In an interview, a Polish historian says that showing parallel repressions and annihilations by regimes does not mean to relativize them. And he claims that the head of the Kremlin tries to cover up uncomfortable facts in the story.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to strengthen his historic and political position 80 years after the Wehrmacht (Armed Forces of the Nazi regime) invaded the Soviet Union. He recommended that the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, introduce a bill to explicitly prohibit public comparison of the role of the USSR and Nazi Germany in World War II.
In 2020, Putin downplayed the Soviet Union’s responsibility for the outbreak of war and the Hitler-Stalin Pact in an essay on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. The German-Soviet non-aggression pact also contained, among other things, a secret protocol with an agreement on the partition of Poland and Eastern Europe. Hitler broke the non-aggression pact, and his army invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
World War II is still alive in the collective memory of Russian citizens. And in this collective memory, the Soviet Union has two roles: that of the attacked victim and that of the victorious power at the end of the conflict. What happened between 1939 and 1941 is often overlooked.
Polish historian and memory culture expert Krzysztof Ruchniewicz says in an interview with DW that Putin is deliberately trying to overshadow uncomfortable facts. Professor of history at the University of Wrocaw and director of the Willy Brandt Center for German and European Studies, he struggles against the political instrumentalization of history.
Deutsche Welle: How do you assess the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin? Is it even possible to compare the roles of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union in World War II?
Krzysztof Ruchniewicz: Comparison is one of the most fundamental historical research methods. In this particular case, it should be noted that Germany and the USSR developed close cooperation after the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. As a result of this pact – and the signing of the so-called secret protocol – Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, while the USSR attacked Poland on September 17th. The cooperation between the two countries lasted until the outbreak of the German-Soviet war, that is, until June 22, 1941. As the “Great Patriotic War” is still getting a lot of attention in Russia, Russian President Putin deliberately seeks out obfuscate uncomfortable facts.
It must be remembered that not only Poland was invaded. The Soviet Union also occupied the Baltic countries. In each of these territories the Soviet order was established, the elements of which included repression, the extermination of the elite, and the deportation of hundreds of thousands into the interior of the USSR, into exile, and into the Soviet labor camps. The occupation policies of Germany and the USSR between 1939 and 1941 can be compared, being even a necessary procedure to show the specificity of each and demonstrate the functioning of two totalitarian regimes in their dominated territories.
Would you compare Josef Stalin to Adolf Hitler? If so, what would this comparison look like?
Comparative studies between Hitler and Stalin do not try to place them as similar, but to highlight peculiarities, also in the context of the historical environment of the time. None of these dictators operated in empty space. There are publications that juxtapose the biographies of the two dictators, including perhaps Alan Bullock’s best-known 1991 study.
Germany under Hitler and the USSR under Stalin were totalitarian states. They differed in their approach to ideological questions. People or groups identified as hostile or undesirable were exterminated. Despite this, despite all ideological differences, the interests of individual dictators did not prevent the conclusion of an alliance. What mattered were the needs of a particular historical moment.
After the German attack, the Soviet Union went from perpetrator to victim, and increasingly to an important member of the anti-Hitler coalition. However, the USSR did not cease to be a totalitarian state even after 1944-45. Furthermore, after World War II, it extended its influence to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland, which the USSR not only subjugated but also profoundly transformed, that is, Sovietized.
Would the Holocaust and other crimes committed by the Germans in World War II be put into perspective by comparing them to the Soviet Union?
It’s two different things. In each case, we look at the specifics. In general, we can say that Nazi crimes were racially motivated, while Soviet crimes were related to class conditions. Both systems were criminals and killed millions. Millions who survived the repression were crippled or psychologically ill, even today the victims’ descendants also suffer the consequences of post-war trauma. In long-term confinements in Soviet camps, we also have biographies destroyed.
To show repressions and annihilations in parallel does not mean to relativize them. A comparison further complements the picture of the 20th century, especially its dark decades, the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. A comparison highlights different groups of victims of totalitarianism, including those that have received little attention so far – even due to the aforementioned fear of relativization. In my opinion, this does not diminish the importance of the Holocaust, neither in research nor in collective memory.
Why is a discussion of crimes in World War II often limited to the role of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany?
Germany caused the war, the USSR took its side. The fact that you have had to defend yourself after several months does not mean that certain facts must be covered up. They were criminal regimes. Repression, crimes, and arrests were the order of the day, and the victims were the citizens of conquered countries. Both regimes created a system of concentration and isolation camps. The occupation policy was characterized by the disenfranchisement of the local population and the deportation of hundreds of thousands. Large-scale economic exploitation was also organized, and cultural assets were looted or deliberately destroyed.
To show the fate of all the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe in the years of war, it is also necessary to analyze Soviet policy. Of course, the discussion cannot be reduced to just these two countries. Japan, another German ally, and its policy in the Far East must also be taken into account.
Source: Deutsche Welle