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Veterans, Victims, and Memory

The Politics of the Second World War in Communist Poland


Joanna Wawrzyniak

In the vast literature on how the Second World War has been remembered in Europe, research into what happened in communist Poland, a country most affected by the war, is surprisingly scarce. The long gestation of Polish narratives of heroism and sacrifice, explored in this book, might help to understand why the country still finds itself in a «mnemonic standoff» with Western Europe, which tends to favour imagining the war in a civil, post-Holocaust, human rights-oriented way. The specific focus of this book is the organized movement of war veterans and former prisoners of Nazi camps from the 1940s until the end of the 1960s, when the core narratives of war became well established.
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Afterword: The Long Shadow of the Communist Politics of Memory


The Long Shadow of the Communist Politics of Memory

‘The hero myth was also partly true, or true enough to make successive generations grateful.’1

This book has tried, using both macro-political and micro-social perspectives, to outline the origins of three narratives that organized public memory of the Second World War under communism: the myth of victory over fascism, the myth of the unity of the Polish resistance and the myth of innocence. The principal subjects of these mythologies, the veterans and victims of the war, were co-opted as participants in the state’s memory policies; they effectively contributed to the transmission of the party’s legitimizing vision. Fulfilling a public role as ‘living symbols’ of the Second World War, they consolidated the official stories of heroism and martyrdom via the media, school education, popular culture and state rituals, as well as via legal settlements that ruled on privileges that were of paramount importance for them. After 1956, the veterans’ union was joined by people who were initially hostile to communist rule and the official memory narratives were thus challenged. The state responded by gradually increasing the social assistance available to veterans and victims of the war. This catch-all strategy, which was specific to communist corporatism, emerged as an effective method of legitimizing the political system. The history outlined in this book ends in the late 1960s because it was at this time that the war narratives of Eastern Europe’s communist countries became consolidated and relations between the state and key memory groups were stabilized. Official memory of the war retained its essential contours until the fall of the state socialism two decades later.

The Polish case, despite certain peculiarities, was not exceptional or isolated. In these concluding remarks I will therefore place the history outlined in this book into a wider context of the post-war memory politics of Europe. Such a perspective makes it possible not only to discern the broader role played by the heroic narratives ← 213 | 214 → that were formed and became hegemonic in communist Eastern Europe, but also to analyse the difficulties related to the inheritance of these forms of remembrance after the fall of communism. Two issues are of particular importance: first, the similarities and overlaps between the memory policies of the countries of the Eastern Bloc and Western Europe; second, the long shadow of the communist politics of memory in Eastern Europe in the years of systemic transition, despite the fact that many of the first-hand actors of the war, who had contributed to the formation of its public image under communism, were beginning to exit the scene.

Polish War Memory in Comparative Context

The diffusion of Soviet propaganda in the Eastern Bloc is an essential issue which is best understood within a comparative framework that makes visible certain key nuances of the outwardly monolithic memory policies of the communist countries. At the heart of Soviet public memory was a master narrative. The American social psychologist James V. Wertsch has argued that its basic plot consists of the following elements:

1. An ‘initial situation’… in which the Russian people are living in a peaceful setting…

2. The initiation of trouble or aggression by an alien force, or agent, which leads to:

3. A time of crisis and great suffering, which is: 4. Overcome by the triumph over the alien force by the Russian people, acting heroically and alone.2

According to Wertsch and his followers, this ‘narrative template’3 underlies the most salient Russian histories, including the Mongol invasion and Napoleon invasion;4 it also lies beneath (changing) accounts of the Great Patriotic War. In the Soviet Union, it was articulated in the Marxist-Leninist terms of a struggle between the losing fascist and capitalist forces on the one hand, and, on the other, the victorious masses of soldiers, partisans and supporting local populations led by the communist party.5

In the course of the post-war decades, this Soviet narrative of the Great Patriotic War was spread beyond the borders of the USSR to Central and Eastern Europe. In­­ Poland, it existed as a conglomerate of facts and legends, described as the myth of victory over fascism in Chapter 3 of this book. According to this narrative, ← 214 | 215 → the Soviet soldiers and partisans were heroic figures who helped their (lesser) Polish brothers-in-arms to combat the fascist enemy. However, a notable feature of post-war propaganda in the communist bloc was not the obvious diffusion of the Soviet narrative, but its ability to function simultaneously with local patterns of remembrance; and the fact that the Soviet policies facilitated the development of national distinctions. This heterogeneity has been elegantly presented by Serhy Yekelchyk, who applies a postcolonial approach to his research on Soviet Ukraine. He argues that Ukraine‘s public memory was at the same time a tool in the hands of Stalinist propaganda, whilst also being manipulated by Ukraine’s cultural elites, who challenged Russia’s imperial discourse dressed in internationalist rhetoric. Eventually, the national specificities of this discourse contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.6

