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Holocaust, Propaganda, and the Distortion of History in the Former Soviet Space

By Charles E. Ehrlich

What distinguished the Holocaust (and genocides) from other mass violence is its commission: although perpetrated by individuals, it utilized the mechanisms of a state, including official propaganda. This propaganda justified the commission of crimes, either directly by the state apparatus or indirectly through incitement of citizens to violence against the victims. Massive propagandistic falsifications led a supposedly civilized country with an educated citizenry to commit to the murder of six million Jews.

The notion of state propaganda underscores the importance of studying the history, both to ensure lessons are learned to not repeat tragedies, and to guard against intentional distortions and false narratives serving new political objectives. Differences of opinion can and do exist among scholars, but here we focus not on opinion but on fact. If there is a willful distortion of the history, then the lessons will go unlearned.

Some current political narratives, primarily in the post-Soviet space, have emerged as consequences of earlier distortions of history leading to new opinions based on incorrect “facts.” The continued prevalence of Soviet propaganda in the narratives used actually makes understanding the Holocaust and learning its lessons more difficult. Soviet propaganda, still-prevalent in Russia, set out the narrative of the “Great Patriotic War” as victory over “fascism” without actually applying critical thought to “fascism.”[1] It was even Soviet policy to downplay the fact that the victims were murdered because they were Jews, as this interfered with political framing.[2] But not understanding this key element means that people in these countries do not appreciate the causes of the Holocaust nor how it happened in their countries.

Although Stalin’s crimes are taught in Russian schools, it remains acceptable in public discourse to admire Stalin’s perceived attributes. Soviet Russia’s alliance with Nazi Germany to start the Second World War, the reasons for the disastrous unpreparedness when Germany did invade the Soviet Union in 1941, and then the brutal way in which the Russians themselves carried out the war are often ignored. While some people may admit that Stalin “made mistakes” along the way, his leadership role in the victory over Nazi Germany outweighed those “mistakes” and vindicated the brutality of the Soviet regime.[3]

The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union left its successor state, the Russian Federation, reduced and with revisionist territorial ambitions. An inexact parallel between Russia today and Weimar Germany produces a narrative which combines a “humiliation myth” of disloyal people inside Russia who collaborated with anti-Russian forces from outside to undermine the Soviet Union.[4] In the process, the shrunken Russia remains as the core of a “Russkii Mir” (“Russian World” akin to German-speaking or influenced people living outside the Reich).[5]

Russian propaganda thus needs to undermine neighboring states in order to justify Russian regional hegemony. So it calls into question distinct Ukrainian and Byelorussian identities, and portrays the Baltic States as “failed states” which are too small to survive. And, anyway, they all were fascist collaborators.[6] The current ongoing war in Ukraine is marked by repeated Russian propaganda that Ukraine has no history (reminiscent of Marxist dogma about “peoples without history” who could be eradicated or absorbed). They can also be described as somehow “Jewish.”[7]

Soviet symbols, meanwhile, represent the achievements of the (Russian-led) Soviet Union before 1991, and represent Russia’s historical legacy. Conversely, if newly independent states remove Soviet symbols as representative of their persecutors, Russian propaganda portrays this as anti-Russian sentiment, and indeed representative of fascist collaborationism in 1941-1945.[8]

The issue is not whether there were anti-Semites, and indeed collaborators in the Holocaust, in these various countries before 1945 (there were). But Russian propaganda has imputed that this makes those entire countries guilty by association today.[9] Also by association, anything challenging the Russian position is, in this dichotomy, “fascist.” This propaganda underscores the need for these countries to openly address their own histories – and to openly address Russia’s.

