Missteps in Warsaw

Missteps in Warsaw

by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

7 March 2019


Professor Chodakiewicz teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington D.C.


It was supposed to be about the Middle East in general and the Iranian threat in particular, but the Warsaw conference of February 13-14, 2019, quickly turned into an American and Israeli World War II scathing lecture targeting the baffled Poles. The situation deteriorated quickly as other nations lined up to unload on Poland.

First, Tehran chastised the Polish for organizing the conference. China castigated Poland for failing to partake in Beijing’s economic largesse and favoring the US instead. Russia chimed in unhelpfully on Twitter: “The Americans will fight to the last Pole,” thus questioning again US commitment to NATO in Central and Eastern Europe.

The European Union chose understatement to express its displeasure with the Warsaw conference. Brussels downgraded its participation to insignificance. And in a follow up meeting in Munich, a day later, the European Union feted America with an icy reception.

The Polish government took it all rather stoically. However, it positively turned grim at the blows the Poles received from the Americans in a short succession before and during the conference. What most in Poland perceived as a brutal attack on the hosts by the United States and Israel completely overshadowed and nullified the purpose of the conference in the popular eyes.

First, right before the meeting, in another one in a series of missteps following the submission of her credentials, US Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher demanded that Poland turn over 300,000 pages of copies 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. How about a research grant and Warsaw will see what it can do for the US as far as its archives? The State Department should try diplomacy sometime.

If Mosbacher is perceived as ham-fisted, her boss Secretary of State Mike Pompeo comes across as ignorant of 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 harkening from Poland 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? Mike Pompeo has no idea about the intricacies of property restitution. 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, to put everyone in a better mood Secretary Pompeo decided to share an inspirational tale with the Poles. Namely, 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 dazzle the Poles happened to be Franciszek (Frank) Blaichman. A Stalinist secret policeman and, earlier, a Communist guerrilla. Bleichman emigrated to the US in 1951, but not before he participated in killing, torturing, and denouncing pro-Western Poles to the Soviet secret police. Mike Pompeo must have been unaware of any of that, and much more, too. Instead, he said that Bleichman was “a testament to the resilience of the Polish people.” Which ones? The ones he participated in killing, or the ones he denounced to the Soviet NKVD?

For a second there 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. In April 1943 the Jewish fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fought against the “Polish and Nazi regime.” Bunk. There was no native Quisling government in Poland and the occupying power was German. The Nazis were not from Venus; they were from the Third Reich. Their ethnicity was German. Their mentality was Nazi. And Nazi stems from the National Socialist German Workers Party – nothing Polish about that. Go MSNBC!

Meanwhile Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu chimed in: “The Poles collaborated with the Nazis and I don’t know anyone who was ever sued for such a statement.” That was an awkward attempt to downplay a much abused, and now defanged, Polish law on “besmirching the Polish nation,” which some interpreted as anti-Semitic. But the statement was unfortunate. Bibi told his assistant to walk the definitive article back. He did not mean “the Poles,” but only “Poles” – some, not the nation en block.

The prime minister’s memo failed to reach Israel’s foreign minister Yisroel Katz. He gloated over “the Poles” as alleged Nazi collaborators and repeated an old canard that “the Poles suck anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.” The Poles were unamused. Warsaw cancelled its participation in an Intermarium (Three Seas Initiative) of the Vyshehrad Group. Other members, including Hungary, Czechia, and Slovakia, followed Poland’s lead.

The situation got so much out of control that even the US Ambassador in Poland tweeted — bizarrely, in Polish — for the Israelis to apologize. Her tweet was promptly translated into English by the Jewish press.

Some dismiss the shenanigans of Netanyahu and Katz as electoral politics. Likud faces a crisis, and the prime minister a serious challenge. However, his mainstay support consists of so-called Oriental Jews, the Sephardim. They care mainly about the Middle East, and Iran in particular. They show little excitement over besmirching Poland.

If the Likud wants to win, it must show its electorate that it can protect Israel, including through coalition building. That means wooing the Poles, and not besmirching them. And America should show that it needs Poland’s assistance on the eastern flank, so that the US could concentrate on the Chinese threat, and not in flawed history lessons.