Poland Preferred to Fight, Fought Bravely, and Lost Terribly

Peter Kenez’s fine Liberty Forum essay accurately captures the historical and political sense of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. I would like to emphasize two points that supplement his analysis: Russia’s role in the outbreak of the Second World War, and the tragic plight of Poland.

The 1939 pact came as a shock to almost everyone in and outside Europe. This was partly due to the ideological narratives through which both totalitarian regimes, National Socialist Germany and Soviet Russia, presented themselves to the world. Communist propaganda made anti-fascism its loudest war cry and a major symbol of identification. The German Nazi ideology responded in kind, indicating the Bolsheviks as their main enemy, which tallied well with the traditional German condescending attitude toward Slavic nations.

Previous Agreements

A coalition between these two sides seemed unthinkable. On the other hand, the history of German-Russian relations up to that time features several periods of rapprochement, primarily motivated by the attraction that the two most powerful countries in the region had to feel towards each other. The one preceding Ribbentrop-Molotov was the Pact of Rapallo, which had been signed in 1922, also to the astonishment of outside observers. (It was a mutual renunciation, after the end of the Great War, of territorial or financial claims against one another.) Naturally, all of the German-Russian acts of rapprochement generated serious concerns in the smaller countries in the region. The phrase “the spirit of Rapallo” evoked positive emotions in the western part of Europe, but struck an ominous tone in the ears of the Central and Eastern Europeans.

For the West European countries, the pact of August 23, 1939 should have sounded the alarm. It meant that Russia would not be Germany’s first object of attack and that, therefore, Hitler—after Poland—would rather turn to the west for his Lebensraum. For several years, the West European societies, as well as the vast majority of their leaders, had cherished the hope that war could be prevented because Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were each reasonable men with whom one could strike a deal. But once Ribbentrop and Molotov signed, there was no hope.

The pact unleashed a long process that dramatically changed Europe, a process that would only come to an end in 1989: the crushing of Poland by Hitler and Stalin, the conquering of a large part of Western Europe, Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Germany’s defeat in 1945, the emergence of Soviet Russia as a major player, and the postwar division of Europe. The pact was the spark that ignited the fire.

All this makes Soviet Russia, together with Germany, responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War. This fact is often forgotten, the Soviet responsibility being diluted or brushed aside. There are several reasons for this, historical amnesia and the efficiency of Soviet/Russian propaganda included. But there are political reasons, too. One does not judge victors. The Soviet Union won the war, gained strength and international influence, and it would have been politically imprudent to dwell too long and too much on its past sins.

And yet there is no doubt that the war started when Hitler and Stalin decided to act together against Poland: the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement was almost immediately followed, as Professor Kenez points out, by Germany’s invading Poland on September 1, and Russia’s doing the same two weeks later. The fact that Russia, being later attacked by Germany, had to change sides and helped to defeat Hitler does not diminish her disgraceful role in the outbreak of the conflict.

When Russia joined the anti-Hitler coalition, its earlier complicity created a situation that was morally and politically dubious. For not only were Soviet sins forgotten, but Russia’s spoils of war were confirmed by Great Britain and the United States at the summit meetings in Teheran and Yalta. The Soviet crimes committed before the Wehrmacht’s 1941 invasion, including the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers in Katyn and several other places, were ignored. For many years, Western governments did not dare to question the mendacious Soviet version that the Germans were responsible. Not surprisingly, the Soviet perpetrators, then in the glory of the victors, were allowed to take the role of judges in the Nuremberg Trials. And in geopolitical terms, most of the territorial gains that Russia guaranteed for herself in the Hitler-Stalin pact and her sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe would stay intact until the Soviet Union’s collapse decades later.

Post-Soviet Distortion of History

In Russian propaganda in the period since 1989, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact has been interpreted as a clever move by Stalin to buy time so that the Red Army could prepare itself for the imminent German aggression. This is obviously untrue. Stalin did not expect Hitler to break the pact and panicked when the invasion happened. It took some time before he composed himself to be able to address the nation and to start organizing a defense. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The First Circle (chapter 21), claimed that Hitler was the only person Stalin trusted. This may be a somewhat exaggerated interpretation, belonging to literature rather than to the study of history, but the truth is that the Russian leader consistently dismissed all reports of Hitler’s preparation for war against Russia. Stalin was immensely pleased with the alliance, and the cooperation between his secret police force (the NKVD) and Hitler’s (the Gestapo) was exemplary.

