History plays tricks with all of us. Not the least of its ironies is that the last prisoners in the place whose name symbolises the very depths of inhumanity were freed – 75 years ago yesterday – by the agents of a totalitarian dictatorship.
Nonetheless, the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army, now commemorated by International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was a real liberation. So, more generally, was the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe: even though some of the troops, and the governments they helped install, remained there for more than 40 years.
But moral equivalence is alive and well. Last year, for the 70th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, the European parliament approved a resolution that fails to make any distinction between the crimes of the two totalitarian powers. And last week the prime minister of Poland, whose government rarely agrees with the European parliament, argued that “Far from being a ‘liberator,’ the Soviet Union was a facilitator of Nazi Germany and a perpetrator of crimes of its own.”
On the other side, Russian president Vladimir Putin was equally uninterested in nuance. His mission was to absolve Russia of any historical guilt, putting the blame not only on the Nazis but also on Russia’s historic enemies, the Poles. And he scored a victory with an invitation to address the official commemorative event at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem – prompting a boycott by Polish president Andrzej Duda, who had not been asked to speak.
It’s no surprise that both sides are distorting history for their own purposes. The Poles don’t want to remind us, for example, that the territory the Soviets took in the 1939 partition was not ethnically Polish to start with, just as Putin would rather we forgot about Stalin’s strategic decision to let the Germans crush the Warsaw rising of 1944 rather than lend any assistance.
If you want to pursue the historical claims, Sergey Radchenko in Foreign Policy gives a very good account. Here’s his summary:
Putin’s revisionist history lessons are not convincing, even though some of the evidence he cites is valid on its own merits, and his broader point about shared responsibility for the outbreak of World War II is not unreasonable. …
Putin is right to critique the notion—embraced in the resolution of the European Parliament—that Moscow and Berlin were equally responsible. … At the same time, denying any Soviet responsibility, as Putin has done, is equally unwise.
But the controversy is also an illustration of some of the tangled politics of today’s world. Putin has been a patron for the authoritarian right for more than a decade; as the impeachment trial in Washington is demonstrating, many on the right have become used to treating him as an ally and following along with his foreign policy interests.
Those politicians do not now want to be told that the Communists were blameless in the Second World War and that we need to go back to demonising the Nazis and their fellow-travellers. So should they risk alienating Putin, or stay quiet and swallow his historical line at the price of some cognitive dissonance?
For the Poles, the choice is easy: even though its government is on the hard right, it has never been pro-Russian. The country’s history has too strong a grip.
But elsewhere things are not so clear-cut. Particularly interesting is the way the issue has exposed the close relationship between Putin and another hard right leader, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Amos Harel in Ha’aretz remarked that “This is a minefield, but Israel appears to be leaping right into the middle of it with youthful exuberance.”
As the Second World War itself demonstrated on a ghastly scale, a world dominated by authoritarian regimes is not a peaceful one. That’s true even if they claim a common ideological inspiration – and especially if that ideology is nationalism, since different nationalisms are not even compatible in principle.
Memories of the Holocaust mostly succeeded in keeping far-right politics off the table in the democratic world for a long time. Now that that effect seems to be waning, it’s only appropriate that historical memory should become contested territory.
For a final word, go to Amos Goldberg, as quoted by Bernard Avishai in the New Yorker:
The Israeli, Polish, and Russian governments, all custodians of grim histories, are also reactionary populists—all using memory to make their nations dangerously self-justifying. For Israel, this means insisting that Polish anti-Semitism is endemic; for Poland, it means seeing Polish anti-Semitism as episodic. But this is not a real fight over history. It is a rival “memory” in the service of a similar politics.