On this day, 87 years ago, Joseph Goebbels incited the crowd in the Berlin Lustgarten to boycott all Jewish-owned shops and businesses, forcing several Jews to march down Bruehl Street with signs that read, “Kautt nicht bei Juden. Kauft in Deutschen Geschäften! [Don’t buy from Jews. Shop in German businesses!]” This was the moment that the Jews in Germany first admittedly perceived the prejudice that was being directed toward them and the moment that, arguably, expedited a torturous period of indiscriminate killing and bloodshed.
This January, at Yad Vashem, a surprisingly large number of diplomats, historians, and foreign dignitaries congregated to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The most notorious concentration camp designed by Nazi Germany, it was created to complete the implementation of what Adolf Hitler called the “final solution”—the elimination of the entire Jewish population of Europe. Of the six million Jews who were slaughtered during the Holocaust, more than one million died at Auschwitz, where crematoriums and gas chambers were used for barbarous mass extinctions. Two months ago, what otherwise should have been a solemn celebration ripened into a political cabaret and heated disputes engulfing a slew of great powers in continental Europe. The events at the heart of this polemic span roughly 15 years of the most dreadful decade in European history. Its roots lie at the threshold of the Third Reich and conclude with the last days of World War II. From a European standpoint, the nightmarish epoch is sheathed in shame. Few countries can claim a moral high ground in how they confronted and defied the relentless advance of Nazi ideology, its totalitarian tendencies, and its crimes against humanity.
On one side of the argument is Russia, the nation that liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau and made enormous sacrifices and contributions to the defeat of Germany. It is rightfully considered one of the victors of World War II. And as a consequence, it is one of the great beneficiaries of the world order fashioned to guarantee the post-war security of Europe. Russia’s place in the UN Security Council, as well as its international prestige, rest almost entirely on the result of the war. Domestically, the struggle against Nazi Germany came to resemble biblical proportions, and the memory of this grueling era is singular in Russian consciousness.
However, both before the eruption of the war and for many years thereafter, when Soviet Communism dominated Eastern Europe, the treaties and alliances developed by the Soviets painted a picture far less favorable than that of the Russians’. The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact signed by Germany and the USSR in 1939 partitioned Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, one imperiously ruled by Hitler, the other by Joseph Stalin. Nonetheless, the pact simultaneously produced a mutual non-aggression agreement between the two absolutist autocrats. This agreement, envisioned to last for ten years, did not survive for even two, when in June of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The non-aggression alinement was the final stamp that sealed the paroxysm of the worst hostilities of the 1940s. It is also the case that after the allies, including the Russians, prevailed over Nazi Germany and the war was brought to an end, the Soviet Union practically reoccupied Eastern Europe by creating the Warsaw Pact to counter the coalition of Western European countries and the United States that soon became known as NATO. This occupation lasted for over forty years and made few friends for Russia.
On the opposing side of the argument, the chief interlocutor is Poland, the country that once formed the backbone of the Warsaw Pact and which has historically resented Russian imperial ambitions. Poland has its own complicated history with Germany. Having also signed a non-aggression pact in 1934, it was one of the most unabashedly anti-Semitic countries in Europe. In fact, the Polish ambassador to Germany publicly praised Hitler’s obsession with the extermination of European Jewry. He proclaimed that prodigious monuments would be erected in Hitler’s honor were he to succeed in his quest to massacre Jews. While some Polish families assisted in saving their Jewish countrymen, many more aided Nazi Germany by oftentimes playing the role of willing executioners.
In 1939, Poland was home to more Jews than any other European nation. That same year, divided by Germany and the Soviet Union, ⅕ of the population of Poland was murdered. Nearly all Polish Jews, approximately 90%, were killed in the Holocaust. In 1948, Israel was reestablished as the Jewish homeland from the cinders of this global conflagration. Gradually a more normal relationship between Poland and Israel emerged. Since the fall of Communism in 1990, both countries continued to steadily uphold full diplomatic intercourse—until January. And what’s to blame? A combination of history, politics, and national memory.
The president of Poland withdrew from attending the commemoration in Israel, knowing Russian President Vladamir Putin would be giving a keynote address. On January 27, in his address, Putin explained his revisionist perception of the war, minimizing the 1939 Nonaggression Pact and maximizing the complicity of Poland in the Holocaust. During a meeting with ex-Soviet nations’ leaders in December of 2019, Putin asserted, “They want to shift the blame for unleashing World War II from the Nazis to the communists.” He later announced his boycott of the Polish ceremony at the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp.
Both Russia and Poland have chosen to selectively site documents and present history dogmatically and in black and white tonalities. According to each of their own national narratives, theirs is the only righteous path. Yet, the tragedy and horror of World War II exposed the fragility of human morality and our inherent inability to summon courage and judgment in the face of undeniable evil. It is this inability that, to this day, rattles the élan vital of many European politicians. Despite leaps in technological and scientific advancement, somehow, the basis of our behavioral DNA remains the same and the struggle between good and evil is as pronounced today as it was in biblical times and amidst the war.Air Force 1 Sage Low