The Russians suffered terribly under Stalin’s rule, and under the German occupation. Russian prisoners of war were exposed to the most inhuman treatment at the hands of the Wehrmacht. Note the great contrast with how Stalin himself fared: He emerged from the war not only a victor, but also as an architect of the postwar world order. He turned the victorious war into a great heroic epic that was to give a new identity to the Soviet (and, as it became clear later, the Russian) nation.

According to Russian propaganda, World War II started on June 22, 1941, the day Germany attacked the Soviet Union. What happened before, including the cordial alliance with Hitler, does not count, and is treated as a negligible episode in a game that ultimately led to the Soviet soldiers’ putting the Red Star flag on the Berlin Reichstag. And this Soviet/Russian narrative—of Russia’s being a conqueror of Nazi Germany, not its accomplice—was widely accepted by the Allies and by the peoples of Europe and North America.

Each anniversary of the “outbreak” of the war is an occasion to talk about Hitler, his attack on Poland, and the subsequent consequences. Stalin is rarely mentioned. Usually escaping public attention is the anniversary of Stalin’s attack on Poland on September 17, 1939, even though this action was the fulfillment of the secret protocol in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and the completion of the preparatory stage before spreading the war across the entire Continent.

The Coming of Armageddon

One may speculate about what course European history would have taken if Hitler and Stalin had not come to a non-aggression agreement. Maybe the Führer would have attacked France first, to which Stalin would not have responded in any meaningful way. There was no reason why the Soviet tyrant should have been worried about the “capitalists” being at each other’s throats, a development perfectly in tune with Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Whether Poland and England, both bound by a defense treaty with France, would have helped the French militarily is an open question. Probably we would have had another drôle de guerre (“phony war”), this time with France as an abandoned ally, receiving nothing but moral support from its partners.

Without the pact, as Professor Kenez points out, Germany could not have invaded Poland. Stalin would have been alarmed and would have treated the invasion as an act of hostility toward Russia. From the perspective of Germany and Russia, the pact was indeed a brilliant gambit. For France and England, it meant a political defeat: The moment it was signed, they no longer had any means to keep Germany in check.

For Poland, the pact meant the coming of Armageddon. As a result of the war, the Polish population was decimated; millions were killed; millions deported; many thousands died in the concentration camps and in the Gulag; the Polish citizens of Jewish origin annihilated in the Holocaust; the cities destroyed (some, like Warsaw, almost entirely); the material culture (churches, museums, mansions, libraries, castles) demolished or plundered; half the Polish territory annexed by the Soviet Union; the Polish elite in large part murdered. The Polish nation was mutilated, raped, and recycled. When in May 1945 the entire world joyously celebrated the end of the world war, Poland was in despair: the day marked the beginning of the new occupation.

How Might Things Have Been Different for Poland?

For decades, the Poles have been discussing whether this Armageddon could have been averted and whether some other strategy could have been feasible. In theory and in practice, there were only three strategies possible for the Polish government: 1) to make an alliance with France and Britain to deter the German invasion; 2) to make an alliance with Stalin in order not to be attacked by Hitler; or 3) to make an alliance with Hitler in order not to be his first victim.

The Polish government chose the first option, the tripartite defense treaty. It was the most honorable option—after all, France and Britain were respectable partners. Each had a civilized political system free from totalitarian ideology. It also seemed a rational option, for had it worked, Poland would have remained sovereign since neither France nor Britain was interested in subduing the Polish government or in grabbing parts of the Polish territory.

Unfortunately, the chosen strategy ended up a catastrophe. For one thing, signing the tripartite defense treaty infuriated Hitler, and he reacted to it by abrogating a non-aggression declaration that Poland and Germany had signed in 1934. Instantaneously Poland became an open enemy of the Third Reich and its powerful propaganda machine turned against Poland, accusing the Poles of being obsessively hostile to Germany and to a German minority living in the Polish territory.

