With Friends Like These Poland Needs No Enemies

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When Poland agreed to host a Middle East conference in Warsaw, on February 13-14, it expected some flak from Muslim countries, in particular Iran, a cold shoulder from the European Union, and, of course, scathing criticism from Russia and, perhaps, China. What the Polish hosts did not expect were attacks and hectoring from the United States, Israel, and the liberal media. What was billed as a “Middle East” summit quickly turned into a lecture on the Second World War.

Poland bent over backward to accommodate the wishes of Washington, DC, to hold the conference despite the opposition of Brussels, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and other actors. To show its loyalty and solidarity, Poland took America’s support for granted. In return, some American officials and reporters insulted the Poles. Warsaw was utterly unprepared for the wave of resentment and ignorance from its allies. We shall return to this below. First, let us look at, shall we say, Poland’s non-allies.

Already in the run-up to the conference, Iran predictably flew off the handle. It charged Poland with warmongering at the dictates of the “Zionists” and their American “lackeys.” “Warsaw circus” was a more diplomatic description of the event. Tehran imposed visa and economic sanctions against Poland, which so far have impacted visiting scholars and tourists as well as a number of Polish companies. The ayatollahs also threatened a nuclear war—a permanent feature of their rhetorical repertoire which elicited a long, bored snore from Tel Aviv but was a rude jolt for Warsaw nonetheless.

China more calmly raised the question of economic benefits in its relationship with Poland. The Poles simply cannot afford to miss out on Beijing’s economic largess. Russia gracelessly sneered: “the Americans will fight to the last Pole,” again questioning the US commitment to NATO in central and eastern Europe. Further, the EU gave the Warsaw conference its cold shoulder by giving it low priority. Essentially, Brussels boycotted the summit. The icy treatment continued a day later when the participants changed the venue to Munich. Over the weekend, at the conference, Vice President Mike Pence made little progress convincing his European audience of the benefits of ratcheting up sanctions against Iran. At the same conference on European security, Joe Biden, who is again considering a run for the presidency, received a standing ovation for slamming US foreign policy in the Middle East.

 

Blows from the Americans
The Polish government took it all rather stoically. However, it positively turned grim at the blows the Poles received from the Americans in short succession before and during the conference. These offensive and impolitic acts against their Polish hosts by the United States and Israel completely overshadowed and nullified the purpose of the conference in the eyes of the Polish public.

First, right before the meeting, in another of a series of missteps following the submission of her credentials, US Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher, a Republican Party fundraiser who made her money in cosmetics, demanded that Poland turn over 300,000 pages of documents regarding the Holocaust from the state archives of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) yearly. This request is beyond the Polish capacity to process in such a short time. There are no funds and no manpower. The rumors spread of the American envoy’s manifestly flamboyant haughtiness and her allegedly muted threats regarding the durability of the US-Poland alliance in case of Polish noncompliance. Such ultimatums are hardly diplomatic. Whether or not Mosbacher’s infamous churlishness was exemplified here is of secondary importance. For the prickly Poles, who remember all too well the many foreign occupations and ham-fisted ways of alien representatives in Warsaw, the perception of an envoy lacking in tact is enough to cause them to recoil. Mosbacher’s chumminess with the post-Communist and liberal establishment does not sit well with their government officials and much of the public. A research grant would go a long way to accommodate the ambassador’s wishes. A little diplomacy might do the State Department some good.

Pompeo in Action
If Mosbacher is perceived as ham-fisted, her boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, comes across as ill-informed and poorly advised on Polish matters. Immediately upon his arrival in Warsaw, Secretary Pompeo demanded Jewish property restitution lost in “the Holocaust era.” What about Catholic, or more broadly, Christian property restitution? There are plenty of American citizens with Polish ancestry whose families lost real estate and other goods in the Second World War and its aftermath. Don’t they deserve the support of America’s top diplomat?

The problems with selective restitution requests are numerous. For starters, hardly any en bloc restitution has taken place in Poland since 1989 with the important exception of some of the properties of the Catholic Church and other religious denominations, including Judaism. Here’s what Pompeo’s aides and speechwriters failed to tell him:

During the Second World War and immediately after, all Polish citizens, Christians and non-Christians, experienced massive property losses. This was both because of widespread destruction by the invading armies of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union and because of Nazi and Communist confiscations. Between 1939 and 1945, Polish state property was taken over by the invaders completely. Private and community Jewish property was confiscated wholesale and private Christian property selectively. An exception occurred in the early stages of the Soviet occupation in eastern Poland (1939-1941), where Polish Christians and Jews were targeted equally by the Communists.

In western Poland, the Jews suffered total confiscation—with everything incorporated directly into the Third Reich—as well as in central Poland, which was maintained as a separate Nazi colony. Catholics and other Christians lost all large- and medium-sized properties in the west, as well as some small holdings. In the center of the occupied country, most large Christian-owned estates and enterprises were expropriated, while some medium and small properties were taken over. When the Soviets returned to push the Nazis out of Poland, the Communist government first seized all assets that had been stolen by the Germans and nationalized them. Second, they embarked on an orgy of confiscations and re-confiscations, which targeted all remaining large and medium properties, as well as most small ones affecting Christians and Jews alike. Since 1989, there has been no restitution legislation for any of the private victims of property theft by the Nazis and Communists. The only remedy is to go through courts individually. But Mike Pompeo has no idea about any of this. Instead of encouraging Poland to respect private property generally, he bizarrely singled out a category of victims by religious origin: the Jewish people. Are the Catholics not good enough to see their property returned?

