UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — What is the cause of the fierce debate over the history of World War II, in which Russia and Poland came together?
Emilia Kustova: The history of the Great Patriotic War, as it was called in the USSR and now in Russia, occupies a central place in Russian national identity.
This story serves to mobilize the population, legitimize and strengthen the image of Russia, which sacrificed itself for the whole of Europe: and this sacrifice is not recognized by other countries.
The revival of this cult, which was very strong in Soviet times, is clearly seen with the advent of Vladimir Putin, especially over the past ten years.
This policy of the President of Russia in the field of history is most often directed inside the country, although it cannot be called divorced from international events, since it reacts to them. It gains momentum in the event of internal tensions, social or political, or international disputes.
This is observed whenever tension in relations with the West grows, foreign policy takes a turn, or problems arise in the so-called “near abroad”.
So, the government and anti-Russian forces in Ukraine are often called “fascists”, which is an explicit reference to the era of World War II. The same applies to the use by Russia of this definition in support of the Russian-speaking communities of Latvia and Estonia.
Today, the use of historical references seems to be directed not only to the Russian audience. Russia is responding to initiatives by countries in Eastern Europe that influence the EU’s position.
The resolution of the European Parliament of September 19, 2019 puts the USSR on a par with Nazi Germany, calls the Soviet-German non-aggression pact of 1939 a direct reason for the outbreak of World War II, and claims that the perpetrators of the crimes of Stalinism were not tried, unlike Nazi criminals.
Russia, in turn, sees itself as the only heiress of the USSR and is trying to launch a counterattack, relying on a fairly favorable environment that gives it hope that it will return to the European scene as a prominent figure or even partner.
Thus, Russia uses history and carefully selects.
– What is the goal of Vladimir Putin?
– The Russian leadership primarily seeks to preserve the world order formed after the Second World War, which has seriously staggered with the collapse of the USSR. This order provided the USSR with legitimacy – as a liberator – and the status of a great power. Now that the image of Russia abroad has been significantly undermined, it cannot admit the assertion in the Western world of ideas about the USSR as an aggressor on a par with Hitler in 1939 and about the occupier of Eastern Europe since 1944.
Moreover, now Moscow is stepping up efforts to return to the European scene as a key player or even a partner, which, incidentally, is helped by the French government on the initiative of Emmanuel Macron. All this becomes even more important with the approach of the 75th anniversary of the Victory, given that last anniversary events in 2015, at the height of the Ukrainian crisis, were marked by the refusal of Western leaders to come to Moscow.
This was perceived as a real insult and denial of the enormous victims of the people of Russia – more precisely, the USSR – during the conflict. In other words, for Russia, which seeks to get out of relative isolation, it is extremely important to recognize its role in the victory over Nazism – therefore, it is trying to win the participation of the Western powers in the celebration of the Victory in May of this year – and silence all its critics by shutting their mouths to them.
– In the confrontation with Vladimir Putin, Poland stresses two key points: the role of the USSR along with Hitler in waging war and the actions of Soviet troops since 1944 as liberators or new invaders …
– Moscow’s actions on these two key issues consist in responding to the accusations made by Eastern Europe, discrediting prosecutors and restoring the image of a country that allowed Nazism to be defeated and its Eastern European neighbors freed.
As for Poland, it is primarily about trying to justify the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by condemning the actions of Western democracies, mentioning the need to gain time or presenting the Soviet annexation of eastern Poland as a necessary step after the defeat of the Poles. Be that as it may, one should not forget that in Western Europe many even without Vladimir Putin condemned the Munich Agreement and the weakness of the Western authorities in the face of Nazi Germany and the occupation of Czechoslovakia!
In addition to these old arguments, Russia recently put forward a new theme: Poland’s responsibility for the preparation of World War II along with Hitler. In particular, she points to the non-aggression pact signed by Warsaw and Berlin in January 1934 and the participation of the Poles in the partition of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Finally, the Russian government increasingly uses the history of the Holocaust – it plays a large role in the west, but more ambiguous in the east – to recall the liberating role of the Red Army (in 1944-1945) and to discredit critics from Eastern Europe. She – often rightly – points to past collaboration with the Nazis, the role of local collaborators in the Holocaust in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic, as well as current inconsistencies.
– Do these accusations have historical justification or is it an attempt to use history?
– The use of history – Russia systematically resorts to it, but it is often seen among its Eastern European neighbors – does not exclude reliance on historical facts. There is no need for falsification, since the history of that period is very complex. In our case, we are talking more about a mixture of varying degrees of biased interpretations, partial or complete silence of facts, as well as readiness to take them out of context.
All this speaks of a selective and narrowly focused reading of history, which is at the service of modern politics. With all this, this process does not offer anything new on topics that have long been known to historians and have been the subject of debate for decades. In recent years, this discussion has been enriched by the many archival materials available in the east.
There are many examples of biased interpretations of history and the selective use of historical documents and facts: the shooting of Polish officers in Katyn (he is officially recognized in Russia, but they prefer to remain silent about him) or the entire Stalinist policy from August 1939 to June 1941, when the USSR was devoted partner of Nazi Germany.
Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies after World War II and the removal of the Holocaust from Soviet rhetoric make it very surprising the ease with which Vladimir Putin now condemns the anti-Semitism of the Polish government in the interwar period. Finally, the fluctuations of the Russian position itself are proof of the desire to use the past without much attention to historical truth: ten years ago, in 2009,
Be that as it may, the ambiguous past and the behavior of the East European opponents of Russia, namely the Baltic states and Poland, who do not shy away from using history for political purposes and deny all the negative aspects associated with the complex and tragic past of the region, play into the hands of Russian accusations.
The fact is that during and after the war the same political forces and people heroically resisted Nazism and participated in the Holocaust, fought the Bolsheviks and staged mass executions of civilians in Poland and Ukraine. The use of a black and white representation of a national history, which is built as a heroic epic or a story about terrible victims, has always been in use in this space, in Moscow, Warsaw, Vilnius or Kiev.
The work of historians has allowed us to significantly expand our understanding of the collaboration of the local population and its participation in the Holocaust, as well as the extent of resistance to occupation, both Soviet and Nazi. In such an environment, the refusal of the authorities of these countries to recognize any responsibility and actively condemn the scientific works devoted to this play into the hands of Russian criticism.
– What role do archives play in this confrontation around history? Why does the president of Russia consider them so important?
– Archives are a key component of historical work, as well as the subject of many misconceptions. They are a powerful weapon in a historical war. Access to the Russian archives, especially to the documents of the war period, remains difficult, the selective publication of some materials, as recently under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Poland’s position on the eve of World War II, is designed to create a sensation and back up the accusations, without promoting historical knowledge. In addition, there is reason to doubt that the formation of an archive center with materials on the war promised by Vladimir Putin will benefit from this historical knowledge, since its purpose is to silence all those who criticize Russia and the Soviet Union.
Historical science first of all needs to declassify as many documents as possible from all archives with equal access to them by Russian and foreign experts. The opening of archives in Eastern Europe, in particular in Ukraine and Lithuania, has made great progress in the study of World War II, the Holocaust, the end of the war, etc. As for Russia, there are no conditions for this, and the situation, apparently, is only exacerbating against the backdrop of efforts to establish a uniform view of national history and the obstacles created by the historian. Among them are laws on history (they prohibit, for example, the dissemination of “false information” about the actions of the USSR during World War II) and repeated attacks on independent organizations like the Memorial association,
This article is written and prepared by our foreign editors writing for OBSERVATORY NEWS from different countries around the world – material edited and published by OBSERVATORY staff in our newsroom.
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