In practice, it meant that the moment the war began, Poland had to depend solely on its own military potential, given that the promised support from the Allies never came. True, Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, but no military action followed that declaration. Launching such an effort would have taken several months, and Poland had not this much time. The inaction was not due solely to technical causes, either. There simply was no political will to launch it. No wonder the “phony war” created a lot of bitterness among the Poles. When Poland was stabbed in the back by the Soviets on September 17, the country was doomed.

Option number two above was mostly propagated by the Polish communists, who had been arguing from the very beginning that the government should come to terms with Stalin and should have sought Soviet support to prevent the German invasion. Had the government done this, the argument runs, there would have been no Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and Hitler would not have attacked Poland.

The argument is lame, to say the least. Such a scenario required the presence of the Red Army on Polish territory, which would have meant a de facto annexation or, at least, a subjugation of Poland of the sort that the country underwent anyway in 1944 and 1945, which subjugation would have brought about similarly disastrous consequences. Stalin did not need Poland as an ally; he needed her as booty.

With option number three (coming to terms with Hitler), the argument would be that signing the defense treaty with France and Britain was a mistake. The defense was only on paper, and the price of this paper was to provoke Germany. Would it not have been more rational to satisfy Hitler’s demands, by giving up any claim to Gdansk and allowing him to build an exterritorial motorway on the Polish territory, connecting Germany with East Prussia? These concessions, the argument continues, might have been humiliating but would have appeased Germany for a while. They would have made a Hitler-Stalin pact unnecessary. Whatever might have happened afterward, we can only speculate; but certainly Poland, even if colonized by Hitler, would not have had to suffer the same degree of brutal violence it did.

This option—not honorable at all—was not seriously contemplated by the Polish government. Poland preferred to fight, fought bravely, and lost terribly. Looking back at the history of the countries that did not oppose Hitler—such as France or Hungary, which suffered much less than Poland—one might come to a not very uplifting conclusion that sometimes being honorable in politics does not pay.

Reader Discussion

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on August 14, 2019 at 09:40:37 am

This article makes a good argument for why Stalin’s Soviet Union was equally guilty of launching WWII. I would add, however, that Hitler’s designs on Poland would have been frustrated had the western powers not signed the Munich Agreement and given Hitler control over Czech industry and a broader front by which to invade Poland.

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Travis M
on August 14, 2019 at 10:38:52 am

Poland was doomed when France and Great Britain allowed the German Army's entry into the Rhineland to stand.

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Jack Okie
on August 14, 2019 at 11:39:19 am

As a member of the postwar generation, I grew up hearing many myths and lies about Poland in WWII. Poland was crushed within days by the Blitzkrieg, barely putting up a resistance. The Polish air force was totally destroyed in the first days of the war. The Poles foolishly charged German tanks on horseback. All of these are lies, traceable back to Nazi or Soviet propaganda.

There was also no mention in our history schoolbooks about the Polish Underground and their contributions to the Allied war effort, the Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain, Anders' 2nd Corps in the Italian Campaign, Warsaw Uprising, or (of course) Katyn. To this day, most American remain ignorant of these events. The official WWII Museum in New Orleans is largely silent about them. Perhaps because they contradict the triumphalist narrative of Liberation that remains the official version of events in the US.

The only mention of the '44 Uprising I was able to locate in the entire museum is a single plaque which reads: "1 August 1944 - Members of the Polish Resistance launch an uprising in Warsaw, but the German forces crush the rebellion. Soviet troops finally liberate the ruined Polish capital in October."

This is not just inadequate, it is grossly inaccurate. The Soviet troops did not enter Warsaw until January 1945, by which time there was no city to "liberate." I have complained to a head historian of the museum about this inaccuracy, but to no avail.

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Rob Z.
on August 14, 2019 at 11:41:11 am

Betrayal: The Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 Hardcover – July 1, 1989
by Wolfgang Leonhard (Author), Richard D. Bosley (Translator)

This book describes the Stalin's real motivation in signing a deal with Hitler. The author was a German communist who during WWII was living in the USSR.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact gave Stalin the green light to invade, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Eastern Poland, and Finland as well as freeing Germany to invade not only Poland, but all of Western Europe.
Recall that in August 1939 Stalin was the worst mass murderer in the history of the world; and he STILL held this "distinction" when WWII ended in 1945.
In fact, the Wehrmacht almost killed as many Soviets as those murdered by Stalin.

