#33 - JRL 2009-166 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
September 4, 2009
Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel:
The Wars of History
Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan S. Burger, Edward Lozansky, Alexander Rahr, Sergei Roy

August 2009 marks the 70th anniversary of one of the most controversial diplomatic episodes in European and Russian history ­ the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 between Nazi Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. How justified are the present-day attempts to draw parallels between Nazi Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union? What political objectives do East European countries pursue with their politically motivated interpretations of history? What would be the right strategy for Russia to defend its legacy as the victor and liberator in World War II?

Many East European countries use the pact as historic evidence of Moscow’s equal blame with Nazi Germany for unleashing World War II, while Russia tries to portray it as a case of Stalin’s calculated realpolitic, which helped him win more time before the inevitable war. As of late, this argument of Nazism’s and Stalinist bolshevism’s equal responsibility has gained increasing popularity.

In July of 2009, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) adopted a resolution (“Uniting a Divided Europe: Defending Human Rights and Civil Liberties in the OSCE Area”) that brought Adolf Hitler’s national socialism in line with Stalinist bolshevism as similar totalitarian regimes, bearing equal responsibility for the outbreak of World War II and the crimes against humanity during that period.

The debate over this OSCE resolution, which Russia strongly opposed but failed to prevent from being adopted, has raised the issue of whether there is a threat of political and legal rehabilitation of national socialism in some East European countries, particularly in the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine.

In Ukraine, President Victor Yushchenko spared no effort in trying to portray Stalin’s regime as genocidal toward ethnic Ukrainians, while seeking to portray Nazi collaborators from the Ukrainian Liberation Army as national heroes who fought for Ukrainian independence and against Stalinist rule.

In the Baltic States, veterans of SS divisions are openly praised as members of the national resistance to the Stalinist regime, while Estonians or Latvians who fought on the Soviet side against the Nazis are portrayed as traitors.

The concept of the “Polish blame” for provoking the Nazi invasion and the ensuing world war has also been taking shape in Russia, resulting in the publication on the official Ministry of Defense Web site of a provocative anti-Polish article that the ministry was quickly forced to disavow.

In a move of true historic significance Prime Minister Vladimir Putin traveled to Poland to deliver a commemorative address on the day World War II began, as Russia and Poland are about to put the so-called Katyn massacre (a mass murder by Stalin’s security forces of 22,000 Polish officers held as war prisoners after the Russian and German attack on Poland in September of 1939) behind them.

How justified are the attempts to draw parallels between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union? Doest this have any bearing on the European politics of today? What political objectives do East European countries pursue with these politically motivated interpretations of history? Should Russia fight Western attempts to equate Stalinist bolshevism with national socialism, or should it ignore them? What would be the right strategy for Russia to defend its legacy as the victor and liberator in World War II?

Alexander Rahr, Director of Russia Program, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin:

The difference of opinions on Russian history of the 20th century in Russia itself and in the rest of the world is dramatic. Outside Russia, Stalin is regarded as the same mass murderer and criminal as Hitler. Particularly problematic is the historic dispute between Russia and Ukraine. What will happen if Yushchenko dares to go as far as proclaiming General Andrey Vlasov, who defected to Hitler and believed in freeing Russia from Stalinism by assisting Hitler, as a "hero"? Russia cannot expect any understanding of its attempts to purify Stalin’s role during the German-Russian division of Eastern Europe in 1939 for one simple reason­because after 1945, it established dictatorial communist regimes in those countries which it successfully liberated from fascism. Politically, Stalin's tactical moves in 1939 may be understood, but morally, he cannot be justified.

The Cold War continued for almost half a century. The historical images and "dogmas" which were formed at that time in the "free" West continue to dominate the globe today, 20 years after the end of communism. One should not forget that more than two million Russians and Ukrainians, who either defected during the war from the Red Army or were captured by the Germans, remained in the West for good after 1945, joining the ranks of those who fought communism. A partial rehabilitation of Stalin that is being done in Russia these days will never go over with today's Western elite thinking, because in the Western view Russia's positive role in defeating Nazi Germany was later largely overshadowed by what the Soviet Union subsequently did in Eastern Europe.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow, Washington, DC:

I think it is very unfortunate that politicians are trying to use the tragic events of the World War II to score some points instead of concentrating on the real problems of today. Humankind as a whole and Europeans in particular could not be proud of how they behaved during that time. The bitter truth is that it would be pretty difficult to find a country whose reputation was impeccable during this most horrible war in human history.

