WARSAW — They were supposed to be milestones to celebrate: the 70th anniversary of end of World War II in Europe, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the famous meeting of U.S. and Russian soldiers at Germany’s Elbe River. But with relations between Russia and the West at a post-Cold War low, the commemorations this year have instead triggered a growing war of words between Russia and its neighbor, Poland.
The latest row exploded later this month, when Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said he was considering inviting European leaders to Gdansk on May 8 to mark the end of the war. Russia has been planning a massive Victory Day event a day later, and the Kremlin has already invited foreign leaders to come to Moscow. The ceremony in Gdansk would give European heads of state the perfect excuse to skip the celebrations being planned by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Komorowski also angered Russians by remarking that the defeat of Nazi Germany “did not bring freedom to all the peoples of Europe,” a none-too-subtle reference to the Soviet Union’s Cold War domination of Poland and much of Eastern Europe following the German defeat.
The Polish president’s comments — and a slew of significant anniversary dates from 1945 — come as Russia faces increasing isolation over its apparent military support for pro-Moscow rebels battling the Western-backed government in Ukraine. The Kremlin denies any involvement in the almost-year-long conflict, which has so far claimed more than 5,000 lives.
Mr. Komorowski’s proposal was greeted with enthusiasm by Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna, who suggested last week that it was “unnatural” to mark the end of the war in the country “where it began.” His comments were an apparent reference to the secret Hitler-Stalin pact to divide Poland among themselves in 1939. This pact was followed by a German assault on Gdansk and the deployment of Soviet troops to eastern Poland. The Soviet Union only joined the war against the Nazis in 1941 after Hitler ordered his forces to attack the country.
Mr. Schetyna himself had already sparked a controversy with Moscow when he said last month that it was “mostly Ukrainian soldiers” who liberated inmates of the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945. In fact, the liberating Red Army soldiers were made up of many different Soviet nationalities, including Russians.
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Nearly 50 countries sent top-level delegations to the Auschwitz ceremony, including top officials and heads of state from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Lithuania, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland and Ukraine. Mr. Putin stayed away, marking the day with a visit to a Holocaust commemoration at Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Center for Tolerance.
Mr. Putin did attend the gathering of world leaders last year in France marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, chatting briefly with President Obama even as the Ukrainian crisis was worsening. The event went off without incident, although the White House later stressed the Putin-Obama talk was “an informal conversation — not a formal bilateral meeting.”
The Polish foreign minister’s Auschwitz remarks were met with particular fury in Russia, where Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov said they were part of an attempt to “rewrite history.” Grigory Karasin, a Russian deputy foreign minister, accused Mr. Schetyna of an “odious” attempt to “revise the outcome of World War II and the role of the Soviet Union as the victor.”
Mr. Putin also struck out last week when he accused Russia’s “opponents” of resorting to “absurd and even shameful declarations” in an attempt to “contain Russia and, in the end, alter history.”
“We must, of course, counter this flow of impudent lies, falsifications and distortions of historical facts,” he added.
There are few topics as emotive as World War II in Russia. More than 20 million Soviet citizens and soldiers are believed to have died during the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany. Mr. Putin has attempted to use the memory of the war to consolidate society and boost support for his rule. Last year the Russian government made it a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in jail, to “distort” the role of the Soviet Union in the conflict.
“For Russians, Victory Day is the main state public holiday of the year,” said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “That’s why both the government and the people are very sensitive about it.”
Mr. Malashenko also warned, however, of what he called the “dangers” of the Russian government’s policy of making Victory Day a major holiday. “This is a holiday that encourages militarism,” he said.
He also said the Kremlin’s invitation for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to attend the Victory Day parade in Moscow is “a disgrace” that would “discredit” the holiday. “What has North Korea got to do with World War II?” he said.
It is this “militarism” that has fueled rising anti-Russian sentiment in Poland, said Slawomir Debski, head of the Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.
“The main reason for the Poles’ anxiety and opinions associated with Russia are not historical matters but [rather] the current politics of Russia and its aggression against Ukraine,” he said. Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule is seen as “confirmation of their well-established belief that Russia is an undemocratic and aggressive country that is a threat to the safety of both Poland and Europe.”
In interviews, ordinary Poles echoed that view.
“We don’t have to dance the way Russia wants us to dance,” said Wladyslaw Wierzbowicz, a resident of Warsaw. “The biggest problem is that Putin is unpredictable. Today he is attacking Ukraine. Will it be Poland tomorrow?”
In Russia, however, the supposed campaign to shut their country out from the international celebrations marking victory in World War II was very different.
“We liberated Poland from the fascists,” said Tatiana Davidova, a pensioner. “But now Europe is trying to make out that we are the fascists.”
Other Russians were more conciliatory. “Of course the Soviet Union did a lot of bad things in Eastern Europe after the war,” said Svetlana Mukhina, a lawyer. “But people don’t want to hear this. It’s been hammered into their heads from childhood that we liberated Eastern Europe. It’s very hard for us to accept otherwise.”
• Marc Bennetts reported from Moscow.