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In Poland, Where History Is a Weapon, Leaders Commemorate World War II

WESTERPLATTE, Poland — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was not invited. President Trump abruptly canceled. And as other global leaders gathered in Poland on Sunday to commemorate the start of the deadliest conflict in human history, the event served to underscore the divisions in Europe and within Poland itself.

In Warsaw, President Andrzej Duda of Poland used the occasion to chide other European leaders for not taking the threat posed by Russian aggression seriously, making an analogy to the policies of appeasement that allowed the Nazi party to rise in Germany.

“We are still faced, even in Europe, with the return of imperialist tendencies, attempts to change borders by force, assaults on other states, taking their land, enslaving citizens,” he said at a ceremony in Pilsudski Square.

“Closing one’s eyes is not a recipe for peace,” Mr. Duda said. “It is a simple way to embolden aggressive personalities. It is a simple way to give permission for further attacks.”

It was a vastly different tone from the one a decade ago, when European officials were courting Mr. Putin, hoping to draw Russia closer to the West. Back then, the Russian leader accepted the invitation to visit Poland for the 70th anniversary and joined Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in Westerplatte.

Mr. Putin acknowledged Russia’s “mistake” in joining a nonaggression pact with Hitler’s Germany. “From a moral point of view, unacceptable; and from a practical point of view pointless, harmful and dangerous,” he said.

In the years since, however, Russia has engaged in a litany of actions that have led the Western world to impose sanctions and freeze out Moscow. It has annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, meddled in elections from Estonia to the United States and sent agents to poison dissidents in Europe, British and other governments believe.

ImageCreditSlawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta, via Reuters

At the same time, Russia has set about offering a revisionist version of the events that led to the war and its subjugation of the people living in nations that fell behind the Iron Curtain after the conflict ended.

In advance of Sunday’s anniversary, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a slick and historically dubious video that accused the Poles of not allowing the Soviet Union to enter their territory to fight Germany.

It is not just in Russia where history is being deployed as a potent political weapon. In Poland there is a deep divide over how the country’s suffering over the past century should be remembered and memorialized.

Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s governing Law and Justice party has waged fierce battles over a host of chapters in its history, including the Solidarity movement, the events leading up to partly free elections in 1989, and the way the Holocaust is discussed. Even the legacy of Poland’s favorite son, Pope John Paul II, has become a battleground.

Polish leaders hoped to use Sunday’s ceremony to highlight Poland’s role as victim in both the war, and in the peace that followed. The main commemorations were moved to Warsaw from Westerplatte, where the first volleys of artillery from the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein on Sept. 1, 1939, signified the outbreak of World War II.

“The experience of Poland in the Second World War greatly differed from Western European countries,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote in a paid article published on Friday by the German newspaper Die Welt. “The occupation of France and Poland was incomparable.”

Polish officials had hoped that Mr. Trump would bolster that theme, but he scrapped his trip on Thursday, saying he needed to monitor Hurricane Dorian, which was barreling toward the East Coast and was declared a Category 5 on Sunday.

ImageCreditPetr David Josek/Associated Press

Vice President Mike Pence came in Mr. Trump’s place, and he kept his remarks broadly focused on Polish suffering and the importance of faith in God.

“While the hearts of every American are with our fellow citizens in the path of a massive storm,” he said, “today we remember how the gathering storm of the 20th century broke into warfare and invasion followed by unspeakable hardship and heroism of the Polish people.”

Mr. Pence was joined by Ms. Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, who used the occasion to once again apologize for his country’s actions in the war.

“My country unleashed a horrific war that would cost more than 50 million people — among them millions of Polish citizens — their lives,” he said. “This war was a German crime.”

Robert Kastro, the director of the Polish History Museum, which is under construction, said the struggle for control of the historical narrative resonated so deeply in Poland because for so long, Poles were not allowed to tell their own story. Under Communist rule, for instance, discussion of the massacre of more than 20,000 Poles in the Katyn forest in 1940 by Soviet troops was forbidden.

When the Iron Curtain first fell, Mr. Kastro said, people were not interested in looking at the tragedies of the past. “In the 1990s, there was this sense that history was something that does not matter,” he said.

Poland was looking to the future — joining NATO, the European Union and the club of Western nations. It was not until 2004, with the construction of the Warsaw Uprising Museum, that the country began to tell its own story in meaningful way.

ImageCreditWojciech Olkusnik/EPA, via Shutterstock

But there has been tension over how that story is told, most clearly seen in the battles over control of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk and the fight over the future of Westerplatte, a powerful symbol of Polish defiance and martyrdom.

The government has accused local officials of not doing enough to honor Polish sacrifice or tell the stories of Polish heroism at both locations. Two years ago, the director of the museum was ousted by the state, and more recently, lawmakers passed emergency legislation to give the state control over Westerplatte.

Karol Nawrocki, the new director, said that his predecessors had “avoided telling the stories of very important Polish heroes.” He also accused the opposition of injecting politics into the commemoration of history.

For instance, Mr. Nawrocki said, officials in Gdansk organized their own commemoration of the outbreak of the war and invited leaders who had been critical of the government, including Frans Timmermans, the deputy chief of the European Commission.

“It is not a peace offering to honor someone so aggressively against the Polish government,” he said. “We are one nation, and we should be together on this day.”

The mayor of Gdansk, Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, countered that it was the governing party that was exploiting historical tragedy for political gain. Having taken office after the city’s previous mayor, Pawel Adamowicz, was stabbed and killed onstage at a charity event by a mentally unhinged man, she said she wanted to stay true to his vision. Mr. Adamowicz thought memorials and museums should tell the Polish story while also offering a more universal message: War is horror.

Ms. Dulkiewicz said in an interview on Friday that the government had been trying to get control of the land in Westerplatte for years, even offering to buy it from her predecessor. “Polish blood is not for sale at any price,” she recalled Mr. Adamowicz saying.

She used the war’s 80th anniversary to offer a warning.

“Peace in Europe requires the rule of law and respect for rights,” she said at a ceremony in Gdansk. “Where there is a lack of rights and freedom is suppressed, the questioning of European unification and dismantling of democracy, there is, sooner or later, violence.”


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