Try searching the Web for “Nazi collaborators” and you will get the names of major Axis powers (Germany, Japan, Italy), minor ones (Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia), as well as endless lists of the so-called co-belligerents and puppet states. In addition, you will see a huge number of non-governmental military and civilian Nazi collaborators, sympathizers, and volunteers in practically every European country and on other continents. Almost 600,000 non-German volunteers joined the Wehrmacht, the auxiliary police (Schutzmannschaft) and the Waffen SS.

Over 60 percent of the total number of the last defenders of Berlin and the Reichstag in April to May 1945 who fought against the Soviet troops came from the Netherlands, France, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, and other parts of Europe.

There are some shocking revelations of U.S. corporate collaboration with Nazi Germany which prompted the following horrifying quote in the Michael Dobbs’ article in the Washington Post, published on November 30, 1998: "‘General Motors (GM) was far more important to the Nazi war machine than Switzerland,’ said Bradford Snell, who has spent two decades researching the history of the world's largest automaker. Switzerland was just a repository of looted funds. GM was an integral part of the German war effort. The Nazis could have invaded Poland and Russia without Switzerland. They could not have done so without GM." Besides GM there were large numbers of U.S. corporate and financial entities working with the Nazis, including at least five companies from the Fortune 500 list. And what about countries that gave refuge to fleeing Nazi criminals? South America was certainly a leader in this disgusting business.

No matter how much one despises the communist regime and Joseph Stalin, it is inadmissible and immoral to deny the obvious: the victory in World War II was achieved by the Allies, but it was the Soviet Union, through its huge loses and sacrifices and people’s heroic actions, that played a major role in liberating the world from the Nazis. It is also inadmissible and immoral to deny that the same Soviet Union occupied the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltics and imposed totalitarian regimes on them for almost 45 years, while all revolts against such regimes in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and even in the Soviet Union itself were brutally suppressed.

However, it was the Russian Federation that liberated the world, including itself, from Soviet-style communism, and actually it was the only country which returned the territories its predecessor the Soviet Union appropriated under the secret protocols of the Molotov ­ Ribbentrop pact. However, Lithuania and Ukraine, for example, still keep some Polish territories and it seems like no one is objecting.

It is time now to leave World War II to historians, put past grievances aside and stop pointing fingers at each other. This will do no one any good. Instead, we should concentrate on the new and enormous security threats the world faces in the 21st century. There is no other way to meet these challenges except forging a close United States ­ Russia ­ Europe security alliance under a unified Euro-Atlantic security system. The sooner we build such a system, the better for everyone, and if we succeed, it would be the best we could do to honor all those who died in World War II, because it would mean that they did not give their lives in vain.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

If you are going for a pleasant stroll through a public park some warm September evening and two skinheads violently attack you with steel pipes, and you have two friends within earshot armed with pistols who can hear your calls for help but do nothing, assuming that you survive, whom are you going to be the most angry with: your "friends," who should have come to your aid, or the skinheads?

It is difficult to measure or develop a framework for comparing levels of evil. How can one assign a value to reprehensible acts? Can one justify killing a small number of people today on the basis of saving a greater number tomorrow? How can one be certain that the committed act will immediately achieve its objective?

There is no debate that Stalin arranged for or permitted his subordinates to kill more people than Hitler. Is one worse than the other? Should we take into account the context in which these killings occurred, or is this a meaningless and perhaps obscene exercise?

Without a doubt, millions of Germans during the Nazi era and millions of Soviets during the time of Stalin's rule were guilty of "crimes against humanity." There is a lot of blame to assign ­ both countries had "willing executioners." Yes, Hitler and Stalin were both products of their time, yet the extent of their crimes could have been reduced or largely avoided.

The Western democracies have no right to be smug. The British and French leaderships behaved "neutrally" during what we have come to call the Spanish Civil War; less than a year after General Francisco Franco declared that conflict over, Germany invaded Poland. The Italian and German governments provided significant support to the Fascist forces.

While the behavior of Britain and France was understandable such a short time after the carnage of World War I, was their refusal to come to the aid of the Spanish Republic justifiable by the principle of non-interference in a "civil war"?

It is highly unlikely that Hitler would have held onto power if the French deployed their army to drive the Germans out of the Rhineland in 1936.

Was it either moral or good judgment for the British and French to permit the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia? Would it have been less reprehensible if the "Western allies" had used this time to strengthen their armed forces, so that they would have been able to deter or rapidly defeat the Germans in 1940? Had the Soviet Union not been excluded from the Munich Conference, would things have turned out otherwise?

Indeed few countries have any right to brag about their conduct during this period (but we should not forget the courage and humanity of many individuals). Many Poles have a selective memory when discussing their country’s anti-Semitic laws in the 1930s.

