Tag Archives: historical revisionism

Criminalizing History

This past week, historical interpretations of the Second World War have again been making headlines in Russia. Parliamentary deputy Elena Yampolskaya demanded legislation to prohibit writings which claim that Nazism and Soviet communism were morally equivalent. President Vladimir Putin agreed. Russia, he said, should have laws like those in other countries which prohibit denial of the Armenian genocide. Meanwhile, a regional Russian court declared the murder by German troops of 2,000 Russians in north-west Russia during the war to have been genocide. This was a first. The ‘g’ word had never previously been applied to Russian victims.

All this is a reaction to efforts by some in Europe and North America to paint the Soviet Union as equally guilty for the Second World War as Nazi Germany, in the hope thereby of discrediting modern Russia. I discuss all this in my latest article on RT, which you can read here. I won’t therefore repeat everything I said there, but I feel that it’s worth expanding on my conclusion, to explain my position more fully.

At the end of my RT article, I note that Russians are rightly sensitive about the memory of the Second World War, but that legal prohibition of certain historical interpretations is not the right way of dealing with the problem. Let me explain this a bit more.

A good place to start is the example Putin used – laws prohibiting genocide denial. I’m against such laws. If the law is specific – i.e. it prohibits denial of a specific genocide – then one has to ask why this particular historical event has been singled out and others have not been included. As I have argued before, the answer is inevitably political. Such legislation is often not really interested in historical truth, but in targeting a given nation whom a particular group wants targeted. When Ukrainian-Canadians, for instance, request that the Canadian parliament recognize the Soviet deportation of the Crimean Tatars as genocide, it’s obviously a political act, designed to worsen Russian-Canadian relations. It’s got nothing to do with history. I don’t see that this is productive.

The second problem is one of definition. What is genocide? And who determines whether a given case fits the definition? Many Ukrainians claim that the famine which struck Ukraine (and other parts of the Soviet Union, notably Kazakhstan) in 1932-33 was an act of genocide. Should we therefore ban Holodomor genocide denial?? I’d say not. The use of the term genocide in that instance is highly debated. Some historians agree with the label, but others insist that it is inappropriate. Do we really want to leave it to politicians to adjudicate historical disputes, determine which cases are genocide and which are not, and then punish those who disagree with them? As a historian, my answer is quite categorically ‘no’.

Do I think that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were equally guilty for the Second World War, and committed equally reprehensible crimes? As I’ve said before, no, I don’t. But does that mean that the Soviet Union was guilt free? No, also. Were Nazism and communism morally equivalent? Overall, I’d say not, but I do think that there is some value in considering similarities (as well as differences) and putting them both within some common context of a collapse of liberal institutions, an era of radical extremism, and so on. Legislation of the sort proposed by Putin and Yampolskaya would put a stop to quite legitimate historical discussion.

As usual, there is a domestic political element to all this. On Wednesday night, the Russian political talk show ‘Evening with Vladimir Solovyov’ devoted a considerable amount of time to this issue, with one of the guests being Ms Yampolskaya herself. After she had reiterated her reasons for legislation to regulate historical discussion, the political analyst Sergei Mikheev had his say. Mikheev has joined Zakhar Prilepin’s new nationalist ‘For Truth’ party, and his comments give a bit of a flavour of how the Russian right thinks.

The problem, said Mikheev, was that the people who say this stuff equating communism and Nazism have a ‘roof’ – i.e. somebody in power is protecting them and allowing them to get away with it. A certain radio station was mentioned, without being named, but it’s pretty obvious that Mikheev had in mind the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio. Something needs to be done, Mikheev implied.

Host Vladimir Solovyov then named some names – Dmitry Bykov, for instance. Bykov praised Soviet general Andrei Vlasov, who joined the Germans and raised an anti-Soviet army. Yet newspapers still publish him. Why? Who’s protecting him? Film director Karen Shakhnazarov had an idea – it was the ‘comprador intelligentsia’ who were to blame.

This is where one begins to get a little worried. For legislation liked that proposed by Yampoloskaya could end up being used to reckon with political enemies, especially among Russia’s few remaining liberals. You can see how this could play out. Somebody on Ekho Moskvy says something which somebody interprets as contrary to the new law on historical interpretation. Ekho Moskvy then gets slapped with a big fine or closed down (unless of course, its ‘roof’ somehow protects it). And so, the room for debate in Russia gets even smaller than before. And that, perhaps, is the purpose. The legislation isn’t really about history. It’s about grinding Russian liberals even further into the dust.

