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Seventy years after World War II's start, old enemies take stock

Polish enmity toward Germany is gone, but tension with Russia remains.

By Elizabeth Pond / September 1, 2009

Gdansk, Poland

Yes, enmities going back to medieval times can be healed.

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Any skeptic who doubts this should visit Gdansk, where Hitler's Wehrmacht attacked Poland and started World War II on Sept. 1 70 years ago. Today, as a result of brave individual initiatives – and later of government policy – Poles and Germans are friends and allies.

And yes, there is also strong resistance to dropping old enmities.

Any doubter of their persistence should also visit Gdansk. For weeks there has been a drumbeat in Russian media blaming Warsaw for alleged collusion with Berlin against Moscow prior to that 4:45 a.m. German attack in 1939.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin abruptly softened the tone in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza on the Sept. 1 anniversary, calling "immoral" the cynical Hitler-Stalin pact of August 24, 1939, that carved up Poland and the Baltics as a prelude to the German invasion of western Poland a week later and the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland three weeks later. Putin's new smile met with considerable Polish skepticism.

World War II killed 6 million Poles, half of them Jews. That statistic can be reconfigured: the war killed some six million Jews, half of them Poles. Of all the countries that mourned their losses among the more than 50 million civilian and military dead, Poland suffered the highest ratio of war deaths per population.

This tragedy was the culmination of Poland's unfortunate location between powerful Russians and powerful Germans. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia and Prussia (and Austria) conspired for 123 years to extinguish the country of Poland altogether. After World War I, it was resurrected, only to succumb to the conspiracy of Hitler and Stalin in 1939.

For decades after World War II, Poles were hostile to Russians – discreetly, as befitted a Communist client of Moscow – and to Germans, ostentatiously. Millions of German civilians who endured the revenge of expulsion in 1945 from ancestral homesteads in postwar western Poland and elsewhere in Central Europe – 14 million, of which 2 million did not survive their trek west – reciprocated the hostility.