Thousand kilometers away. Danish viev on September 17th

I was probably22 or 23 years old when I first understood the severity of what happened to Poland on September 17th 1939. As a person that from childhood where interested in Danish and European history, and having read extensively about WWII, I was of course not unfamiliar with the fact that Poland was carved up – for the fourth time – between its two larger neighbors. But that the event actually was an assault, an unprovoked and fiercely resisted Soviet assault, did not occur to me until I as a young man tried to learn the Polish language and had a Polish-born teacher, who told us the story about her family fleeing Warsaw in the middle of September 1939.

Danish war experience was different from the Polish one. Photo: Danish soldiers durig the German invasion, 1940;

The family had a small estate in the east, in the Kresy (Polish name for Eastern Borderlands – ed.), and wanted to go there. When they reached the village before the mansion, the streets were empty; the villagers had gathered in pray in the curch. “The Russians are coming! They are already at your house, in the next village,” the family members of my teacher were told.

So they returned to Warsaw. Having to choose between the two occupational powers, they opted for the dreaded Nazis. That was food for thought for me, who had always learned that the Soviets, after all, were our allies during the war and so to some extent were counted among the good guys.

Today you will find few, if any traces of knowledge about September 17th 1939 in Denmark. Apart from the most ignorant minority – and believe me, such a minority exists! – people for sure know that WWII began with a German attack on Poland, after which the UK and France came Poland to help. Some may even vaguely remember about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and that Poland was portioned as a consequence of that agreement. But that is about it; the details about how all this came about are left in obscurity. As a historically interested child I simply assumed that Poland collapsed and the USSR took advantage of the situation, or even had to act.

Interestingly, this is actually what the Soviet, and present-day Russian, propaganda wants us to believe, namely that Poland had ceased to exist and the USSR was forced to step in and protect the population from the Germans. This is how the history is told today. Visit the Brest Fortress, now a place of remembrance in Belarus – and you will have to look hard for evidence that this Fortress actually fought twice, not to speak about an explanation for what Soviet soldiers were actually doing here.

That the Eastern parts of Poland were actually incorporated into the USSR and Polish intellectuals and politicians were immediately sent to Siberia, that there was a Parade of Shame in Brześć – yeas, even that Brest was once Brześć – were and to this day are facts still unknown to most Danes, and I even dare to say to most people in what was once the free part of Europe.

The reasons are many, and they are obvious. Whereas present-day Poland is definitely a Western country, staunchly Roman Catholic and fully integrated in the Western economic and security structures and a country with large diasporas, also in Denmark, Poland before WWII was a much more Eastern country, not integrated with Central Europe, with few personal ties to us, and with a large part of its territory being what the Jewish-Austrian writer Karl Emil Franzos once dubbed “Half-Asia”. That could not help affecting the perception of Poland in the West. Czechoslovakia might have been West, but remember, to Chamberlain even Czechoslovakia was a far away country with people of whom we know nothing. And Poland definitely was further way than Czechoslovakia, lying somewhere in the outskirts of Europe, halfway to Asia, a bit like Belarus today.

And later Denmark was itself occupied, and then the Cold War came along with its own worries and memories. We got other things to think about, and the events in a faraway country some Tuesday in the first month of a long war soon became an absolute obscurity.

Uffe Gardel

Author is a Danish journalist, he used to work in “Berlingske Tidende” and other Danish media






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