The legacy of the Nazi-Soviet Pact lived on longer than the Pact itself. By denying the territories it occupied in 1939-1941 any recognition, and classifying them and their citizens as Soviet, the Soviet Union retained these conquests after the end of the War. With Germany vanquished, Russia could slide the effective boundary of puppet-states deep into Central Europe, again without any legitimacy among the subject peoples. The second Soviet occupation from the late stages of the war until 1991, had to become a “liberation” from fascism, and not itself an “occupation.”[10]

Since the USSR had integrated locals in occupied territories as its own citizens during the period before the German invasion in 1941, they ended up with additional consequences. First, that the local (non-Jewish) populations became victims of two occupations. Second, they themselves collaborated varyingly with the Russians and the Germans. Where they collaborated with the Russians between 1939 and 1941, they had to cleanse their guilt, which made killing Jews for the Germans easier.[11] They were also willing to accept the German “Judeobolshevik” myth as a way to exonerate themselves, so that if they had cooperated with the Soviets it was part of a Jewish plot.[12]

But when they collaborated with the German occupation forces, it also meant that the Soviet Union had to account for the actions of its own citizens (the inter-war states and borders having been, according to the Russian view, illegitimate). This required externalizing an enemy, so downplaying the Jewishness of the Holocaust, on one hand, and exaggerating the “nationalist” and therefore fascist identity of the captive peoples.[13]

Soviet historiography wished to highlight collaboration first and foremost. The relation of those “collaborators” to Jews and the Holocaust was secondary (if it was relevant at all).[14]  Most important was the implementation of Soviet state policy, rather than the truth, so some topics did not require discussion.[15]

Russia today uses distortion of history to support its own foreign policy. This means both to augment supposed collaboration with Nazi Germany by former captive nations to tarnish those countries’ challenges to Russian hegemony; as well as to downplay mass atrocities carried out by Russia. Russia can thus claim Crimea from Ukraine based on the peninsula’s “historic” Russian identity, casually ignoring that Russia had deported the entire indigenous Crimean Tatar population.[16]

Livadia Palace Yalta

Livadia Palace, Yalta

Large-scale stirring up of ethnic hatred, making entire populations into villains, and accusing entire classes of people as enemies of the state (or “fascists”) continues. This is especially clear in the recent events in Ukraine, where Russian propaganda has misused the legacy of the Second World War to incite of hatred and violence. Similarly, Russia simply invented stories that Georgia was committing “genocide” against Ossetians as part of Russia’s justification for invading Georgia in 2008.[17]

Rather than addressing the facts on the ground in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine since 2013 – which are subject to legitimate debate – Russian mouthpieces created false narratives rooted in earlier Soviet propaganda either about the events of the Second World War or echoes thereof.

In context, it is entirely understandable that many Ukrainians initially welcomed the Germans as liberators in 1941. They were not the only people to do so, and it in no way implies that these people were “fascists.”[18] Yet some Ukrainians were more than happy to collaborate in the Holocaust then, and since independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has continued to follow Soviet trends to erase the historical memory of the Jewish population, almost as if there had never been many Jews living there. Some of this erasure is due to Soviet ideology, but some is due to Ukrainian nationalism or national myth.[19]

With respect to “comparative genocide” or “comparative atrocities,” it does not really matter who suffered more, only that people suffered.  So the fact that Nazi Germany saw Slavs as a lower category of human fit only for labor can still represent a negative without trying to relativize it. Acknowledging that Germany singled Jews out for extermination does not deny the Ukrainian (or other) narrative, for example with relation to the Holodomor.[20]  Furthermore, recognizing the role of Ukrainians (and others), who participated in the extermination of the Jews, sometimes not because the Germans compelled them to but actually willingly, becomes politicized – if the countries admit that their people played a role in the crime, this does not negate the victimhood of their people; indeed the opposite: recognizing history strengthens their narrative.[21]

Post-Holocaust historical memory of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe has been erased twice because it did not fit into historical narratives – first by communists and later by countries after independence who asserted identities outside Russian domination.[22] Countries under Russian captivity before 1991 were not in a position to honestly address their own histories.[23] So where there had been local participation in the Holocaust, this too was not fully understood nor accepted (and where known could even be written off as Russian propaganda). The difficulty that various countries in Eastern Europe have had in addressing what happened on their territories – and how much their own populations were involved, and how willingly – has opened the door for Russian propaganda.

