War is death to the truth. Any plausible lie will do to advance the cause of one side or the other. An example is the Soviet execution of some 22 thousand Polish officers at Katyn forest as it cemented its rule following the 1939 pact with Nazi Germany – one after another shot in the back of the head and pushed into a mass grave. But we didn’t do it, claimed the Communists. The Nazis did. And for many years later, they were generally believed.
The Nazis, to be sure, were capable of any sort of atrocity, so the lie had a certain standing. Trouble is it contributed to a misunderstanding of the Soviet Union, an underestimation of Stalin’s grim plans for conquest and occupation. The West was unprepared and suffered the consequences. The “good war” that demolished Hitler strengthened Stalin, not only in Europe but elsewhere in the world. The unexpected Cold War was on.
In their urge to win World War Two, the West’s leaders tended to sentimentalize Stalin who was fighting on their side. He became “Uncle Joe” to Americans from President Franklin Roosevelt on down. Just a good hearted, somewhat bumbling ex-peasant struggling to be a democrat like the rest us, when in fact he was one of history’s coldest mass murderers. Roosevelt tried to reassure him about Poland as it came under Soviet control. Don’t worry about the criticism you get, he confided, I have to worry about the Polish vote in America. British Prime Minister Churchill, engrossed with the rapidly disappearing British Empire, was equally dismissive of the country that really didn’t belong anywhere.
For a number of years in the late 18th century, in fact, Poland didn’t exist, its territory parceled out among the great powers. But nothing was quite so intense as Polish nationalism, celebrated in song and story from childhood on. With the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that ended the First World War, the nation was recreated and reaffirmed. The future seemed bright. Poland was here to stay in all its splendor. But it was not to be. Conditions left by the monstrously destructive war led to the rise of the totalitarians, and both set their sights on the country between them. Easy pickings, they thought.
Hitler’s invasion of western Poland, followed by Stalin’s thrust into the east, launched history’s most cataclysmic conflict, and no country suffered more than Poland. It became a kind of putty in the hands of the two tyrannies as they advanced and retreated over its soil, reshaping it this way and that, shifting its borders, killing people by the millions. In the end it was claimed by the Soviets who clamped on their usual iron regime. The West did nothing for Poland during the war or after.
But Poland characteristically helped itself. It seethed under communist rule and in 1980 exploded in the formation of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. Supported across the country, this new found power signaled the collapse of Soviet rule in all of Eastern Europe and in Russia itself. Poland led the way.
Today it enjoys a strong economy and general prosperity. Its democratic politics are passionate with a current rise in nationalist fervor. It has some difficulties with neighbors like Russia and Israel but no threat to its existence and staunch backing by the U.S. Once prostrate and divided, Poland is flourishing, and that’s no lie.