Stalin's crimes were were well known but this did not stop Alger Hiss, the Rosenberg's as well as many prominent US political figures (esp. within the FDR administration) and other notable "citizens," from either spying for Stalin or seeking ways to accommodate the post-war or pre-war USSR .

It's too bad that the fate Rosenberg's met was not applied to many others that spied for Stalin.

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on August 14, 2019 at 12:35:13 pm

Who would have gone to war in 1936? In both UK and France the populations were deeply anti-war.
In 1938, the British and French were (a) not ready for war and (b) couldn't justify it in the context of the principle of self-determination. On what grounds could you justify going to war to prevent self-determination.
The British would not have had the support in 1938 of its Dominions Canada, ( which played a really significant role when war finally began), Australia & NZ and South Africa.
After the establishment of the Protectorate and establishment of a separate Slovakia, it was clear that Hitler could not be trusted and in that context guarantees were given (to Poland) which were kept. UK and France declared war on Germany in keeping with their guarantee. They were not ready for war in 1939, and there was little they could do in any event but rearm, which they did.
As the UK kept to its guarantee to Poland, and entered the war on France's side in 1914, I see no reason why it would not have done so in 1939.

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on August 14, 2019 at 14:16:15 pm

Germany was not prepared to fight either, especially on two fronts. The German high command knew it, and tried to convince Hitler to wait. But he gambled that France and England were not really committed to the defense of Poland. And he was right.

Had France gone forward with the Saar Offensive as planned, it would have sent 40 divisions into Germany while the bulk of the Wehrmacht was deployed in Poland. They did send 30 divisions, but only advanced about 5 miles against light German defenses. Then they dug in while Poland's defenses collapsed after four weeks. Meanwhile England dropped bombs and not leaflets on German targets.

How many lives could have been saved if the war had been fought in earnest by the Western allies in 1939? If they were unprepared, it was only because they had chosen to delude themselves about Hitler's intentions.

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Rob Z
on August 14, 2019 at 15:46:24 pm

Whatever Prof. Legutko writes is ne plus ultra --but there is no room in an article like this for the details of the horror. If someone wants the details, yet without reading a shelf-full of books, he can kind find just half of them--related to Germany's occupation of Poland--in my article "TheEexpunged Holocaust," here:
http://justiceforpolishvictims.org/polish-experience/the-expunged-holocaust/. I've written a piece just as long about the Soviet horror and the ignominy of the Allies' betrayal of Poland to Stalin, but it's unpublished because no platform of an audience reach I am interested in wants to publish a 13-k word, 63 footnote politically incorrect piece. BTW, my once-large family lived through but did not survive both horrors except for my parents, one aunt, and some 2nd cousins.

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Max Denken
on August 14, 2019 at 18:09:00 pm

There was virtually no "honor" to be found among the great powers. Just "cleverness". While the US was not a party to the Katyn massacres, nor the Holdomor, we were in fact entirely forgiving of those genocidal atrocities and gleefully allied ourselves with the Soviets. At least Churchill acknowledged the gross evil with "May God forgive us" for hiding the results of the Katyn massacre from the public. FDR expressed no compunctions whatsoever and even seemed admiring of Stalin. Similarly, we did not nothing to discourage the massive rape and pillage that the Soviet Red Army wreaked upon the conquered territories. Legally we would have been guilty of complicity in the horrors by aiding and abetting Stalin As it is, we were certainly morally guilty. It has been endlessly argued that we chose on the best of the options available. That is disingenuous.
So, honor was abandoned.

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on August 14, 2019 at 19:50:30 pm

The Soviet rape and pillage in '44/'45 was just a preamble to the murder of hundreds of thousands of Polish Nazi-fighting patriots in the 10 years that followed, and grim tyranny that lasted for 45 years and, to this day, hobbles Poland as it does the rest of the countries of the former "Eastern Bloc." As to "no options," that was even then, poppycock. If the options are presented to you by Stalin's agents, as they were to FDR surrounded as he was by commie traitors and double agents (read Diana West's "American Betrayal" or reasons for thwarting and probably assassinating George Patton), of course they will be "limited."

