Mose Apelblat

In her “letter from Europe” (International New York Times, 21.4.2015), Celestine Bohlin correctly writes that in France, Petain – the president of the French puppet state in Vichy during WW2 – is seen as a traitor. Between Ukraine and Russia there is no consensus on the memory of the war, with competing narratives. It’s hard to see how they can agree on a common narrative on what happened before and during the war.

The Russian narrative was expressed in a supplement to the newspaper (6.5.2015) in memory of the surrender of Nazi-Germany to the allied powers on 8 May 1945. The headlines speak for themselves. “The opening of the second front saved the lives of Soviet soldiers.” “The fate of fascism was determined at Stalingrad.” Even Stalin is praised as a great wartime commander:

“The centrality of Stalin to the allied victory in WWII was widely recognized at the time…Stalin mastered the technique of the organization of front operations… His merit lies in the fact that he correctly appraised the advice offered by the military experts.” Could be – but what had happened before?

Not a word that Stalin was fooled by Hitler and that he had weakened the Red Army by the cleansing of high-ranking officers and show-trials in the 30-ies.

The main crime of Stalin was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi-Germany where Soviet-Union and Nazi-Germany divided Poland, Ukraine and Balticum. The pact was the immediate cause of the outbreak of WWII with the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 by Nazi forces and on 17 September 1939 by Soviet forces.

It’s astonishing to read that Russia of today hasn’t yet come to terms with history. At a press briefing in Brussels last week, Russia’s EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov, defended Soviet-Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939 as an act of “necessity” at the time (according to Andrew Rettman, EUobserver,

Soviet-Union was unprepared for the Nazi invasion which was to follow on 22 June 1941. Stalin didn’t pay any attention to warnings of an imminent German attack out of fear to provoke Hitler. It’s similar to the behavior of France that didn’t dare to “provoke” Germany by any military offensive during September 1939 – May 1940 (the so-called phoney war).

While the former allied powers have all reasons to celebrate the surrender of Nazi-Germany, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that they could have prevented the war and, when it started, have defeated Nazi-Germany much earlier.

In the current historical dispute between Ukraine and Russia, an outsider would tend to sympathize with Ukraine. The facts are known from Timothy Snyder’s original and horrifying book “Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin”.

Before reading his book, I used to admire Soviet-Union and the Red Army, where by the way hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews fought, for its immense contribution to the allied victory.

I still do but his book has changed my perception. As Snyder has documented, the Nazi and Stalinist regimes murdered more than 14 million people in the areas stretching from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states (the “bloodlands”). In his book Snyder compares the Nazi and the Stalinist systems, which resulted in mass killings for political or racist reasons.

Especially affected was Soviet Ukraine, where the killing started in 1933 – 34 with a political famine directed by Stalin claiming more than 3 million lives and continued with the Great Terror in 1937 – 1938 where hundreds of thousands of people were shot.

Russia today is grateful to all those who sacrificed their lives in the Great Patriotic war and is commemorating the memory of the war with an impressive military parade. But when celebrating the victory over Nazi-Germany, let’s not suppress the truth about what led to the war and rewrite history about the Stalinist regime.

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