In the Polish case, the local communists nursed and cherished an abundance of national traditions. However, the most salient aspect of their politics of memory was the semi-official maintenance of the romantic narrative template of the ‘martyrdom’ and ‘resurrection’ of Poland, an idea with roots in Poland’s nineteenth-century independence movement against the great powers including imperial Russia. In the post-war years, this blueprint was revived with varying accents by both the Catholic Church and the communist party. In such a way, the most powerful and distinctive features of Polish cultural identity actually survived the communist period or were even strengthened, despite being in competition with the Soviet master narrative. According to this romantic blueprint, Poles also had to ‘act heroically and alone’ to overcome the enemy occupation. An important result of the turmoil of the Thaw of 1956, described in Chapters 4 and 5 as the myths of the unity of resistance and of innocent victims, was the state’s search for internal legitimacy via the use of this template, which suggested that Poles rescued themselves independently of Moscow. Thus, the myth of the liberation by the Red Army was being undermined.

In this context, it is worth noting that the Polish communists after 1956 kept a keen eye on Yugoslavia. Memory politics in Yugoslavia and Poland were in many ways analogous to each other, because of well-organized partisan movements and ← 215 | 216 → common difficulties in incorporating the wide political spectrum of wartime actors within the post-war order. In Yugoslavia, monarchist Chetniks and communists of the National Liberation Army had fought against each other, whilst the Croatian Ustashe formations had fought on the German side and operated one of the Europe’s largest concentration camps for political prisoners at Jasenovac. Like in Poland, the propaganda of the Yugoslav authorities in the immediate post-war years aggrandized, above all, the communists. Later, the Tito regime and its principal vehicle of war memory, the Union of Fighters in the War of National Liberation, emphasized the ‘unity’ of the Yugoslav people in their fight against the Nazis, a myth that camouflaged past conflicts. The political situation in Yugoslavia was of course specific, as a result of the autonomy from the Soviet Union enjoyed by Tito – but this was a major reason why the Polish communists held Yugoslavia as a model. It was not only the country’s rhetoric of national unity that appealed to the Poles, but also the dominant aesthetic of commemoration, which was less monumental than that of the USSR whilst also being universalistic: it emphasized the contribution of the local partisans to the liberation of the whole country.7

Another issue that is highly pertinent to the relationship between Polish and Soviet war memory is the way in which key memory groups were organized. On the surface, the central veterans’ unions were analogous: ZBoWiD appears to be the equivalent of the Soviet Committee of War Veterans (SKVV). As noted in Chapter 1, the dynamics of the two organizations were similar: both were initially reduced to propagandistic dummies before re-emerging as important institutions representing well-defined interest groups. Characteristic similarities were observable in the late 1940s and 1950s in the relations between veterans and the state: ‘Ivan’s War’ had ended with a populist promise that the soldier-heroes who had saved the USSR from fascist barbarism would be rewarded with both honours and respect from society. In Poland as well, promises were made to former soldiers that a new and better life awaited them in the ‘Recovered Territories’. In both countries, this ‘short honeymoon between veterans and the state came to an abrupt halt in 1947/48.’8 Not only did the governments renege on their promises of social support and privilege, they also ceased to promote the soldiers’ memories of the war.9 Also similar, to a certain extent, were the dominant cults of the soldiers and partisans in the later period, although they were built on different foundational myths in the two countries. As a result of these legitimizing hero ← 216 | 217 → narratives, veterans eventually became a high-status social group in both Poland and the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, it is of interest that SKVV and ZBoWiD differed in their chronologies of key wartime events. Although several aspects of the institutionalization of the veterans’ movements were analogous to each other, this did not mean that events in Poland merely mirrored events in the USSR. Firstly, the origins and trajectories of the Polish and Soviet unions were different. The formation of ZBoWiD in 1949 was the culmination of a process of subordination, whereby independent grassroots associations of veterans and former prisoners were brought under the aegis of the state. In the first half of the 1950s, the monopolistic union played above all a propagandistic role, advancing the aims of the International Federation of Resistance Fighters (FIR). After 1956 it was reconstructed as part of the state’s response to Polish society’s dissatisfaction; it became an organization that represented the interests of veterans and former political prisoners. In contrast, in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s there were no independent associations of veterans, and Stalin explicitly forbade the formation of a nationwide union. SKVV was founded only in 1956 as a result of efforts by Khrushchev, who wanted a Soviet representative in the World Federation of Former Combatants (FMAC) in Paris. However, despite the party authorities’ intention of creating a submissive organization that would restrict itself to fulfilling its designated role within FMAC, SKVV began to advance the social demands of Soviet veterans.10

