One might have thought that 70 years was time enough to work out what really happened in 1939. It isn't the case. Misunderstandings and misinformation abound.
The British media is all geared up to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the declaration of war on Thursday 3 September. Once again, we shall hear Neville Chamberlain's prim radio announcement, since Germany had not withdrawn its troops from Poland, that "this country finds itself in a state of war with Germany". He inimitably accentuated the "Po-" of Poland. And his words clearly indicated that fighting had already begun.
But British people recall it differently. They are convinced that the declaration of 3 September was followed by months of a "phoney war", in which nothing really happened. Every nation remembers the past in its own way. Russians, who still revere their "Great Patriotic War", grow indignant if reminded of their involvement before 1941. They tell you how many men they lost "liberating you from fascism". Americans, too, have been drilled to think of 1941, not 1939, as the date to remember. And they, too, think that their "Band of Brothers" brought freedom to Europe.
Next week, the most extensive ceremonies to mark the outbreak of war will be held on Tuesday 1 September, at the Fort of Westerplatte in the harbour of Gdansk (the former Danzig). The host will be Donald Tusk, Poland's Prime Minister, a native of Gdansk and a good historian. The chief guests will include Angela Merkel, Bernard Kouchner, David Milliband and, barring surprises, Vladimir Putin. Gordon Brown and President Barack Obama have declined.
The guests will be told in the clearest possible terms how Adolf Hitler gave orders on 31 July 1939 to attack Poland at dawn, by land, sea and air, and how the cruiser Schleswig Holstein, moored in the harbour on a self-styled friendship visit, suddenly fired broadside against Westerplatte at exactly 4.45am. They will also hear how the heroic defenders of Westerplatte held out for days against the point-blank salvoes, and how Hitler had given special instructions to his generals to subject the Poles to "ruthless cruelty". Hitler's notorious rhetorical question, "Who remembers the Armenians now?", had been uttered a few days earlier as he pondered the coming slaughter in Poland with relish.
If anyone cares to pay attention, the Polish government will go on to use the occasion to tell its own version of the war, emphasising the unprecedented losses which flowed from the decision to fight and resist. Premier Tusk's pre-war predecessors were impressed by the pathetic fate of neighbouring Czechoslovakia, whose leaders had been persuaded not to fight. And they had felt reasonably confident. Believing that Hitler's fascism and Stalin's militant communism were equally dangerous, they had signed pacts of non-aggression both with the Third Reich and with the USSR. What is more, they had received a formal guarantee of their country's independence from Great Britain, reputedly the world's leading power, and they enjoyed close military ties with France, whose army was still thought to be Europe's finest. They had been told by General Gamelin, in the event of a German attack, that their role would be to hold up the enemy's forces for 15 days until France threw le gros de nos forces (the bulk of our forces) against Germany in the West.
In the event, the Poles did their duty. Indeed, the performance of the Polish army was rather better than that of the British and the French in the following year, when blitzkrieg was turned on them. Yet all was to no avail. By 1945, more than six million Polish citizens had been killed (18 per cent), almost half of them Jewish. Nearly half of Poland's territory had been forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union. The country's capital, Warsaw, was a desert of ruins, more completely destroyed than any European city. And Poland's precious independence, so rashly guaranteed by Britain, had sunk without trace, not to resurface until 1989. It would be surprising if the guests at Westerplatte on Tuesday can avoid hearing the word "betrayal".
The Polish government will also use the occasion to unveil the foundation stone of a Museum of the Second World War. The initiative is long overdue. But it may not pass off smoothly. The text of the museum's founding act will state, quite accurately, that Poland was the victim of "two totalitarian aggressors". Russian sources have let it be known, however, that if anyone dares to hint at Soviet complicity in the outbreak of war, Mr Putin may not show up. By Monday evening, the suspense could become unbearable.
