Lest we forget? Western amnesia about Soviet role in WWII victory has some disturbing aspects…

John Laughland

John Laughland, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford and who has taught at universities in Paris and Rome, is a historian and specialist in international affairs.

In the autumn of 1944, 75 years ago, the Red Army reached the borders of the German Reich; cities such as Minsk, Vilnius, and Brest having been liberated in July as Soviet forces swept West.

Today, the Russian Federation celebrates these victories with the same emotion and pride as Western allies celebrate the Normandy landings and the subsequent battle for France, which occurred at the same time.

Yet, certain EU countries, notably the Baltic states, have called these Russian celebrations “a provocation.” They even summoned Russian ambassadors in protest, saying the Red Army had not brought liberation but instead just another occupation. Their attitude is in stark contrast to that of successive German governments whose most senior representatives have been happy to be associated with the Allies’ celebrations for years, even though their country was not only occupied after 1945 but also divided into two mutually-hostile states.

The sour attitude of the Balts is part of a much bigger problem, namely a self-congratulatory Western amnesia about the role of the Soviet Union in WWII. It is safe to say that the German-Russian war of 1941-1945 was by far the bloodiest conflict in human history; and moreover that the fighting in the East dwarfed anything that happened in the West. Hitler’s occupation of Western Europe was nothing but a prelude to his real goal, the subjection of Eastern Europe and parts of the Soviet Union to German domination in pursuit of the Nazi project of establishing “living space” (Lebensraum) for ethnic Germans there. Yet, the decisive role of the USSR in defeating Nazi Germany has been eradicated from the collective memory of the West – President Putin was not even invited to this year’s Normandy celebrations – and instead the war is remembered only as a victory for liberal democracies against two equally evil totalitarianisms.

Residents of liberated Sofia greeting Red Army soldiers. 09.09.1944 © Sputnik

This amnesia is not reciprocated on the Russian side. Although the Soviet military effort and, above all, the terrible suffering inflicted on the civilian population (more than 26 million Soviet citizens died in the war, in contrast to about 400,000 each in Britain and America) is overlooked in the West, Russians today cherish fondly the memory of the East-West alliance that brought Germany to her knees.

They recall, including in ceremonies and celebrations, the fraternal meeting between the US and Soviet troops on the Elbe on April 25, 1945. In their public statements they say that the war was won thanks only to a common effort, and that one side on its own could not have prevailed against Hitler. This is about as obvious a statement of geopolitical fact as it is possible to imagine. Alas, Western minds, polluted by their obsession that they embody universal values which must necessarily win because they are on the right side of history, forget it.

The 2nd Belorussian Front troops liberated the town of Bialystok during the Bialystok operation. Bialystok residents greeting the Soviet liberators. © Sputnik

There is a further aspect of Western amnesia which is disturbing. The Nazi obsession with eradicating the Jews, which was put into operation by the bullet as soon as Poland was invaded, and thus long before the notorious gas chambers were constructed, was only a part – even if it is the most shocking part – of a larger plan of racial extermination which included Slavs.

In June 1942, a senior German academic and specialist in agriculture sent Himmler a project for the settlement of Germans in the Eastern territories which foresaw the elimination by deportation, starvation or murder of tens of millions of Slavs – Poles, Ukrainians, Belarussian, and so on. This “Generalplan Ost” is largely forgotten about today because we remember instead the industrial murder of Jews. But that horror should not be allowed to obscure other horrors, especially since the persecution of Slavs was at the forefront of everyone’s mind when the plans were first laid to prosecute the Nazi leadership after the war but before the Holocaust was properly understood. In his report to President Truman dated 6 June 1945, Robert Jackson, the former Attorney General who was to become the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, cited the persecution of Poles and other Slav peoples in the occupied parts of Eastern Europe, but said not a word about Jews.

However, “amnesia” is not an adequate explanation for the official position of the Baltic states on the events of 1940-1945. “Dishonesty” or “distortion” would be more accurate to describe those countries’ claim that they were “occupied” by the Soviet Union in 1940, and then again after 1945.

This theory of occupation is used to claim the historical continuity of the Baltic states after 1991 with the inter-war independent Baltic states but it is untrue. Those states were not occupied by the USSR but instead annexed by it and fully integrated into the Soviet state. This is a totally different regime from occupation because it meant that the Balts became Soviet citizens with the same rights – and the same suffering – as Russians and all the other nationalities of the Soviet state.

The Baltic theory of “occupation” also conveniently overlooks the fact that Latvia and Estonia, who today denounce the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of non-aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, signed on 23 August 1939, as a moral outrage, themselves signed non-aggression pacts with Hitler in June 1939. (Those treaties can be consulted here, pages 49 and 105.)

Moreover, they did so not only to protect themselves but also out of ideological affinity with Nazism; Latvia and Estonia had become dictatorships in the mid-1930s: the president of Latvia, Karlis Ulmanis, was greeted with Nazi salutes when he seized power and banned all political parties in 1934. This inconvenient fact did not stop Latvia seeking out Ulmanis’ great-nephew Guntis to become president after the collapse of the USSR, in a show of historical continuity with the pre-war state and in order to maintain the fiction of occupation. So much for the pretence that the Baltic states were democratic before 1940.

The Balts today pretend that the period of “occupation” was one of ethnic domination by Russians over ethnic Balts but this is also nonsense. Russians might as well claim that they were subject to Georgian dictatorship under Stalin. The fact is that the Soviet system was brutal for all Soviet citizens and that more Russians suffered under it than other nationalities. The Soviet elite believed that its system was the best in the world and it introduced the same regime all over the territory of the USSR without national discrimination. It is precisely this issue which radically distinguishes Soviet Communism from Nazism, and  therefore makes it absurd to treat the two regimes as if they were equal.

The Russians have every right to recall their finest hour with pride, just as the British do. The sorry history of the Cold War lay in the future in 1944; it did not break out properly until 1948 and who knows how the USSR itself might have evolved if, as Stalin proposed, a central European buffer zone of neutral states including a non-aligned Germany had been accepted in the West? The Balts played a big role in the Soviet state after 1945, as they had done in early Bolshevism, and they should not be allowed to airbrush their own national responsibilities out of the picture any more than anyone else.

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