Before attending the recent G-20 meetings in Hamburg, US President Donald Trump made a stopover in Warsaw where he gave a speech on 6 July, provoking both approving and critical comments by the neoliberal Mainstream Media (MSM). The Economist, for example, roundly attacked him for not boosting western «democracy», liberty, and human rights. These are the usual neoliberal themes. Mr. Trump only once mentioned the word «democracy», according to The Economist, but he did speak frequently about defending western «civilisation». Are they not one in the same? I could regale you with comments about western «civilisation», or if you like «democracy», and western hypocrisy. In fact, I have done so on the pages of this website.
But that’s not what I want to write about today. Being a historian, what caught my eye in Trump’s speech were his egregious errors of fact concerning the history of Poland prior to and during the Second World War.
Let’s start with the Russo-Polish War of 1919-1920. Here is what President Trump had to say about it: «In 1920, in the Miracle of Vistula, Poland stopped the Soviet army bent on European conquest». Well, actually that’s not quite right. In December 1919 and January 1920, Polish agents in Paris sounded the French government about a Polish spring offensive against Soviet Russia. The object of the offensive was to re-establish Poland’s 1772 frontiers and most notably to seize the city of Kiev in the Ukraine. Poland had disappeared in the late 18th century only to be resurrected at the end of World War I. Its nationalist leaders, especially Marshal Józef Piłsudski, were determined to re-establish Poland as a great power. The moment seemed opportune because Soviet Russia was unable to defend its western borderlands.
France was Poland’s main ally and arms supplier, and so it was therefore normal for the Poles to make secret inquiries in Paris. The French government despised Soviet Russia and was quick to consider new schemes to overthrow Soviet authority. Any tool in the shed would do. The main problem for the French elite at the beginning of 1920 was that Britain was not keen on the proposed Polish offensive. «The Poles are inclined to be arrogant,» said the British PM David Lloyd George, «and they will have to take care that they don’t get their heads punched». Even the French minister in Warsaw warned that the Poles had big, «megalomaniacal» plans which could even jeopardise Poland itself. Unfortunately, no one in Paris who counted, was listening.
As for Soviet Russia, it always preferred to talk rather than to fight and thus made several peace overtures to the Warsaw government. Neither the French nor the Poles were interested. «The fate of Europe,» one French diplomat declared, would be imperilled by «a peace of capitulation» with Soviet Russia.
Polish nationalist leaders, especially Marshal Józef Piłsudski, were determined to re-establish Poland as a great power. The moment seemed opportune because Soviet Russia was unable to defend its western borderlands
The French could not openly encourage the Polish offensive, because of British opposition, but they advised Polish agents that Warsaw «should envisage above all its own interests». France could advise the Poles neither to make nor not make peace with Soviet Russia.
That was good enough for Poland, and on 26 April 1920 the Polish army launched a grand offensive into Belarus and the Ukraine. For a little while, the advance went well, and Polish forces occupied Kiev on 7 May 1920. But the good news stopped there. The Red Army launched a counter-offensive, which obliged the Polish army to withdraw from Kiev on 13 June. A calamitous Polish retreat ensued, halting only at the outskirts of Warsaw. There, the tide of battle turned again, and the Poles threw back the Soviet counter-offensive. It was indeed the «Miracle on the Vistula», which is another way of saying that the Polish victory was a near-run thing. President Trump failed to point out that the Polish government had brought upon itself, through its own recklessness, the risk to Warsaw in August 1920.
«19 years later in 1939,» Trump then said, «you [Poland] were invaded yet again, this time by Nazi Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east». Once again President Trump omitted to point out that the Polish government brought upon itself its own demise.
The Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, Maksim M. Litvinov, had read Hitler’s book and so sounded the alarm against the Nazi threat to European peace and security
After Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, he made no secret of his intentions to establish German domination over Europe. He had even written a blueprint for conquest in the 1920s called Mein Kampf. The Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, Maksim M. Litvinov, had read Hitler’s book and so sounded the alarm against the Nazi threat to European peace and security. He proposed a system of «collective security»; in effect, a resurrection of the World War I alliance against Wilhelmine Germany. Litvinov’s unspoken idea was to contain the Nazi threat through a system of mutual assistance pacts, or to defeat Nazi Germany in war, if containment failed. This was not Litvinov’s personal policy, but that of the Soviet government, formally approved by the Politburo, the Soviet cabinet, in December 1933.
