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Western attempts to rewrite history of WW2 & turn conflict into political football have incensed Russians, now Moscow strikes back

Western attempts to rewrite history of WW2 & turn conflict into political football have incensed Russians, now Moscow strikes back
It used to be simple: The Nazis and their allies were the bad guys, and the Americans, British, and Soviets were the good guys. Then contemporary politics took over and the narrative around WW2 became a modern battleground.

The conflict ended 75 years ago. But the struggle over its history has perhaps never been as intense as it is today. In the first few decades after the war, the interpretation of it was fairly clear, and almost universally accepted: The war was a product of German aggression and the extreme ideology of the Nazis. The Germans were the criminals; and the peoples of the Allied powers were the victims. Quantitatively, the largest group of these victims was in Eastern Europe – Jews and citizens of the Soviet Union, who the Nazis killed in the millions.

From the mid-1980s, a new narrative began to creep into public discourse in the West. This maintained that Nazism was not uniquely evil nor solely responsible for the war. Rather Nazism and communism were equally morally repugnant, and Germany and the Soviet Union were mutually responsible for the tragedy. The USSR, rather than being a victim of aggression, was itself one of the prime aggressors of the era.

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At first, this revisionist view was restricted to a narrow group of academics. Most notable was the German historian Ernst Nolte, who in 1986 provoked the Historikerstreit (‘Historians’ Dispute’) in what was then West Germany, by suggesting that the genocidal campaign of the Nazis was just one of many such campaigns by other states, most notably the Soviet Union, in an overall ‘age of genocide’.

This theme was then popularized by certain other historians of an anti-Soviet, and later anti-Russian, bent. But what really gave it legs was the collapse of communism and the rise of nationalism among states of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. In countries such as Poland, Latvia, and post-2014 Ukraine, nationalist leaders have sought to promote their own legitimacy by adopting a strong anti-Russian line, and historical revisionism has proven to be an essential part of their toolkit.

As part of this process, history has been rewritten to portray the Soviet Union as having occupied and oppressed the nations of Eastern Europe during World War II, to suggest a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the communists, and in extreme cases to portray locals who fought alongside the Germans as heroes rather than collaborators. For instance, in Ukraine.

The result has been an anti-revisionist backlash within the Russian Federation. This was demonstrated earlier this year during discussions about amendments to the Russian constitution. These led to the approval of an amendment stating that, “The Russian Federation honours the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland, guarantees the defence of historical truth. Diminution of the significance of the people’s achievement in defending the Fatherland is not permitted.”

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It was in this context that Russian President Vladimir Putin this week denounced any attempt to equate the USSR and Nazi Germany. This followed a complaint by Elena Yampolskaya, a member of the Russian parliament, who noted that two books had recently been published in Russia which suggested similarities between Nazism and communism, and in one case argued that “the Soviets were worse than the Nazis.”

Putin agreed with Yampolskaya’s complaint that this was “absolutely unacceptable.” The Russian Federation should pass legislation similar to that of other countries which criminalizes denial of the Armenian genocide, Putin said, adding that, “We will not allow this heroic page in history to be crossed out.”

In a further contribution to the historical debate, a Russian court this week declared the murder of 2,000 Soviet citizens in north-west Russia during the war to have been “genocide.” This was the first time that German crimes against the Soviet people have received this legal label.

The court’s decision met with a mixed response. The head of the State Archive of the Russian Federation, Sergey Mironenko, argued the court was wrong, because those killed in the case in question were not singled out for their nationality, and so the crime did not constitute genocide. Meanwhile, Nikolai Svanidze, a member of the presidential council on human rights, condemned the judgement as designed to inflame emotions about the Second World War, but completely pointless from a judicial point of view, as those responsible for the crime in question are all long since dead.

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Other reactions, however, were more positive. For instance, Andrey Klimov, a member of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, the Federation Council, argued that, “Today the time has come to discard artificial scrupulousness, to call things by their real names and strengthen this through decisions of the courts.”

With all this, the history of the Second World War has ceased to be a purely academic matter and has turned into a political football which is kicked back and forth between the disputing parties. Eastern European politicians, along with their supporters in Western academia and diaspora groups, are pushing hard the thesis of moral equivalency between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Russian celebrations of victory over the Nazis are portrayed as attempts to “glorify Soviet militarism and violence.” And history, it is said, has been “weaponized by the Kremlin” to justify its neo-imperialist aggression under Vladimir Putin.

In response, Russians are pushing back. Some 14 million Russians died in the Second World War (out of a total of about 27 million Soviet dead). Russian sensitivities on this subject are therefore understandable. This week’s news, however, suggests that there is a danger that in fighting against historical revisionism, they may be going too far. The idea that certain forms of historical discourse should be criminalized is hardly conducive to serious discussion of what are often quite complex phenomena open to multiple interpretations. It also serves to justify the complaints of Russia’s critics that it is an authoritarian state which refuses to tolerate dissent.

Earlier this year, Putin suggested that the Russian government would assemble a huge collection of archival documents, photographs, and other materials documenting the Second World War, and open it to the public. In this way, he said, “we will shut the filthy mouths’ of those who tried to revise the war’s history.”

Certainly, in the eyes of this historian, this is a much better approach to the problem than legal prohibitions or contestable legal decisions. Courts and politicians can say what they like. But ultimately, only openness, not censorship, can reveal the truth.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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