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1 Sep, 2009 10:41

ROAR: History, politics clash over WWII

ROAR: History, politics clash over WWII

It is quite understandable why many in Russia have protested against distortions of the history of the Second World War. The Soviet Union suffered the heaviest losses during that period.

Attempts in the West to equal the USSR’s role to that of Germany in starting the war have provoked a rapid response from Russian historians.

However, it is not only “an international issue” for Russia. The first meeting of a new presidential commission for counteracting attempts to falsify history took place on August 28. Sergey Naryshkin, head of the presidential administration, said that the new commission was not going “to rewrite history”.

The main task is to “help scholars and specialists cleanse history of fabrications and political lies,” Naryshkin said. Members of the new panel also stressed it would not be turned into “a censor or an oversight body.”

School textbooks have become the main topic discussed at the meeting, Kommersant daily wrote. “This issue has long been painful for the Russian leadership,” the paper said. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has many times criticized the present textbooks and stressed that schools lack books that “could describe the events of recent history in an impartial way,” the daily said.

President Dmitry Medvedev, in his turn, in February described some school textbooks as “monstrous”. At the same time, Nikolay Naumov, Professor of History at Moscow State University, told Kommersant: “It is impossible to control different points of view by the interference of such commissions in the present situation.”

Textbooks for schools and universities in all countries cannot “avoid an ideological interpretation of historic facts,” Naumov said. However, it is important “to minimize arbitrary interpretation of political conjuncture,” he added. Only a “corporation of historians” is able to weed out textbooks that distort history, Naumov said.

It is even more difficult to fight distortions of history at the international level. The last month has seen a wave of commentaries, reports and analytical pieces in the Russian media dedicated to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the beginning of World War II.

Almost every publication stressed the differences in the approach to the events of WWII in Russia and abroad. Some politicians and historians in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States tend to hold the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany equally responsible for the outbreak of the war.

The issues of the past still determine in many ways relations between Moscow and former states of the Eastern Bloc. The opinion of the West depends on new members of the EU, which “have a grudge against Russia,” Aleksey Chesnakov, Director of the Center for Political Conjuncture, has said.

Chesnakov believes that Russia should not have to justify itself. “It is enough to recognize and condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact once, and we have done this long ago,” he wrote in Profil magazine.

“Who should we justify ourselves before?” Chesnakov asks. “Before those people whose fathers and grandfathers served in Waffen SS or mopped up the Warsaw ghetto?” He added that an exact analysis of attacks against Russia is needed.

“In all the latest resolutions, despite ambiguities, a political sentence is being passed onto the Russian people rather than on the USSR’s communist regime,” Chesnakov said. He believes that in this way the task of the consolidation of new Europe is being decided. The new European identity will be built on “a nationalist basis easily understood by them – on the basis of dislike for Russians,” he said.

Despite the present problems in relations with European partners, Russia should develop cooperation with them in many fields and discuss the mutual future, Chesnakov said. And “rewriting textbooks” is not the most important part of this cooperation, he stressed.

History should not once again fall a victim to modern politicians, many analysts stress. “If history is being used to support current governments and political stances, then it is inevitably going to be distorted history,” David Marples, a distinguished university Professor at the University of Alberta, told RT.

He believes that “revisionism of the Second World War, particularly the Russian (which in essence is the former Soviet) version of the war, will continue because more information is becoming extant. Historians have every right to question long-held opinions,” he said.

Marples said that Poland “was singled out for harsh treatment by both the Germans (first) and then the Soviets, and the Baltic States never regarded the formation of [the Republics of the USSR] as anything other than occupation.”

Russia in recent years has adopted a policy toward the wartime history that is different to what it was under President Boris Yeltsin, Marples noted. He believes it was a “response to antithetical actions by neighboring states that are now rewriting their histories of these years.”

“That doesn’t justify monopolizing interpretations of history in this fashion, which undermine historical accuracy and the freedom of historians to carry out objective research,” he said.

At the same time, many say that there should be accuracy on both sides. The claims of Polish nationalists demanding apologies from Russia are “absurd”, Sergey Nazaria, head of the Center of Analysis and Prognosis of Moldova, believes.

“In the recent past the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, the President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin have recognized the Katyn tragedy and asked the Polish people for forgiveness,” Nazaria told Regnum news agency. “Does this mean that every new Russian leader will have to offer an apology till the end of time?” he said.

As for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Poland itself between the two wars had territorial claims to all its neighbors except Romania, Nazaria said, adding that Poles “tore a part of Czechoslovakia in 1938.”

Another historian, Natalya Narochnitskaya, was quoted by Vesti TV channel as saying: “Serious Polish politicians who know policies of their leadership in 1938-39, understand well that in response to their accusations we may present the documents that will not glorify the Polish power that describes itself as sinless.”

Nazaria, in his turn, added that the Soviet people lost more than half a million lives for the liberation of the modern Polish territory. It was a gigantic price to pay for the freedom of the Polish people made by the Soviet soldiers, whom the present Polish patriots call “occupants”, he said.

Sergey Borisov, RT