World War II started on Sept. 1, 1939. The Third Reich, unprovoked and without any notice, started their invasion of Poland. One of the first acts of war involved gunfire oriented at a Polish ammunition warehouse at Westerplatte. The Schleswig-Holstein battleship that had arrived in Gdansk on an allegedly peaceful visit opened fire at Polish soldiers.
I recall these basic facts on the 83rd anniversary of the outbreak of World War II because this time distance makes European societies increasingly less aware of the origin of the events that proved decisive to the present shape of Europe. The fewer the witnesses of those events among us, the more fragile the memory about wartime, and the greater responsibility to care about the truth lies on us. Yet the stakes of that responsibility are nowadays greater than ever in postwar history.
Pre-war Europe fell into the trap of World War II because, for years, it was unable to understand and appropriately evaluate the threats of two totalitarian ideologies. Soviet Communism and German Nazism were completely incomprehensible phenomena to contemporary elites. Particularly, Nazism and mass fascination with Hitler among the Germans were unimaginable to the Europeans. All in all, for years, Germany had remained a model of a highly developed culture unsusceptible to mass madness.
From the very beginning of gaining power in Germany, Hitler did not conceal his imperial ambitions. And he pursued such ambitions step by step. First, by the Anschluss of Austria; next, by occupying Czechoslovakia. Europe remained passive with respect to both these steps, deluding itself that war could be avoided if German appetites were satisfied. The price for peace was to involve enslavement of nations and countries considered by Germans as their zone of influence, their own Lebensraum.
But Poland would not back down. Hitler often tried to tempt the Poles with offers of cooperation in return for status as a subject country, but none of those proposals were accepted. Therefore, there could only be one decision Germany could make: an invasion. Hitler had two worries. One was the reaction of the West with respect to the attack on their Polish ally. The other was the reaction of the Soviet Union, which was officially hostile to the Third Reich.
Despite many differences, the two totalitarian countries shared the wish to destroy the Polish state. On Aug. 23, 1939, the Third Reich and the U.S.S.R. signed a nonaggression pact while, in an additional secret protocol, they agreed on dividing the territories of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Romania. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact sealed the fate of Central and Eastern Europe. On Sept. 1, Germany attacked Poland, while the Red Army attacked from the other side on Sept. 17. Poland became the first blood-soaked victim of the war, while Hitler and Stalin had a sense of a double victory. Not only did they use the overwhelming military advantage for an instant triumph, but they did not face any specific reaction from the West.
Present-day Europe is built on the memory of victory over Nazism and, at the same time, on shameful repression of the truth about passivity in the first phase of the war. When Poland shed blood, being the first to face the atrocious regime, many people in Paris or even London believed Hitler would stop in Warsaw. They were soon to find out how wrong they were.
What happened to Poland and what occurred in its territories during the German occupation is a history of complete degeneration. It was on the territory of Poland that the Germans committed the most vile crimes. It was on the territory of Poland that they built a majority of the infrastructure for the most atrocious crime in history: the Holocaust. In many Western countries, occupation was a painful experience but possible to live through. In Poland, however, millions of Poles and Jews struggled for survival on an everyday basis, being treated as subhuman. From the very beginning, the Jewish nation was sentenced by the nation of the “masters” to elimination. The Polish nation was qualified as a nation of slaves, a major part of which was also to be murdered.
The awareness that Germany turned Poland into hell on earth reached the West very slowly. The case of Jan Karski, one of the first to bring a report of the Holocaust to the United States, is symbolic. And even then, despite the war going on for many months, the West was not ready to accept the whole truth.
The ability to face the truth about World War II is our duty, not only with respect to the past, but also with respect to the future. The fact that postwar Germany was incorporated into the international community so soon, without the need for thorough prosecution of war criminals, opened the gate for the relativization of evil. Politics offers little space for moralizing, but when it comes to assessing totalitarianism, we cannot have any doubts: This was absolute evil, and the perpetrators excluded themselves from the human community once and for good. Nevertheless, there are increasingly frequent voices of victims being to blame, too. From there, there is just one step to the entire reversal of history and placing it on its head. With respect to Poland, this step was made by none other than Vladimir Putin. Russian propaganda has been trying for years to tell the world that Poland is responsible for the outbreak of World War II. This is a lie so cheeky that it is absurd, which is one of the characteristics of totalitarian propaganda.
Historical comparisons are treacherous but cannot be avoided today. If we were to rewrite the origin of World War II to the present conditions, the climax would involve the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The fact that it happened means that many countries did not do their homework or forgot the lessons from the 20th century. We are facing a reviving empire with totalitarian ambitions. 83 years ago, Poland was the first to refuse submission. It chose to be faithful to freedom, faithful to the founding values of Western civilization. And it was betrayed by its allies. If we recall this history, it is not just to remember it, but not to make the same mistakes again.
Mateusz Morawiecki has been the prime minister of Poland since 2017. His words were originally published in the Polish monthly Wszystko Co Najważniejsze in collaboration with the Institute of National Remembrance and the Polish NationalFoundation.