Secondly, Poland was significantly quicker than the USSR in formalizing the status of veterans in law. Poland passed legislation that provided a complex formulation of the privileges of veterans and former prisoners in 1975.11 This move had been expected for a long time, and many of the privileges contained within this legislation had in fact been granted in the 1960s as separate statutes. The delay in approving a unified set of laws had been caused mainly by a fear that this would lead to an excessive strain on the state budget (Moscow faced a similar anxiety). For Polish veterans and former prisoners, the decade of Edward Gierek’s rule (1970–80) was relatively favourable, as the expanding social aspirations of citizens were financed by Western loans. In contrast, in the Soviet Union the process of granting codified privileges to veterans of the Great Patriotic War was started only in 1978 and continued well into the 1980s and 1990s.12

Finally, and most importantly, the similar facades of ZBoWiD and SKVV concealed significant variations in their configurations of power and interest. In Poland, the most important memory groups included the former prisoners of Nazi concentration camps. Moreover, they comprised a separate group with more severe ← 217 | 218 → experiences of the war than former Polish PoWs, who were treated by Germans in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Soviet soldiers, in contrast, were commonly held in concentration camps, and their treatment in PoW camps was extremely harsh. Additionally, after the war, Red Army soldiers who had suffered in the camps were treated with suspicion by the Soviet authorities as possible ‘traitors’ and as a result were often subjected to further persecution.13 Khrushchev did distance himself from these policies of Stalin, by allowing former PoWs to join SKVV, yet nonetheless official memory of captivity during the war continued to be ambivalent and PoWs were not incorporated into the state’s narrative as heroes.14 Meanwhile, in Poland former camps’ inmates were among the primary groups that decided on the structure and organization of ZBoWiD, not least because of the role played by the sites of former camps (especially Auschwitz-Birkenau) in the memory politics of the state. Whilst a number of Polish camp inmates were sentenced by the courts as kapo, it was practically unthinkable in Poland for all camp internees tout court to be treated as potential betrayers of the fatherland. In fact the opposite was true: they were one of the first memory groups to be heroized as ‘political prisoners’ and members of the ‘resistance movement’ – although many Poles had ended up in the concentration camps not because of any political activity but as punishment for ‘criminal’ activities such as the smuggling of food. The role of ‘traitors’ or, at best, ‘cowards’ was however played by the former fighters of the Home Army in the first decade after the war.

The other countries of the Eastern Bloc spent most of the war on the side of the Axis powers, either through coercion or as a result of the calculated actions of their elites. For this reason, they did not become points of reference for the Polish communists in the manner of Yugoslavia and the USSR. Instead, their wartime histories were to be suppressed. It is symptomatic that the negative icon for the Polish saying ‘Poland bred no Quislings15 was a Norwegian statesman and not, for example, Ferenc Szálasi, the Hungarian leader of the far-right Arrow Cross Party, or the Romanian conducător Ion Victor Antonescu, both of whom were in part responsible for the Holocaust in their respective territories. As a partial exception, Jozef Tiso, the head of Slovakia’s pro-Nazi puppet government, was ← 218 | 219 → mentioned more frequently, probably because he was a priest – this made him a ready prop for the Polish communist authorities in their propaganda struggle against the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, on the whole, whenever the state’s narratives dealt with the countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania, they tended to focus on the events of the last year of the war, when the communist resistance movement and the advancing Red Army ‘liberated’ the ‘progressive’ populations of this part of the continent.

The major exception to this policy of erasure was East Germany, which for political reasons (the priority of retaining the Oder-Neisse border in the face of opposition from the FRG) was communist Poland’s second most important ally after the USSR. Official memory in Poland clearly differentiated ‘bad’ Germans (the West Germans) from the ‘good’ ones, who had allegedly formed an organized resistance movement against Hitler and, after suffering in the camps during the war, taken up residence in the GDR. As noted in Chapter 3, the Association of Persons Persecuted by the Nazi Regime (VVN) was an early ally of ZBoWiD and worked to consolidate the myth of victory against fascism. In the first half of the 1950s, both unions organized commemoratives events at the sites of former concentration and death camps that re-interpreted an ‘unredeemable and senseless tragedy [as] a redemptive martyrdom that contributed to the victorious end of History.’16 VVN was dissolved in 1953 in the wake of anti-Semitic purges within the organization and replaced by the Committee of Anti-fascist Resistance Fighters (KdAW); thus, a union of the victims of persecution was substituted by a union of fighters, thereby strengthening the heroic interpretation of the fates of the prisoners.