Germany (or at least the Western portion) could rehabilitate itself quickly after the Nazi period by addressing its own collective and individual past. Where countries have not done this, it becomes doubly easy for Russia to tarnish their motives: first by using the former Soviet narrative that all in the captive nations who resisted the Russians were fascists and Nazi collaborators, and second by pointing to real collaboration that these countries may not have fully addressed.

In my country, Austria, the myth of Austria as Nazi Germany’s “first victim” grew out of the fact that Austria as a state did not exist between 1938 and 1945, thus it could not be responsible for crimes – as a state.[24] While true, this is much different than saying the Austrians themselves were not responsible, and that the reconstituted Austrian state should not be responsible for its former Jewish citizens. Austria allowed denazification to lapse.[25]

In the former Soviet space there needs to be 1) more emphasis on critical understanding of the Holocaust within its German context; 2) an improved understanding of the crimes against humanity committed by the Soviet Union (including mass murder, starvation, and deportation of entire ethnic groups) whether or not these meet the legal definition of “genocide”; 3) a much less sentimental view and a more honest appraisal of Stalin; and 4) proper lessons learned from the Holocaust, so that the memory of the Holocaust is not thrown around and abused by demagogues today but actually informs dialogue.

Lack of these steps suggests that many people in the former Soviet space have not learned the lessons from the Holocaust, and that some leaders know these lessons very well but use those lessons dishonestly in order to manipulate the emotions of the population, making the leadership fit more into the category of perpetrators than victims. So studying the Holocaust becomes relevant – not because it is forgotten, but because it is misused.

[1] Olga Baranova, “Politics of memory of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union,” in P. Marczewski & S. Eich (eds.), Dimensions of Modernity: The Enlightenment and its contested legacies (Vienna 2015), available on www.iwm.at (Vienna Institute of Human Sciences).

[2] Baranova, in Marczewski & Eich (eds.), op. cit. Cf. Tomas Sniegon, Vanished History: the Holocaust in Czech and Slovak historical culture (New York 2017), 60-62.

[3] David Satter, It Was a Long Time Ago and it Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the communist past (New Haven 2012).  On Russia’s pre-1939 preparations for a war of aggression, and Stalin’s incompetent military leadership both before and after 1941, see Bernd Bonwetsch, “Stalin, the Red Army, and the ‘Great Patriotic War’,” in Kershaw and Lewin (eds.), Stalinism and Nazism: dictatorships in comparison (Cambridge 1997), 185f.

[4] Andrew Wilson, Ukraine Crisis: what it means for the West (New Haven 2014), vii and 11f.

[5] Wilson, op. cit., 157

[6] Wilson, op. cit., 175f.  Here, the target of the propaganda is the European Union: if the EU regards these states as outside post-Second World War European values, then it will slow or halt the integration process (a Russian objective).

[7] Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: the Holocaust as history and warning (London 2015), 333f.  The “Jewishness” of a state without a legitimate identity (in the eyes of the propagandist) ties directly to the anti-Semitic communist buzzword for Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans.”  For Marxist theory regarding “peoples without history,” see Roman Rosdolsky, Zur Nationalen Frage: F. Engels und das Problem der “geschichtslosen Völker” (Berlin 1979).

[8] Satter, op. cit., 217f.

[9] Inasis Feldmanis, “Waffen SS units of Latvians and other non-Germanic peoples in World War II: methods of formation, ideology, and goals” in Commission of the Historians of Latvia, The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under Soviet and Nazi Occupations, 1940-1991 (Riga 2005), 122f.

[10] Snyder, op. cit., 282f.  Indeed, the destruction of the Jews, especially in Ukraine, matched Soviet objectives, but the narrative had to be negated afterwards.  Kershaw and Lewin in Kershaw and Lewin (eds.), op. cit., 6.

[11] Snyder, op. cit., 152f.

