Russian-Polish row over Auschwitz

BBC News
Jan Repa
BBC Europe analyst
April 6,2007

A new political row has broken out between Russia and Poland – this time over the Nazi German death camp at Auschwitz. The Russian side accuses the Poles of playing political games by refusing to reopen the Russian permanent exhibition at Auschwitz. The Polish side accuses the Russians of falsifying history and of manufacturing an artificial crisis. According to the Russian foreign ministry, the Polish position is “bizarre”, “absurd” and a “political speculation”. Viktor Kosachev – chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee – accuses the Poles of a “provocation” and of “rewriting history”. ‘Blackmail’ attempt The Russian press is even more strident. Komsomolskaya Pravda – owned by the Russian energy giant Gazprom – claims the Poles are “trying to blackmail Russian with the dead of Auschwitz” and to “make capital out of the tragedy of millions of people”. The Polish reaction has been no less brusque. The chairman of the International Auschwitz Council, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski – himself a former prisoner – says Poland is not a place from which to peddle Stalinist falsehoods. The mass-circulation Gazeta Wyborcza daily talks of the “catastrophic state of Polish-Russian relations – and a complete absence of goodwill on Russia’s part”.

What is this all about? A number of countries have their own special exhibitions at Auschwitz. Three years ago, the Russians closed theirs for “updating”. President Vladimir Putin visited the new exhibition in January 2005 – the 50th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by the Soviet army. Since then, the authority overseeing the running of the Auschwitz complex has refused to open the Russian exhibition to the public. Historical cause? The root cause is said to be the Russian interpretation of the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, under which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed a carve-up of Central-Eastern Europe. Signed in August 1939, a few days before the outbreak of World War II, the pact assigned western Poland and Lithuania to Germany; and eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia and northern Romania to the Soviet Union. After the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland the following month, Germany renounced its claim to Lithuania for a larger share of Poland. After the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, in 1941, the Soviet-held territories came under German occupation – before being recaptured by the Soviets in 1944-45.

According to Russia, people deported to Auschwitz from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and what had been eastern Poland were Soviet citizens – and are presented as such in the Auschwitz exhibition. According to Poland, these territories were not, at the time, part of the Soviet Union in international law – but had merely been invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union, in much the same way that Germany or Japan invaded and occupied other countries. There is, then, a fundamental difference in interpretation. The question is: Why has the Auschwitz issue erupted now – and not at some previous moment in the past couple of years? Polish commentators speculate that it may have something to do with the gentle pressure being exerted on Poland and the Baltic states by the European Commission and some West European EU states, to regulate their outstanding differences with Russia. At stake are the stalled attempts to negotiate a new Co-operation Pact between the EU and Russia; and next year’s planned abolition of border controls between countries like Poland and long-established EU members further to the west. On this interpretation, Russia is once again trying to discredit the newer EU member states – and to marginalise them in the broader EU-Russia relationship.