Putin’s Auschwitz Disinformation

Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed his righteous anger at the Poles for having failed to celebrate their “liberation” by the Soviet forces at the end of the Second World War. Symbolically, he anchored his narrative on Auschwitz. This is not only the most recognizable of all German Nazi death installations, but happens to be the pivot of worldwide Holocaust commemorations at Yad Vashem in Israel. Yet, Putin’s claims about the “liberation” are plainly wrong. 

A Soviet wartime camera operator captured a heart-wrenching scene at Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945. A group of children pushes rather boisterously between two rows of barbed wires toward freedom. Most of the little ones, if not all, are Jewish. They were victims of SS Dr. Josef Mengele’s infamous experiments, which included horror-tests on twins.  Among their chaperones, walking them out to freedom, we see a few Red Army men. However, most adults accompanying the twins are women: some wear the unmistakable garb of Catholic nuns 

In this video, you can see them at the 45 second point; and in a lengthier version at 48:33;  another one starts with the children and a glimpse of the nuns, and then shows the nuns again at 9:32).

Aside perhaps for serving to boost the false image of a religiously tolerant “Uncle Joe” Stalin, the presence of the nuns in a Soviet propaganda film should be baffling. On a second thought, however, it is a clear, if inadvertent, proof that the Red Army was completely unprepared for what awaited its soldiers at Auschwitz. The secret police, the dreaded NKVD, knew the gory secret of the extermination camp, but it failed to brief the regular troops what they were about to encounter. The SS guards left earlier. By Jan. 21, the Germans had herded all prisoners who could drag themselves along and chased them westward. The remnant of the inmates consisted of human wrecks on the threshold of death. They could not be forced to walk, and, as their deaths were judged imminent, the SS did not bother to murder them.  

To liberate means to bring liberty. Stalin had no such intentions. Indeed, the Soviet dictator brought death, destruction, and, then, slavery to any place unfortunate enough to have fallen to the Red Army.  One can shrug and conclude that the Germans and their satellites and collaborators had it coming: Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Albania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and others in central and eastern Europe. However, the United States did not enslave France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, and Denmark, nations that to varying extents rallied to the banner of the Third Reich. Arguably, more western and northern Europeans perished fighting in the ranks of the Waffen-SS for Germany than in the underground against it.

What about Poland? Poland was the first to fight. It resisted at home and abroad, on land, sea, and in the air. It sustained the highest ratio of casualties of the Allied countries: about 6 million citizens perished, including 3 million Polish Jews, and 11 million were deported, displaced, or otherwise lost their domiciles. Poland could have collaborated with the totalitarians but it refused to. It had a non-aggression treaty with the USSR in 1932, and a similar one with Germany of 1934. Both wooed the Poles, but Warsaw firmly turned Berlin and Moscow down, no matter how hard either Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany tried to secure the Polish participation on either side. Paradoxically, Poland’s stubborn inflexibility paved the way to rapprochement by the National Socialists and Communists. When Hitler and Stalin signed their own non-aggression pact on August 23, 1939, that was the green light for the Second World War. They jointly attacked and partitioned Poland in September 1939.  And then they quarreled. Hitler’s armies invaded Stalin’s realm on June 20, 1941.

The United States and Great Britain recognized belatedly that having Beelzebub destroy Mephistopheles comes at a price: the Kremlin’s Prince of Darkness spread his brand of totalitarianism across the eastern part of Europe, which Allied leaders blessed at Yalta.

This is a pretty straightforward story and it should be airtight. Unfortunately, the story is largely unknown. In contrast, the Soviet story, however, which historian Norman Davies once dubbed “The Allied scheme of history” is well-known. It has been around for decades. Simply, it is war-time Soviet mendacity boosted by Allied propaganda about “Uncle Joe” Stalin. To drive his point home, Putin has revived war-time Soviet narrative about the alleged “Polish fascists and anti-Semites,” “Polish collaborators of Hitler,” “Polish participants in the Holocaust,” and other such canards.

The master of the Kremlin’s job is made easier because since the Second World War Stalin’s disinformation construct has ensconced itself in Western imagination. For years, familiar variations of Stalin’s propaganda has oozed from the pages of The New York Times and other media outlets. They are ubiquitous in America’s subconscious and its intelligentsia’s so-called store of “knowledge.” More, they are treated as holy verities, unquestioned.

However uncomfortable Putin makes the Left feel about other things, such as LGBT, as far as the Second World War the Russian leader suavely feeds into the prejudices in the West that were originally planted by Moscow over 75 years ago to besmirch the Poles. This was Stalin’s greatest coup in his quest for an alibi for having enslaved the West’s greatest war-time Ally: Poland. At the same time, in a sick Orwellian twist, Stalin convinced everyone that he actually “liberated” her.

All Putin has to do is repeat the same story. And he does so with a gusto and an apparent success. Much of it is for domestic consumption. Anti-Polonism fuses with anti-Catholicism and that always boost one’s popularity in post-Orthodox Russia. But the message is also for the West. It continues to disinform in a Komintern-sanctified fashion to disparage Poland and the Poles, in particular the Catholic ones.

Consider Auschwitz. To deflect the attention from his own crimes, Stalin purveyed a lie about 4 million victims of the camp. In fact, 1.5 million died, including 1.3 Jews, most of them gassed at the nearby Birkenau death chambers. But there were also some 75,000 Polish Catholic victims. 

How many in the West have heard of that? How many know that Auschwitz was first created as a concentration camp for Polish Christian political prisoners in 1940? How many are familiar with Captain Witold Pilecki, whose ideal was to imitate Christ, and who, on a reconnaissance mission from the underground, volunteered to be arrested by the German police to be brought to Auschwitz, set up a secret resistance organization in the camp, escaped after two years, and then was the first to inform the world about this atrocity, including the extermination of the Jewish people? Who understands that St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, a Franciscan, willingly chose to die in the place of another prisoner slated to be executed by the SS?  How many people in the West have heard about the conversion of Auschwitz to a Communist concentration camp after 1945? Probably even fewer than have spotted the Catholic nuns at Auschwitz in the 1945 Communist propaganda documentary.

Before we can claim anyone has liberated us, we must remember that, first and foremost, only “The Truth Shall Set Us Free.” And the Truth will hurt because it usually entails ripping apart our existing prejudices. That includes the story of Auschwitz, pace Vladimir Putin.

Marek Chodakiewicz is a professor and historian.

Image credit: AFP shareable screen shot via YouTube

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