[12] Snyder, op. cit., 158f.  Cf. Fabio Belafatti, “On Russian propaganda, anti-Semitism, and Lithuania’s lessons,” 16 December 2016, at en.delfi.it/archive/article.php?id=73205166.   Hitler set out the “Judeobolshevik” myth already in Mein Kampf.  For an analysis of the Nazi view of – and propaganda for – a global Jewish conspiracy, see Jeffrey Herf, The Jewish Enemy: Nazi propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Cambridge, Mass., 2006).

[13] In this case, they made no distinction between cooperation and collaboration with the Germans.  Yet the understandable desire to cooperate in order to rid their countries of Russian occupiers (even if, in the end, the Germans would have been unwilling to restore local sovereignty), without committing crimes against humanity in the process, is altogether different than collaborating with the German occupying forces to commit those crimes (albeit sometimes both motives influenced individuals).  Cf. Inesis Feldmanis, “Waffen SS units of Latvians and other non-Germanic peoples in World War II” in Commission of the Historians of Latvia, op. cit., 122f. and Aivars Stranga, “The Holocaust in occupied Latvia, 1941-1945” in Commission of the Historians of Latvia, op. cit., 163f.

[14] Aivars Stranga, “The Holocaust in occupied Latvia” in Commission of the Historians of Latvia, op. cit., 1940-1991, 170f.

[15] Rudīte Vīksne, “Members of the Arājs Commando in Soviet court files: social position, education, reasons for volunteering, penalty” in Commission of the Historians of Latvia, op. cit. 206.

[16] See, inter alia, Leonid Ragozin & Max Seddon, “Threatened, raided, and exiled: opposing Putin in Crimea” 27 September 2014 at https://www.buzzfeed.com/leonidr2/threatened-raided-and-exiled-opposing-putin-in-crimea.

[17] Ronald D. Asmus, A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the future of the West (New York 2010), 41-42.  For example, see comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, available on the website of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations at http://russiaun.ru/en/news/200808121712, and reports on Russia’s international propaganda channel Russia Today at https://web.archive.org/web/20080813023856/http://russiatoday.com/news/news/28732 and https://web.archive.org/web/20080826120543/http://www.russiatoday.com/news/news/29428.

[18] Since the Soviet Union regarded these people as citizens – whether they lived in the pre-1939 Soviet Union or were in territories incorporated into the Soviet Union under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it had to explain their actions as treason, negating that they may have been motivated by their own identity independent of Russian domination and not for any love of Germany or Nazi ideology.  But the Soviet propaganda, carried on by Russia today, would see their decision as individual choices and not subject to a different experience of their respective countries vis-à-vis Russia.  Mark von Hagen, “From ‘Great Fatherland War’ to the Second World War: new perspectives and future prospects,” in Kershaw and Lewin (eds.), op. cit., 247.

[19] In contrast to the Poles, who are secure in their own identity, the Ukrainians, who have not had a sustainably-independent state in their history, have a more extreme need to define what they are not.  This makes Jews more foreign by necessity – both responsible for Communism (and hence crimes including the communist-induced mass starvation) as well as the capitalist exploiters of Ukrainian peasants.  Bartov, Erased: vanishing traces of Jewish Galicia in present-day Ukraine (Princeton 2007), 208f.

[20] Controversy over the Holodomor developed as a result of official Ukrainian attempts to define the intentional mass starvation of Ukrainians during the Soviet Union not as an atrocity resulting from communist ideology but rather as a genocide perpetuated on ethnic Ukrainians by Russia.  On this controversy and its justification by Russia, see Satter, op. cit., 214.

