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Today marks 75 years since the end of the Second World War in Europe.
The anniversary of the German surrender in 1945 is a reminder that national experiences of liberation at the end of World War II have profoundly shaped historical memory and national identity.
The complex process of the liberation presents a number of challenges. It requires politicians to address problematic issues regarding the circumstances in which their nation was liberated from the Nazi regime.
In this article I discuss the importance of Polish and German historical memory of the Second World War and of ‘liberation’ and its impact on the diplomatic relations between these two countries 75 years on.
Both Poland and Germany suffered disproportionate levels of death and destruction during the war. However, Poland had to endure the destruction and incomparable atrocities of the German occupation for six years from 1939, while the destruction of Germany came in the final stages of the war and was seen as both a strategic necessity and a tragic inevitability to end the war (even if the opportunity for reprisals may have been welcomed by some).
The German surrender in 1945 meant liberation from Nazi tyranny. Poland had suffered the second highest number of deaths in Europe as a consequence of the war, and major cities like Warsaw had been completely destroyed.
Poland was one of the countries worst affected by the occupation, having been the location of many of the Nazi concentration camps, which have become permanent reminders of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.
The liberation in 1945 brought an end to the Holocaust in occupied Poland and to the suffering of many Polish Jews, as well as relief to millions of Poles in general.
However, the liberation of Poland was carried out through the brutal excesses of the Red Army, and any Polish aspirations of freedom were supressed by the Soviet occupation which immediately replaced that of the Nazis.
It took Poland many decades to recover from the devastating effects of the war. Reconstruction was used by communist authorities to build a new socio-economic model in line with the Soviet doctrine, and for four decades, Poland was forced to live under another oppressive totalitarian regime.
This was not the liberation Poles had hoped for in 1945. Some may consider Poland was not truly liberated until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In the case of Germany, the experience of its own ‘liberation’ from the Nazi regime following its defeat in 1945 is contentious for obvious reasons.
Germany was the birthplace of the regime overwhelmingly responsible for the atrocities in the occupied countries as well as in Germany itself. But de-Nazification and the permanent dismantling of the Third Reich in Germany following the end of the war brought a form of liberation to Germans also.
1945 seemed to signal an irreversible departure from the Nazi past, as the country had to be completely reconstructed physically and ideologically.
Like Poland, Germany was also subject to foreign occupation, which, in the case of the East, resulted in the implementation of another oppressive totalitarian regime.
Like the countries of Eastern Europe, East Germany also suffered crimes perpetrated by the Red Army during the liberation and Soviet occupation, such as the mass rape of German women.
Some 12 million German men, women and children were forced to flee Eastern Europe at the end of the war.
Poland was occupied by two foreign armies from 1939. Germany was the perpetrator of the brutal crimes that took place in occupied Poland during the war. In addition to the systematic persecution and killing of Jews and other minority groups in the Holocaust, these crimes included summary mass executions of Poles, deportations and enforced labour, and reprisals in response to resistance activity.
The historical memories of both countries differ significantly, therefore, from that of victimhood of the atrocities suffered to that of responsibility for such crimes.
Since 1989, the revelations of Soviet responsibility for crimes against Poles during and after the war, such as the Katyn massacre in 1940, and the experiences of national suffering under the communist regime have motivated the demand for acknowledgement of Soviet crimes.
Nevertheless, commemoration of the Nazi genocide and the Holocaust remain at the centre of central European politics.
Germany’s memory of its own ‘liberation’ following its defeat in 1945 is complicated, not least because Germans had to face up to their Nazi past, but also because Germans were not always willing to confront this past.
Some may argue that, in the immediate aftermath of the war, National Socialism was virtually eliminated from German collective consciousness as ordinary Germans faced the immediate struggles of physical and ideological reconstruction and tried to distance themselves from their recent past.
Indeed, a memory of victimhood as a result of the devastation suffered by Germans by the end of the war and the enforced mass migration of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe in and after 1945 existed in the immediate post-war period.
More recently, while German consciousness as the perpetrator has been unequivocal regarding the suffering caused to European Jews in the Holocaust, a German memory of victimhood has re-emerged with commemorations such as that of the destruction of Dresden and the allied bombings of Hamburg and Berlin.
The hardship suffered by East Germans under the socialist dictatorship has also been emphasised at anniversaries such as that of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
After 1989, there was a need to address the socialist dictatorship that had existed in the East for four decades, while at the same time continuing to come to terms with the National Socialist past.
Germany has had to balance the memories of both chapters of its past, while always taking care not to portray the suffering of victims of communist crimes and the Eastern dictatorship in a magnitude comparable to the suffering of the victims of the Holocaust.
The Polish and German memories of the Second World War and of ‘liberation’ differ significantly depending on the identification of these countries as either the perpetrators or the victims of the atrocities of the war.
Nevertheless, certain parallels may be cautiously drawn between the Polish and German experiences at the end of the war, such as the elimination of the oppressive Nazi regime from both countries in 1945 and the levels of death and destruction suffered by the end of the war.
But the atrocities suffered by Poland under the German occupation and the genocide of the Holocaust in occupied Poland stand alone in their magnitude of brutality.
The existence of different Polish and German historical memories of 1945 and ‘liberation’ has important diplomatic implications.
Today, these may concern the conditions for reconciliation, such as demands for reparations and greater recognition of victims, the agreement on a common unbiased narrative of the Second World War, and discussions on how certain events should be interpreted and commemorated.
In addition to commemorating those who perished, this anniversary should serve not just to remind everyone of the atrocities that were committed by the Nazi regime, but also to ensure the prevention of any form of repetition of such crimes in the future.
Whilst German suffering at the end of the war should be acknowledged, comparisons that fail to recognize the magnitude of the suffering in Poland under the Germans would be perceived as an attempt to evade full responsibility and diminish the significance of the Polish memory of liberation 75 years ago.
Today, perhaps one of the most significant diplomatic challenges between these two nations is the antipathy of the Polish administration towards what it perceives as foreign intervention in Poland’s domestic affairs. This hostility has manifested itself recently in disputes with the European Union and Germany on issues such as immigration policy and constitutional reform in Poland.
This antipathy is rooted in a national memory of forced submission to past authoritarian regimes.
An attempt by a foreign power, particularly Germany, to dictate policy to Poland, a country whose historical memory has been so profoundly shaped by the experiences of foreign occupation, might be perceived by politicians as undermining Poland’s national sovereignty.
The friction is exacerbated by the fact that Germany is one of the European Union’s leading decision-makers.
Featured image credit: bbc.co.uk