During a news conference in December, the Russian President said it was “totally unacceptable and inaccurate” to apportion equal blame on Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin for the start of World War 2. He argued that the West and Poland should shoulder some of the responsibility, having appeased Hitler’s aggression by allowing Nazi Germany to grab Czechoslovakia in 1939. Putin’s remarks provoked a furious reaction from Poland, which sees this as an egregious attempt by Russia to rewrite history to absolve itself of any guilt for initiating World War 2.
It also produced a terse tweet from the US ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher.
Ms Mosbacher wrote: “Dear President Putin, Hitler and Stalin colluded to start WWII.”
Earlier in January, Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, accused Russia’s leader of “lying repeatedly” about Poland and using words that “resembled propaganda from the times of Stalinist totalitarianism”.
The European Commission has now waded into the debate, issuing an unambiguous statement criticising Putin’s historical interpretations.
EU news: Vladimir Putin
EU news: Mateusz Morawiecki
European Commissioner, Vera Jourova, said in an address to the European Parliament: “The European Commission fully rejects any false claims and attempts to distort the history of the Second World War, or paint the victims, like Poland, as perpetrators.
“The commission will not tolerate these attacks on Poland and stands in full solidarity with Poland and the Polish people.”
She went on to add: “The distortion of historical fact is a threat to our democratic societies and must be challenged whenever possible.”
The Commissioner’s statement came ahead of a debate on the distortion of European History.
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Her words of support will be welcomed in Poland at a time when many in the country feel that Russia is trying to whitewash Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and the crimes he committed against the Polish nation.
These include the brutal massacre of around 20,000 Polish prisoners of war at Katyn in 1940, whose deaths were ordered by Stalin.
The Soviet Union denied it had any role in the gruesome event, and tried to blame Hitler.
It was only in 1990 that Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s leader, finally admitted the culpability of Stalin in the massacre.
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EU news: Josef Stalin
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The invasion of Poland was the result of a secret pact between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The deal became known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, named after the two foreign ministers who signed the agreement.
The pact envisaged Eastern Europe being carved up into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence.
Putin claims that Stalin had attempted to create an anti-Hitler alliance with Britain, France and Poland.
But, he had to abandon his plan after the Munich Agreement of 1938, when the UK and its allies ceded control of Czechoslovakia to Hitler.
According to Putin, Stalin had no choice but to then pursue a deal with Nazi Germany after being betrayed by his Western partners.
Western historians, however, have pointed out that the pact allowed Hitler to invade Poland without any fear of being attacked by the Soviet Union.
EU news: Katyn Memorial
In addition, Stalin supplied the Nazi war machine with raw materials that literally fuelled Hitler’s campaign against the West.
World War II remains a key historical reference point for ordinary Russians, who mark Victory day on the May 9 with huge celebrations every year.
More than 20 million Soviet citizens are estimated to have died during the long and bitterly fought war, with the Siege of Leningrad and the Battle of Stalingrad providing particularly poignant memories.