Through the Looking Glass (or how history becomes fake)

World War II is today a well known and documented period in History, and yet it is still sibject to this day to controversy. Why? because living witnesses looked at the events from different perspectives. Let us take the example of Poland.

From a traditional Polish perspective, the German and Soviet invasion of Poland was a betrayal and a disaster of historical proportions. Polish people see themselves, consequently, in the role of victims and resent anybody considering them anything else. This, in spite of the fact that many Polish people sided with the Nazis or the Soviets, and that there were entire sections of the German and the Soviet armies made up completely of Poles. At the same time, there is not denying that there was a Polish Government in exile in London, which recruited Poles for the Allied armies and fought against Germany. These days, it is considered illegal in Poland to speak about collaboration of Poles with the Nazi or the Soviet regimes; it is a crime. To insinuate that Poles collaborated with the Nazis in the perpetration of the Holocaust in Polish lands is considered a betrayal of Poland. When you look at the Polish accounts of World War II, the Polish Jewish victims of Nazi Genocide are counted as Poles.

For Polish Jews, the German invasion marked the beginning of a betrayal of Jews by most Poles and an unparalleled historical catastrophe. Jews constituted closed to 11 % of the Polish population in 1939, and many of them were deeply proud of being citizens of Poland. Jews also represented a significantly larger percentage of Polish intelligentsia that that 11%. Most Polish Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Among the Holocaust survivors from Kielce, about 200 returned to the city after the war, in 1946. They were rounded up, locked into a building and the building set on fire by their Polish neighbros from before the war. Throughout Poland there are many stories of Jews returning to their homes to be chased away by Poles who had claimed their properties. But there are also stories of Poles who protected and saved Jews during the war, many of them honored by Yad VaShem as Righteous Gentiles. And there were Communist Jews who supported the post-war Polish Communist regime and the Soviet Union, and minimized the Jewish aspects of the Holocaust as a matter of Party politics.

For Germans living in Poland and Prusia before WWII, the places where they lived were their ancestral lands, in some cases going back countless generations. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939 many welcomed them. Yet there were those who opposed them. When the war was over and the Soviet Union redrew the boundaries in Eastern Europe, they absorbed what became Belarus into the Soviet Union and large parts of Germany were given to Poland as compensation. Many Germans were relocated to what became Eastern Germany, and many Poles were relocated to the former German territories. For those affected by this population exchange, the process was extremely traumatic and colors their memories of the war.

So we have three distinct populations, each of them far from uniform, with their own perspectives of the events that transcurred on Polish soil between 1939 and 1945. For each one of these groups (for each one of the groups within those groups) history should be told in a different way. Each of them believe that their version of History encapsulates the whole experience, and it is understandable.

But people die, and living witnesses fade into the background. Those who follow them (their children, their grandchildren) try to keep the memory of their family intact - thus focusing their interpretation of history on those aspects of the documentation that support their version. But they confront those with an alternative version of the same story who are the descendants of a different group with a different experience of the same historical events. At this point, many deny the documents that contradict or even question their own version of history. The Holocaust does not exist; all Poles were collaborators; the Polish Nation was a victim of Nazism and then Communism; etc. We end up with alternative versions of the same historical events. Factual History degenerates into Factional Stories.

While I used here the example of WWII Poland, the same analysis can be applied to almost every event in History, and as living witnesses pass away, the complexity of the real Historical context is lost. Those who follow reduce History to a "Black or White" version which misses all the grays in-between. It takes courage to confront History in ourselves... Do we have it?



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