On the morning of Thursday, May 7, Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz participated in a panel discussion at a conference on “History’s War: The Political Uses of WWII.” The event was organized by the “realist” Center on Global Interests and co-sponsored by JHU – SAIS and Georgetown University.
The panelists were tasked with answering two broad questions about the Second World War: “As Europe celebrates the 70th anniversary of Allied victory, the Ukrainian crisis and the broader reemergence of nationalism have increasingly politicized the war’s narrative. What role has the war historically played in Russia and Eastern Europe, and how is it currently defining modern politics?”
The video of the entire conference can be found below. To read Dr. Chodakiewicz’s remarks, which focused on collective and individual memory, continue below.
There is no collective memory in the post-Soviet zone, and that includes Poland. There are individual recollections. Individual recollections can coalesce into collective memory only when there is freedom. Under communism, the state employed terror to force upon society a rigid straitjacket in the form of the official narrative. According to this narrative, Stalin liberated and saved Central and Eastern Europe from “Hitlerism.” Those who were not pro-communist and did not agree with the official version were automatically branded as “fascists.” The Reductio at Hitlerum was the rule in this game.
Thus, in most places, a collective memory began to commence to form only after 1989. This process occurred on several levels, including: family, local, national, and regional memories.
The Poles had the easiest job because – from the beginning to the end – they knew that they had two enemies: Hitler and Stalin. After the war, however, the communists did not allow them to remember the war this way. For example, in 1943, the seventeen-year-old Marian Bobolewski (Nom de guerre “Góral” [Mountain Man]) escaped from a German forced labor camp. He joined the National Armed Forces underground resistance outfit. The teenager then fought against the Germans and the communists in the Lublin region. He was arrested by the NKVD in October 1944. His Soviet interrogator crushed his eye with a swift, well-aimed kick in the head. This is how “Góral” recounted it to me: “After the liberation, the Soviets captured me and gouged my eye out.” I replied: “Sir, how can you speak of ‘liberation’? Liberation means the bringing of freedom, and the Red Army brought enslavement. Through the sheer force of inertia, the Red Army pushed the Germans out of Poland by attacking westward. They did not come here to liberate the Poles or the Jews or anybody else, but to enslave all and subordinate them to totalitarian communist domination. Only captive minds can call that a liberation!” Mr. Bobolewski could only weep in response.
The great tragedy is that the victorious communists imposed Stalinist phrases, concepts, symbols, and images on everyone else. A collective memory can emerge only when a society frees itself from such a paradigm. In Poland, this process is the most advanced. It is far less advanced in the Third Reich’s former satellite countries or nations that treated collaboration with the Germans as a lesser evil. In all those places, collective memory is going through a series of birth pangs because individual recollections dictate either that: a) it was righteous to fight in the ranks of the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Belarusyn, Ukrainian, Croatian, Hungarian, or another SS national formation, or b) that it was more prudent to bandwagon along with Hitler – like Budapest, Bucharest, or Sofia did – than to suffer Poland’s bloody fate.
It will take some time for collective memory to emerge. Patience is the word.