At the same time, there are more Poles who earned the status of "Righteous Gentile" at Yad Veshem than citizens of other countries. Many Poles fought courageously along with the Allied forces on the "Eastern Front," in North Africa, and at Normandy.

What does a leader owe his people? At the top of the list is their physical protection. Both Hitler and Stalin failed in this respect. Hitler cost millions of civilian and German lives fighting a war that could not be won. Stalin acted against the peoples of the Soviet Union (Balts, Chechens, Jews, Kalmyks, Ukrainians, etc.) from 1928 until his death. Were the Finns the only people who conducted themselves with integrity? Was the Finnish nation "tainted" by its acceptance of support from Germany?

The fact that many Ukrainians and Balts greeted the Nazis as liberators from Soviet oppression is understandable, and the fact that some of them participated in atrocities is indefensible. Were the many Dutch and Frenchmen who served in units willing to fight alongside Germany against the Soviet Union simply opportunists?

There were but a handful of countries willing to accept Jewish survivors/refugees in any large number both before the outbreak of the war as well as afterward. It is hard to put a positive spin on the refusal of Britain and the United States to bomb the railroads to Auschwitz when their aircraft were attacking other targets in the vicinity.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty should have gained the Soviet Union time and space in the event of a German invasion, but Stalin's purges of the Soviet officer corps and his refusal to prepare for the impending invasion allowed the Nazis to reach Minsk in two weeks.

Sergei Roy, Editor, www.guardian-psj.ru, Moscow:

For 70 years since the beginning of World War II, there has been little doubt as to who started hostilities on September 1, 1939. There were too many survivors of the war still around, and their memories were too fresh. The aggressor had been defeated, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, and justly punished ­ or so the world believed.

Now, after all these years of complete clarity, Europe has sort of bethought itself and decided that that was all an historical mistrial. There was more than one aggressor; the Soviet Union was equally responsible, along with Nazi Germany, for the outbreak of the war. Since Germany has been punished enough, the time has now come to punish the Soviet Union, or rather its successor in law, Russia. The Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression Pact is declared to have triggered the war. As Ribbentrop’s Germany is no longer around, Russia (deemed unchanged since Molotov’s times) is the only party available for finger-pointing.

What appears to me to be particularly revealing about the purveyors of this nonsense is their shy unwillingness to trace their views to their actual historical source. Now, who was the first individual to point the finger at the Soviet Union as an aggressor, or potential aggressor? Why, Hitler, that’s who. Hitler repeated his allegation that his assault on the Soviet Union was “pre-emptive” on numerous occasions: in his statement to Stalin on launching the war; in his address to the army on the same day; in October 1941, when the Blitzkrieg flopped and he appealed to the German people for winter clothing for the soldiers on the Eastern front, lying like mad that in May the situation was so threatening that there could be no longer any doubt that Russia intended to fall upon us at the first opportunity; and again in May of 1942.

After the war, this explanation was trotted out by some of the German war criminals at the Nuremberg trials. Later there arose a whole school of historiography, now flourishing in German-speaking countries, whose adherents are busy rewriting history to prove the “rationality and legitimacy” of Nazi Germany’s politics.

This despite the fact that German intelligence never came up with any information about Soviet preparations for aggression. The more forthright of the German generals, like Friedrich von Paulus, Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein, reluctantly admitted this fact. Moreover, in September of 1940 Lieutenant General Ernst Kostring wrote to General Franz Halder that the Red Army was in ruins after Stalin’s purges, and that it would require at least three years to reach its pre-war level.

Indeed, it was a funny way of preparing for aggression against Germany on Stalin’s part, executing within the space of one year, in a bid to establish an unchallenged dictatorship, some 36,700 commanders in the army and 3,000 in the navy ­ military district chiefs of staff, corps and divisional commanders, staff officers and chiefs of staff down to regimental level.

These awkward historical facts notwithstanding, pro-Hitler propaganda about the start of the war is still peddled by various Russia-haters. Ernst “Revisionist” Topitsch insists that World War II was, in fact, a “Soviet attack on the Western democracies, in which Germany served only as a military surrogate.” I guess it’s fair to say that balderdash like this serves as present-day Hitler apologists’ surrogate for history. A history in which topics like Hitler’s ideological plan outlined in Mein Kampf, the whole of the Third Reich’s ideological tenets on a superior race expanding its Lebensraum, are simply brushed aside.

