That is the name of the German sailor who fired the first shot to start the Second War World in Europe seventy years ago. Menzel was serving on the naval training ship Schleswig-Holstein, an old, pre-World War One battleship visiting Poland, when it opened fire without warning on a Polish munitions depot in the Vistula River on September 1, 1939.
To mark this world tragedy, last Tuesday twenty leaders from different nations gathered at Westerplatte in the Polish port city of Gdansk to commemorate those who died and to seek forgiveness.
“Let there never again be war,” said a 94-year-old Polish veteran of the Westerplatte garrison, one of three still alive, to the audience at the dawn ceremony. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also fully acknowledged German responsibility for the war’s outbreak and the Holocaust, saying she “bowed before the victims.”
With all eyes reportedly on him, when his turn came to speak, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin however disappointed his listeners by continuing to whitewash the crimes of the Soviet era. Putin was expected by Poland and other former Soviet bloc countries to make a statement of atonement for the Soviet Union’s carving up Eastern Europe with Adolph Hitler under the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
The Pact, signed on August 23 and named after the two countries’ foreign ministers, gave Hitler the green light to attack Poland a week later, starting World War Two. Carrying out their side of the agreement, the Soviets followed up the Nazi assault with their own invasion of eastern Poland on September 17, 1939.
In his address to the guests, Polish President Lech Kaczynski angrily referred to this attack, when Poland was fighting desperately for its survival against the Nazis, as “a stab in the back.” The Soviets then went on to attack Finland and occupy the Baltic countries and parts of Rumania under the Pact’s secret protocols.
But while Putin admitted in his brief speech that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was “immoral”, he disappointed his listeners by not admitting any Soviet responsibility for the conflict. He also did not once mention Stalin’s name or any Soviet atrocities committed in the Eastern European countries that came under Soviet occupation. The most famous of these crimes was the execution of 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest.
But the Katyn victims were just the tip of the iceberg. While the Nazis were deporting and exterminating people on the basis of race hatred in western Poland, the Soviets were doing likewise in eastern Poland and other Soviet-occupied countries but using class enmity as their criteria. In their side-by-side crimes against humanity in Poland, these two totalitarian regimes proved they were identical in mindset and cruelty.
Instead of expressing any responsibility or guilt at the Westerplatte ceremony, Putin instead sought to deflect blame. While admitting the Soviet Union’s role in the war’s origin, he also indicted France and Great Britain with an indirect reference to the Munich Agreement.
“All attempts to appease to the Nazis between 1934 and 1939 through various agreements and pacts were morally unacceptable and politically senseless, harmful and dangerous”, he said.
In a letter Putin wrote before his Gdansk trip that was published in a Polish newspaper, he even rationalised the Pact. He stated it prevented the Soviet Union from having to face a war on two fronts – against Germany and Japan. He also blamed the Western countries non-cooperation with the Soviet Union at the time and their Munich Agreement with Germany for the Soviet-Nazi alliance.
As for invading Poland, Putin reminds the Poles in his missive they helped Hitler dismember Czechoslovakia. He also offsets the Katyn Forest Massacre with an alleged killing of Red Army prisoners by Polish forces in the 1920 Polish-Soviet war. But nowhere does Putin explain or apologize for the loss of Polish, and other Eastern European countries’, independence after 1945 when the Nazi danger had passed and for continued Soviet atrocities.
In reality, Putin’s letter was meant for foreign consumption. A week before his Polish trip, on the date of the Pact’s signing, a state-owned television station in Russia aired a documentary that claimed Poland was going to invade the Soviet Union with Japan and Germany. With such displaced responsibility, it’s a wonder Putin even called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact immoral.
The documentary was preceded by other whitewashing measures concerning the war. Last May, the Russian government established a commission “for counteracting attempts to rewrite Russian history.” Its first “success” is a Grade 11 history textbook that “tries to justify Stalin’s crimes of World War Two”, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The book publisher’s name, by the way, is “Enlightenment.”
Foreigners are also not excluded in this battle to preserve the reputation of Russia’s “glorious” Soviet past. Last May, a bill was submitted in the Duma by Putin’s United Russia Party that would send people to prison for up to three years for “accusing the Red Army of atrocities or illegal occupation during World War Two.”
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev also chose not to attend a 75-year memorial to the “Holodomor”, the Stalin–induced famine that caused millions of Ukrainian deaths. He sent a letter condemning the event, while a Duma deputy claimed the Great Depression in America and the Georgian mafia were responsible for the tragedy.
Observers believe there are reasons other than just hurt pride playing a roll in Russia’s denial of the Soviet war record’s worst aspects. One is that by laying the blame on the Nazis and others, it can play down its own war crimes and prevent the rewriting of history in its own country and intimidate the rewriting of history in the former Soviet republics. Another is that the ongoing argument replaces any meaningful political debate in the country that sorely needs it. Minimizing Soviet wrongdoings also allows Putin to rehabilitate the Soviet era, which he pines for. And, last but not least, it seemingly helps restore so-called "Russian pride," which has been called central to Putin's legitimacy.