Winners of wars get a standing start in the post-war stakes of remembrance. And Poland, as the only Allied nation to be treated as a loser, is still losing out. The Western powers, for instance, enjoy the rare luxury of possessing war cemeteries scattered throughout Europe, where almost all their fallen receive an honoured grave, where the rose gardens continue to be tended, and where the blood price of their noble cause continues to be advertised. What is more, by adopting the Holocaust as the supreme symbol of the evil against which they fought, they have inadvertently cast several other mass tragedies into the shadows. The Russians, too, who were the principal victors of the land war in Europe, were able to promote an effective post-war narrative. By publicising the slogan of "20 million Russian war dead", they gained enormous international sympathy, while successfully expunging Soviet crimes from the record, and masking the fate of the millions killed by Stalin. Information has circulated more freely since 1989. But even today, few people realise that the losses in Belarus, the Baltic states and Ukraine, which bore the brunt of the Nazi onslaught, were greater than those in Russia.
In Poland as well, a curious hierarchy of disputed war memories persists. One of several disaffected groups comes from the small town of Wielun, which before the war lay close to the German frontier. On 1 September 1939, the Luftwaffe targeted Wielun for its very first bombing raid. The bombs started falling by some accounts at 4.30am and by others at 4.40am; at all events several clear minutes before the opening salvo at Westerplatte. About 1,290 townspeople were killed in their beds. Three-quarters of the town was pulverised. The casualty rate was more than twice as high as Guernica or Coventry. But hardly anyone outside Wielun recalls it. The 50,000 people killed by German bombs in Warsaw in September 1939, and the 200,000 killed in similar circumstances during the Warsaw uprising of 1944, serve as Poland's major memories of bombing. For whatever reason, Wielun – to use the technical phrase – is not a lieu de mémoire.
In this war of war memories, few things compare in scale and determination to the massive propaganda offensive which Moscow has unleashed this week in anticipation of Mr Putin's journey. The Polish Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski – a graduate of Pembroke College, Oxford – has made a significant diplomatic gesture by praising Mr Putin's courage. In spite of everything, Mr Putin has agreed to attend an anniversary that all Russian leaders have previously ignored. It will indeed be news in Moscow if the Russian media have to report that war did not break out in 1941 after all.
Nonetheless, no effort is being spared to reinforce the old Soviet assertion that Stalin acted wisely in 1939 (as he always did), and that the Soviet authorities can in no way be held co-responsible for the political manoeuvres leading to war. No embarrassment is shown for treating the "near abroad" as a zone where Russia can rightfully behave with impunity.
Nowadays, it is no longer possible to maintain that the Nazi-Soviet pact of 23 August 1939 was a fiction invented by bourgeois-imperialist enemies. Everyone has seen the film clips of Herr Ribbentrop landing in Moscow, and of Stalin smiling broadly as Ribbentrop and Molotov signed up side by side. But it is perfectly possible to resurrect the arguments which Soviet propagandists once kept in reserve for foreign audiences and which present the German-Soviet rapprochement as the work of a peace-loving, time-winning, defensively minded statesman. What is more, there is nothing to stop Kremlin-inspired publicists from casting the blame for the war on unspecified villains, usually Poles, who were allegedly raring to do Hitler's bidding.
Last week, two state-controlled Russian TV channels screened a film called Secrets of the Secret Protocols. Contrary to what the title might suggest, its main revelations did not deal with the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet pact, but with lesser known machinations behind the Polish-German non-aggression pact of 1934. Alexander Dyukov, who is associated with the film and who has authored a book of questions and answers about pre-war politics, was unable to give journalists hard evidence for his contentions. "We assume," he said, that the pact of 1934 "contained secret protocols against the USSR". And he gave an assurance that all would be substantiated in due course. His presentation was not burdened by discussion of the Polish-Soviet pact of 1932 , nor by the very real episode in 1934, when Poland's Marshal Pilsudski was rebuffed by the French after floating the idea of a preventative war against the Third Reich.
Revelations, each more shocking than the next, are growing to a crescendo. Russia's President, Dmitry Medvedev, has formed a commission for historical truth. One of its first members to speak out, Professor Natalia Narochnitskaya, chose last week to reject the well-documented admissions by Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin about the Katyn massacres of 1940, when Stalin's security forces murdered 25,000 Polish officer-prisoners in cold blood. Instead, she threw up a fabricated tale about 100,000 Russian POWs had been murdered by the Poles in 1920. Attack, it appears, is the best form of defence.
