The Battle for the History of World War II

Published On May 7, 2015 | Blogs, Uncategorized

Emily TamkinBy: Emily Tamkin


This weekend marks the seventieth anniversary of what is known in Russia as Victory Day, elsewhere on the continent as Europe Day, and in the United States as Victory in Europe Day. It is recongised throughout the world as the day that the Second World War ended in Europe. But that does not mean the same thing throughout the world, or even throughout Europe. It has come to mean even less of the same thing with the crisis in Ukraine and renewed tension between Russia and “the West” (i.e. the United States and Europe), particularly as both sides—or, perhaps more aptly, all sides—scramble to use the occasion to write the definitive version of Second World War history.

In the Russian national narrative, the Second World War occupies, and has long occupied, a space as big as the country itself. It is known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War”. The Leningrad Blockade Museum commemorates the “defeat of fascism” (at the hands of Joseph Stalin, no less), rhetoric that has also been employed by Russia to discredit the Ukrainian forces and people. In his 2013 New York Times op-Ed against military intervention in Syria, Vladimir Putin appealed to the American people with the memory of our joint defeat of the Nazis (though this was surely meant ironically, as 80 percent of German troops were killed by Soviet—not French, British, and certainly not American—fighters). By contrast, on Wednesday of this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailed the “victory of our people” and vowed that Russia would work to combat any rewritings of history that would tell a different story. In other words, the Second World War has always meant something special to Russia. This year, however, the assertion is not that the victory means more to Russia, but that it is Russian (what Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact?).

Ukraine, for its part, has used the opportunity neither to reflect upon its country’s own complicated history or relationship with fascism (for there is indeed a far-right in Ukraine, even if, despite Russian propagandistic assertions, it is not running the country), nor to confront its own history with the Holocaust. Rather, the Ukrainian Parliament, Rada, passed a law honouring dozens of nationalist organisations, including the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, both of which, as Foreign Policy notes, were involved in the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing of Poles in western Ukraine during and after the Second World War. Additionally, if one is to believe a recent Wall Street Journal op-Ed by Yaroslav Brisiuck, chargé d’affaires at the embassy of Ukraine in Washington, who points out that 40 percent of all Soviet casualties were actually Ukrainian, the lesson of the Second World War is that aggressors must not be appeased (which Mr. Brisiuck takes to mean that sanctions against Russia must be kept in place, and also that Ukraine must receive weapons). “It is better to learn from history”, he concludes, “than to see it repeated”.

Berlin is taking the anniversary to stress Germany’s special responsibility to promote world peace (German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of several western leaders to decline Putin’s invitation to the seventieth anniversary Victory Day Parade). Poland will play host to many a Western world leader, including Ukraine’s Poroshenko, to mark the occasion, since, as Polish President Bronislaw Komarowski noted this winter, the Soviet defeat of the Nazis “did not bring freedom to all the peoples of Europe”, a barely veiled comment on the crushing occupation of Poland that followed WWII. The Polish government recently demanded an apology after the FBI chief spoke of the “murders and accomplices in Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many other places”. Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz remarked that “Poland was not a perpetrator but a victim of World War II”. Poland was indeed occupied by Germany, and six million Polish citizens were killed by Nazi hands, and Poland never collaborated with Germany, and the FBI chief undoubtedly misspoke. However, scholars István Deak and Jan Gross, among others, have long argued that there were Poles who took part in the slaughter of their Jewish neighbours, which, if believed, tells a more complicated story than that of a wholly innocent and twice occupied country.

Putin has accused various western leaders of rewriting history. They have accused him of the same. The rewrites, whoever the authors, involve fascist perpetrators on one side and brave, bold resistors on the other. And their conclusions end with justification not of anything historical, but of the narrator country’s present place in the spotlight.

And we—whoever we are, Russian or Ukrainian or German or Polish (or British or American)—look at the other side, or sides—whoever they may be—and accuse them of tampering with the narrative, of telling untruths, of that most unforgivable offence of rewriting history. And if those who do not learn their history may be doomed to repeat it, then those who learn rewritten history are doomed to observe lessons that should never have been taught in the first place. They say Never Again but no longer know what we are supposed to be preventing. They say Lest We Forget but no longer remember what they were supposed to keep in mind. They were supposed to honour the dead and instead they confuse the living. They do not bear witness. They close their eyes and justify and insist that you do the same. And they are doing this, we say. Not us. We would never.

But we all do it. We do it all the time. And then we write the history again to say it was never us who did so.

Photo credit: U.S. Army Europe Images (Creative Commons).