Despite these differences, the major common trait of official war memory in Eastern Europe was the heroization of the victims. This mode of remembrance affected Jews, who were posthumously deprived of their ethnic identity, Polish civilians, many of whom had ended up in the camps for entirely prosaic reasons, or millions of Red Army recruits. The hero myth had its local variants, but was nonetheless universal because ‘it glorified the brutal business of killing, and offered a cloak of indemnity for crimes that no one wanted to acknowledge.’17 Any effort to get to grips with the real extent of support for the Nazis, the war crimes committed by the Red Army or NKVD, or the various local pogroms and ethnically-motivated vendettas would have had to blur the boundary between victim and perpetrator, something that ruling communists throughout Eastern Europe were unable or unwilling to do. After the purges of the early post-war years, communist rule was legitimized everywhere by boosting the collective pride of the nation through the cultivation of a positive myth. ← 219 | 220 →

Whilst a dominant mode of memory was consolidated in Eastern Europe, in the West there existed a greater number and variety of permitted memory groups and they were free to mobilize from the bottom-up. The intervention of the USA in the formation of the canons of memory in Western Europe was substantially smaller than the extent to which the Soviet Union interfered in the memory policies of the Eastern Bloc countries.18 Nonetheless, there are certain similarities that can be discerned in the patterns of public memory on the two sides of divided Europe in the first post-war decades. These include: the search for cohesive idioms that would enable the commemoration of the war within the realm of the nation state, especially using the principal tropes of heroization and victimization – as demonstrated in depth for France, Holland and Belgium by Pieter Lagrou;19 and the subordination of national memories of the war to the political demands of the Cold War. As a result, efforts to reach a differentiated understanding of individual experiences of the war, including the Holocaust, were marginalized, although not quite to the extent assumed until recently.20 Jeffrey Herf argues that in the 1950s ‘restitution to Jewish survivors, and timely justice were peripheral issues in an era dominated … by moral compromises that flowed from American and Western desires to integrate the West German into a new Western alliance.’21

It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that a clear split began to form in terms of the politics of regret22 in the West and the politics of pride in the socialist East. The substantial literature on cultural memory in Western Europe makes it possible to highlight three key issues that enable a clearer understanding of the East-West divide. First, there was a generational change. From the 1960s, memory policy was increasingly directed not at the people who had experienced the war themselves, but at the generation born after 1945. The past gradually ceased to be an instrument for internal discussions among the war generation, ← 220 | 221 → and instead became a tool for the social formation of the youth. As many authors argue, the emerging generation was not just a fresh age cohort; the 1968-ers were a generation in the Mannheimian sense, who forged their own project of the future.23 This project entailed a radical revision of the interpretation of the past. As Gildea and Mark put it, ‘coming to terms with the memory of the Second World War and its aftermath was a central part of how they understood their journey into radical political activity.’24 In Western Europe, the 1968 generation built a new culture of memory that was more sensitive to the Holocaust. In contrast, in Eastern Europe the revisionist fervour of young dissident movements was directed more towards the resurrection of suppressed histories of the communist oppression. The policy makers in Eastern Europe were acutely aware of the generational change. In the 1960s, ZBoWiD considered its influence on the Polish youth to be as important as ‘countering the propaganda of the FRG’; in a country where anti-German sentiment was a fundamental component of the legitimizing discourse, this was a significant statement of the importance of the generational turn. The situation was similar in Yugoslavia, where commemorative efforts that initially focused on veterans were redirected so as to concentrate on educational activities for the next generation.25 Moreover, in Western Europe, members of the 1968 generation went on to take up prominent positions of political influence, which for the Eastern European dissidents remained unattainable until after 1989.

Second, starting with the broadcast of the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961, a major role in the de-heroization of the war in the West was played by the media.26 Film and television series about the Holocaust started to play an increasingly important role in the formation of cultural memory,27 at the same time that in the Eastern Bloc, images of Jewish suffering were subjected to ever harsher censorship28 because of Arab-Israeli wars. In Poland, this censuring of suffering ← 221 | 222 → was driven, inter alia, by attacks on unruly filmmakers by the veterans and former prisoners of ZBoWiD. The breaking of national mirrors by assessing the scale of collaboration with the Nazis of local populations began in Western Europe at various times and progressed at various rates, whereas in Eastern Europe it was only possible from the late 1980s and was begun in earnest after 1989.

