Seventy-two years ago, a slave army began the liberation of Europe in a small Belorussian village called Lenino. The Polish soldiers who fought in the battle of Lenino were slaves in the classical sense: living spoils of war rounded up by the Soviet Union starting September 17th, 1939, sent deep into Siberia in packed cattle cars with a small hole in the middle of each one serving as a latrine, distributed amongst the various gulags omnipresent within the Stalinist state.
Those who did not starve to death or die of disease lived to fight for mother Russia because doing so was their only hope for restoring the freedom of their Polish fatherland. Betrayed by Britain and France during the German attack against Poland in 1939, they were given the chance to leave for Iran when the British-aligned Polish government in exile secured an amnesty from Joseph Stalin. They refused, preferring to remain in Russia because they wished to fight and die in order to free Poland rather than become a colonial army fighting for a British King without honor who had betrayed them. They became the First Polish division of the Polish People’s Army.
The Polish commanding officer, General Zygmunt Berling, was a slave who was spared the fate of 22,000 of his comrades-in arms-murdered in Katyn in exchange for his silence in the matter and willingness to lead his fellow slaves into battle on behalf of mother Russia. He refused evacuation to Iran with General Anders’ forces and was accused of treason by his fellow Poles in London and sentenced to death in absentia.
The legions of Soviet soldiers who fought at the side of the Poles were likewise slaves, all the way up to their Polish commander Konstanty Rokossowski who, up until 1940, was a prisoner of the gulag. Rokossowski, a lifelong communist and veteran of the Bolshevik revolution, was spared death alongside 100,000 Soviet Poles and Russian officers purged in 1937 because despite enduring daily beatings and starvation, he refused to admit his guilt as a traitor to Stalin. Rehabilitated in 1940, the Polish Rokossowski would save Moscow from the German invasion in 1941 in a series of stunning battles. Stalin noted that a man like Rokossowski, who kept his head despite having his fingernails pulled out while being beaten, was precisely the character-type required to destroy the German army.
The Polish soldiers who entered the war in Lenino and finished it in Berlin were the lowest of the low. Not only were they betrayed by Great Britain and France, they were betrayed by their own government, which first failed to defend their homes, then bartered their homes away to the Soviet Union, and then accused them of desertion and treason, because instead of fleeing to Iran, these Poles decided to stay in Russia in order to stand and fight against the German army in the hope that they would one day see their homeland again.
On the seventy-second anniversary of the battle of Lenino, it is high time to reconsider the customary carelessness, disgust, and sense of sarcasm with which it has become commonplace in Poland to treat the heritage of the Polish soldier on the Eastern front. The battle of Lenino is not the founding myth of communist Poland. The battle of Lenino is the martial act at the core of the modern Polish state. Keeping the memory of this battle alive is a matter of Polish national interest. Legitimate criticism of Stalinism has its limits, readily identifiable at the Oder/Nisa line.
The wave of historical revisionism which has swept through Poland over the last twenty-five years has run its course, crashing into the reality of a rebirth of German fascism during the Ukrainian Maidan, caused in part by the conscious suppression of the heritage of the battle of Lenino in favor of political fantasies. Historical revisionism originated as an impulse anchored in Christian personalism. The purpose of revisionism was the search for a historical truth free of ideology that respected the dignity of the individual person. It is an accounting of the conscience undertaken in the name of international reconciliation. Inspired by the Christian passion for truth, Poles proceeded openly to study and come to terms with discomforting wrongs and tragedies that had been covered by a veil of silence. There were moments of satisfaction when Russia acknowledged the Katyn massacre. There were moments of tragic recollection when Poland acknowledged its imperial policy towards Rus Halicka during the interbellum years. But was there ever a moment of sober reflection, or did we become drunk with the emotions that revisionism easily stirs?
