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VE Day memorial

Roman ImielskiJanuary 29, 2015

Poland's president is preparing a ceremony commemorating the end of World War II in Europe. But it will also give EU leaders a reason not to travel to Moscow for a second memorial, writes Roman Imielski.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Gedenkfeier am 27.01.2015
Image: Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

Roman Imielski is managing editor of the Polish newspaper "Gazeta Wyborcza."

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski (pictured above) plans to organize a special memorial to the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II fighting in Europe for the EU leaders - on May 8 in Gdansk. European leaders, he believes, will have an excuse not to appear a day later in Moscow for a big parade there organized by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Although I do not like bidding on similar events, I must commend the initiative of the head of the Polish state. Russia celebrates the completion of European fighting in the Second World War - which it calls the Great Patriotic War - with great fanfare every year. But the celebration of May 9 this year is going to be special because it is the 70th anniversary of Hitler's defeat by the Allies. The document making Germany's surrender official was signed on May 8 in Europe but due to (carefully planned) time zone differences, it was already one minute past midnight on May 9 in Russia.

If it weren't for the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the most important European leaders - and leaders of other nations as well - would probably stand next to President Putin in Moscow. The Kremlin wants to emphasize the importance of the event, because the memory of the Second World War and the huge human losses Russia suffered is still very much alive.

Roman Imielski Gazeta Wyborcza
Roman ImielskiImage: Agencja Gazeta

But Moscow has become a troublesome place for EU leaders. Russia's support of separatists in Donbas led the EU to impose severe sanctions on Russia. Indeed, the bloc intends to impose further ones because it says that an even wider array of Russian military aid has again been flowing to Donetsk and Luhansk.

President Komorowski decided to take advantage of this fact and organize European celebrations in Gdansk a day before the event in Moscow. Gdansk is the city where World War II began with the shelling Polish military outpost on Westerplatte by the Germans on September 1st, 1939.

Advisors to President Komorowski officially assure that it is not supposed to scuttle the Russian celebrations. Unofficially, they admit that the opposite is true. And they emphasize that a Polish initiative will give European leaders an excuse not to go to Moscow.

President Komorowski has already spoken on this issue with French President Francois Hollande, German President Joachim Gauck, and other EU leaders, who arrived on January 27 celebration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Apparently, the talks were fruitful and organizing the celebrations of the end of World War II in Poland will gain a momentum.

On the occasion of the anniversary in Auschwitz, Poland also applied a diplomatic ploy. Polish authorities had not sent official invitations to the heads of state or specific politicians, instead they left that responsibility to the authorities of the Auschwitz Museum. They, in turn, immediately indicated that the ceremony would not be political in nature and its main characters - and the main speakers - would be survivors of the concentration camp. In addition, the invitations sent to the individual states were general, without any indication of the person invited, while also asking for the status of any delegation.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Gedenkfeier am 27.01.2015
Survivors, not politicians, were invited to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorialImage: Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

Moscow reacted very disapprovingly. Officials there thought a personal invitation should be sent to Vladimir Putin as the president of Russia, the heir of the USSR. Auschwitz was, after all, liberated in 1945 by the Red Army. Poland explained that no one got a personal invitation and that an exception would not be made for Putin. In the end, the Russian delegation was led by the head of the Kremlin administration Sergei Ivanov.

During the celebration of the liberation of Auschwitz, Vladimir Putin went to the Holocaust and Tolerance Museum in Moscow, where he made a clear allusion to the actions of the Polish authorities by stating that "some countries are trying to write history again."

President Putin forgets, however, that the Soviet Union and Russia have repeatedly "rewritten history." We Poles have seen many painful results of the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany, for example. Recently Putin has justified this pact as "the way of conducting international policy in that time." He justified the pact, which contained a secret protocol dividing Poland between German and Soviet spheres of influence - and this happened in September 1939.

Today, Moscow is lying again. It claims that it does not support the separatists in eastern Ukraine and that there is not a single Russian soldier there. Russia told the same lie about the "green men" in the Crimea who broke international law by seizing the peninsula.

The Kremlin will also react negatively for the celebrations of May 8, I'm sure about it. Therefore, I can not imagine any national leader from the EU could appear on May 9 in Moscow's Red Square.

I imagine that they will come to Gdansk the day before. It would be further proof of our solidarity while the Russian aggression on Ukraine raises, in many of us Europeans, a fear of revisiting the worst experiences from our common history.