Third, in Western Europe an ever-increasing role was played by German memory politics. As the principal defeated nation in Europe, Germany underwent various debates concerning its public memory of the war,29 with family remembrance patterns frequently proving resistant to the revision of dominant interpretations.30 Nonetheless, a fundamental overall trend was towards the erosion of the image of the heroic soldier that had been so important in the inter-war Germany; soldiers could, at best, be remembered as the victims of Hitler and Stalin,31 until subsequent generations turned the spotlight more brightly on the Wehrmacht’s direct involvement in the atrocities of Nazism in the Eastern Europe.32 (Since the 1980s, Germany has been one of the few countries in the world in which monuments have been erected to wartime deserters.33 ) In the search for a ‘positive’ model it was therefore easier to commemorate the civilian victims of the Allied bombings,34 and later to open up to the suffering of Jews; the Holocaust gradually became a central feature of German cultural memory of the war.35 The diffusion of Germany’s anti-militaristic canon to other Western European countries was only a matter of time. The Holocaust became a focal ← 222 | 223 → point of the normative model of war memory for Europe,36 to a large extent as a result of the efforts of German intellectuals. When at the beginning of the 1990s the Holocaust had already been reconfigured in the West ‘as a decontextualized event oriented toward nation-transcending symbols and meaning systems’ for human rights’,37 it acted as a canon of memory that collided with, and heavily affected, the processes of coming to terms with the past in the societies of Eastern Europe.38

Communist Narratives: between Persistence and Change

In 1990, the main protagonist of this book, ZBoWiD fell apart like a house of cards, from a monopolistic union to a disparate group of over a hundred different organizations of veterans and victims.39 The principal agents of public memory in Poland were joined by diasporic groups, some of whose representatives returned to their homeland, and also by victims of communist persecutions.40 Circles linked to the right-wing NSZ became more active. Jewish survivors and veterans were not numerous, but their presence in the memorial landscape was also cemented by Jewish associations. In addition, there emerged unions of children who had experienced the war.41 The post-communist Polish state energetically supported ← 223 | 224 → veterans, through central institutions, such as the Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression (Urząd do Spraw Kombatantów i Osób Represjonowanych), the Council for the Protection of Sites of Struggle and Martyrdom, and the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). Nonetheless, despite the activities of memory groups composed of first-hand participants of the war, public memory of those events began to be shaped to an increasing degree by people who had no direct experience of the war.42

This generation was faced with a legacy of myth and erasure of the memory politics of Polish national communism. The list of formerly suppressed histories that now started to resurface was particularly long. Arguably the most important were the histories of the Holocaust and Gulag. An influential essay by Tony Judt has advanced somehow orientalizing and essentializing model of Eastern Europe after 1989 as a region where ‘the communist era… left a vacuum into which ethnic particularism, nationalism, nostalgia, xenophobia, and ancient quarrels could flow.’43 From today’s perspective it is rather clear that the communist mode of remembrance has held sway as an interpretive mechanism for subsequent generations. For instance, a nationwide survey carried out in 2009 showed that a majority of Poles positively evaluated the behaviour of their countrymen during the war: they believed that typical deeds included joining the armed resistance against the Nazis, condemning collaboration and helping Jews, whilst collaboration, indifference to the fate of the Jews and denunciation of Jews were considered to be rare.44 The results of this survey are interesting in that they show, on the one hand, a rejection of certain elements of communist propaganda (e.g. few respondents mentioned the Polish Armed Forces in the East), and on the other hand the persistence of communist-era narrative frameworks.

Nonetheless, throughout Eastern Europe public memory became a contested realm in which, to generalize broadly, critical history vied for supremacy with lingering heroic and martyrological narratives. This discursive battle is played out in a variety of configurations in different countries of the region.45 The German historian Stefan Troebst, who in his research on East European memory cultures ← 224 | 225 → operates in the tradition of Oskar Halecki’s meso-regions and uses Klaus Zernack’s concept of Geschichtsregionen, has proposed a useful typology of these cultures: (1) countries with an anti-communist consensus (the Baltic States); (2) countries with fierce public debates on recent history (Hungary, Poland); (3) countries where apathy and ambivalence dominate (Bulgaria, Romania); and (4) countries where communism has not been entirely de-legitimized (Belarus, Moldova).46 Poland therefore belongs to a group of countries in which the past is subjected both to continued romanticization and revision.

To give the most salient examples: on the one hand, the romantic-nostalgic wave gave rise to the widespread expectation that the post-socialist democratic state would ‘tell the truth’ about the contemporary history and pass judgement not only on the Nazi occupation, but also on the communist dictatorship. The main institution responsible for this process was the Institute of National Remembrance (probably the largest institution of its kind in Europe), which was tasked with a set of archival, educational and research responsibilities including the prosecution of Nazi and communist crimes. Thus, from the very beginning, the IPN was intended to be a guardian of national and community values rather than an institution for the critical study of history.47 In the 1998 Act that created the IPN, there were references to the need to cultivate the memory of ‘the sacrifice, loss and damage suffered by the Polish nation in the years of the Second World War and after its conclusion’ and ‘the patriotic traditions of the struggle of the Polish nation with its occupiers, with Nazism and Communism.’48 This approach to the discourse of national martyrdom has also been supported in several exhibitions, with the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising taking the lead. Its permanent exhibition, opened in 2004, criminalizes Soviet communism, equates it with Nazism, and treats the national memory of the uprising as historical ‘truth’.49 In this way, despite cutting off the ties with communism, the post-communist institutions of memory sometimes follow the blueprint of its unequivocal memory politics. ← 225 | 226 →