Litvinov pitched collective security everywhere in Europe and not least in Poland, a prime target of Hitler’s ambitions. In February 1934 Litvinov met with his Polish counterpart, Józef Beck, to warn him of the Nazi danger, only weeks after Poland had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany. Hitler is only playing with you, Litvinov said, when he is strong enough he will forget the non-aggression pact and come after you. Beck waved off Litvinov with ill-concealed contempt. After all, he retorted, Poland is not some «small, seasonal government». There is no threat to Poland or any immediate danger of war.
In February 1934, Soviet Foreign Minister Litvinov met with his Polish counterpart, Józef Beck (above), to warn him of the Nazi danger, only weeks after Poland had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany
Scarcely anyone trusted or liked Beck. Litvinov considered him to be a Nazi fancy man. The French were not more kind, and France was by treaty a Polish ally. «Cynical and false», one French diplomat said of Beck, who is always ready «to tuck in closer to Germany». «To stab us in the back», said one French premier.
In the meantime Litvinov and his ambassadors pressed the case for collective security in the United States, Britain, France, Romania, and Czechoslovakia, anywhere they could get a hearing, even in fascist Italy. Every step of the way Poland, acting as a spoiler, attempted to sabotage Soviet policy.
The Polish line was that it was surrounded by two great powers, Germany and the USSR, and that it had to keep a balance between them. It never did. In a moment of brutal candour the Polish chief of staff, Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły, told the French ambassador in Warsaw in the spring of 1938, that given a choice between Nazi Germany and the USSR, Poland would always choose Germany. Russia is «enemy no. 1», he said, no matter who governed it. «If the German remains an adversary, he is not less a European and a man of order; for Poles, the Russian is a barbarian, an Asiatic, a corrupt and poisonous element, with which any contact is perilous and any compromise, lethal».
When the Czechoslovak crisis erupted in 1938, Poland sided with Nazi Germany. If Germany is to get its part of Czechoslovakia, said the Polish ambassador in Paris, than we Poles are determined to have ours. According to one Romanian diplomat, the Poles were acting like Hitler’s «little cousins». They’re «playing with fire,» one Soviet diplomat commented: the Poles are «preparing [their] fourth partition and the loss of [their] national independence». Three previous partitions in the 18th century had led to the disappearance of Poland.
Let me be clear: in 1938, Poland was an aggressor state and an accomplice of Hitler before it became a victim of Nazi aggression in 1939. When the Soviet government made its final offers for collective security in the spring of 1939, Poland again played the spoiler, obstructing negotiations for an anti-Nazi alliance between the USSR and France and Britain. To be sure, the French and especially British governments shared the blame with Poland for the failure of the 1939 negotiations to organise what I call the «grand alliance that never was». When these negotiations failed and the Soviet government signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in August 1939, the Poles gloated and laughed. They seemed to miss the ominous danger, which then threatened to destroy them. The Polish «man in the street», noted the British ambassador in Warsaw, «has taken the news [of the non-aggression pact] with a half-amused shrug». «Isn’t Vasily a swine,» they said.
A week later, on 1 September, the Nazi Wehrmacht invaded Poland. Four days later, the Polish government abandoned Warsaw, heading for eventual internment in Romania thirteen days later. On that same day, 17 September, Soviet military units entered eastern Poland, Moscow having judged that the Polish government and Poland no longer existed. There was some minor Polish resistance to the Soviet «invasion», but by then the Soviet government was acting to keep the Wehrmacht as far away as possible.
Even Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, conceded as much in his first wartime broadcast on 1 October: «Russia has pursued a cold policy of self-interest [regarding Poland]. We could have wished that the Russian armies should be standing on their present lines as the friends of the allies in Poland, instead of as invaders. But that the Russian armies should stand on this line was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace».
It was during this broadcast that Churchill made his famous comment about the USSR. «I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest». National interest was indeed the driving force of Soviet policy, and if the British government had listened more carefully to Soviet diplomats proposing collective security against Hitler, the Russian «enigma» might not have been such a «riddle».
