. The figure of a bronze soldier is seen as a heroic liberator by many locals with Russian ancestry. But to many Estonians the “unknown rapist” symbolises only the switch between a Nazi occupation and an even more brutal Soviet one.
Russia's relations with its former satellites are not uniformly bad: it has just signed a border treaty with Latvia and its ties with Hungary are positively chummy. But relations with Poland are icy. Last year the Poles vetoed the start of talks on a new EU-Russian co-operation agreement, because of a year-long Russian embargo on Polish meat exports, imposed seemingly out of spite. That issue is now sure to overshadow next month's EU-Russia summit.
Yet squabbles about sausages may be patched up more easily than rows about the past. Under Vladimir Putin, the Soviet version of history has become part of Russia's own story. The idea that anyone might not have wished to be a “Soviet citizen” seems baffling and rather ungrateful. The Poles find Russian nostalgia for the Soviet empire not just baffling, but worrying.