As for the proponents of a critical discourse, they have largely been influenced by international studies on Holocaust memory and an awareness of human rights. Their focus is to disavow the self-congratulatory narrative of national pride and martyrdom. Here too, the actors are numerous and include politicians, artists, researchers and NGO activists. Among the triggers of the most heated discussions were books by historian Jan Tomasz Gross: Neighbors (2000), Fear (2008) and Golden Harvest (2011), which deal with the involvement of Poles in wartime genocide, the plundering of Jewish property and post-war pogroms.50 Gross’s accounts gave rise to heated public debates on Polish guilt and aroused an interest in the growing number of publications on the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations. The Polish Centre for Holocaust Research, established in 2003 at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, has played a major role in this development. In a sense, institutions like the Centre for Holocaust Research and the IPN have been in competition with each other to propagate different interpretations of history.51 Suffice to say that the more cases of anti-Jewish violence were brought to light by Holocaust scholars, the more energy was invested by other groups in commemorating Polish righteousness.

One of the most significant achievements in an international perspective has been the elaboration of the complexities of past Polish-German relations.52 Also, after the Orange Revolution (2004–2005) and the Crimea crisis (2014) in Ukraine, readiness increased to engage in dialogue with Ukraine on a variety of matters, including the conflicts of the Second World War.53 Polish-Russian inter-state relations remain the greatest difficulty, whereby unprocessed historical traumas continue to affect the current political situation. The advancement by conservative circles of the double genocide thesis (with Nazi and communist rule in the same ‘totalitarian’ category) is one of salient trends in the context of regional memory. That trend is, in a way, a return to the ideas put forward ← 226 | 227 → during the German Historikerstreit (‘Historians’ Debate’) in the late 1980s. These tendencies are especially visible not only in Poland, but also in the Baltic States, Hungary and Slovakia. There has been some concerted lobbying at the EU level for an expansion of Gulag memory and for the date of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (23 August 1939) to be designated a day of remembrance, but this has failed to create a set of common sites of memory in Eastern Europe.54

All in all, the post-1989 politics of the Second World War in Poland has been diversified, with various actors advancing different agendas. However, ironically, the anti-communist populist and conservative circles have tended to use the communist narrative forms that originated in the 1960s. Their tendency toward ‘heroic victimhood nationalism’, to paraphrase a term proposed by Korean historian Jie-Hyun Lim,55 has only been strengthened today in their reactions to Russia’s memory policies, which in turn recycle the Stalinist expansionist propaganda of the 1950s. The heated debates, the unconscious use of communist clichés and recent developments in the face of the Ukrainian crisis clearly show that Poland has not as yet come to the terms with its violent past. ← 227 | 228 → ← 228 | 229 →

1       Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945, New York 2006, p. 375.

2       James V. Wertsch, Voices of Collective Remembering, Cambridge 2002, p. 93.

3       After Vladimir Propp, Wertsch maintains that ‘schematic narrative template … characterizes a broad range of narratives, as opposed to the particular events and actors that occur in specific ones’ (ibid., p. 60).

4       Ibid., p. 94. See also e.g. Rauf Garagozov, Metamorfozy kollektivnoi pamiati v Rossii i na tsentral’nom Kavkaze, Baku 2005.

5       Wertsch, Voices, p. 81.

6       Serhy Yekelchyk, Stalin’s Empire of Memory: Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Soviet Historical Imagination, London–Toronto 2004. For similar arguments on former Soviet republics, see: Violeta Davoliūtė, The Making and Breaking of Soviet Lithuania: Memory and Modernity in the Wake of War, New York 2013; Aliaksei Lastouski, ‘Historical Memory as a Factor of Strengthening Belarusian National Identity’ in Vjeran Pavlaković, Davor Pauković and Višeslav Raos (eds), Confronting the Past: European Experiences, Zagreb 2012, pp. 401–420; and Sigrid Rausing, History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia, Oxford 2004, pp. 128–152. On other states of the Eastern Bloc, see above all Maria Bucur, Heroes and Victims: Remembering War in Twentieth-century Romania, Bloomington 2010.

7       Karge, pp. 81–108.

8       Mark Edele, ‘Collective Action in Soviet Society: The Case of War Veterans’ in Golfo Alexopoulos, Julie Hessler and Kiril Tomoff (eds), Writing the Stalin Era: Sheila Fitzpatrick and Soviet Historiography, New York 2011, p. 121.

