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Poland to dump Soviet-era war memorials

June 29, 2016

Poland has incurred Moscow's wrath after deciding on a location to dump its Soviet-era war memorials. Moscow protested strongly when one such monument was removed in 2015, with plenty more of the same set to follow now.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kaminski

The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) - a state body set up a decade a half ago to investigate crimes made by totalitarian regimes, both Nazi and Communist, against Poland - decided earlier this week to remove over 200 monuments to the Red Army from towns nationwide to the site of a former Soviet military base.

After months of deliberations since the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power late last year, the IPN on Tuesday proposed housing the so-called "monuments of gratitude to the Red Army" in a park in the former base at Borne Sulinowo, 275 miles (440 km) northwest of Warsaw.

The IPN has catalogued 229 such monuments and will now assist local authorities in delivering them to the park, although the final decisions will be made by local authorities, at least one of which has so far declined to take up the offer.

The IPN was set up during a period in which the dominant post-war national narrative of Poles as 'victims' and 'brave fighters' came under stress after academic publications in the US showed that Poles had also been complicit in the murder of Jews, among others, on Polish territory during the war.

Kaczynski has said this narrative needs fundamental revision, and the Soviet war memorials decision plays a part in this process of presenting the past.

Moscow irate

Poland is obliged to protect all war memorials under a 1994 bilateral agreement with Russia, a spokeswoman for the Russian embassy in Warsaw, Ekaterina Glazova, said.

In 2015, Moscow threatened what it called the “most serious of consequences” when Poland said it would remove the statue of World War II-era General Ivan Chernyakhovsky, whom Poles see as a key player in the liquidation of the Polish anti-Nazi military elite. Russians, meanwhile, view him as a national hero.

A simple confusion?

Warsaw contends that the decison does not apply to all memorials.

"The plan will include only monuments expressing the gratitude towards the Red Army, and it will not affect Soviet cemeteries," said Andrzej Zawistowski, director of the IPN education department. The IPN said that for this reason it had not consulted Russia.

"The educational park will show these monuments within the right historical context," Zawistowski said. "Educational parks and institutions of this type exist equally in other states such as Lithuania, Hungary or even Russia."

Words matter

The PiS government has been very critical in its stance and rhetoric towards Russia and has openly sought what it calls a rewriting of history to highlight Poles' and Poland's bravery during the 20th century, during which the country was occupied and invaded on several occasions up to 1989.

The party has been very critical also of Putin's foreign policy in eastern Europe. Its attempts to rewrite a cleaner historical narrative have been dovetailed with tough talk against Russia.

In this spirit, PiS has also reopened an investigation into the death of President Lech Kaczynski - twin brother of PiS leader - in a plane crash in Russia in 2010.

NATO holds a summit in Warsaw in early July and Poland is expected to push for more troops and other NATO support along its eastern flank bordering Russia.

About 20 million Soviet soldiers lost their lives in the war.

If Russia threatened Poland, would NATO protect it?

jbh/kl (AP, Reuters)