[21] Poland also has a relevant history.  In September 1939, with the joint invasion of Poland by Germany and Russia, both occupying forces sought to eliminate the same targets: the Polish elites.  But the methods differed.  Both sides believed Poland had no right to exist.  The Russians made Poles into Soviet citizens (and added the territory to Soviet Byelorussia and Ukraine), whereas Germany excluded Poles as citizens of a state.  As for Jews, the Germans concentrated them before determining the Final Solution; the Russians saw them as capitalists (and after 1941 ironically therefore as potential German collaborators), which led to expropriations and deportations.  Snyder, op. cit., 123f.  It has been easier for Poland to consider its own victimization, in a story in which Jews collaborated with the Russians.  Lack of a Nazi-collaborationist government in Poland also had the result that anti-Semitism did not get discredited as it did elsewhere.  Gross, Fear: anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz (New York 2006), 252.  In the Communist world, where the Jewish element had been downplayed any way and the death camps were merely sites for the murder of “victims of fascism,” it became easier to deny the Holocaust as a specifically Jewish tragedy – but rather this had been “Polish” suffering.  Janine P. Holc, “Memory contested: Jewish and Catholic views of Auschwitz in contemporary Poland” in Robert Blobaum (ed.), Anti-Semitism and its Opponents in Modern Poland (Ithaca 2005), 303.

[22] Post-communist memorialization often study of how Jews were killed, or where they came from to be killed within the pre-war boundaries of Poland – including parts of Ukraine and Byelorussia today – and not how they had lived in those places.  It is convenient for modern narratives if they were never there.  Bartov, op. cit., xi.  In many cases, post-Holocaust expropriations were opportunistic – the Germans had murdered or deported the Jews but the property remained, and while Poles and others took advantage of the opportunity, they had not themselves sought the opportunity, owing as it did to German (or Russian) occupation.  Jan Gross, op. cit., 249.  The concept of “formerly Jewish property” requires there to be no more Jews – if they survived and returned, they came into direct conflict with the local non-Jewish population regardless of their situation prior to the Holocaust.  Gross, op. cit., 245.

[23] Rehabilitations of one wartime leader or another who committed atrocities in collaboration with the Germans, albeit in the name of the former state which had been destroyed by the prior Russian occupation, without context does not help these countries, and indeed further enables Russian propaganda by equating assertions of identity against Soviet Russia (and now against post-Soviet Russia) as equivalent to fascism.  These countries would be better off addressing these problematic figures head-on, but often lack the critical tools to do so.  Cf. Fabio Belafatti, “On Russian propaganda, anti-Semitism, and Lithuania’s lessons,” 16 December 2016, at en.delfi.it/archive/article.php?id=73205166.  Ironically, until 1990, Russian policy was often to cover up the existence of these leaders, as it showed Soviet citizens collaborating – post-Soviet Russia has become more interested in reviving their memories, in parallel with the nationalists in the respective countries which may not fully understand the criminal activities of these figures.  Cf. Baranova, in Marczewski & Eich (eds.), op. cit.

[24] Hella Pick, Guilty Victim: Austria from the Holocaust to Haider (London 2000), 5.

[25] Ibid., 20f.

Bio:
Dr Charles E Ehrlich has served as a Program Director at Salzburg Global Seminar, in Salzburg, Austria, since May 2014. He has particular responsibility for designing, developing, and implementing programs on justice, democracy, economics, and rule of law including three on-going large-scale multi-year initiatives: the Salzburg Global Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention Program, the Salzburg Global Forum on Corporate Governance, and the Salzburg Global Forum on the Future of Public Service. He has practical experience in legal development working in over a dozen countries, including in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Russian Federation, advising governments and public institutions on strategic planning, drafting legislation, and implementing comprehensive reforms in the justice sector, public administration, property rights, freedom of the media, and constitutional law, including in post-conflict contexts. Charles has also worked as legal counsel for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kosovo, in Georgia, and at its Secretariat in Vienna. At the Claims Resolution Tribunal in Switzerland, he adjudicated claims to Nazi-era bank accounts. He remains affiliated with Wolfson College, University of Oxford, and has published a book, Lliga Regionalista – Lliga Catalana, 1901-1936 (in Catalan), and numerous academic articles on constitutional law, justice, and political history. Charles holds an A.B. in history and classics (Latin) from Harvard University, a J.D. from the College of William and Mary, an M.Sc. Econs. in European studies from the London School of Economics, and a D.Phil. on contemporary Spanish history from the University of Oxford.

***

For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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