9       Merridale, p. 362.

10     Edele, ‘Collective Action’, p. 123.

11     Dz.U. 1975, nr 34, poz. 186.

12     Edele, ‘Collective Action’, p. 124, 125.

13     Cf. Ulrike Goeken-Haidl, Der Weg zurück. Die Repatriierung sowjetischer Zwangsarbeiter während und nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg, Essen 2006; Pavel Polian, Zhertvy dvukh diktatur: Zhizn trud, unizhenie i smert’ sovetskikh voennoplennykh i ostarbeiterov na chuzhbine i rodine, Moskva 2002.

14     Ramona Saavedra Santis, ‘Zwischen “Sklaverei” und “Verrat”. Überlegungen zum Opferbild von Zwangsarbeiterinnen und Kriegsgefangenen in der Sowjetunion zwischen 1941 und 1991’ in Ulf Brunnbauer, Andreas Helmedach and Stefan Troebst (eds), Schnittstellen: Gesellschaft, Nation, Konflikt und Erinnerung in Südosteuropa, München 2007.

15     See footnote 95 in Chapter 4.

16     Herf, p. 164.

17     Merridale, p. 372.

18     Sam Edwards, Allies in Memory: World War II and the Politics of Transatlantic Commemoration, c. 1941–2001, Cambridge 2015.

19     Lagrou, passim. Due to historical similarities, France was a state with which Poles were particularly fond of comparing their own country. Indeed, the attempts by Charles de Gaulle to unite a divided society by promoting the myth of the Résistance bore key similarities to the Polish national communists’ creation of the myth of unity in the 1960s. De Gaulle himself was warmly welcomed during an official visit to Poland in 1967. See for instance Garret J. Martin, General de Gaulle’s Cold War: Challenging American Hegemony, 1963–68, New York 2013, pp. 155–158.

20     Cf. David Cesarani and Eric J. Sundquist (eds), After the Holocaust: Challenging the Myth of Silence, New York 2012.

21     Herf, p. 387.

22     Jeffrey K. Olick, The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility, New York 2007.

23     In the large literature on generations, memory and European identity, a particularly useful contribution is the recent analysis by Harald Wydra, ‘Dynamics of Generational Memory: Understanding the East-West Divide’, in Eric Langenbacher, Bill Niven, and Ruth Wittlinger (eds), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe, New York–London 2013, pp. 14–38.

24     James Mark and Robert Gildea, Conclusion: Europe’s 1968, in Robert Gildea, James Mark and Annette Warring (eds), Europe’s 1968, Oxford 2013, p. 327.

25     Karge, pp. 69–80.

26     David Cesarani (ed.), After Eichmann: Collective Memory and the Holocaust since 1961, London 2013.

27     See for instance: Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman (eds), Holocaust and the Moving Image: Representations in Film and Television since 1933, London 2005; Wulf Kansteiner, In Pursuit of German Memory: History, Television, and Politics After Auschwitz, Athens, Ohio 2006.

28     Cf. Marek Haltof, Polish Film and the Holocaust, Oxford 2012, pp. 115–138.

29     Norbert Frei, Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration, New York 2002; Herf, pp. 201–396.

30     Harald Welzer, Sabine Moller and Karoline Tschuggnall, ‘Opa war kein Nazi’: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis, Frankfurt am Main 2002.

31     James M. Diehl, The Thanks of the Fatherland: German Veterans After the Second World War, Chapel Hill 1993; Frank Biess, Homecomings: Returning POWs and the Legacies of Defeat in Postwar Germany, Princeton 2006. On Waffen-SS post-war organization see: Karsten Wilke, Die ‘Hilfsgemeinschaft auf Gegenseitigkeit’ (HIAG) 1950–1990. Veteranen der Waffen-SS in der Bundesrepublik, Paderborn 2011.

32     Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, New York 1992; Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, New York 1996; Harald Welzer, Täter. Wie aus ganz normalen Menschen Massenmörder werden, Frankfurt am Main 2005; Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, New York 2012.

33     Steven R. Welch, ‘Commemorating “Heroes of a Special Kind”: Deserter Monuments in Germany’, Journal of Contemporary History 47, 2 (2012), pp. 370–401.

34     Jörg Arnold, The Allied Air War and Urban Memory: The Legacy of Strategic Bombing in Germany, Cambridge 2011.

35     Christoph Cornelien, ‘Was heißt Erinnerungskultur? Begriff–Methoden–Perspektiven’, Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 54 (2003), pp. 548–563.

36     Above all: Claus Leggewie, Anne Lang, Der Kampf um die europäische Erinnerung. Ein Schlachtfeld wird besichtigt, München 2011.