The temptation of revisionism is the sense of moral superiority it gives to us, living in peacetime, when judging the dead whose struggle and blood paid for our freedom. It is tempting to measure them up to our own idealistic standards. The revisionism of recent history is the inevitable result of freedom of speech combined with freedom from the political consequences of speech. We are free to suppose anything without fear that history will ever verify our various “what ifs”. It was against this form of revisionism that Polish patriots were warned by a dying veteran of the Eastern Front who fought in General Berlings army—Major Henryk Krzeczkowski: “You must revise everything so as to never lapse into anachronism, everything except Poland, because to Poland you owe service and a faith that Providence is with us.” A revisionism that fully rejects the heritage of the battle of Lenino likewise rejects the concrete borders of modern Poland and subsequently revises Poland herself because it opens up the question of the legitimacy of the modern Polish state.
Ten years after the conclusion of World War II, chancellor Adenauer was asked whether Germany will in any way remember the war. He replied: “You don’t celebrate your defeats.” Polish enthusiasts of the “free-market, Christian-conservative” Adenauer ought to be mindful of the fact that the German chancellor refused to acknowledge the Oder/Nisa line. Only in the latter years of the twentieth century did a new generation of Germans, moved by moral scruples, begin a quest for the truth about the role their parents and grandparents played in the war.
Amongst the older generation, who experienced the horror of war and at the same time had to take responsibility for the future of the German nation, statesmen like foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher emerged. As a young soldier in Hitler’s service who survived the destruction of the 12th army by Soviet forces outside of Berlin, Minister Genscher was representative of those Germans who sought good relations with Russia, often standing against Anglo-American imperial adventurism during the Cold War. On the basis of his experience as a common German soldier, Hans Dietrich Genscher understood that good German foreign policy is defined as negotiating a good agreement with Russia. Contemporary Germany is capable of fruitful cooperation with Russia at every step because it adheres to a simple historical line: Germany accepts full responsibility for the Second World War and expresses eternal gratitude for its liberation at the hands of the Red Army. Genscher was also exceptionally well acquainted with Polish affairs. The acknowledgement of the Oder/Nysa line was still an unresolved issue at the time of German unification. As Helmut Kohl wavered, it was Genscher who was determined formally to acknowledge the post-war Polish/German border.
German revisionism, often associated with the Prussian Trust, has paradoxically and unintentionally been the domain of Polish and Ukrainian thought in many an instance. In Poland and Ukraine we find a continuous movement towards rejecting everything tied to communism under the banner of anti-Stalinist criticism. The unintended consequence of this anti-Stalinist narrative has been the resurrection of the cult of Bandera in Kiev and of the cult of a Poland deprived of the regained lands in Warsaw. The combination of the cult of Bandera with the cult of the II Republic is the cult of the Duchy of Warsaw: a Polish state without Galicia and without the regained lands. The conjunction of the cult of Bandera in Kiev and the cult of the II Republic in Poland is very convenient for the forces of German revisionism and the supporters of German fascism in Ukraine. Contra the revisionists, the resettlement of Germans, the war against Ukrainian bandits, and operation Vistula served the Polish national interest, were legal consequences of the Yalta and Potsdam accords agreed by the Allies and were dictated by elementary justice in light of Polish suffering during World War II. These Polish victories which ultimately secured the Polish borders in Europe were rooted in the battle of Lenino.