When he finished enlightening his Polish hosts about the intricacies of property restitution, and to put everyone in a better mood, Secretary Pompeo decided to share an inspirational tale with the Poles. He touted a “Polish-American” personal success story: from rags to riches in the United States. Unfortunately, the individual selected by America’s top diplomat to inspire the Poles happened to be Franciszek (Frank) Blaichman, a Stalinist secret policeman and, earlier, a Communist guerrilla. Bleichman emigrated to the US in 1951. He had concealed his past until about a decade ago when, in 2009, his highly sanitized memoir was published. Did I mention that there was an official investigation of his murderous activities by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance?  Apparently, Bleichman was involved in the killing of at least two pro-Western Home Army (AK) fighters and in numerous denunciations to the Soviets of Polish patriots, the latter whom he dubbed “Nazi collaborators,” as was the diktat of Stalin’s propagandists.

Mike Pompeo must have been unaware of any of that, and much more, too. He said that Bleichman was “a testament to the resilience of the Polish people.” Which ones? The ones he was complicit in killing or the ones he denounced to the Soviet NKVD?

Please note the stark contrast between the abysmal performance of the Secretary of State in February 2019 and his boss, President Donald Trump, in July 2018 in Warsaw. The inferiority of the State Department’s speechwriting and fact-finding teams is embarrassing. Yet the flood of ignorance and offense would not turn itself off. American public figures and their foreign allies kept dishing it out to the Poles.

MSNBC’s History Lesson
For a brief moment, we even wondered if the source of Pompeo’s intel on Poland was not the MSNBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell. She decided to treat everyone to a history lesson. The reporter informed us with her usual unquestioned authority that in April 1943 the Jewish fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fought against the “Polish and Nazi regime.” Mitchell is not a millennial who has been cheated by an inferior educational system. No, she is a septuagenarian who should know that there was no native quisling government in Poland and that the occupying power was German. The Nazis were not from Venus; they were from the Third Reich. Their ethnicity was German. Their ideology was Nazism.

Please note how liberal prejudice against Catholic Poland translates into, first, conflating “Polish and Nazi,” the former an ethnicity and culture, and the other an alien ideology that had no place among the Poles since it was of German origin. Second, observe how the prejudice has generated a “Polish and Nazi regime” that simply did not exist. Again, it was a German government; more precisely, it was the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). This is what “Nazi” means in translation. There is nothing Polish about that. Memo to MSNBC: checking and cross-checking your facts is an indispensable characteristic of good journalism. And stop listening to the neo-Stalinist school that blames the Poles for the crimes of Nazism.

Bibi’s Foot
At any rate, Mitchell pretended to walk back her slur, but did not apologize. She was lucky that her egregious slander soon disappeared in a storm caused by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. He tried to be nice to his Polish allies and to dismiss journalistic complaints about a controversial Polish law that sought to protect the nation from slander. The Israeli leader stressed that the law was defanged and symbolic. No one was ever imprisoned under it. True enough.

But the way that Netanyahu chose to express himself was appalling to say the least. He was reported by the Israeli press to have said: “The Poles collaborated with the Nazis and I don’t know anyone who was ever sued for such a statement.” Well, Warsaw took offense at “the Poles collaborated with the Nazis.” Later, his spokeswoman denied that the prime minister had used the definite article. She claimed that he said “Poles cooperated with the Nazis.”  Freudian slip? Perhaps. Bibi’s English is flawless; he knows his articles. Besides, his words were recorded and the press refused to change the story. Clearly, Netanyahu put his foot in his mouth.

Coming in the wake of Mosbacher, Pompeo, and Mitchell’s missteps, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s words added insult to injury. Poland has downgraded its delegation to an Intermarium (i.e., the lands between the Black, Adriatic, and Baltic Seas) conference in Israel scheduled to meet in a few days. Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki is refusing to go. The Polish government, the opposition parties, and the public are truly appalled by Netanyahu’s faux pas. The relations with Israel are now dialed back to before the May 2018 declaration of amity.

No one in Poland will forget that the Germans and the Soviets killed about 6 million Polish citizens, including nearly 3 million Polish Christians, overwhelmingly Catholics. The perpetrators were chiefly German Nazis. What Poland’s distinguished guests and foreign media have perpetrated in Warsaw this month not only smacks of historical revisionism, but is a classic trick of blaming the victim. To what end?

Nobody sane has ever denied that there were Poles, including Nazi collaborators, who killed Jews for a wide range of reasons. But the Nazi collaborators were not “the Poles.” The evildoers were in the minority. Many of them lacked any Polish national consciousness and stemmed from the lower depths of society. They targeted the conscientious, patriotic Poles. And those were the active majority. Most people, as is the case everywhere, tended to be passive witnesses: neither heroes nor villains. Still, the largest single category of Righteous Gentiles, who saved Jews during the Second World War (confirmed by Yad Vashem), were overwhelmingly Catholic Poles. Bibi should know better.

According to Newsmax, on the eve of the conference, “The [State Department] officials said Pompeo hoped to reverse what they called a decade of US disengagement in Central Europe that created a vacuum that Russia and China have exploited.” If this was his intention, the secretary failed miserably.

Mosbacher’s ham-fisted shenanigans, Pompeo’s historical ignorance, and Mitchell’s liberal prejudices caused serious damage to America’s good standing in Poland. Why should we care? After Brexit, the United States needs more than ever allies to represent its interests in Europe so we can concentrate on renewing America and preparing for the looming China threat. Poland is that friend. Thank God, Vice President Mike Pence kept silent in Warsaw. And how refreshingly golden it was.

Editor’s note: Pictured above, Polish President Andrzej Duda (L), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attend a group photo prior to the dinner on the opening evening of the “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East” on February 13, 2019, in Warsaw, Poland. The ministerial is a conference on the Middle East sponsored by the Polish and US governments. (Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

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Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History and holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC.

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