06. Feb 2013
Seventy years after the outbreak of the World War II, Józef Beck, the Polish Foreign Minister between 1932-1939, briefly became the focus of public attention due to sensational reports by sections of the Russian media and research driven by the Russian Federation Intelligence (SWR) agency. It is worth having a closer look at the contexts and reasons behind depicting this pre-war Polish minister in a negative light. It is also necessary to ask what place he occupies in Polish collective memory and why accusations against him have provoked such passionate reactions. This reflection will shed some light on Polish and Russian political history and the cultural aspects of Polish politics of memory.
At the beginning of 2009, despite relaxation following the Civic Platform's (PO) success in the Parliamentary election and efforts by Donald Tusk's government to restart a dialogue with Russia, the relationship between Warsaw and Moscow remained frosty. The pronouncement that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will participate in the ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II in Gdańsk was treated as an opportunity to improve and warm up mutual relations. There was also hope that the presence of the Russian Prime Minister in the commemorations could help to defuse at least some of the historical disputes which were casting a shadow on Polish-Russian relations. However, before the meeting of politicians at Westerplatte, in the second half of August 2009 took place, Polish public opinion was alarmed by emerging reports concerning some views being expressed in Russia about the origins and causes of the World War II. Documentaries shown by Russian state television and opinions expressed by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SWR) officials suggested that the Polish government had "actively cooperated with Nazi Germany" and had developed plans for joint action against the USSR. Alexander Dyukow, an historian, chairman of the Historical Memory Foundation and a member of the United Russia Party, stated that the Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact from 1934 contained a secret protocol against the USSR. This claim was supported by a publication "Secrets of Polish politics. Collection of documents 1935-1945", edited by a retired intelligence officer, General Lew Sockow, and published on 1 September 2009. At the same time the SWR website featured an information about a film "Three Conferences" (dir. J. Potijewski), describing Józef Beck as "a colonel, Polish Foreign Minister on the eve of World War II and an agent of German intelligence".
The Polish media, irrespective of their political-ideological alignment, reacted hostilely to these "Russian revelations" and accused Russia of falsifying history and using a Stalinist interpretation of the past. The Polish-Russian "war of memories" was also the subject of comments in the foreign media, with Norman Davis writing in "The Independent" about the "massive propaganda offensive in Moscow". Russian aspersions were quickly confronted with expert knowledge - several Polish 20th century historians commented on these revelations and declared that the secret Polish-German pact never existed and Beck has never worked for foreign intelligence.
In these circumstances, seventy years after the outbreak of World War II the figure of Józef Beck, Polish Foreign Minister between 1932 and 1939, found itself once again at the centre of public attention. It is worthwhile to take a closer look at the context and reasons behind these attempts to present the pre-war Polish minister in a negative light. It is also necessary to ask what place he occupies in Polish collective memory and why accusations against him generated such passionate reactions. This reflection will shed some light on Polish and Russian political history and the cultural aspects of Polish politics of memory.
Józef Beck is not a key figure in Polish collective memory and his politics are discussed only by a narrow group of historians. In public discourse he appears mostly in the context of events during 1939 and his parliamentary speech made on 5 May 1939 which included the famous words: "We in Poland don't know the concept of peace at any price. There is only one priceless thing in the life of men, nations and countries - that thing is honour". This speech marks a significant moment around which the memory of events of 1939 is organized and the idea of unity of Polish society in face of German threat is constructed. The significance of this declaration in Polish historical consciousness is demonstrated by its inclusion in an official commemorative programme. In May 2009 Beck's speech was not only published in full in the biggest Polish daily, but also was re-enacted in the Polish parliament with the Speaker of the Sejm, Bronisław Komorowski, acting as the honorary patron of the event. The determined position of the Polish minister in 1939 seems to fit perfectly into the established notion of Polishness. The May declaration as an announcement of heroic resistance in defensive war of 1939 corresponds well with the heroic myth, and the presentation of the Polish cause as morally righteous and unbreakably tied to the notion of freedom and fairness which underpinned the romantic figure of the "Polish mission" to shake the world's conscience. Above all, Beck belongs to a symbolic sphere of the Second Republic of Poland, a strongly mythologized and idealized period in Polish collective memory.
Polish right wing circles in particular perceive pre-war foreign policy making as a model for independent and uncompromising politics, and in that context Beck is often mentioned. For example, after a speech in Berlin on the future of Europe delivered by the current Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski in December 2011, MPs from the Law and Justice (PiS) opposition party criticized the Minister's declaration about the need for further European integration and pointed to Józef Beck as an exemplary politician who was able to defend state sovereignty. This idealized and politically constructed image of the last Minister is clearly at odds with his controversial decisions and diplomatic moves in the spirit of Realpolitik. It is also an obstacle in conducting a proper critique of Polish diplomacy during the 1930s. Nevertheless, in September 2009 - coinciding with the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II and the controversial news from Russia - the Polish press published a series of articles presenting a more critical view of foreign politics between 1934-1938 pointing to sources of negative judgment about Józef Beck.
The attack from parts of Russian media and some circles related to Kremlin on Józef Beck was connected to a wider campaign around the interpretation of Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. This campaign was aimed at preventing any leveling of the roles of Third Reich and USSR in the context of World War II and defending the myth of the Soviet Union's heroic fight for the liberation of Europe. In the spring 2009 President Dmitry Medvedev formed the "Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia's Interests", and on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II he appeared on Russian television to condemn attempts to present the Stalinist USSR as just as responsible for the outbreak of the war as Nazi Germany. To illustrate these attempts he pointed to a resolution by the Parliamentary Meeting of the OSCE in June 2009. The fact that the West increasingly agrees with a negative assessment of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was not in line with the official Russian view that the Pact was an act of necessity in the face of Hitler's aggressive policies and gave USSR time needed to prepare for a war in the same way as the 1938 Munich Agreement helped the West. Hence, presenting Józef Beck as an ally of Nazi Germany and stressing the hostile intentions of the Second Polish Republic supported the claim about the defensive character of the Pact between the Third Reich and the USSR. References to the 1934 Polish Pact with Germany were presented as evidence that even Poland negotiated with Germany prior to the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. Furthermore, the information about the alleged secret appendix to the Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact put the secret protocol to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact into a different perspective and pointed to a particular diplomatic practice of the 1930s. In Russia, the presentation of the Pact between Hitler and Stalin by nationalist circles as a success of Russian diplomacy and a clever strategic maneuver was met with criticism from liberal publicists and historians, for whom the 23 August 1939 Pact was a conspiracy between two dictators-criminals and an offence against the rules of international law. They argued that avoiding responsibility and relativising inconvenient historical facts was not in the interest of Russia's state and society and would not be accepted by international opinion. These critical voices were noticed in Poland by Adam Daniel Rodfeld, the co-chairman of the Polish-Russian Committee on Difficult Matters.
In conclusion it is worth adding that in June 2011 the allegation about Beck as a German agent surfaced again. This time the Russian Historical Memory Foundation website published an excerpt from a document which quoted a 1945 interrogation of a German officer about a bribe given to the Polish minister by Herman Goering in 1938. This transcript, written by A. Diukov, was translated into English by an American historian, Grover Furr, and placed on several American websites. This time the news item did not have any repercussions in Poland but the case of Józef Beck frequently returns and is eagerly used by Russians who seek to promote a heroic vision of USSR history.
Translated by Michał P. Garapich