The battle of Lenino was the beginning of the hard path towards enduring, stable borders for the Polish state. From the moment these borders were established in Potsdam, they have never been questioned, in spite of the fact that all states surrounding Poland have undergone political tumults so severe as to alter every one of their borders. One need not be a Stalinist to acknowledge the virtue of the establishment of enduring, stable Polish borders. In point of fact, the Ukrainians, though they delight in tearing down communist-era statues, are in no rush to tear down the eastern Ukrainian border created for them by Lenin at Russia’s expense, nor the western Ukrainian border created for them by Stalin at Poland’s expense. The Western Allies are likewise in no hurry to stop celebrating the victory over fascism. One need not love the People’s Republic of Poland to honor the Polish soldiers whose blood was spent on the Eastern front paying for the political errors of the Sanation government. Disagreement and debate over history will continue. They are a sign of a healthy and mature society. Nevertheless, dishonoring the Polish heroes of the Eastern front and pretending that Poles owe absolutely nothing to the Red Army is, to put it lightly, highly imprudent. Those Polish revisionists whose criticism of Stalinism and communist Poland extends so far as to justify the claims of German and Ukrainian Fascist revisionism should recall to mind the teaching of the father of post-war Polish conservatism, Henryk Krzeczkowski:
“I consider the transformation of the Lublin Committee into a provisional government the formal conclusion of that period known as the II Republic of Poland and the beginning of a new Polish state within an altered geographic, political and social form. This state was created on the basis of Allied agreement in Yalta and Potsdam without the participation of the nation which was the subject of these decisions. The Great Powers which brought this state into existence became the guarantors of both its totality as well as the form of its regime. The United States and Great Britain, acknowledging the de facto borders of this new state and the role of the communist party, henceforth never reneged on their official position. The actions of the governing party, formally contrary to the letter of the Allied agreements, but not contrary to their spirit, did not trigger any withdrawal of diplomatic recognition nor was the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of Poland brought into question in the United Nations. A no less important argument in favor of accepting this historical periodization is the common acceptance of this new Polish state by the Polish people. This matter has been mystified by both communist party propaganda as well as by the groups and partisans who took a hostile or critical stance against the new reality. The Polish people accepted the decision to restore the March constitution, which was meant to maintain the fiction of continuity of the Polish state which arose following the first world war, and which liberally delegalized the state which came into being following the ratification of the new constitution and delegalized the underground state with its emigre government. Attempts to continue armed struggle, to treat the new status quo as an extension of the occupation, did not find any support in the mass of the people nor amongst the elites.
This is not the place for a detailed description or analysis of this phenomenon, it is enough to state that from the first moments within which the new state began to function, despite all psychological barriers and a pronounced dislike of the new authorities, Polish society did not consider them a new occupation government nor a new partition. Independent of the intentions of the people who took up work within the new state bureaucracy, in the economic recovery, in administration, in education and culture, independent of their future decisions, fate and a posteriori motivation, the very fact of participation in institutionalized social, political and economic life was an act which indicated public approbation of the new state. Attempts to present sporadic incidents of continued armed struggle as a civil war and attempts to resurrect underground political organizations not only played into the hands of the communists and their allies, but also of all who wished to exploit the “underground resistance” for their own political convenience and political gamesmanship , whether out of honest convictions or out of mischievous inclinations. It is to be understood that disagreement regarding this era will last indefinitely. Nevertheless I consider it a matter of elementary honesty to take a clear position in this dispute because by doing so one makes clear his comportment towards a fundamental alternative in Polish political thought: One either acknowledges the post-war Polish state as a legitimate political entity, even if deprived of sovereignty, or one subsequently denies that the state of Poland exists. All attempts at formulating an intermediate stance are banal and harmful cop outs. The Polish People’s Republic is a creature of Allied decisions and a component of the post-war balance of power known as the Yalta order. From this fact it does not therefore follow that the existence of the Polish People’s Republic or its future fate are irreversibly connected to the preservation or elimination of this order. Only the Catholic Church has understood this. Poland is not a superpower which can afford to initiate negotiations revising the status quo with a state which certainly does not feel threatened in its current situation and sees no need for a revision. In order to gain the understanding of Moscow for the necessity of a change in Russian comportment towards a problem which remains a secondary concern for Russia, it is imperative to create a platform for dialogue, to reduce age-old mistrust, to agree the rules of engagement…. No political party in Poland will gain Moscow’s ear…but it can risk becoming a pawn in a Russian game over which it will not have control. Only objective facts presented by those powers trusted by Moscow can lend strength to arguments.”*
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* Henryk Krzeczkowski Polish Concerns (Polskie Zmartwienia), published 1980