The Auschwitz Liberation, Seventy Years On

Tuesday was the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp located in modern-day Poland. (I can never keep track of how borders have changed over the years, but I’m pretty sure it was in what was Poland back then, too. But don’t quote me on that.) I always think of Elie Wiesel’s Night when I hear of the Auschwitz liberation. Wiesel would have been liberated had he stayed behind in the camp (he was in the hospital for an injury) but due to a rumor that anyone left behind would die, he went on the march to Buchenwald, where he remained for the rest of the war.

I want to talk about today’s ceremony in Auschwitz. Many countries sent high-ranking government officials. Here’s who attended, quoted from the New York Times article linked above:

Dozens of heads of state and other prominent figures took part in the ceremony, including the presidents of France, Germany and Austria, François Hollande, Joachim Gauck and Heinz Fischer; the kings of Belgium and the Netherlands, Philippe and Willem-Alexander; and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew represented the United States, while Russia was represented by Sergei Ivanov, President Vladimir V. Putin’s chief of staff.

Yep. My native country was represented by the Treasury Secretary, a random dude who doesn’t really do that much. I’m being a bit facetious: I mean, I know he does stuff, but when was the last time you heard of a Treasury Secretary in the news? Probably not recently, I’m willing to bet.

President Putin did not attend the ceremony either—though according to reports, Poland’s government planned things so that he wouldn’t come.

Poland has displayed a knack for canny diplomatic dealings, at once ensuring that Putin was officially welcome at the event, while also creating an atmosphere he would be tempted to avoid.

In the aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine’s restive east in July, the Polish government decided against issuing formal invitations, as an official invitation to Putin would have proven unpopular among voters, Reuters reported. The fallout from such a move could have proven particularly painful at the moment, with Poland slated to hold presidential and parliamentary elections later this year.

On previous occasions, Poland’s president had issued a formal invitation to Russian leaders.

Five years ago, Poland’s then-president Lech Kaczynski sent a letter inviting Russia’s president at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, to the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Kaczynski invited Medvedev to commemorate the Soviet citizens who died in the camp and the Red Army soldiers who spearheaded its liberation, Polish Gazeta Wyborcza reported at the time.

Last year, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum — which is co-organizing the 70th anniversary event with the International Auschwitz Council — announced that the upcoming anniversary would be devoid of politics, concentrating instead on the memories of survivors.

Rather than sending out formal invitations, the organizers asked the embassies of European Union countries and countries that donate funds to the site who they planned to send to the event. The notice specifically mentioned that the relevant states could be represented by anyone the given country deemed appropriate.

“Any representative of the Russian Federation who will confirm their participation in the celebrations will be received on par with the representatives of other states,” the Polish Ambassador to Moscow, Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz, told The Moscow Times.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged during his annual news conference Wednesday that the anniversary event’s organizers had, in fact, sent a notification to the Russian Embassy in Warsaw.

“The letter said: ‘You can come if you want. If you do want to, tell us who is going to show up.’ You don’t even have to respond to this type of invitation,” Lavrov said with apparent disregard.

That is just insulting. And to add insult to injury, the Polish Foreign Minister, who is apparently an idiot, said this about the liberation of Auschwitz:

This unusual diplomacy deteriorated into a public spat when a Polish radio station asked the country’s foreign minister, Grzegorz Schetyna whether it was petty not to invite Mr Putin.

He decided to answer by crediting the Ukrainians for liberating Auschwitz, rather than the Soviet Union’s Red Army.

No. Just no. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz. And yes, the Red Army consisted of people of various nationalities, including Ukrainians. But there were Russians, too, and they should not be discounted just because one ethnic Russian (Vladimir Putin) has managed to annoy a whole lot of people around the world.

Do you know how many Russian soldiers gave their lives to fight against the Nazis? Let’s take a look at a chart, found here.

Click to see larger.
Click to see larger.

See how the USSR pretty much dwarfs everyone else? That is why people at the highest levels of the Russian government should be invited to such things as the Auschwitz commemoration. It’s a matter of respect for those who died. Risking one’s life (and dying) for one’s country is the ultimate sacrifice one can make and I really can’t express how much respect I have for people who do this.

I’m a historian, so I think about the past a lot. And I must admit that even though I don’t like the Soviet Union, it is important to honor the sacrifices that the Red Army made so that the Allies could win World War II and horrible crimes like the existence of Auschwitz could be revealed to the world.