The Novosti press agency chimed in. It announced the publication of a collection of documents on Soviet-German relations, whose full contents will be unveiled on 31 August. It has been joined in the chorus by ambassadors, academicians and assorted commentators, all singing from the same sheet. The Soviet Union must not be blamed for the crisis of 1939. The Poles were "Hitler's first ally" (despite being the first ally of Great Britain). And the Western powers, by their duplicity and complacency, were happy to connive in Hitler's lust for war.
One of the clearest statements of Russia's apparently official line appeared on the website of the Ministry of Defence. Sergei Kovalev, from the Institute of Military History in Moscow, submitted a text entitled "Falsifications and inventions in interpretations of the Soviet Union's role...". His analysis offers the opinion that Hitler's demands on Poland in 1939 were "moderate" and "justified", and hence that responsibility for the war must be laid at Poland's door. His style, complaining about the "falsifications and inventions" of others, is highly reminiscent of Soviet times. But his logic is not. No one in Soviet Moscow would have dreamt of describing Adolf Hitler's policies as "moderate".
The newspaper Pravda (which means truth) went one better. An article written under the name of Lisa Karpova states that Poland from 1926 was a fascist state like Mussolini's Italy. Poland attacked all its neighbours in turn. And Jews in Poland were able to survive only thanks to the concentration camps. Polish agents organised a bandit attack on a German convoy carrying an Enigma machine. So, Karpova concludes, the cause of the Second World War lay in "a Polish intrigue supported by the British".
What exactly has sparked off Moscow's phrenetic interest in history can only be guessed at. It may have less to do with the approach of 1 September than with the recent anniversary of 23 August. In relation to the latter, the assembly of the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) passed a resolution condemning the Nazi-Soviet pact and giving equal blame to Stalin and Hitler. A proposal was framed to turn 23 August into an international day of memory "for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism".
Still worse, a large group of distinguished German historians and intellectuals published an open letter which amounted to an apology to Poland. For the past 50 years, Moscow has benefited greatly from the Germans' guilt-ridden eagerness to take responsibility for everything and anything. But things are changing. Angela Merkel has been persuaded to support a museum in Berlin recalling the suffering of many millions of German expellees, who were driven out of their homes in the east by the Red Army, by Soviet-sponsored regimes, and by the Allied conference at Potsdam. Public opinion in Germany is maturing towards the realisation that some members of a nation may be criminals, while others may be victims; even that the same people can be regarded as criminals in one context, and victims in another. Russian public opinion lags far behind.
To date, the Polish government has kept its cool. Premier Tusk repeated yesterday that he wanted to make Poland's wartime experiences widely known, but also that he wanted to improve relations with Russia. In another interview, he said that some of the charges will be taken up by appropriate Polish advisers. He knows that the Kremlin's present exercise is a scam, and that critical voices in Russia can still be heard. Some officials in Russia are for rowing back. Kovalev's article, for example, has been withdrawn.
The Polish media are less restrained. Excited discussions are taking place on radio and television. Total disbelief is the commonest reaction. Behind the talking heads of its panellists, one TV channel has been running non-stop documentary film sequences. They show Ribbentrop and Molotov in Moscow, huge columns of Soviet tanks and cavalry rolling across the Polish frontier and the scenes from the town in central Poland where on 23 September 1939 German and Soviet forces staged a joint victory parade.
As the Russian government must realise, however, Poland will only be the start of a long, uncomfortable season. After Poland, it will be Finland's turn, and the 70th anniversary of the Winter War. Stalin's aggression against Finland in November 1939 was every bit as blatant as his actions against Poland. His German partner was not involved, and the despatch of a million troops into a neighbouring country to deport the entire population of the frontier area can hardly be described as the doings of a neutral well-wisher. It led to the expulsion of the USSR from the League of Nations. And after Finland, there will be Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. At every stage, there will be scenes of peace-loving tanks, of executions and deportations, and of weeping patriots.
So Vladimir Putin has some explaining to do next Tuesday. It is interesting to think how he might go about it.
Norman Davies is a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge. His Europe at War: No Simple Victory is published by Pan-Macmillan (UK) and by Penguin Books (US)Reuse content