President Trump did not stop there with his misrepresentations of Polish history. «A vibrant Jewish population,» Trump said, nearly disappeared during the Nazi occupation. This is of course true. What Trump failed to mention was that the Polish elite of the interwar years was intensely anti-Semitic and contemplated the expulsion of the Polish Jewish population to Madagascar, a French colony. Unfortunately, the «Madagascar Plan» proved impractical for logistical and financial reasons, though Polish anti-Semitism was not thereby rendered less intense.
Operation Bagration shattered the centre of the German eastern front and led to a Red Army advance of some 500 kilometres to the west reaching the outskirts of Warsaw at the end of July
The irony of Trump’s remark about Poland’s «vibrant Jewish population» escaped the attention of the president’s speechwriters, but would not have escaped the notice of knowledgeable Poles. Trump however wasn’t quite finished distorting history. He had this to say about the Warsaw uprising against the Nazi occupation, which began on 1 August 1944: «The citizens of Poland rose up to defend their homeland… more than 150,000 Poles died during that desperate struggle [while]… From the other side of the river [Vistula], the Soviet armed forces stopped and waited. They watched as the Nazis ruthlessly destroyed the city».
The Red Army had in fact commenced a massive summer offensive, launched on 22 June 1944, to support then stumbling Allied operations in Normandy. This was Operation Bagration which shattered the centre of the German eastern front and led to a Red Army advance of some 500 kilometres to the west reaching the outskirts of Warsaw at the end of July. Without advising the Red Army high command, the Polish Home Army launched an uprising in Warsaw on the mistaken calculation that the Germans were pulling out of the city. The Poles did not intend to help the Red Army, but planned to take the city before the arrival of Soviet forces. The idea was to install the so-called «London Poles», hostile to the USSR, as the government of Poland, thus presenting the Soviet high command with a fait accompli. Soviet authorities were furious, Stalin in particular. British and American officials, and many historians thereafter, accused the Red Army of letting the Germans crush the Polish insurgents. This is where Trump got his idea that the Red Army «stopped and waited». In fact, the Red Army tried to take Warsaw in August and September in the face of strong German resistance. The Wehrmacht had decided after all to stay and fight. The Soviet air force flew an estimated 5,000 sorties in support of the insurgents. For Stalin the uprising was a fiasco, and he bitterly resented Polish attacks on him for their bungled, disastrous operation. After all, the lightly armed Home Army could not impose the hostile London Poles on the Red Army, or oust the Germans once they decided to fight for the city.
It was the Red Army that played the principal role in destroying the Wehrmacht
What is clear is that Trump is no historian, though the Poles listening to his speech loved his falsifications of their history. He is not the first US president to rewrite the narrative of the origins and waging of World War II. This is a long-term western project, part of the cultural side of the Cold War after 1945. It does not suit western policy objectives to note that the USSR pressed for collective security during the 1930s or that the Red Army played the principal role in destroying the Wehrmacht . This is why the Polish government wants to demolish monuments commemorating the Red Army’s liberation of Poland. Polish nationalists don’t like to be reminded that Russians, or rather the Red Army, liberated their country from Nazi occupation. The monuments are tangible, physical reminders, which underline the falsified western narrative of the origins and waging of World War II. In the real history of this period, Poland played a duplicitous, spoiler’s role. It obstructed efforts to form an anti-Nazi alliance and collaborated with Nazi Germany in 1938 to bring about the destruction of Czechoslovakia. It continued to obstruct efforts to form anti-Nazi alliance in 1939 and thereby sealed its fate in September of that year. If Poland became a victim in the war, it was a victim of its government’s own making.
Polish nationalists don’t like to be reminded that Russians, or rather the Red Army, liberated Poland from Nazi occupation
Polish-Soviet animosities during World War II were not all the doing of the Polish government in exile. The one point Trump got right in his speech was the reference to the Soviet execution of thousands of Polish officers and officials in the Katyn forest in 1940. But even if that tragedy had not occurred, the history of Russian-Polish animosity had endured for centuries and would not thereby have been altered.
Poland’s role in present-day Europe remains that of a spoiler, encouraging anti-Russian animosities and preventing good or constructive relations between the Russian Federation and the European Union and the United States. Falsifying the history of Poland during the interwar years makes it easier for the present Polish government to pursue its Russophobic policies based on blaming the USSR, read the Russian Federation, for its victimisation during World War II. Otherwise, people might see that history is repeating itself. The Polish spoiler of the past has once again become a spoiler.