37     Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age, Philadelphia 2006; see also eadem, Human Rights and Memory, University Park, PA 2010.

38     Aleida Assmann, ‘Europe’s Divided Memory’ in Uilleam Blacker, Alexander Etkind and Julie Fedor (eds), Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe, Basingstoke 2013, pp. 25–42.

39     ZBoWiD’s principal successor was the Union of Veterans of the Republic of Poland and Former Political Prisoners (Związek Kombatantów Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej i Byłych Więźniów Politycznych). The World Union of Home Army Soldiers (Światowy Związek Żołnierzy Armii Krajowej), founded in 1990 by various post-AK organizations both in Poland and abroad, began to play a particularly important role in the public sphere. Lists of active Polish associations of veterans and victims are available at the website of the Office for Veterans’ and Repressed Persons’ Affairs: (accessed August 2015).

40     For instance by the revived Union of Deportees to Siberia (Związek Sybiraków), which brought together Poles deported to the Soviet Far East (it had existed in the inter-war period as a union of people persecuted by Tsarist Russia).

41     For instance, the Association of Children of the Holocaust in Poland (Stowarzyszenie Dzieci Holocaustu w Polsce) and the Association of Children of the War in Poland (Stowarzyszenie Dzieci Wojny w Polsce).

42     For an extensive overview of post-1989 memory processes in Poland, see Ewa Ochman, Post-Communist Poland – Contested Pasts and Future Identities, London 2013.

43     Tony Judt, ‘The Past Is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe’, Daedalus 121, 4 (1992), pp. 83–118.

44     Piotr T. Kwiatkowski, Lech Nijakowski, Barbara Szacka, and Andrzej Szpociński, Między codziennością a wielką historią. Druga wojna światowa w pamięci zbiorowej społeczeństwa polskiego, Gdańsk–Warszawa 2010, p. 147.

45     The literature on collective memory processes in Eastern Europe is steadily growing. For a summary article see Joanna Wawrzyniak and Małgorzata Pakier, ‘Memory Studies in Eastern Europe: Key Issues and Future Perspectives’, Polish Sociological Review 183, 3 (2013), pp. 257–279.

46     Stefan Troebst, ‘Halecki Revisited: Europe’s Conflicting Cultures of Remembrance’, in Małgorzata Pakier and Bo Stråth (eds), A European Memory? Contested Histories and Politics of Remembrance, New York 2010.

47     Dariusz Stola, ‘Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance: Ministry of Memory’ in Alexei Miller and Maria Lipman (eds), Convolutions of Historical Politics, Budapest 2012, pp. 45–58.

48     Dz.U. 1998 nr 155 poz. 1016.

49     Cf. Monika Żychlińska and Erica Fontana, ‘Museal Games and Emotional Truths: Creating Polish National Identity at the Warsaw Rising Museum’, East European Societies and Politics, first published on May 11, 2015 as doi:10.1177/0888325414566198. More on recent historical museums development in Eastern European courtyard: Zuzanna Bogumił, Joanna Wawrzyniak et al., Enemy on Display: The Second World War in Eastern European Museums, New York 2015, pp. 133–150.

50     Cf. Joanna Michlic and Małgorzata Melchior, ‘The Memory of the Holocaust in Post-1989: Renewal—Its Accomplishments and Its Powerlessness’ in John-Paul Himka and Joanna Michlic (eds), Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Europe, Lincoln 2013, pp. 403–450; Piotr Forecki, Reconstructing Memory: The Holocaust in Polish Public Debates, Frankfurt am Main 2013.

51     Still, IPN has also published valuable studies that shed light on the anti-Jewish violence in Poland. For instance Paweł Machcewicz and Krzysztof Persak (eds), Wokół Jedwabnego, vols 1–2, Warszawa 2002.

52     Kristin Kopp and Joanna Niżyńska, Germany, Poland and Postmemorial Relations: In Search of a Livable Past, New York 2012.

53     Łukasz Sommer and Joanna Wawrzyniak, ‘The Ukrainian Crisis in the Polish Media’, in The Ukrainian Crisis in the European Media and the Public Sphere “Cultures of History” Forum, Version: 1.0, 02.06.2014, URL:

54     Lidia Zessin-Jurek, ‘The Rise of and East European Community of Memory? On Lobbying for the Gulag Memory via Brussels’, in Małgorzata Pakier and Joanna Wawrzyniak (eds), Memory and Change in Europe: Eastern Perspectives, forthcoming [New York 2015], pp. 131–149.

55     Jie-Hyun Lim, ‘Victimhood Nationalism in Contested Memories: National Mourning and Global Accountability’, in Aleida Assmann and Sebastian Conrad (eds), Memory in a Global Age: Discourses, Practices and Trajectories, Basingstoke 2010, pp. 138–162.