You might say that the liberals deserve it, for adopting an idiotic and, it must be said, incredibly unpopular position on the topic of historical memory. But I say, let them suffer for it at the ballot box, as they surely will. There’s no reason to chuck the law book at them.

Basically, when it comes down to it, as a historian I think that these matters are best left to historians and to readers of history to decide. It’s not for politicians to provide cast-iron interpretations of historical events which all must legally accept, in fear of punishment if they do not. I guess that you could accuse me of narrow professional self-interest, seeking as I do to protect my profession from state interference. Well, so be it. I don’t want the state telling me what I can and cannot write. And I don’t think anybody else should want that either.

Joint Statement on the 75th Anniversary of the End of the Second World War

Co-signed by the foreign ministers of a bunch of Eastern European states, including Hitler’s one-time allies Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, the following statement of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on the website of the US State Department yesterday, to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Nazi Germany gets one brief mention. Thereafter, as you will see, it’s all ‘The Soviets were evil, the Soviets were evil’. To say the least it’s a very odd way of commemorating WW2. Just who does the State Department think was the enemy?

Best of all, stuffed in the middle is a complaint about ‘a regrettable effort to falsify history’. Go figure!

 

The following is a joint statement by the U. S. Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

Begin text:

Marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2020, we pay tribute to the victims and to all soldiers who fought to defeat Nazi Germany and put an end to the Holocaust.

While May 1945 brought the end of the Second World War in Europe, it did not bring freedom to all of Europe. The central and eastern part of the continent remained under the rule of communist regimes for almost 50 years. The Baltic States were illegally occupied and annexed and the iron grip over the other captive nations was enforced by the Soviet Union using overwhelming military force, repression, and ideological control.

For many decades, numerous Europeans from the central and eastern part of the continent sacrificed their lives striving for freedom, as millions were deprived of their rights and fundamental freedoms, subjected to torture and forced displacement. Societies behind the Iron Curtain desperately sought a path to democracy and independence.

The events of 1956, creation and activities of the Charter 77, the Solidarity movement, the Baltic Way, the Autumn of Nations of 1989, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall were important milestones which contributed decisively to the recreation of freedom and democracy in Europe.

Today, we are working together toward a strong and free Europe, where human rights, democracy and the rule of law prevail. The future should be based on the facts of history and justice for the victims of totalitarian regimes. We are ready for dialogue with all those interested in pursuing these principles. Manipulating the historical events that led to the Second World War and to the division of Europe in the aftermath of the war constitutes a regrettable effort to falsify history.

We would like to remind all members of the international community that lasting international security, stability and peace requires genuine and continuous adherence to international law and norms, including the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states.  By learning the cruel lessons of the Second World War, we call on the international community to join us in firmly rejecting the concept of spheres of influence and insisting on equality of all sovereign nations.

End text.

False equivalencies

The 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact a few days ago had the Canadian press energized into one of its regular frenzies of Russia-bashing. These tend to be rather repetitive and unoriginal, and as such best ignored. But this time round it took a particular form which I think is worth some examination.

First out was former Conservative minister Chris Alexander in an article in the Globe and Mail. In this he told readers that Vladimir Putin’s goal was to ‘discredit democracy … [and] bolster dictatorship as an alternative’, adding that ‘no country has embraced this kind of trespass – warfare, really – with greater abandon than Vladimir Putin’s Russia’. What inspires Putin, claims Alexander, is ‘Stalinist nostalgia’. The Russian president and his acolytes look to a ‘world in which Stalin is a model … today’s Kremlin refuses to accept any criticism of either Stalin or Mr Putin. That’s because their actions have been so similar’.

Alexander continues that ‘Free historical inquiry into the Second World War has been all but shut down in Russia’. He then links this to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, claiming that this provides the model for Russia’s ‘invasions’ of Georgia and Ukraine. Thus,

Far from absorbing the lessons of Stalin’s deadly embrace of Hitler, today’s Kremlin is reprising it by illegally annexing territory, aggressively undermining democracy and vaingloriously touting a toxic cult of personality as a model for the world. The ‘end of history’ … has given way to the ‘end of logic’, with Stalin’s dark role now inspiring a widening tragedy under Mr. Putin.