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Max Denken
on August 14, 2019 at 21:12:20 pm

Great summary of the time frame and... somber reminder of history and really, circumstances. Never really thought how 'russia' escaped being directly connected to the axis in the MSM space.

Note WWII is just a blip in human population curve wrt to time.

What will the next 'great historical' event result wrt to human population? Or will a 9-10 billion utopia happen the next 30 years...

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on August 14, 2019 at 21:35:10 pm

Polish Nation saved the face of humanity.

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on August 14, 2019 at 21:40:16 pm

And as always the league of nations / international finance bs gets left out, or memory holed. Same as WW1 and the Lusitania operation that brought the U.S. into the first bid for control / destruction of western civilization. If ya'll don't dig hard for history your gonna rhyme it. Any thoughts on the situation in Danzig pre second war as one small example?

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on August 14, 2019 at 23:02:33 pm

In "Icebreaker," former Soviet intelligence officer Viktor Suvorov contends Stalin's plan behind the pact was to free Hitler to attack the West, allow the two sides to beat each other to a pulp and then send the Red Army west to sweep up the remains. Suvorov goes so far as to claim Stalin was gearing up to stab Hitler in the back when the Nazis struck. He says the Nazis' great initial success was because the Soviets had cleared out their defenses in preparation for a massive offensive. Many have come out against Suvorov's theory, but parts of it makes sense.

Meanwhile, in "Black Earth," his history of the Holocaust, Timothy Snyder -- whose "Bloodlands" should be required reading -- writes that Hitler tried for five years to persuade Poland to join in an alliance so they could together invade the Soviet Union. The Poles continually spurned his overtures because they feared that once Poland allowed German troops passage on its soil to attack Russia,, they would never leave. Snyder says Hitler finally gave up on his scheme in March 1939.

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Gene Mierzejewski
on August 15, 2019 at 07:51:52 am

Most countries in Europe collaborated with Hitler..... POLAND and G.Britain are ONLY the EXEPTIONS...

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on August 15, 2019 at 10:44:56 am

Don't forget - Poland eagerly participated in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in '38. Hardly an innocent bystander. Of course, the Poles didn't realize that they were in line to be the next victim.

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on August 15, 2019 at 13:05:02 pm

Some five decades ago, a college professor said in a class that the Nazi plans for the slavs was to make them into feudal serfs and bread out high intelligence by making leaders such as teachers and priests be celibate. Therefore, the Poes never had a good option.

Old Curmudgeon

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Old Curmudgeon
on August 15, 2019 at 15:29:46 pm

And how was that ?

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on August 15, 2019 at 15:30:22 pm

And how was that ?

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on August 15, 2019 at 18:36:01 pm

You speak nothing of the thousands of poles who joined with over a million other Europeans to destroy Bolshevikism and stop it from ever entering Europe.

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on August 16, 2019 at 09:51:31 am

Yes, I was only writing about Poland's contribution to the defeat if the Axis Powers. Their long struggle against Communism is better known and at least somewhat appreciated in the West.

However, the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-20 is almost unknown. If the Red Army had not been stopped at the Vistula then Berlin lay open to them, with Paris next. In both cities the Communist movements were quite strong at that time, and were expected to rise up at the approach of the Soviets.

A Soviet victory in that war would have made for a very different situation in the Europe of the interwar period. Perhaps the Fascist and National Socialists movements would have never taken hold, and WWII as we know it averted. But all of Europe would likely have been dominated by a Soviet-led Communist bloc that might have been much tougher to overturn than Hitler's Reich.