It is really revolting to see the OSCE joining a bunch of Nazi sympathizers, a move guaranteed to keep Europe divided rather than united. Holding different historiographical views is one thing. Branding millions of Soviet soldiers who died to stop a pan-European holocaust as aggressors is quite another. Too much like spitting on their graves.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

While I would not have recommended the OSCE resolution, the issue is not one of equating Nazism with Stalinism. The similarities and the unique aspects of each monstrosity should be studied dispassionately and with true academic rigor.

Nonetheless, Moscow has nobody to blame for this impasse but itself. The Putin regime long ago made a calculated decision to slam the door on a frank study of Soviet history, to glorify Stalin's wartime and imperial policies, and to draw a veil of silence on the horrors of Stalin not to mention Lenin, no mean mass killer himself.

Admittedly the East European states are using history for nationalist purposes, but the success and utility of such calls were first revealed by Moscow. Indeed, the reason for the ever louder invocation of these cards is Moscow's stonewalling on the truth.

The continuing glorification of Stalin, e.g., in refurbished metro stations (can anyone imagine the Germans using Hitler quotes in renovated Berlin buildings?) epitomizes the process. As long as Russia refuses to come clean about its past, it will be a morally perverted and politically dangerous society that cannot be trusted.

Russia should learn from Germany's example (who is Russia's Willy Brandt?) that genuine contrition and acknowledgment of the truth breeds respect, while Japan is still distrusted because, like Russia, it cannot bring itself to open the debate and tell the truth.

Because Russia will not tell the truth and its leaders still want to reap the benefits of associating themselves with Stalin by putting a positive glow on his actions, they must bear the responsibility for the costs that Russia will continue to incur. Indeed, the Russian Federation, because it will not acknowledge the truth, remains the last and by no means least of Stalin's posthumous victims.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., United States:

Although the cynic who defined history as "politics directed at the past" is himself long gone, this writer is of the firm opinion that there is indeed a genuine, objective science of history - based on facts, verifiable through source data. Everything else that claims to be "history" is anything but that science.

Under the guise of "history" we witness yet another variant of political propaganda, with murky objectives, perhaps not understood even by its own mouthpieces. There are several distinct themes in the tangled and contrived narrative about the start of World War II now circulating in Eastern Europe. It is notable that this narrative is rather specific to that region, and to a narrow circle of propagandists, claiming to be "historians."

One theme is to blame the Soviet Union for the start of hostilities in 1939.

The alleged fulcrum is the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. There is no logical explanation why this particular agreement is selected, unless one recognizes that the purpose of the discussion is to somehow involve modern Russia in events that are 70 years in the past. Why is the Soviet-German Pact the cause of hostilities rather than the Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact of slightly earlier vintage, or the Munich Agreement ceding the Sudeten area to Germany, or the Versailles Peace Conference that created the Sudeten German problem in the first place (U.S. President Woodrow Wilson thus violating his own principles of national self-determination), or the French defeat in Sedan, or perhaps Prince Otto van Bismarck, who unified modern Germany?

The chain of causality can be manipulated at will, so it is obvious that the central idea of the above theme is not any kind of serious scientific enquiry, but straight anti-Russian propaganda. It is not surprising therefore that Russians, who as a nation have been harmed the most by World War II, are righteously angered by the insinuation. This is how xenophobia is engendered.

Determining culpability in hostilities through analysis of diplomatic activities is futile. Human affairs are very complex, and chains of causality are many, and chains of events are susceptible to dishonest selectivity. There is a truly scientific method to identify the culprit in a war, based on the epistemologically parsimonious science of the venerable William of Ockham. It is simple. Who fired the first shot? In World War II this fact is known and unambiguous. It was Nazi Germany. It is almost embarrassing to have to re-state such basic truths.

Another theme is the comparison of Nazi Germany with the Soviet Union.

Because a truly scientific treatment of the subject would be vast and would require huge volumes of verbiage, paradoxically the comparison is more susceptible to a "sound bite" treatment. In reality the two countries, societies and political systems were extremely different. This recognition does not imply a justification of Stalinism, or a preference for either system, of course. But to compare or equate the two societies (the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany) indicates either intellectual frivolity or intellectual dishonesty.

What can modern Russia do about these crooked ideas? One thing has been done: the Germany-Soviet Union Non-Aggression Pact has been denounced by the highest legislative authorities of the Russian Federation, as Putin recently reminded the world in Gdansk. Another thing that can be done is education of the world community about the processes that took place 70 years ago. Yet one must also recognize that for those who direct their xenophobia toward Russia and the Russians, ultimately no factual argument will be convincing. They operate beyond logic and scientific facts. We believe that these propagandists of xenophobia will be inevitably marginalized by the world community.

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