We learned from the Holocaust

"Only those who want to learn learn from history"

The Second World War shook the world to its foundations and has shaped it to this day - more than 50 million people fell victim to the war and the Holocaust. Immediately after the end of the war, however, displacement prevailed in many countries, says Włodzimierz Borodziej, historian at the University of Warsaw and member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW). On September 2nd, he was a guest at a joint panel discussion between the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Austrian National Council entitled “80 Years of the Beginning of the Second World War: Attack on Poland”.

Mr. Borodziej, how does the memory of the Second World War differ in Austria and Poland?

Włodzimierz Borodziej: Official Austria did not speak at all about the war and the involvement of Austrians in the countless Nazi crimes until the Waldheim affair. That has now changed radically, but only since the late 1980s.

In Poland it was the other way around, where the ruling pseudo-communists practically legitimized their identity with the German crimes against Poland. In summary: on the Polish side it was a falsification of history until 1989, on the Austrian side there was silence.

Why was that like that?

Most nations have long forgotten and suppressed the war. The reason: there was collaboration almost everywhere, either in state or in individual form.

Borodziej: It is not just an Austrian phenomenon, it was the same in many countries: Most nations forgot and suppressed the war for a very long time. The reason: there was collaboration almost everywhere, either in state or in individual form. After the war, people wanted to sweep that under the carpet, because that was a prerequisite for reintegrating former Nazis and collaborators into society.

Of course, this happened to the west of the Iron Curtain under completely different circumstances, because it was about the votes of the former followers. In the east it was more important to make the atrocities forgotten so that people could make friends with the new, now supposedly socialist system.

So war crimes and the Holocaust were deliberately swept under the carpet?


Borodziej: Yes. To forget, as terrible as it sounds, was the most common response in the 1950s and 1960s. The idea was to leave the past behind and build a new future - either a democratic or a state-socialist one.

That changed only in the 1970s and 1980s with the "rediscovery" of the Holocaust. We have remembered intensely ever since. Unlike back then, however, one no longer has to integrate war criminals, Nazis and collaborators into society today.

How should we remember that time today? In a few years there will be no contemporary witnesses alive.

Borodziej: One can remember the crimes at least as well from the documents as from the eyewitnesses. Of the 33,000 Jews who were murdered in Kiev within two days, there is not a single written testimony, and yet we know exactly about this mass murder. We can and must do without contemporary witnesses.

What role does the Second World War play today in Poland, a country that suffered like no other?

August 1st is emotionally important for Warsaw residents because it marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. The fact that the war is repeatedly cannibalized by the right and the government is demanding reparations from Germany is due to electoral tactics.

Borodziej: August 1st is emotionally important for Warsaw residents because it marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, in which up to 200,000 civilians were killed within two months. Every year on this day the traffic stops, you remember.

The fact that the war is repeatedly cannibalized by the right and the government is currently demanding reparations from Germany is due to electoral tactics. This has no chance under international law, is politically irrelevant and damages Poland's relations in the European Union. But none of today's 20 to 30-year-olds care.

Why is the government still making war an issue?

Borodziej:There is still an anti-German reflex in parts of the population that it is serving with it. For decades, the school year opened every September 1st with a speech by the Minister of Culture, who emphasized on the radio the atrocities the Germans inflicted on the country.

In addition: in many villages and towns in the east a third of the population was Jewish. On the properties there, in whose houses there are now Poles, who now and then remember: That once belonged to a Jew. As before, the ownership structure has not been clarified everywhere. Legally irrelevant: no great-grandchildren or great-grandchildren of a Holocaust victim will sue the current owner. Nevertheless, when the government says “The Germans were to blame for everything” it goes down well.

In Austria, the First World War is often seen as a primal catastrophe that made fascism and the rise of Hitler possible in the first place. How is it in Poland?

Borodziej: From an East Central European perspective, the First World War was anything but a primal catastrophe, because it brought Poland the long-awaited independence and state formation. (Note: the country did not exist on the map before 1918. Today's Poland was divided between the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire).

The much larger catastrophe, which did not end for Poland in 1945 but continued with Russian oppression, was the Second World War. Poland was a member of the anti-Hitler coalition from the spring of 1939. At the time, the Allies had promised to come to the aid of a hostile declaration of war within two weeks. Britain and France knew beforehand, however, that they would not do that. And it was exactly the same at the Yalta Conference in 1945, when it came to reorganizing Europe after the war.

What can we learn from the war today?

Borodziej: Only people who want to learn something learn from history. The majority don't want that. We can only learn what one Not should do. Today we are in a completely different constellation than we were then, there is the EU and NATO and completely different problems that worry us, from Brexit to Italy to Trump. One lesson, however, is that you can no longer allow yourself to be extradited to dictators. You have to be careful, because there are not too few right-wing populists.

Only people who want to learn something learn from history. The majority don't want that. We can only learn what one Not should do.

Parallels are often drawn between the present day and the interwar period, when the breeding ground for fascism was laid.

Borodziej: I think that's a convenient excuse because the situation is not comparable. Austria, born after 1918, did not really want to become a state. In Germany, on the other hand, there were 6 million unemployed, people felt miserable after the war and during the Great Depression. We do not have such problems in any EU country today.

We live in wealthy societies in 2019. Social and material misery are certainly not decisive for the success of the FPÖ in Austria, the AfD in Germany or the PiS in Poland. Their success has other reasons, such as vague fears about the future. In truth, we are better off than ever. The comparison to the 1920s and 1930s is completely wrong - the politicians should slowly understand that too.