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Rob Z
on August 17, 2019 at 01:05:01 am

Interwar Poland was a nationalist state with most of the usual pretensions of nationalism, including the rather quixotic desire to restore as much of the earlier Polish kingdom of before 1772 as possible. Hence the efforts to expand to the east as much as possible in the 1920 war, which naturally aroused the animosity of the heirs of tsardom, the communist Soviet Union, and that tended to preclude any alliance with Stalin, while at the same time Hitler's demands weren't acceptable either to Polish nationalism. While as the author of the article says, allying with Britain and France might have seemed the noble course, it was certainly hopeless and indeed downright foolish. Of course, Britain and France could not possibly have mounted any offensive in the west in time to save Poland, even if they hadn't been plagued by defeatism, hence the Phony War, and the French, despite the Maginot Line, were clearly afraid that what actually did happen to them would happen.
I do not dispute that the Soviet Union also bore responsibility for the war, but so did everyone else. What about Pat Buchanan's thesis in The Unnecessary War that Britain played a very guilty role in giving guarantees to Poland, without which the Poles would have had to capitulate to Hitler? And, as I said above, the Poles could not reasonably expect support from the Soviet Union with the Soviet grievance about their occupation of pieces of Belarus and Ukraine that the Soviets naturally considered part of their national territory. But I dissent from one point in particular: the author referring to the Soviet Union as "Soviet Russia." It was not that, nor were Russians at all dominant in the leadership because of Stalin, the Georgian. Also, in the totalitarian Soviet system, the ordinary people had no voice. So it is rather ridiculous to continue to blame "the Russians" as a group for the Second World War, particularly the present-day Russians, who weren't even alive then. The Soviet Union was not "Russia," particularly not in the period under Stalin.
Nonetheless, the history of Poland is utterly tragic, crushed between the two powers, and then not really fully self-governing again until 1989. To add insult to injury, Stalin decided to compensate the Poles for losing the non-Polish-majority eastern territories by giving them Silesia, Pomerania, and more than half of East Prussia, in addition to Danzig, all cleared of their German population in the biggest ethnic cleansing in history. That this was done cynically to cut Germany down in size to reduce any future threat cannot obscure the fact that Poland's present boundaries were drawn by Stalin and were generous compared to the actual areas of prewar Polish majority populations. Indeed, Churchill and Roosevelt and their advisers tried to save the German cities of Breslau and Stettin for the Germans, but Stalin being in charge with the Soviet troops on the ground dictated what he wanted about Poland. The fact that Poland in its present boundaries actually benefitted from Stalin's decree must be bitter to swallow when this same Stalin was directly responsible for the massacre of the Polish intelligentsia and political and military leadership at Katyn, for the 1939 partition, and for the postwar communist regime, all anathema. So in the end, the Poles of 1939-1989 were pushed around by now long-dead tyrants, which leaves them with understandably deep wounded feelings. Yet ultimately, while not forgetting the past and while commemorating past Poles who contributed to civilization and to honor, one does have to move on and look to the present and future, and today Poland's problems arise almost entirely from other causes.

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K. Blankinship
on August 23, 2019 at 21:20:03 pm

The main political objective of this discussion is to trash the Soviet Union and blame it for WW2, but it also draws attention away from the Pact's related precedent--the west's capitulation at Munich-- which some of us insist bears the original sin. Wasn't the Pact Stalin's reaction to Munich and to the controversial refusal by Benes to accept Soviet backing to resist the consequences of Munich"

As Polish Reds demanded Poland accept a defense deal with the Soviets against Germany, Czech Communists--and many others--demanded the same for their country

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Mike Munk
on December 28, 2019 at 06:29:52 am

Poland gladly joined in on the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Let's not forget the past, or allow NATO politik to distort it.

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on December 28, 2019 at 06:34:56 am

These falsifiers of history won't tell about Reginald Drax and the duplicitous nature of British "Negotiations" with the USSR in July/August of 1939. To do so would knock the legs right out from under their own propaganda. The fact is, the British were not prepared to negotiate with the USSR seriously in order to forge a guarantee of security for Europe. The British appear to have actively encouraged the German eastern drive by sending a "diplomat" who took 13 days to arrive by boat (because he was afraid to fly!) and who then shows up without any plenipotentiary powers to actually negotiate, but was only given the task of "ascertaining" the Russian position.

Russia offered as early as 1935 to commit to a anti-fascist pact and one nation stood in the way of this: POLAND. The same Poland that previously and eagerly joined in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.

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