Following in Chris Alexander’s wake, Canadian-Estonian activist Marcus Kolga had much the same to say in the Toronto Sun. Kolga has a real chip on his shoulder about the way that Russians misrepresent the Second World War, in particular their weird belief that the Soviet Union ‘liberated’ eastern Europe from the Nazis. Kolga wishes to disabuse us of this fiction, and to this end tell us, like Alexander, that ‘Putin has overseen an aggressive rehabilitation of Stalin’s bloody legacy, and the rewriting of history to officially erase dangerously inconvenient historical facts, such as the Nazi-Soviet Pact.’ To Kolga, fascism and communism were really one and the same thing. As he writes:

In a September 1939 editorial, The New York Times reacted to the signing of what’s become known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, suggesting that ideologically, the Nazis and Soviets were not that far apart stating that ‘Hitlerism is brown communism, Stalinism is red fascism.’ Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini shared that view, believing that Stalin had shifted the Soviet Union away from Bolshevism to a form of fascism in October 1939.

It’s not often that one reads someone quoting Mussolini approvingly, but there you have it. The Soviets didn’t liberate eastern Europe. They merely replaced one form of fascism with another. By claiming otherwise, ‘Vladimir Putin’ and others ‘distort history and truth’.

Canadian-Ukrainian professor Lubomyr Luciuk agrees. Writing in the Vancouver Sun, he informs us that not just Putin but also,

Moscow shills and their fellow travellers are more than duplicitous. They are dangerous. For they are trying to rewrite the history of the Second World War, to obfuscate not just the dates on which the war began, and ended, but to confound us about who the villains were. They are spreading fake news here, today, across Canada.

Most of those who died in the Soviet Union during World War Two ‘were not Russian’, says Luciuk. The greatest losses were in Ukraine and Belarus. More importantly, though,

We must not forget that the Soviet Union was not our ally when the Second World War began. On that date, Stalin stood with Hitler … we must never forget that Moscow’s men not only fuelled the Second World War but joined our side only after the holocaust they had stoked began to burn their empire down. Let us not forget that, at least not today.

As I see it, there are two things going on in these articles. The first is an effort to equate contemporary Russia with the Soviet Union, in particular the Soviet Union under Stalin, by means of claims that Putin is ‘rehabilitating’ Stalin. The second is an attempt to equate communism and Nazism. Put together, the net effect is to equate contemporary Russia with Nazi Germany, and Putin with Hitler.

The problem with this approach is that it’s based on falsehood. As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, the idea that Putin is rehabilitating Stalin is entirely untrue. (There is more than enough evidence to prove this point, but rather than repeat it all here, I refer you instead to my recent post on the issue). More broadly, equating contemporary Russia with the Soviet Union, let alone the Soviet Union under Stalin, is absurd. Attempts to claim otherwise can be the result only of either willful ignorance or deliberate deceit.

What then of the effort to equate communism and Nazism? Superficially, one can see the attraction. After all, both the Soviets and the Nazis engaged in acts of conquest in Eastern Europe, and their conquests were accompanied by widespread repression. But once you start looking at the matter more closely, you see that the comparison is devoid of merit. The Nazis came intending genocide; the Soviets did not. The Nazis sought to eliminate all the signs and institutions of statehood of the conquered peoples; the Soviets did not – while they absorbed the Baltic states and parts of Belarus and Ukraine, they preserved those states as autonomous entities within their Union, and likewise when they overran countries like Poland, Romania, and Hungary they maintained them as independent states. This was far removed from Nazi practice.

Furthermore, the Nazis came as colonizers. Not only did they aim to displace the existing population, but they were interested in their captured territories only in terms of extracting resources. By contrast, the Soviets invested heavily in developing the lands they occupied, creating industry, educating the population, and supporting cultural endeavours. It could well be argued that they didn’t do a very good job of it, but the difference in intent was enormous – the one overtly destructive; the other, at least in theory, constructive.

Alexander, Kolga and Luciuk all make reference to historical truth, which they contrast with Russian ‘disinformation’. In reality, though, they peddle a simplistic, propagandistic, and untrue story designed to inflame international tensions. Those who rewrite the past are ‘dangerous’, Luciuk tells us. On that at least, I have to agree with him.